Part 1: How to play “divers wayes upon the Plainsong Miserere”

English descant (counterpoint) treatises from the mid fifteenth to the late sixteenth centuries demonstrate various ways of learning and of teaching students how to perform counterpoint against a cantus firmus vocally and/or on the keyboard.[1] These include, for example, Leonel Power’s (1375/80-1445) treatise, which has the heading ‘This tretis is contrivid upon the Gamme for hem that wil be syngers or makers or techers’ (GB-Lbl Lans. MS 763, fols 105v-113); a manuscript copy of William Bathe’s (1564-1614) A Briefe Introductione to the True Art of Musicke (London, 1584),[2] and Thomas Morley’s (1557/8-1602) A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (London, 1597),[3] dedicated to his master, William Byrd (c.1540-1623). They begin by teaching ‘simple’ or note-against-note (1:1) counterpoint—how to make a series of consonant intervals between a ‘plainsong (the term they used for a cantus firmus, even if it was unrelated to liturgical chant) and a new melody modelled stylistically on liturgical chant. Simple counterpoint provides the contrapunctus or framework on which various kinds of contrapuntal “ways” could be made: descants that introduce more dissonances than are typical of most other Renaissance musical styles and descants that comprise the repetition of short ‘points’ (motifs), among other techniques. An experienced organist might also choose to elaborate the plainsong itself, at the same time as playing a descant against it. This is one of the four techniques Morley described as ‘plainsong figuration’ (learned by choristers at Cathedral and College choir schools), known as ‘breaking’ the plainsong (Introduction, p. 90); in other words, a (solo) singer applied the same procedure to the ‘simple’ notated chant as to the simple sighted (imagined) descant sung by another (solo) chorister. This could result in performances in which the singers effectively contested against each other over ‘who should bring in the point soonest, and make hardest proportions’ (Morley, Introduction, p. 120).

This blog gives a brief introduction to note-against-note counterpoint and then examines the descant techniques used in seven rudimentary two-part Tudor organ versets (Exx. 1-7). These versets are notated using note-values that resemble the originals, but with ligatures indicated by square brackets, and on five-line staves with modern clefs.[4] The dissonances and voice-leading are indicated below the staves as they are indicative of Tudor musical style. The descant techniques in each verset are then further demonstrated by being applied to the Miserere, which is an antiphon for the prayer office of Compline that was often chosen as a plainsong in pedagogical sources. The blog concludes by referring to eight additional organ versets (Exx. 8-15) that either include two or more of the techniques used in the rudimentary versets, or demonstrate easy methods of adding a third part, in order to demonstrate some of the ways that the more experienced Tudor organists could have improvised.[5]

The Miserere (see Fig. 1) has a small range (only a 5th), it moves mostly stepwise, with some repeated notes, and includes the leap up and down of a 3rd (a-c and c-a). During Compline, the choir would sing the Miserere antiphon first, followed by the psalm (sung antiphonally), but the repetition of the antiphon could be played by an organist (replacing the choir): he or she would read the simple (undecorated) plainsong melody from a book of chant, and play one or more descants above or below it. When the Miserere is sung monophonically the rhythm will usually follow the stresses of the words (perhaps with a short break in the middle), but when it is used as a plainsong by a Tudor organist (or by a choir for a solo singer to descant on) each note is given the same length of time, except perhaps at the end, when the penultimate and antipenultimate notes might be doubled, and the last note held.

Figure 1 Plainsong Miserere mihi (Have mercy upon me O Lord and hear my prayer):


Leonel Power’s descant treatise demonstrates a method used by beginners, especially in England, in order to become proficient at improvising descant. This method is to create an imaginary note-against-note contrapunctus against the plainsong (which they are reading) (a process known as ‘sighting’), using only the consonances (shown in Fig. 2). The consonances are subdivided into perfect (unison, 5th, and their octave equivalents) and imperfect (3rd, 6th, and their octave equivalents) because they are governed by different voice-leading rules, the main rule being to avoid producing consecutive parallel perfect intervals (5ths or octaves).

Figure 2 The consonances above and below the note G: unison (= 8, 15), third (10, 17), fifth (12, 19), sixth (13, 20), octave (15, 22):

Figure 2

Once the performer is comfortable performing simple counterpoint, he or she can choose to perform a ‘broken’, ‘diminished’, or elaborated version of a ‘sighted’ contrapunctus.

 The first organ verset to be examined here is Dignare from a Te Deum by John Blitheman (c.1525-1591, organist at Christ Church, Oxford, and the English Chapel Royal), in which the organ replaces the choir for the odd-numbered verses. This Dignare (Ex. 1) has three notes for every one of the plainsong (3:1).[1]

[1] The ‘plainsong’ in the organ versets of Blitheman’s Te Deum consists of the ‘faburden’; see Part 7 of the blog for a discussion of ‘on the faburden’.

As Morley points out, the old descanters used the term Tripla ‘when for one note of the plainsong, they make three blacke minimes’ (Introduction, p. 90). In Ex. 1 the plainsong is in the top part notated in semibreves, and there are three black minims to each one in the bass descant (separated in the manuscript by dots to help the eye). The figures below the staves indicate the consonances. An unusual (but not unique) feature of this verset is that all of the notes of the descant are consonant (also see Exx. 12, 13, 15). Below the figures are the letters c, o, s, and p, which indicate the kind of voice-leading that exists between the two parts when, as discussed by Bathe (Briefe Introduction, ed. Karns, pp. 124-26), they both approach the next note of plainsong (unless both parts repeat their notes, indicated as R). For example, the first note of the plainsong, F, moves up to the note A, while the third descant note, D, moves down to the note C that sounds at the same time as the A in the plainsong: the parts are progressing in contrary motion, and therefore marked ‘c’. Likewise, ‘o’ indicates oblique motion, in which one of the parts repeats the same pitch; ‘s’ indicates similar motion, in which both parts move in the same direction, up or down (to an imperfect consonance, a 3rd or 6th), but with different melodic intervals; ‘p’ indicates parallel motion, which is used with imperfect consonances in Tudor style, but not with perfect consonances (5ths or octaves). Note that the voice-leading is mainly in contrary motion: c=10; o=3; s=3; p=3; repetitions of consonances (i.e. no motion)=5.

 Example 1 John Blitheman, Dignare (Te Deum, 30513, fols 75v-76r), 3:1, all consonances:

Example 1 Blitheman Dignare

The descant in Ex. 1 includes many leaps because it is entirely consonant. A more usual method of playing Tripla is given in Ex. 2a, another verset from Blitheman’s Te Deum. In Ex. 2a all the leaps are consonant but most of the descant moves stepwise, and the notes that are dissonant (2nd, 4th, or 7th) can all be described as passing-tones. In addition to using passing-tones in a metrically weak position, Tudor musicians allowed accented passing-tones (which are forbidden according to ‘text-book’ sixteenth-century counterpoint rules):

Example 2a Blitheman, Tu rex (30513, fol. 73v), 3:1, passing-tones (pt) and accented passing-tones (apt):

Example 2a Blitheman Tu rex

In Ex. 2b I demonstrate how to apply the technique of Tripla with passing-tones and accented passing-tones in the descant to the Miserere plainsong. Note that the voice-leading between plainsong notes 9-10 and 21-22 is contrary motion (6th to an 8ve) in both places, and what might to us today be considered consecutive parallel 8ves (G/g to F/f) are not a problem in Tudor style, since, as Morley explains (Introduction, p. 80, another consonance (the 6th) occurs between them (also see Ex. 10 in a future blog).

Example 2b  Jane Flynn, Miserere 1: One way of playing a 3:1 mostly stepwise descant above Miserere using passing-tones (pt) and accented passing-tones (apt):

Example 2b J. Flynn Miserere 1

[1] For more detailed discussions on the descanting techniques described in this paper see Jane Flynn, ‘Tudor organ versets: echoes of an improvised tradition’, Journal of the Royal College of Organists n.s. 3 (2009): 5-23; ‘To play upon the Organs any man[ner] Play[n]song’, BIOS: Journal of the British Institute of Organ Studies 34 (2010): 5-23; ‘Thomas Mulliner: An Apprentice of John Heywood?’ chapter 10 in Young Choristers, 650-1700, ed. Susan Boynton and Eric Rice, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music 7 (Woodbridge, 2008), pp. 173-94; ‘The musical knowledge and practice of expert Tudor descanters’, in Late Medieval Liturgies Enacted: The Experience of Late Medieval Worship, ed. Sally Harper, P.S Barnwell, and Magnus Williamson (Ashgate, forthcoming 2016).

[2] The only surviving version of this treatise is a manuscript copy by Andrew Melville (1593-1640), Scotland, University of Aberdeen Library MS 28, edited and discussed in A Briefe Introduction to the Skill of Song by William Bathe, ed. Kevin C. Karnes, Music Theory in Practice, 1500-1700 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).

[3] Thomas Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (London: Peter Short, 1597) [STC 18133], available in Texts on Music in English [TME] at divided into four sections (ABCD).

[4] I am very grateful to William Flynn for his assistance in preparing the music examples in this blog.

[5] I recorded all the music examples on 7-8 September 2013 on the Wingfield Organ built by Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn ( in 2001, for the Early English Organ Project. I wish to thank Andrew McCrea, Project Administrator of the EEOP and Director of Academic Studies at the Royal College of Organists, for his assistance, and Eleanor Goodison and John McCracken, church wardens at St Andrew’s Church, Wingfield, Suffolk, where the organ is currently resident, for their kind and generous hospitality. The organ compass is F to a2, without g#2, 40 notes; versets that have a range below F are transposed up 4th if their upper range is below e1 (see Exx. 3a, 3f, 10); for Ex. 11, which exceeds this range, the left-hand part from plainsong notes 24 to 34 is played up an octave. The sounding pitch of the Wingfield Organ is about one and a half semitones above A440, with tuning based on the Erlangen comma, a form of Pythagorean tuning.

2 thoughts on “Part 1: How to play “divers wayes upon the Plainsong Miserere”

  1. I do trust all the ideas you’ve offered for your post. They’re very convincing andd will definitely work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are too short for beginners.

    May just you please prolong them a little from next time?
    Thank you for the post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s