Shaping Dynamics in Historical Music

Shaping Dynamics in Historical Music:
A New Performance Edition of Josquin Desprez for Two-Part Treble Chorus

by Alan Gumm
ACDA-MI Women’s Chorus R&R Representative

As commonly taught in music history, composers came to add expressive markings in music in stages. For centuries there were no special markings to specify details of a composer’s intentions. In the Baroque and Classical era came general expressive markings such Allegro versus Andante and f versus p assigned to entire phrases or sections of music, which remain unclear today in their intended range or extremes of contrast. Given the individualism of the Romantic era, composers came to specify expressive intentions in great nuance, one reason being to keep equally individualistic performance artists from adding unwarranted flairs of interpretation. In the twentieth century, added expressive markings came to be ever more detailed.

Yet with the increase in expressive markings came greater neglect and misinterpretation of the dynamic intentions designed into our common everyday music symbol system. For starters, the essential character of beat defines distinct points of sound dynamically louder than moments before and after each beat. As detailed in the May 2003 Choral Journal article “Musical and Technical Sources of Choral Dynamics” (available for download by ACDA members at, this list extends to other normally notated music characteristics often left unshaped dynamically in choral performance.

Crossing and coordinating with beat is rhythm, which is likewise distinguished by brief louder points occurring longer or shorter in time relative to beat, as well as rhythmic figures that each designate a particular ‘actionable’ expressive shape. Meter signatures and bar lines designate specific patterns of louder downbeats relative to quieter weak beats and secondary points of emphasis such as beat three in a 4/4 meter.

Pitch notation designates more than higher and lower sounds, but by the greater and lesser acoustical intensity and physical effort of singers designate louder and quieter sound. Therefore, melodic contours, often called phrasing, have specific intentional dynamic shapes. A Classic arched contour, for example, is shaped as a dynamic rise to a peak pitch and descent quieter with falling pitches. Winding melodic contours, such as Baroque sequences, work in tandem with rhythmic figures and placement in the meter to designate two layers of dynamics: distinct motives each with its separate dynamic shape, and the on-beat, down-beat, or peak pitches creating a slower rise or fall of dynamics.

Texture creates distinct dynamics by the density and spacing of overlapping or stacking of voices. All voices in unison or octaves is intentionally or perhaps unintentionally louder by the greater number of voices on a single note compared to multi-part textures in which there are smaller numbers of singers per pitch in the texture. In polyphony, staggered entrances from a single line to two, three, and more lines creates a natural crescendo and visa versa as voices drop out of the texture. Choral harmony, or homophony, is dynamically bolder than polyphony because all voices again occur at the same time, though on different pitches. This draws basic harmony into the list of dynamic properties of music, by the greater intensity of clashing pitches the more dissonant the harmony the louder and the more consonant the quieter. Intonation, though a matter of performance technique, determines dynamics in this same way, as out-of-tune singing creates an acoustical intensity greater than in-tune singing.

Rhythm, meter, melodic contour, and harmony all converge in making form a dynamic consideration as well. Already mentioned are the smaller formal shapes of motives, figures, and phrases. There is a recognized separation between these smaller components of form by the name of caesura, its bigger kin called cadence. As a caesura is both weak and brief and therefore a quick moment of quieter dynamic, the dynamic of cadences varies by its rhythmic length, metrical placement, relative pitch level, and harmonic strength.

All of this together notates a composer’s deliberate nuanced expressive intentions, before any consideration of expressive markings added by a composer or interpreted by a modern editor. In interpreting dynamics from so many sources, the key is to find where several combine at once, as in the example of a cadence where several issues come together at once, apart from distinct expressions across parts.

Especially problematic is music prior to the Baroque and the advent of meter signatures, bar lines, general tempo and expressive markings such as Andante or Allegro, and especially a vertical, harmonic conception of music. Up to the early Baroque, music was notated one part per page, into so-called ‘partbooks,’ with a singer unable to see other parts. Within a more ancient linear conception of music composition, each singer was to focus on the dynamic interpretation of rhythms and pitches of a single line, with singers’ parts in ensemble creating a texture of independent dynamic shapes and accentuations. Each part is expressively free from others yet in combination create an overarching ebb and flow of thickening and thinning, separating and unifying changes of expressions. With the advent of meter signatures, barlines, and vertical harmony, these organically shaped nuances were lost to common practice and understanding.

What makes interpretation even more problematic is the old practice of notating in choral music only the first snippet of a line of text at the start of a section of music. Not knowing where to place text, common practice has been to sing on long open vowels of a single syllable or word of text, creating a lofty, floating, ethereal flow of sound without much dynamic contrast at all—as commonly expected in modern times for old music to sound. Common thought is that particular expressive intentions are lost to history as they were never specially marked nor described in writing.

Yet in light of dynamics organically shaped in music through rhythmic figures, melodic contour, and texture, lively shifts of expression surface in stark contrast to modern performance practices. Expressive intentions are not lost to history; they are notated in great detail in basic music notation. Further, taking the notion that composers shaped music to text, a clearer idea of where to place specific components of text surfaces out of identifiable rhythmic figures and accentuation of longer-pronounced rhythms and peak pitches.

To demonstrate how a modern editor or conductor may interpret historical music without or apart from composer or editor expressive markings, I offer this edition of Josquin Desprez, the “Pleni sunt coeli” from his Missa Pange Lingua. As free as individual singers were to interpret rhythmic and melodic stress and text placement in that day, this edition is but one possible interpretation. At the very least a better-informed edition than has been common practice for centuries, it serves to demonstrate sure and certain ‘rules’ of musical expression to follow in future scholarly study and practical use in choral music.

Click to view a PDF of the edition

Click above to view a PDF of the edition

In the score, note the absence of bar lines that would break the natural expression of independent lines and obscure the linear conception of the music. ‘Meter’ was at the time tied to rhythm, and rhythmic meter was free to shift from duple to triple in one line independently from others. Therefore, three new visual aids are used in lieu of bar lines.

First is an alternate use of lines. In this case, since lines do not often align, related entrances are drawn in relation to each other. In rehearsal theses are the natural starting points of what are called ‘polyphonic complexes,’ or a series of related phrases.

Second, meter is marked above each individual line, duple left unmarked as the default meter and by squares in tight exchanges with triple, and triple marked with triangles overhead. As a result, the opening Alto would be counted out 1-(2)-&-3 1-2 1-2 1-(2)-3-& 1-3, with a quick breath before the repeated opening motive on “plen-“ and long-held drone to shift focus to the Soprano line’s rhythmically animated and peak-pitch imitation of the opening Alto.

Third is the use of grey highlights to bring such imitative segments to singers’ attention. The idea is to interpret similarly shaped expressions dynamically the same within each part’s vocal range, and realize that when they occur in another part then it is time to get out of the way and let it be heard independently.

This third visual device of grey highlighting is given greater expressive purpose with reshaped into arrows. The function here is not only to more clearly link similar expressive gestures but also to remind singers of their intended descent and ascent.

Otherwise, modern accents and dynamic markings are provided foremost as reminders of natural shaping of dynamics by rhythmic meter and melodic contour. There are certain exceptions, however, when one rules over the other, for example in the fourth system in the rising soprano motive on “et” of “Ple-ni sunt coeli et…” in which an accent on the first beat of a triple rhythmic division overrules melodic contour and subsequent louder accentuation on a duple rhythm on a peak pitch. To follow melody contour alone would lose the sense of metrical play in that line as well as mask the offset rhythmic activity in the Alto part below. Any overzealous flourish in one part will mask essential expressions meant to be shared back and forth between parts.