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A descant, discant (discant), or discantus is any of several different things in music, depending on the period in question; etymologically, the word means a voice (cantus) above or removed from others. The Harvard Dictionary of Music states:
Anglicized form of L. discantus and a variant of discant. Throughout the Middle Ages the term was used indiscriminately with other terms, such as descant. In the 17th century it took on special connotations in instrumental practice.
A descant is a form of medieval music in which one singer sang a fixed melody, and others accompanied with improvisations. The word in this sense comes from the term discantus supra librum (descant "above the book"), and is a form of Gregorian chant in which only the melody is notated but an improvised polyphony is understood. The discantus supra librum had specific rules governing the improvisation of the additional voices.
Later on, the term came to mean the treble or soprano singer in any group of voices, or the higher pitched line in a song. Eventually, by the Renaissance, descant referred generally to counterpoint. Nowadays the counterpoint meaning is the most common.
In modern usage, especially in the context of church music, descant can also refer to a high, florid melody sung by a few sopranos as a decoration for a hymn.
Although the English Hymnal of 1906 did not include descants, this influential hymnal, whose music editor was Ralph Vaughan Williams, served as a source of tunes for which the earliest known hymn tune descants were published. These were in collections compiled by Athelstan Riley, who wrote "The effect is thrilling; it gives the curious impression of an ethereal choir joining in the worship below; and those who hear it for the first time often turn and look up at the roof!". An example of a descant from this collection (for the British national anthem) goes as follows:
Among composers of descants during 1915 to 1934 were Alan Gray, Geoffrey Shaw, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Several of their descants appear in what is possibly the earliest hymnal to include descants, Songs of Praise (London: Oxford University Press, 1925, enlarged, 1931, reprinted 1971).
During the last quarter of the twentieth century, new editions of hymnals increased the number of included descants. For example, the influential Hymnal 1940 (Episcopal) contains no descants, whereas its successor, The Hymnal 1982, contains 32. Among other currently used hymnals, The Worshiping Church contains 29 descants; The Presbyterian Hymnal, 19; The New Century Hymnal, 10; Chalice Hymnal, 21. The Vocal Descant Edition for Worship, Third Edition (GIA Publications, 1994) offers 254 descants by composers such as Hal Hopson, David Hurd, Robert Powell, Richard Proulx, and Carl Schalk.
In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, the Carols for Choirs collection, which features descants by David Willcocks and others to well known Christmas tunes such as "O come, all ye faithful" has contributed to the enduring popularity of the genre.
- Apel, Willi (1969). Harvard Dictionary of Music, p.228. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674375017.
- Service Music http://www.servicemusic.org.uk/descants/
- Riley, Athelstan (1916). "No. 560 The National Anthem". A Collection of Faux-bourdons and Descants for the French Ecclesiastical Melodies and Other Tunes in the English Hymnal. A.R. Mowbray. pp. 104–105.
- Clark Kimberling, "Hymn Tune Descants, Part 1: 1915–1934", The Hymn 54 (no. 3) July 2003, pages 20–27. (Reprinted in Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society 29 (February 2004) 17–20.)
- Clark Kimberling, "Hymn Tune Descants, Part 2: 1935–2001", The Hymn 55 (no. 1) January 2004, pages 17–22.
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