Kyrie eleison II

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

In a recent post I promised to return to a link between a modern song and ancient chant. Could Nick and Anita Haigh’s “Kyrie eleison (empty, broken)” be an example of the essence of an ancient Kyrie melody persisting in a modern song?

“Kyrie eleison” is a pre-Christian prayer that was adapted into Christian liturgy very early and is still very frequently used, often in this three-part formulation:

Lord, have mercy        (Kyrie eleison)
Christ, have mercy      (Christe eleison)
Lord, have mercy        (Kyrie eleison)

This prayer very often sung; so much so that we speak of the Kyrie as a musical genre. It’s been noted that the essence of Kyrie melodies has been very strongly preserved and transmitted across time and geography.[1]

Here is a copy of a little part of the Kyrie in a 13th-century manuscript, with the modern transcription below it:

Anon. (1250), “Kyrie eleison: Kyrie Deus sempiterne,” edited by John Boe, in Kyrie eleison: Kyrie Deus sempiterne (Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, Inc., 1989).

Anon. (1250), “Kyrie eleison: Kyrie Deus sempiterne,” edited by John Boe, in Kyrie eleison: Kyrie Deus sempiterne (Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, Inc., 1989).

This chant is still sung today, and sounds like:

Here is the same transcription written in treble clef so you can compare it to the Haighs’ Kyrie:

Anon. (1250), “Kyrie eleison”

Anon. (1250), “Kyrie eleison”

Nick & Anita Haigh, “Kyrie eleison (empty, broken)”

Nick & Anita Haigh, “Kyrie eleison (empty, broken)”

In this section of the song, at the end of the refrain, the setting of “Kyrie eleison” has quite a few similarities to the 13th-century setting of the same text:

  • it’s melismatic in the same way, i.e. the end of the word “Kyrie” is stretched over many notes
  • ascending E-F#-G# opening (similar to E-F-G)
  • ending sequence F#-D-E (similar to F-D-E)
  • top of the melodic range is an A

It differs from the 13th-century setting in that:

  • it doesn’t dip quite as low as the chant in a couple of places (the chant goes down to a D after the opening, and down to a C before the ending)
  • it’s in E major rather than a mode (key) that has no sharps or flats – this changes the intervals and gives it a very “major key” sound rather than a “church mode” sound to the ear
  • it’s in a metrical setting (with regular strong beats) rather than freely chanted, so its rhythmic drive is different

The main difference is key; so you can listen to this part of the song and notice what a difference it makes to transform a melody by changing its key:

I think it’s a good bet that the Haighs have consciously evoked the melisma and general outline of traditional Kyrie chants in their song, whether or not they deliberately modelled the melody of this section after a particular chant.

Do you enjoy hearing this kind of continuity between old and new? What connections have you heard in the songs that you sing?

[1] Marie-Noël Colette, “The melodic nucleus derived from anaphoral chant: ‘signature tune’ of Kyrie eleison melodies,” Plainsong and Medieval Music 17 / 02 (October 2008), 129 – 146.

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