A Breve History of Time

The Credo as plainchant in neum notation; the C on the second line down represents the position of note C, and the lower case ‘b’s or flats indicate that the Credo is in what we’d call the key of F

Wanderings among Words 3: Time

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
— Words by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1784), music by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini

In the dim and distant past I sang plainchant. When Latin was the lingua franca for the Catholic Church my school would congregate on high days and holidays to massacre Gregorian chant. Then along came the Vatican Council in the 1960s, vernacular tongues were after nearly two millennia now allowed in Catholic rituals — and plainchant went out the stained glass window. Protestant hymns became more acceptable in services, and in time songs which some call happy-clappy (‘happy-crappy’ according to cynics) came creeping in.

I must admit as a schoolboy I was never much an admirer of plainchant: throughout practices and services I usually had to stifle yawns. Though musically literate I found the old notational conventions bizarre by modern standards, particularly over how long notes needed to be held for — however did any one know how long to hold a note? One of the few conventions seemed to be that a note with a dot after it had to be held a little bit longer.

I knew where I was with modern notation. Semibreves, minims, crotchets — they all made sense to me, having had them drummed into my head from the age of five. It wasn’t till I began to teach music as an adult that I realised that these words made as much sense as calling them Fred or Mary or Voldemort. (Maybe not the latter.) So here’s what I pieced together after some research and the application of guesswork masquerading as logic.

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