Media Distinctio

Here is a first attempt at recording the singing of a Psalm (Psalm 34).  I confess I wasn’t as concerned with diction as perhaps I should have been.  So I hope supplying the text at the Youtube link will help.

(By the way, it is sometimes necessary to warn people on this side of the Atlantic that my phonation when singing is usually that of a countertenor. I.e., I’m trained to use my vocal folds at approximately half their thickness to produce phonation in the alto/mezzo-soprano range.  Castrati sang in the same range but for entirely *different* physiological reasons!  One reason some men develop the contratenorial fach is that singing in the modal register—which is often in the bass/baritone range where countertenors are concerned—is frequently accompanied by tension.  I made an attempt at singing this Psalm in the modal register and had to give up after a few verses.)

The media distinctio is the pause in the middle of each verse, which is, according to the fourteenth-century Ceremoniae Sublacenses, expansive enough to allow a calm exhalation and inhalation.  (This information and what follows is taken from Emma Hornby’s “Preliminary Thoughts About Silence in Early Western Chant,” in Silence, Music, Silent Music, ed. N. Losseff & J. Doctor, especially pp. 142-43.)

Needless to say, the media distinctio supports good singing.  But it was also enjoined on monastic choirs for symbolic and even quasi-sacramental reasons.  Since both the Hebrew and Greek words for “spirit” are the same for “breath,” the media distinctio—smack dab in the middle of each verse—leaves no question as to Who is really praying the Psalter.

The attached photo is one I took a few winters ago. The sunlight between the two rows of trees was my own media distinctio in the monastic garden on a winter’s afternoon.

Were someone to tell me the media distinctio ran into serious challenges at some point in history, and if this someone were to ask me to guess when that happened, I would say it might have been in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries when the dominance of monasticism gave way to the rise of the mendicant orders.   Sure enough, Hornby’s research shows that while the Cistercians valiantly maintained a pausa bona (an ample pause), the mendicants (e.g., Franciscans and Dominicans), who were more concerned with external activities, grew impatient with this practice.  The Dominicans did allow a long pause on feast days but stipulated a short pause on working days.  The Franciscans developed the pausa conveniens for every day, ferial or festal.  (Though this would have meant the liturgy would have suffered, in my opinion, the ideal was that the soup lines and the hospices wouldn’t suffer since shorter liturgies left time for external activity.  Thank God for the variety of charisms!)  Nonetheless, general manuals on singing urged singers to “give careful heed to the middle [of the verse] where [the psalm tone] offers a pause.”  (Summa musice: A Thirteenth Century Manual for Singers [Cambridge, 1991], quoted by Hornby, 143.)

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