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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Pierre-Louis Pollio on the ‘Charivary’ of Improvising (‘Chant sur le Livre’) in Many Parts (1771)

‘As for singing on the book in many parts made impromptu, my sentiment is that it is almost impossible to do well… I maintain that it is impossible to prevent a thousand occasions of charivary. I have just heard a fugue, I am going to respond to it, I begin [and], at the same time, I hear one of the [other] musicians who begins a series of dissonances, I must abandon my fugue and seek to accompany them. I myself want to make syncopated fourths on my plainchant, will the musician who sings with me know how to adapt his singing to it? He will maintain his melody, I [will maintain] mine, the third [musician] another, a fourth, perhaps a fifth, a sixth, all according to different principles. If one calls this music, I myself call it a horrible charivary, unworthy of the majesty of the place in which we serve our God, more unworthy still of the benevolent creator, who only gave us the use of reason in order to learn how to serve him with dignity, and not to abuse it, thus this improvised singing on the book in many parts has been condemned by many provincial councils.’


‘Quant au chant sur le Livre à plusieures parties faites impromptu[es], mon sentiment est qu'il est presqu'impossible de le bien faire… je soutiens qu'il est impossible de parer a mille occasion de charivary. Je viens d'entendre une fugues [sic], je la va[i]s rendre, je la commence, dans ce tems la meme j'entens un des musiciens qui entame une suitte de dissonnances, je dois quitter ma fugues [sic] et chercher a l'accompagner. Je veux moi meme faire des sincopes de quarte sur mon pleinchant, le musicien qui chantera avec moi, sçaura t-il comment il doit y assujettir son chant, il continura son chant, moy le mien, le troisieme un autre, un quatrieme peutetre un cinquieme, un sixieme, sur tous principes differents. Si l'on apelle cela de la musique, je l’apelle moy un horrible charivary, indigne de la majeste du lieu ou nous servons notre Dieu, plus indigne encor de ce createur bienfaisant, qui ne nous a donné l'usage de la raison que pour apprendre a le servir dignement, et non pour en abuser, ainsi ce chant sur le livre a plusieurs parties impromptu[es] ait été condanné par plusieurs consiles provinciaux.’



Pierre-Louis Pollio, Principes de Chant sur le Livre (1771). Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België (B-Br Ms. II 3092. Mus.) Transcribed in consultation with Jean-Paul Montagnier, “‘Plain-Chant Dégeneré’ et Fleuretis: Quelle Musique Pour Quelle Prière?,” Acta Musicologica 83 (2011): 223–43. My translation.

The entire manuscript can be viewed online here:

The example below is one of the many provided by Pollio at the end of his treatise, in this instance to be sung at Vespers on the Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent.

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