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Friday, 1 February 2013

A descant on descants

It is time to bring my descants out into the open.  As I indicated recently, I have many partly-baked ideas on my computer that will never see the printer's press but which are yet, in my view, worthy of consideration.  Some are bits and pieces, others would only attract a niche market and be uncommercial, but to their creator, they are interesting.  I prefer to share them and maybe, kindle a light somewhere.

One such group have been knocked together in off moments, and I call these my descants.  They are random wanderings through the shambles that is my mind, and they rarely end up where you (or I) expected.  They offer no heaving bosoms, ripped bodices or shades of grey, no dashing tales, just unexpected curiosities.

But why that name?  Let me descant on this
I have now to follow Mr. Burke through a pathless wilderness of rhapsodies, and a sort of descant upon governments, in which he asserts whatever he pleases, on the presumption of its being believed, without offering either evidence or reasons for so doing.
— (Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man)   
Those of us who either can now (or once could) sing soprano, probably know a descant as an alto part occasionally sung over certain pieces of church music. The 23rd psalm, sung to the tune 'Crimond' has a descant, and a few of the Christmas carols give the sopranos a chance to stand out, as they play the part of angels, singing curlicues and ornamentation around the main theme being sung by the rest of us.

Originally, back in the days when just about all singing was church singing, and that singing was no more than plainsong, the descant was the only melodic ornamentation anybody ever heard. Back then, people probably knew that the word came from Latin: from dis, meaning apart, and cantus, a song, because a descant was apart from what the ordinary folk sang. Soon after, in the days of Chaucer, 'descant' was also used to describe the art of composing or singing part-music, an early form of counterpoint.

By the time William Shakespeare was born, 'descant' had come to mean the soprano or highest part in a musical arrangement, so it was seen in the name of the descant recorder, the descant sackbut, and the descant viol. Not long after Shakespeare died, a descant could also be an instrumental prelude, consisting of variations on a theme.

It was a very versatile word, and even before that, the word had been used to mean 'to comment or enlarge upon', but it was Shakespeare who made the word famous in this sense, the form that it is used here, when he had the hunchbacked Gloucester, or Richard, in King Richard III start the play with "Now is the winter of our discontent . . ." and go on to say:
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
My descants are explorations of and around words in English, how they came to mean what they mean, and what else they mean, and maybe featuring a short diversion into a few of the meanings of suspiciously similar words, like 'decant', which comes to us from the Latin de, from, and canthus, a jug, and which has nothing to do with the target word, or 'recant', which originally meant 'sing it again', but came to mean singing it again — and this time getting it right — making it a bit like a related word, 'recall', as it is used when a faulty product is recalled, rather than remembered.

Closer to the mark, though, are words like 'chant', and the chanter of the bagpipes, the pipe which actually plays a melody, unlike the drones which go over the shoulder and play a sort of plainsong. Then we have the chantry, the cantor in the synagogue, cantabile, canticle, and even the thing that kept sailors merry in days of yore, the sea shanty. The Australian and Canadian rude hut, also called a shanty, probably comes from a different source, though the Australian 'shanty', as a place for the sale of rough liquor, may have involved a certain amount of rude and rough song.

Maybe it even gives us the origins of the thieves' slang or cant, that gave them the name of The Canting Crew, with their mix of Romany, thieves' slang and other terms designed to keep the authorities and agents of the law in ignorance in the early 1800s.

And one can descant on that single topic all night.

Note that I tag my blogs, and all of the descants bear the tag descants. This will help you find them all (including the two that I posted, before this one).  Go to the end of a blog, look for the list of labels, and click on a label to bring up all the others bearing that same tag.

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