If you have been in a church with a well-trained choir, especially on Easter and Christmas, you have likely experienced an incredibly powerful moment in the last verse of a hymn that straight up gave you the chills!  That would be the descant, and I think it is one of the best parts of the English choral tradition. I won’t speak technically here, because I am not musically trained (I just pretend to be). You can look up the official musical explanation on your own. Simply speaking, a descant is a part when higher voices (treble or soprano, historically by young boys) sing soaringly above the rest of the singers in an independent melody (not just harmonizing with everyone else).  It usually results in a heavenly angelic chorus that makes you want to throw your hands up in praise to the Lord!  Its effect on a congregation is similar to what happens in contemporary worship when the key is changed in the last verse.

Descants originate from ancient Gregorian chant, but the modern English usage took off in the 16th Century thanks to a friendly rivalry between Henry VIII  (all the Tudors were extremely musical) and Cardinal Woolsey and th talent of their respective choirs.  It is still a major part of the cathedrals in England, and a big part of many parishes across the Anglican world. I grew up with a choir like this and I hope to be blessed by one again someday!

Here is an example from Westminster Abbey.  It is cued to start with a normal verse to show the contrast. It is so beautiful, it gives me goosebumps!

Also, if you are interested you can watch a quick video about the history of the descant.

An example of a descant in “Hark The Harold”.

(Cover Photo: Norwich Cathedral, UK)

1 Comment

Thomas C Fitzhugh III · November 20, 2018 at 3:43 pm

So glad to read this note. Have always thought descants accent all festival services. Thanks for this!

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