ictus

I was in rehearsal last night. We were preparing for an upcoming concert, Mozart’s C-minor Mass. Noel Edison, our conductor, happened to use a word which he’s used many times before, but this time it occurred to me that it’s worth a tasting.

Ictus.

It’s a good choral word, fairly made for spitting out with that forceful enunciation some choral singers use (largely to make up for some others who don’t enunciate enough). The /kt/ is practically a coenunciation. The /t/ certainly comes out with a good puff of air and perhaps spit. But, now, here’s a question: how do you hear the /k/? After all, it’s not released – the release is the /t/.

As with many things in music – and in fact in speech – you hear it as much from what’s not there as from what’s there. You can hear the change in resonance in the mouth as the tongue starts to go from the vowel to the stop – it is, after all, possible to hear the difference between tick-tock and tit-tock and tip-tock – but only to a point. The voice cuts out before the tongue really touches. That’s how you know it’s a voiceless stop – it’s /k/ and not /g/. The vowel before it cuts off sooner, and is also a bit shorter. (Vowels cut back in later after a voiceless stop is released, too, but this /k/ doesn’t release.)

That happens to be very similar to how we sing many notes in the piece (and in others). Staccato, of course, calls for that, but in many cases where a syllable ends with a stop, we will drop out the sound for a moment before articulating the stop. This gives contour and heightens the contrast. (It’s sort of like dotting the i, too.)

On the other hand, some phrases are meant to be sung more smoothly together, with less reading. There are long stretches of sixteenth-note runs that we need to phrase together so that we give an overall shape rather than a collection of notes, for instance. Less is more. And we need to make sure not to rush the ictus.

Oh, yes. Ictus. It’s a downbeat kind of word.

I don’t mean it’s somehow unhappy. It’s quite compatible with even a manic rictus. And while choristers who sing the same stuff over and over again may have some small risk of gaining a jaundiced view, it has nothing to do with icterus, icteric, and icterism, all words for “jaundice”. No, those yellow words come from Greek, whereas ictus comes from Latin. Rather, ictus refers to rhythmic stress – or, when Noel’s talking about it, the point at which his finger (or pencil) begins its downstroke from zenith to nadir.

And well enough we should use a Latin word here, since the piece, like most liturgical music, is written in Latin. So you would find talk of an ichthus fishy here, for instance, in spite of the obvious Christian context. And while the pointing finger is ictic, it is not in this case deictic – not only because it’s not pointing at anything (which is what it means to be deictic), but because deictic is another Greek-derived word, referring to showing rather than, as ictic, to striking. So one of these things belongs, and the other doesn’t. (Which I say just to excuse mentioning that iktas means “things” or “belongings” – but it comes from not Greek but Chinook.)

And just as the ictus can be a tricky thing in a complex piece of music such as a Mozart mass, so can the string (but not the morpheme) ictus be a sneaky thing – showing up in benedictus, for instance, and (in the Requiem Mass) maledictus and addictus, among other places. They’re all past tenses of verbs with roots ending in ic, which is not such an odd thing in Latin.

But perhaps that’s Greek to you. Well, that would be ironic, wouldn’t it, given what I’ve said about Greek versus Latin? Just about as ironic in that regard as what we sing on our first downbeat of the whole piece – of any mass. The first word, the first phrase, the first whole movement of a Latin mass, the opening ictus, as you may know, is in Greek – the Kyrie.

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