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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

The Descant

Unless, like me, you grew up singing in choruses and a church choir you may not be familiar with the term descant.  

A descant as defined by Merriam-Webster is, ‘a superimposed counterpoint to a simple melody sung typically by some or all of the sopranos’ – a descant is the perfect festive opportunity to show off.  Contrary to standard harmony, a descant almost always sits above the melody. Etymologically, the word itself means a voice (cantus) above or removed from the other voices.   

It differs from standard harmony because it normally sits above the melody. In most choral arrangements, the harmony will lie in the voice parts beneath the main melody, normally in the alto, tenor and bass voice.

Even if you’re not familiar with the term descant, you have, in all likelihood heard a descant performed.  While descants are part of many of the great hymns of the church, some of the commonly recognizable versions can be found in Christmas carols and hymns.

Recently I shared with a friend that I discovered the Robert Shaw Radio Channel on Pandora.  Shaw (1916-1999) who is best known as the conductor of his namesake chorale, led orchestras and choirs in Cleveland, Atlanta, New York and San Diego during his career.

While listening to a variety of choruses on Pandora perform a number of hymns that include descants, I was overcome with a wave of nostalgia.  The music reminded me of my upbringing and exposure to this particular aspect of chorale music.

Since typically the descant is only performed during the final verse of the hymn, ordinarily one would have to listen to an entire performance of a piece before arriving at the descant.  However, I recently came across a Facebook post from Classic FM that highlights some of the top descants from some of the best Christmas hymns of all time.

When you have five minutes to spare, I think you’ll enjoy the top ten descants from these well-known Christmas hymns.

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