Hephaestus's Blog


Word of the Month: Contrafactum
November 5, 2015, 12:00
Filed under: Words of the Months

Etymology: circa 16th cent,; direct from New Latin contrafactum, neuter past participle of contrafacere, meaning to counterfeit, created from contra- (against) prefix and facere, to do. According to Merriam-Webster, contrafacere is a translation of Middle French contrefaire.

Definition: A song created by combining new words with a previously used tune.

Wow, this is another weird etymology, isn’t it? It’s not every day you find a word borrowed from a Latin translation of French.

Traditionally, the term was mostly applied to religious or liturgical music with secular words added. However, the definition has broadened to the point where we can apply it to songs where both the words and music are of a secular nature.

Some contrafacta you may know include:

The Star-Spangled Banner (Music To Anacreon in Heav’n, 1700s; words The Defence of Fort M’Henry, 1814)

My Country ‘Tis of Thee (Music God Save the Queen [King], prior to 1744; words 1831) (The tune may be even older, but it’s very hard to tell).

The Russian National Anthem (Music State Anthem of the USSR, prior to 1944; words 2000) (The first ever Russian anthem was a contrafactum on God Save the Queen).

`Two famous Christmas carol contrafacta are Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (Music Festgesang Cantata, 1840, words even older, dating to 1754 in their current form), and perhaps the most famous contrafactum in English poetry, What Child is This to the tune of Greensleeves.

Note that contrafactum and contrafact are not identical; a contrafact is a jazz term meaning a melody written on a borrowed harmonic structure (no words necessary).

Please let me know if there are any words you would like featured in the comments below.

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