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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 2 New Styles and Forms

Frankish Additions to the Original Chant Repertory

CHAPTER 2 New Styles and Forms
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Amalar (or Amalarius) of Metz, an urban cleric and a disciple of Alcuin, served Charlemagne and his successor Louis as both churchman and statesman. He was one of the supervisors of the Carolingian chant and liturgy reform, and virtually our sole witness to it. After a diplomatic sojourn in Rome in 831, Amalar spent the remaining decades of his life compiling liturgical books, to which he added commentaries replete with information about the church singing he had heard, which he wished to see transplanted to Frankish soil. Although Amalar did not use neumes (possibly because he lived just too early to have had the option of using them), his descriptions of the ways in which the Roman chant was adapted to the use of the Franks are uniquely detailed and vivid.

One thing we learn from Amalar is that the Roman cantors he observed had taken one of their real showpieces—a neuma triplex, a huge threefold melisma from a matins responsory commemorating St. John the Baptist’s day (December 27)—and transferred it back to Christmas, where its festive jubilation seemed even more appropriate. This practice was part of a general trend, which Amalar wanted to abet, toward adorning the liturgy with special music. Christmas, liturgically the most elaborate of days (on which, for example, not one but three Masses were sung: at midnight and at dawn as well as at the usual hour between terce and sext), was of course especially favored. The neuma triplex was available for insertion, however, wherever it was wanted. In different sources it is found associated with the feast of the Holy Innocents and with the feasts of various saints as celebrated, with special pomp, in their home diocese.

The third and most sumptuous of the neuma triplex melismas, with its seventy-eight notes, may be the longest melodia, or stretch of textless vocalizing, in the entire repertory of medieval chant. In Example 2-1, the concluding words (fabricae mundi, “of the structure of the world”) from Descendit de caelis (“He descended from Heaven”), the crowning responsory from Christmas matins, are given first in their “normal” form, then with the neuma triplex melisma as eventually written down in staff notation about three centuries after Amalar described it. (We can assume that it still pretty much resembles the eighth-century melody Amalar described because it concords well with unheighted neumes in much older manuscripts.)

Amalar enthusiastically endorses the practice of interpolating such neumae or melismas into festive chants, in keeping with the old idea of “jubilated” singing. Noting that in its original context (the feast of St. John the Baptist) the triple melisma fell on the word intellectus, which he interprets to mean an ecstatic or mystical kind of “understanding” beyond the power of words to convey, Amalar exhorts monastic musicians that “if you ever come to the ‘understanding’ in which divinity and eternity are beheld, you must tarry in that ‘understanding,’ rejoicing in song without words which pass away.”1

Chapter 2 New Styles and Forms

ex. 2-1 Neuma triplex

This passage from Amalar recalls the famous words in which St. Augustine, five hundred years earlier, had extolled the “jubilated” singing of his day, associated by the time of Amalar chiefly with the Mass Alleluia. And sure enough, Amalar writes enthusiastically of another Roman practice, that of replacing the traditional jubilus, the melisma on the “-ia” of “Alleluia,” with an even longer melody, which he describes as “a jubilation that the singers call a sequentia,” presumably because of the way it followed after the Alleluia chant.2

That the Franks enthusiastically adopted the practice of adorning their service music with ever lengthier melodiae we learn from Agobard of Lyons, another ninth-century ecclesiastical observer, who condemned what Amalar endorsed. From childhood to old age, Agobard complained, the singers in the schola spent all their time improving their voices instead of their souls, boasted of their virtuosity and their memories, and vied with one another in melismatic contest. The sequentia repertoire was the tamed and scripted issue of these frantic oral engagements.

Chapter 2 New Styles and Forms

ex. 2-9 Easter dialogue trope (Quem quaeritis in sepulchro)

TABLE 2-1 Ordo of the Western Mass








1. Introit

2. Kyrie

3. Gloria (omitted during Lent and Advent)

4. Collect (call to prayer)

5. Epistle reading

6. Gradual (replaced between Easter and Pentecost by an Alleluia)

7. Alleluia (replaced during Lent and Advent by the Tract)

8. Sequence (ubiquitous and fully canonical from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries; only four survived the Counter Reformation*)

9. Gospel reading



10. Credo

11. Offertory

12. Offertory prayers

13. Secret (Celebrant’s silent prayer)

14. Preface to the Sanctus

15. Sanctus

16. Canon (Celebrant’s Prayer consecrating wine and bread)

17. Lord’s Prayer (congregation)

18. Agnus Dei

19. Communion

20. Postcommunion prayer

21. Dismissal (Ite, missa est, replaced during Lent and Advent by Benedicamus Domino, “Let us bless the Lord”

(*) The fortunate four were the sequences for Easter (Victimae paschali laudes), Pentecost (Veni sancte spiritus), Corpus Christi (Lauda Sion, by St. Thomas Aquinas), and the funeral or Requiem Mass (Dies Irae). During the eighteenth century a new one (Stabat mater dolorosa) was added upon the creation of a new feast, the “Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Its text is by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Jacopone de Todi; the music in modern chant books was composed in the nineteenth century by a choirmaster from the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes.


(1) J. M. Hanssens, Amalarii episcope opera liturgica omnia, Vol. III (Studi e testi, 140; Vatican City, 1950), p. 54. Translation adapted from that of Daniel J. Sheerin given in Ruth Steiner, “The Gregorian Chant Melismas of Christmas Matins,” in J. C. Graue, ed., Essays on Music in Honor of Charles Warren Fox (Rochester: Eastman School of Music Press, 1979), p. 250.

(2) Hanssens, Amalarii, Vol. XVIII, p. 6.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 New Styles and Forms." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 New Styles and Forms. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 New Styles and Forms." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-002.xml