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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors

The Earliest Literate Secular Repertories: Aquitaine, France, Iberia, Italy, Germany

CHAPTER 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


One of the lessons the study of history can teach us is to appreciate the futility of rigidly oppositional distinctions and to resist them. Hard and fast antitheses, often called binarisms, are conceptual rather than empirical: that is, they are more likely to be found in the clean laboratories of our minds than in the messy world our bodies inhabit. (And even to say this much is to commit several errors of arbitrary opposition.) One can hardly avoid categories; they simplify experience and, above all, simplify the stories we tell. They make things intelligible. Without them, writing a book like this—let alone reading it!—would be virtually impossible. And yet they involve sacrifice as well as gain.

The invention of staff notation, placed at the climax of the previous chapter and presented as a great victory, is a case in point. The gain in (apparent) precision was accompanied by a definite loss in variety. The staff is nothing if not an instrument for imposing hard distinctions: between A and B, between B and C, and so forth. These distinctions are gross as well as hard; singing from a staff is like putting frets on one’s vocal cords. One has only to compare the staffless neumes of early chant manuscripts with the staved notations of the “post-Guidonian” era to see how much more stylized notation had to become—and how much farther, one must conclude, from the oral practice it purported to transcribe—in order to furnish the precise information about pitch that we now prize. A whole category of ornamental neumes (called liquescent, implying fluidity, flexibility of voice, and, most likely, intonation “in the cracks”) was sacrificed, and eventually lost from practice. No one knows today just what they once signified. The precision of staff notation, like the precision of the modal theory that preceded and preconditioned it, regularized certain aspects of music and made many developments possible. Yet at the same time they foreclosed other aspects and potential developments that other musical cultures have continued to prize and to cultivate. Anyone who has heard the classical music of Iran or India will have an idea of what may have been lost from the European tradition.

On a more conceptual plane, consider the distinction between sacred and secular. Up to now only the former has figured in our story, simply because only it was available for description. Now we are about to encounter the earliest available secular repertories—the first musical repertories that were not intended for use in divine worship but were nevertheless deemed worthy of preservation in writing. On the basis of the firm distinction between the sacred and the secular on which, for example, our present-day institutions of government depend, we may tend to assume that secular music will contrast radically with sacred. Perhaps some did; the writings of the early Church Fathers abound in condemnations of “licentious songs” that express and arouse “passions sprung of lack of breeding and baseness,”1 or that call forth “the Devil’s great heap of garbage.”2 But we don’t know these songs. We will never know exactly how they differed from the music of which the Fathers approved, and we may even suspect that what made them objectionable had less to do with their essential nature or “style” than with the occasions at which they were sung, or with the people who sang them. “Sacred” and “secular” are not so much styles as uses. The distinction between them is at least as much a social as a generic one.


(1) St. Basil, The Letters, Vol. IV, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (London: W. Heinemann, 1934), p. 419.

(2) James McKinnon, “The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1965), p. 182.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2014. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Oct. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Oct. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-004.xml