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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 New Styles and Forms
Richard Taruskin

The sequence, although it was the most elaborate, was only one of many new musical forms with which the Franks adorned and amplified the imported Roman chant, and made it their own. The strophic office hymn was another genre that they cultivated avidly. The Latin liturgy had known hymnody since at least the fourth century, but for doctrinal reasons it was rejected in Rome (and so it was not part of the repertory brought north under the Carolingians). St. Augustine recounts that his teacher St. Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, had adapted hymns from Greek practice for full congregational singing during vigils. The greatest Latin hymnographer after Ambrose was a contemporary of Pope Gregory named Venantius Fortunatus (d. ca. 600), an Italian who served as bishop of Poitiers in west-central France. His most famous composition, Pange lingua gloriosi (“Sing, O my tongue”), used a metrical scheme (trochaic tetrameter) that would be widely imitated by later hymn composers.

Both Ambrose’s fourth-century Milanese texts and Venantius’s sixth-century “Gallican” ones remained current into the twentieth century, but no melodies can be documented before the year 1000, and once they begin appearing in monastic manuscripts, they appear in such profusion that most of the oldest texts are provided with as many as a dozen or more tunes. There is no telling which or how many of them date from before the ninth century, but the overwhelming majority conform so much better with the tonal criteria established by the ninth-century Frankish music theorists (whose work we will shortly be investigating) than they do with the tonal types of the Roman chant, that their Frankish origin seems virtually certain.

Hymnody is the apparsent antithesis (or rather, the calculated complement) of psalmody. Where psalms and their stichic appendages are lofty and numinous, conducive to spiritual repose and contemplation, hymns are the liturgy’s popular songs: markedly rhythmical (whether their rhythms are organized by syllable count or by actual meter), strongly profiled in melody, conducive to enthusiasm. The first verses of three of the most famous ones are given in Ex. 2-7. At this point they may be regarded primarily as illustrations of the genre, but later they will serve as examples of contrasting tonalities within the Frankish “mode” system (and later still, we will see them embodied in polyphonic settings by famous composers).


fig. 2-3 St. Ambrose, the fourth-century governor and bishop of Milan who introduced Byzantine-style hymn-singing to the Western church. He is shown writing, in an illumination—initial F (Frater Ambrosius)—from the Bible of Pedro de Pamplona, Seville, MS 56-5-1, fol. 2.

Ave maris stella (“Hail, Star of the sea”) is an acclamation to the Blessed Virgin Mary intended for one of the many offices devoted to her that burgeoned in the Franco-Roman liturgy around the time of the early neumated manuscripts. The text is securely dated to the ninth century. The rather decoratively neumatic tune, the most famous of several associated with the poem, makes its appearance in the extant manuscripts somewhat later. In a still primarily oral age, however, the date of a melody’s earliest written source bears no reliable witness to the date of its creation.

The version of Pange lingua that follows is not Venantius’s original but a reworking—called “parody,” but without any connotation of satire—by St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), composed for the office of Corpus Christi (veneration of the body of Christ). Like our contemporary satirical parodies, medieval sacred parodies (also called contrafacta) were meant to be sung to traditional tunes, so that in this case the melody is far older than the words. Both this example and the preceding one testify in their opposite ways to the fluidity of the text-music relationship in this and many other medieval sung repertories.

Veni creator spiritus, the great Pentecost hymn and something of a Carolingian anthem, has been attributed honorifically to many famous Franks, including Hrabanus Maurus (d. 856), the archbishop of Mainz, and even Charlemagne himself. The poem employs the so-called Ambrosian stanza (four lines of eight syllables each), established by the original Latin hymnodist five centuries before; but the dynamically arching melody, its successive phrases marking cadences on what we still identify as “primary” scale degrees, is of exemplary Frankish design.


ex. 2-7a Three Frankish hymns


ex. 2-7b Pange lingua gloriosi


ex. 2-7c Veni creator spiritus

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. 21 Nov. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002005.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 21 Nov. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002005.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 21 Nov. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002005.xml