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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 New Styles and Forms
Richard Taruskin

As has been observed frequently and well, the forms of Frankish musical composition, the earliest composition in the literate tradition we habitually call our own, often contradict the assumptions that we habitually make about musical compositions—assumptions we do not usually even know we are making, precisely because they are habitual. We normally neither reflect upon them nor consider alternatives. Very old music often asks us to consider alternatives, and to reflect.

Regarding tropes to the Introit, for example, one might well ask in what sense a series of interpolations into a preexisting piece can itself be considered “a piece.” It is neither continuous nor coherent nor unitary nor independent, all of these adjectives naming qualities that we tacitly expect pieces of music to exemplify. Indeed, the Introit itself, once it plays host to the trope, loses its continuity, its coherence, its unity, and its independence. Does it lose its piecehood when invaded by the other? And if its piecehood is so easily lost, how genuine was it to begin with?

Rather than judge the trope or its host on the basis of their conformity with our casual expectations (for such a judgment can only be invidious), we might take the opportunity the trope affords us to critique those expectations. For it would indeed be surprising if musical expectations had not changed over a period of a thousand years.

The first criterion that might be questioned is the notion from which all the others stem—namely, that a piece of music worthy of consideration as such ought to be able to stand timelessly on its own two feet. What is demanded is that it have an existence independent of its context, its observers, and particularly its users. This is called the principle of autonomy, and it is pretty universally regarded today as a requirement for aesthetic appreciation—that is, for evaluation as a work of art. A trope certainly fails this test, but then so do all the other musical artifacts of its time.

For music only became autonomous when it stopped being useful; and this did not happen until conditions allowed such a thing to happen. Some of those conditions were beginning to exist a thousand years ago. The potential for autonomy existed as soon as the means of recording music in writing existed. Until then, music was only an activity—something you did (or that others did while you did something else). All of the music we have been considering thus far falls into that category. It is both literally and figuratively service music: music for the divine service and music that serves a divine purpose. And yet the divine service was after all a human activity, and the music that both accompanied this activity and gave it shape was a music that functioned in symbiosis with a social framework as yet undivorced from daily life. A lot of music is still like that; we call it “folk.” But some music has since been objectified as “art.” It happened in stages, of which the first, as we know, was writing. In written form music at last possessed (or could possess) some sort of physical reality independent of the people who made it up and repeated it. It could outlive those who remembered it. (And it could reach us, who no longer have a use for it.) It could be silently reproduced and transmitted from composer to performer, thus for the first time completely distinguishing their roles. With the advent of printing, almost exactly five hundred years ago (and also almost exactly five hundred years after the introduction of music writing), reproduction became easy and cheap. Music could be disseminated much more widely than before, and much more impersonally. In the form of a printed book, music could be all the more readily thought of not as an act but as a thing. Philosophers have a word for this conceptual transformation: they call it reification (from res, Latin for “thing”). The durable music-thing could begin to seem more important than ephemeral music-makers. The idea of a classic—a timeless aesthetic object—was waiting to be born.

For reasons that we will later need to consider in detail, its birth had to await the birth of “aesthetics,” which was a by-product of romanticism, an intellectual and artistic movement of the late eighteenth century. Only then do we encounter notions of transcendent and autonomous art—art that was primarily for contemplation, not for use, and for the ages, not for you or me. Since then the reification of music has reached new heights (and depths) with the advent of actual sound recording, leading to new sorts of music-things like compact discs and digital audiotapes. Thanks to these, music was commercialized in the twentieth century to an extent previously unimaginable, yet it has also been more completely classicalized than ever before. A recording of a piece of music is more of a thing than ever before, and our notion of what “a piece” is has been correspondingly (and literally) solidified.

So if a set of interpolated tropes—or a vagrant melisma, or a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t prosula—challenges or “problematizes” the notion of a piece of music as an autonomous work of art, we should realize that the problem thus created is entirely our problem, and that it arises out of an anachronism. Our casual assumptions about music and art are no longer congruent with those that motivated the Frankish musicians of a thousand years ago. Realizing this can help us approach more realistically not only the art products of the distant past but also the ones with which we are most familiar—precisely because, in a context of alternative views, the familiar is no longer quite so familiar. When things are no longer taken for granted they can be more clearly and meaningfully observed; when we allow our values to be challenged by different ones, they can be more fully and discerningly understood. They are in fact more our own once we have reflected on them.

None of this should imply that the musicians of a thousand years ago, and the people who heard them, could not enjoy their work sensuously. Indeed, Saint Augustine admits to just such an enjoyment of liturgical singing in his Confessions. And yet although he admits to it, he does not admit it. Recognizing that “there are particular modes in song and in the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two,” he maintains a special guard “not to allow my mind to be paralyzed by the gratification of my senses, which often leads it astray.”6 That ambivalence, expressed by Saint Augustine in the fourth century, has remained a characteristic of Western religious thinking about music.

But if the early medieval Christians did not recognize our category of the “aesthetic,” which anachronistically implies a “pure” (that is, disinterested) contemplation of beauty, that does not mean that we cannot now apprehend a musical product of the ancient church—say, a troped Introit—with aesthetic appreciation. (Indeed, if we did not know how the process of troping worked, we would never have had an aesthetic problem with a troped Introit; it would just be a longer Introit.) As Saint Augustine implies, and as a hackneyed proverb confirms, the religious or sensuous or aesthetic “content” of works of art (or, to be careful, works capable of being regarded as art) is not an inherent property of such works but the result of a decision taken by the beholder, and defines a relationship between the observer and the observed. When such decisions are not consciously taken but are the result of cultural predisposition, they can easily seem to be attributes of works, not of observers.

By now, the aesthetic reception of ancient service music is well established. Gregorian and medieval chants can be for us (and, indeed, have definitely become) a form of concert music, which we now experience in new surroundings (concert halls, our homes, our cars) and for new purposes. In 1994, the year this chapter was first drafted, a compact disc of Gregorian chants sung by a schola of Spanish monks unexpectedly rose to the top of the popular music sales charts, betokening a wholly new way of apprehending (and using) them. Or maybe not so new: the pop reception of chant may not be so much an aesthetic phenomenon as a renewed form, mediated and modified by the pacifying objectives of “New Age” meditation, of the intellectus Amalar celebrated at the very beginning of our story.

Be that as it may, putting ourselves imaginatively in the position of the chant’s contemporaries gives us access to meanings we might otherwise never experience. And perhaps even more important, it gives us a distanced perspective on our own contemporary world, a form of critical awareness we would otherwise never gain. These are among the most potent reasons for studying history.


(6) St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1961), p. 238.

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. 28 Sep. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002011.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 28 Sep. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002011.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 28 Sep. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002011.xml