We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Retheorizing Music
Richard Taruskin

As continually emphasized in this discussion, modal theory arose out of an attempt at classifying the existing Gregorian chant, particularly the antiphons, as an aid to mastering an enormous body of material that had somehow to be committed to melodic memory. Modal theory was thus one of the very many aspects of medieval music-making that originated, very humbly, as mnemotechnics (memory aids). Every chant was eventually assigned a modal classification in the tonaries, and eventually in the graduals and antiphoners themselves, including the modern chant books from which some of the examples in the previous chapters were taken. Let us now cast an eye back over some of those examples and see how modal classification worked in practice.

In Ex. 1-1 an actual pairing of antiphon and psalm tone was given. Even though the psalm tone covers no more than the modal pentachord (D descending to G, as it was first theoretically abstracted), the use of C as the tuba identifies the tone as plagal, not authentic (Ex. 3-2). The antiphon is even easier to identify as being in the eighth mode, the Hypomixolydian: its final is G, but the range extends down as far as the D below (and exactly as far up as the D above), establishing the octave species as D to D with cadence in the middle, on G.

Approaching the antiphon in Ex. 1-2 with a tonarist’s eye, we notice that it basically outlines the pentachord A-down-to-D, and dips down one note below the final into the lower tetrachord. We have no hesitation, therefore, in assigning it to the second mode, the Hypodorian. And yet the Introit antiphon in Ex. 1-4 is unequivocally assignable to mode 1, the authentic Dorian, even though it, too, frequently makes use of the lower neighbor to the same final. That is because the melody extends above the limits of the modal pentachord as well, reaching the C above. The final is thus clearly located near the bottom of the total range. The psalm verse, chosen expressly to conform to the antiphon, confirms the modal classification. Besides the tuba on A, note the similar approaches to the high C. Here we have a case of modal affinity of the older kind (involving turns of actual phrase) working in harness with the newer classification: the very thing the tonarists and theorists sought to ensure.

As a matter of fact the compilers of the tonaries, and the theorists who followed them, made special allowance for the lower neighbor to the final (called subtonium modi), especially in the protus or Dorian tonality. As the anonymous author of Alia musica put it, “and if a note is added on to some song, above or below the species of the octave, it will not be out of place to include this as being in the tune, not out of it.” Thus we are to regard the low C in Ex. 1-4 to be a “note added on below” rather than a full-fledged member of the modal tetrachord. This seeming exception to the rule about mode classification was based on the observed behavior of mode 1 antiphons, as they existed in Pope Gregory’s inspired (and therefore not-to-be-tampered-with) chant. Again we see the influence, even within the characteristically rationalistic Frankish mode theory, of the older concept of mode as formula-family.

The Offertory antiphon in Ex. 1-5, although it ends on E, is only arbitrarily assigned to mode 4 (rather than 3) by the tonarists. Clearly, it was (orally) composed with no awareness of the eventual criteria of modal propriety, for its range partakes of tetrachords both below and above the tetrachord that descends to the final, and it “repercusses” more on F than on either of the “Phrygian” reciting tones. Many of its phrases, moreover, seem to belong to a different octave species altogether. Consider the second (“ut palma florebit”), for example: it begins and ends on D, and it introduces B-flat as upper neighbor to A, emphasizing the A as an apparent upper limit to a pentachord. This phrase by itself would unequivocally be assigned to the first mode. Thus, where the Introit in Ex. 1-4 was a case of close correspondence between the old Roman melody and the new Frankish theory, Ex. 1-5 shows a poor fit between the two. Both hits and misses are equally fortuitous, for the chant evolved long in advance of the theory and quite without premonition of it.

Proof of that fortuity comes in Ex. 1-6, the Alleluia. Phrases that closely resemble that second phrase of Ex. 1-5 abound here (for example, the famous melisma on cedrus). Since there is no contradiction between the internal phrases and the final cadence, it is easy to assign the melody to mode1. (Here is the reasoning: the lower neighbor to the final counts less as a representative of a complementary tetrachord than does the upper neighbor to the fifth above; hence we may conceptualize the octave species with the pentachord below the tetrachord; and in additional confirmation, the vast preponderance of melody notes lie above the final, establishing the mode as authentic.) With the two Graduals in Ex. 1-7, we are back in ambiguous territory. The final, A, is accommodated to the theory of the four finals by the back door, as we have seen, on the basis of the congruence between its modal pentachord (TSTT) and that of the protus final, D. Its complementary tetrachord (STT) differs from that of the protus modes, however, resembling the deuterus instead. So the assignment of these melodies to the second mode is more or less arbitrary, especially in view of that pesky B-flat—over cedrus in Ex. 1-7a, and over the very opening word, Haec, in Ex. 1-7b—preceding a cadence on A that would seem to invoke (if anything) a transposed deuterus or Phrygian scale. There is a considerable gap here between the reality of the chant and the theoretical abstraction of a modal system.

It was noted in chapter 1 that these Graduals come from an old, distinguished formula-family that is suspected of being among the most ancient on record. Thus it is really no surprise that its melody conforms so little with a body of generalizations (that is, a theory) that arose many centuries later—the more so as Graduals, not being antiphons, were not much taken into account by the tonarists. The Frankish mode theory did have a way of accounting for melodies that were wayward by its standards: they were classified as being of “mixed mode” (modus mixtus), meaning that some of their constituent phrases departed from the basic octave species of the melody as a whole. But that is just another effort to dispel an anomaly by giving it a name—something on the order of an exorcism.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Retheorizing Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Retheorizing Music. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Nov. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Retheorizing Music." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Nov. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003004.xml