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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Retheorizing Music
Richard Taruskin

The same urge to regularize tonally and formally, and to use the two stabilizing dimensions to reinforce one another, can be seen in late Frankish sequences as well, together with the additional regularizing element of metrical verse, eventually replete with rhyme. Settings of such texts, especially rhymed metrical sequences, are often called versus to distinguish them from the older prosa. Ex. 3-7 contains two of the sequences that have survived into the modern liturgy. The Easter sequence, Victimae paschali laudes (“Praises to the Paschal victim”), is attributed in both words and music to the German monk Wipo, chaplain to the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II (reigned 1024–39). It has the paired versicle structure common to the form: A, BB, CC, DD. The constituent phrases describe the principal parts of the modal scale with great regularity. The two phrases of verse A describe the modal pentachord, with the first phrase darkened by the Dorian lower neighbor, and the second compensating by adding the previously withheld top note. Verse B makes a steady descent from the authentic tetrachord (cadencing on the tuba) through the pentachord, through the darkened pentachord with lower neighbor and no tuba. Verse C extends downward, like the second Kyrie in Ex. 3-5, to describe the plagal tetrachord, proceeding through the “darkened” pentachord to the full pentachord. Phrase D, which resembles phrase B, begins like it with the authentic tetrachord at the top of the modal ambitus, and again gradually descends to the final, with the final phrase (and also the paschal alleluia) colored dark by the use of the subtonium (the lower neighbor).


ex. 3-7 Two sequences in modern use


ex. 3-7b Dies irae (Requiem)

Ex. 3-7 gives the musical text of Victimae paschali laudes exactly as it is found in the Liber usualis, a practical edition of Gregorian chant first published in 1934 for the use of modern Catholic congregations. It lacks a repetition of the D phrase because the text has been officially expurgated. The omitted verse, the first of the pair sung to phrase D, had read: Credendum est magis soli Mariae veraci/quam Judeorum turbe fallaci (“More trust is to be put in honest Mary [Magdalen] alone than in the lying crowd of Jews”). Sensible to its nastiness, and aware of its bearing on a history of persecutions, the Council of Trent, the mid-sixteenth century congress of church reform that evicted almost all the other sequences from the liturgy, pruned the offending verse from Victimae paschali as a gesture of reconciliation with the Jews.

Dies irae (“Day of wrath”), from the Requiem Mass (Ex. 3-7b), is probably the most famous of all medieval liturgical songs, and a very late one. It may even be a thirteenth-century composition, for the text is attributed to Thomas of Celano (d. ca. 1255), a disciple and biographer of St. Francis of Assisi. Thomas’s poem is a kind of meditation or gloss in rhymed three-line stanzas (tercets) on the second verse—“Dies illa, dies irae”—of the responsory Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna (“Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death”), which is sung at the graveside service that follows the Requiem Mass. Even the melody begins as a parody (or gloss, or takeoff—but not a trope, except in the loosest possible use of the term) on that of the responsory verse (Ex. 3-8).


ex. 3-8 Libera me (responsory verse)

Like Rex caeli (Ex. 2-1), in its full form the Dies irae has a melodic repetition scheme that exceeds the normal allotment of a sequence. (There can be no doubt about its status, though, because within the actual liturgy it occupies the place and accomplishes the business of a sequence.) Its three paired versicles go through a triple cursus—a threefold repetition like that of a litany: AABBCC/AABBCC/AABBC, with the last C replaced by a final couplet, to which an additional unrhymed couplet and an Amen were added by an anonymous reviser. (Ex. 3-7b contains only the first cursus.) The various constituent phrases have many internal repetitions as well: the second phrase of B, for example, is an embellished variant of the responsory-derived opening phrase of A, which (like the opening acclamation in Kyrie “Cum jubilo”) thus assumes the role of a refrain.

Once again, as by now we may expect to find in a late medieval Dorian chant, the melody delineates the principal parts of the mode with great clarity. The A phrase occupies the Hypodorian ambitus, minus the highest note; the B phrase stakes out the upper tetrachord (but again minus the highest note); and the C phrase sinks back into Hypodorian space (this is, after all, a funereal chant). Only the final couplet (on “judicandus….”) manages to reach the top of the authentic octave, vouchsafing a mode 1 classification for the melody. Until the “coda,” moreover, with a pair of half cadences on A (the mode 1 tuba), every one of the melody’s frequent cadences has been to the final, imparting an additional, very heavy-treaded, dimension of repetition.

Despite its formal peculiarities, the Dies irae is a very typical late sequence in its verse structure. By the middle of the twelfth century, rhymed tercets composed of eight-syllable lines with regularly alternated accent patterns were very much the norm, not only for sequences but for new Office formularies as well. This verse pattern (especially in a modified tercet with syllable count 8+8+7) is often associated with Adam Precentor, alias Adam of St. Victor (d. 1146) a much-venerated Parisian churchman and an “outstanding versifier” (egregius versificator) who is credited with churning out between forty and seventy sequences of this type, most of them set to a small repertory of stereotyped and interchangeable tunes. These sequences were composed not only for the Augustinian abbey of St. Victor, where Adam was resident, but also for the newly consecrated Cathedral of Notre Dame, where he served as cantor. The most famous melody associated with Adam is the Mixolydian tune to which St. Thomas Aquinas’s sequence Lauda Sion Salvatorem (“Praise the Savior, O Zion”) is still sung at traditional Catholic churches on the feast of Corpus Christi. In Ex. 3-9 the first two melodic phrases are given both with St. Thomas Aquinas’s words and with Adam’s original poem, Laudes crucis attollamus (“Praises to the cross we bear”), composed about a hundred years earlier. Mixing and matching texts and tunes (especially new texts and familiar tunes) was a common practice, called contrafactum, that throve especially in genres that exhibited the kind of rigorous regularity of form and meter that we find in the late Parisian (or “Victorine”) sequence.


ex. 3-9 Lauda Sion Salvatorem/Laudes crucis attolamus

Altogether different were the contemporaneous sequences of Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), Abbess of the Benedictine convent of Rupertsberg in the Rhine valley near the German city of Trier. In its formal, modal, and metrical clarity, the Parisian sequence accorded with the scholastic tradition of Augustine and Boethius; scholastic thinkers sought, through orderly and cogent argument, to make faith intelligible to reason. Hildegard, by contrast, used poetry and music to express a visionary “symphony of the harmony of heavenly revelations” (symphonia armonie celestium revelationum), as she called her collected poetical works, assembled by the late 1150s. Besides her famous sequences, the book contains antiphons, responsories, hymns, and Kyries.

Hildegard’s melodies often have an extraordinary ambitus (up to two and a half octaves!), and they are not easily parsed into abstract modal functions. Rather, they exhibit the older formula-family notion of modal identity, just as their verbal patterns, avoiding both rhyme and regular accentuation, revert to the older, Notker-style notion of prosa. Her fantastic diction and imagery are all her own.

In the sequence Columba aspexit (“The dove looked in”) for the commemoration feast of St. Maximinus, a local saint of Trier, the versicles are paired in the traditional way, but loosely. (Ex. 3-10 shows the first two pairs.) The members of a pair do not always correspond exactly in syllable count. Compared with the literal strophic repetition we have become used to in the late medieval sequence, Hildegard’s melodic parallelism seems more to resemble a process of variation. (Some of her sequences avoid parallelism altogether, something unheard of since the ninth century and probably unknown to Hildegard as a precedent.) The result of all these irregularities is a relatively difficult melody to comprehend rationally or memorize. That lack of easy grasp, which induces a passivity of mind, combined with a flamboyant imagery, much of it derived from the Song of Songs, that evokes strong sensory impressions (specially implicating the sense of smell), conspire to produce an immensity of feeling one associates with revelation rather than reflection. Unlike the elegant, urbane creations of the Victorines, Hildegard’s is a lyricism of mystical immediacy. (Nor is this the last time French and German “schools” will be so differentiated.)


fig. 3-4 Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century abbess of Rupertsberg, writing down her visions (or, possibly, her chants). The illustration comes from a manuscript of her treatise Scivias (“Know the ways of the Lord”) called the Codex Rupertsberg. It disappeared during World War II.


ex. 3-10 Hildegard of Bingen, Columba aspexit

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Retheorizing Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2017. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003006.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 21 Aug. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003006.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 21 Aug. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003006.xml