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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Retheorizing Music
Richard Taruskin

Hildegard’s largest work is a play with music called Ordo virtutum (“The enactment of the virtues”). In it, the Devil and the sixteen virtues do battle for the possession of a Christian soul. It is by far the oldest extant example of what is now called the “morality play,” a form of allegorical drama (chiefly popular between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries) in which the actors personify virtues and vices. In terms of content, then, Hildegard’s play was unusual and, it could be said, prophetic. In terms of its genre, however, it was not unusual at all.

By Hildegard’s twelfth century, the sung verse play in Latin was a veritable craze in northern Europe and England, and church space was increasingly given over on major festivals to dramatic representations of various kinds. Such plays begin to appear in written sources in the tenth century, and it is probably no accident that the earliest ones all enact the same episode—the visit of the women (or the Magi) to Christ’s tomb (or the manger) and their meeting with an angel—that we encountered in the previous chapter in the form of tropes to the Easter and Christmas Introits. While it would be misleading to allege (as scholars once believed) that the so-called liturgical drama (performed at matins) grew directly or “organically” out of the earlier tropes (performed at Mass), it is clear that the church plays were a part—the crowning part, it is fair to say—of the same impulse to adorn and amplify the liturgy that produced the trope, the sequence, and all the other specifically Frankish liturgical genres that we surveyed in the previous chapter.

One of the most fully worked out of these early plays, with detailed directions for the costumes and the movements of the actors, is found in the Regularis concordia of 973, a code of monastic law produced by a council of bishops under Ethelwold (ca. 908–984) at the cathedral of Winchester. Its music is preserved in the famous Winchester Tropers, two great books of liturgical supplements, the earlier of them roughly contemporaneous with the council. (Unfortunately the Winchester Tropers are both notated in staffless neumes, and their contents cannot be reliably transcribed for performance.)

Like the tropes and sequences, the church plays evolved—between the tenth and twelfth centuries—from a prose into a verse genre. Twelfth-century liturgical dramas were elaborate composites of newly composed versus (music set to verse texts in the latest Frankish style), older hymns and sequences, and Gregorian antiphons, these last being retained as a kind of scriptural allusion or invocation. Their subjects included Peregrinus plays (dramatizations of the risen Christ’s appearances to his disciples), shepherds’ plays for Christmas, the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents (sometimes called the “Play of Herod”), the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Raising of Lazarus, the miracles of St. Nicholas, and the so-called Ludus Danielis, the “Play of Daniel.”

The largest single source of these twelfth-century verse plays is the so-called Fleury Play-book, a manuscript copied at the Benedictine monastery of St. Benoit at Fleury-sur- Loire near Orleans, the burial place of King Philip I of France (d. 1108). The best-known single item in the repertory is the Play of Daniel, thanks to its spectacular revival in 1958 by Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica ensemble, a milestone in the “early music” performance movement (a recording was still in print as of 2001). It was composed by students at the Cathedral school of Beauvais for the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1): “In your honor, Christ, this Daniel play was written at Beauvais, the product of our youth,” the first words proclaim. In this treatment, the Old Testament story of the prophet Daniel and his deliverance from the lion’s den (vividly evoked in prescribed sets and costumes) is turned at the end into a prophecy of the coming of Christ: Ecce venit sanctus ille, / sanctorum sanctissimus, Daniel sings: “Behold, he comes, the Holy One, the Holiest of Holies,” followed by a traditional Christmas hymn and the ancient hymn of thanksgiving, Te Deum laudamus, the concluding chant at matins, to which the whole foregoing complement of dramatic verses, processional songs, and expressive lyrics could be interpreted as a huge explanatory preface or trope.

The processional songs that accompany the entrances and exits of the dramatis personae in the Play of Daniel are labeled conductus (escorting-song) in the manuscript rubrics, one of the earliest uses of a term that later became synonymous with versus, or freely composed Latin song in verse. Ex. 3-11 gives the first of these conducti, to the verse Astra tenenti / cunctipotenti, which accompanies the entrance of King Belshazzar at the very beginning of the play, and then Daniel’s lyrical petition after King Darius sentences him to die in the lions’ den. (In order to accompany the actual procession of actors more effectively in performance, Noah Greenberg decided on the basis of the word-accents to impose a regular compound-triple meter on the five-syllable lines of text in the conductus; there is no evidence to gainsay him.) Between them, these two samples will give an idea of the extraordinary range of poetic and musical style encompassed by post-Gregorian versus settings.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Retheorizing Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003007.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 17 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003007.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 17 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003007.xml