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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 6 Notre Dame de Paris
Richard Taruskin

The most authoritative source for our knowledge of the epochal rhythmic practices of the Notre Dame School is the treatise De mensurabili musica, written around 1240 by Johannes de Garlandia. He was a lecturer (magister) at the University of Paris, possibly the very one from whom the author of Anonymus IV learned what he passed on to us. His name derives from his university affiliation: the clos de Garlande was a colony on the left bank of the Seine where many members of the university arts faculty made their homes.

De mensurabili musica (“On measured music”) was one of two textbooks Johannes wrote for the university music curriculum to supplement the venerable treatise of Boethius. (The other one was called De plana musica, “On plainchant.”) Its method of organization and instruction vividly exemplifies the approach known as “scholasticism” (because it was practiced by scholastici, “schoolmen”). This approach was thought of as descending not from Plato, the “idea man,” but from Aristotle, the great observer of things as they are. It purported to be empirical (that is, based on observation) and descriptive rather than speculative.

The first task in any scholastic description was analysis and classification, and the establishment of clear conceptual relations between larger divisions (genera) and smaller divisions (species), proceeding, as we still say, from the “general” to the “specific.” Thus Johannes begins by dividing the consonances (a genus) into three classes (species): perfect (prime and octave), intermediate (fourth and fifth), and imperfect (thirds). He also makes a tripartite division of dissonances, with the “perfect” ones being the most dissonant, etc. He then proceeds to a similarly tripartite division of measured music into three species: organum, copula, and discant. And finally, he divides discant into six, or twice-three, “manners” (maneries) or rhythmic modes.

Garlandia’s classification was extremely influential in its time, as we can tell by how many other theorists copied it. And it has been equally influential in our time, as we can tell by the way modern musicology has adopted the Garlandian classification scheme and terminology. Our own discussion has accepted Garlandia’s classification of polyphonic genres, including the somewhat slippery category of copula “between discant and organum,” as Garlandia defined it long after the fact. Up to now, however, we have avoided the classic and ubiquitous Garlandian classification of the rhythmic modes.

The reason is that, like many scholastic classification schemes, Garlandia’s discussion of the rhythmic modes is not really descriptive—not entirely, at any rate. Its descriptive content has clearly been supplemented by a notional component so that the resulting system will satisfy a priori (that is, preconceived) standards of completeness and, above all, of symmetry.

Garlandia’s idea of completeness was evidently formed not on the basis of observed contemporary musical practice but on a list of meters taken over from another authoritative scholastic classification, a grammar textbook called Doctrinale (“Book of teachings”), written more than a generation earlier (in 1199) by another famous schoolman, Alexandre de Villedieu (or Villa-Dei). In this textbook, six classical poetic meters are defined in terms of long and short syllables, which are defined in exactly the same terms employed by contemporary musicians when speaking of note values. Villedieu even refers to singing the syllables, perhaps (though not necessarily) in recognition of the analogous musical meters of Notre Dame polyphony: “the syllable which is short holds one beat (tempus) in which it is sung; you must double that length for the long.”7 In terms of our accustomed symbols for longs (L) and breves (B), Villedieu’s enumeration is as follows: dactyl (LBB), spondee (LL), trochee (LB), anapest (BBL), iamb (BL), and tribrach (BBB).

Garlandia took this list over directly and asserted that there were six rhythmic modes in use in Notre Dame polyphony. Then he went Villedieu one better by arranging the modes in three symmetrical pairs. Modes 1 and 2, according to Garlandia, were the trochee (LB) and its reverse, the iamb (BL). Modes 3 and 4 were the dactyl (LBB) and its reverse, the anapest (BBL). Modes 5 and 6 were the spondee (LL), confined to longs, and its conceptual opposite the tribrach (BBB), confined to breves.

At least one of these modes, the fourth, was pure fiction, included in deference to authority and for the sake of a symmetry that would justify the inclusion of the dactyl. There is not a single practical source that contains music in Garlandia’s fourth mode. It exists only in his didactic example of it, and the ones contrived by subsequent theorists on the basis of his authority. And yet in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—and again in the nineteenth and twentieth—countless students have memorized its pattern and its notation. (The latter is easy enough to guess, being the exact reverse of the dactyl or third mode: a series of ternariae followed by a nota simplex.)

Garlandia’s sixth mode, too, is more or less notional, included on Villedieu’s authority as a complement or balance to the fifth, which of course has a long history in practice. Brief passages in uniform breves are found in many compositions of the “Notre Dame school.” They can be just as easily notated (with plicas, for example) without any special mode. There is one famous passage in an Alleluia attributed in Anonymus IV to Perotin that has a few ordines ostensibly in Garlandia’s sixth mode and using the notation he assigns to it. But the passage could as easily have been written in “fractured” trochees (first mode), and might very well have actually been written that way in its earliest sources.

That would mean that Garlandia’s treatise, which purported to describe a musical practice, ended up prescribing one instead. The same possibility, that the theorist influenced the composition style he ostensibly reported involves the second mode (iambic) as counterpart to the ubiquitous first. We have seen an example of the second mode in practice, in one of the spare “DO-” clausulas from the Florence manuscript (Ex. 6-3d). But that manuscript was compiled after Garlandia’s treatise had become a standard text, and there is little or no evidence for the use of Garlandia’s second mode at any earlier time.

What we seem to have in Garlandia, then, is a summary of an actual rhythmic practice that was more or less confined to three patterns (trochaic, dactylic, and spondaic), corresponding to Garlandia’s odd-numbered modes. And then there is a supplementary, even-numbered, trio (iambic, anapestic, tribrachic) that were there for the sake of the theory—but that were later incorporated to some extent into practice under the influence of the theory. It is an excellent paradigm or instructive model for considering the complex relationship that usually obtains between theory and practice.

Theory is almost never pure description. It is usually a representation not of the world the theorist sees but of a more orderly, more easily described world the theorist would like to see. A persuasive theory, particularly one of suggestible human behavior or practice, can often to some extent reshape the world to conform, for better or worse, to the utopian image. But an attractive theory uncritically accepted can also blind the believer to existing conditions, and lessen rather than enhance comprehension. Uncritical acceptance of Garlandia’s six-mode scheme can obscure the actual history of musical practice at Notre Dame, and that is why it should be regarded as a secondary rather than a primary source of knowledge.


(7) Alexander de Villa-Dei, Doctrinale (1199), trans. Anna Maria Busse Berger in “Mnemotechnics and Notre Dame Polyphony,” p. 279.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-006006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-006006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-006006.xml