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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up

“Gregorian” Chant, The First Literate Repertory, And How It Got That Way

CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Our story begins, as it must, in the middle of things. The beginning of music writing in the West—which not only made history possible, but in large part determined its course—coincided with no musical event. Still less did it mark the origin of music, or of any musical repertory.

Something over a thousand years ago music in the West stopped being (with negligible exceptions) an exclusively oral tradition and became a partly literate one. This was, from our perspective, an enormously important change. The beginning of music writing gives us access through actual musical documents to the repertories of the past and suddenly raises the curtain, so to speak, on developments that had been going on for centuries. All at once we are witnesses of a sort, able to trace the evolution of music with our own eyes and ears. The development of musical literacy also made possible all kinds of new ideas about music. Music became visual as well as aural. It could occupy space as well as time. All of this had a decisive impact on the styles and forms music would later assume. It would be hard for us to imagine a greater watershed in musical development.

At the time, however, it did not seem terribly important. There is not a single contemporary witness to the introduction of music writing in the West, and so we have only a rough idea of when it took place. Nobody thought of it then as an event worth recording, and that is because this innovation—momentous though it may appear in retrospect—was the entirely fortuitous by-product of political and military circumstances. These circumstances caused the music sung in the cathedral churches of Rome, the westernmost “see” or jurisdictional center of early Christendom, to migrate northward into areas that are now parts of France, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Musical notation arose in the wake of that migration.

The music thus imported during the eighth and ninth centuries—the first Western repertory to be notated as a coherent corpus or body of work—was not only sacred but liturgical. That is, it was set to the official Latin texts of Western Christian worship. It was not only vocal but monophonic, which is to say that it was sung by soloists or by chorus in unison, without accompaniment. From these facts it is easy to draw various false conclusions. It is easy to assume that in the West there was sacred music before there was secular, liturgical music before there was nonliturgical, vocal music before there was instrumental, and monophonic (single-voiced) music before there was polyphonic (multivoiced).

But Roman church chant was only one of many musical repertories that coexisted in Europe a thousand years ago. It is the first repertory that, thanks to notation, we can study in detail, and so our story must inevitably begin with it. And yet we know from literary and pictorial sources that there was plenty of secular and instrumental music at the time, as well as non-Christian worship music, and that these repertories had long histories going back long before the beginnings of Christian worship. We have every reason to assume, moreover, that much of the music sung and played in Europe had for centuries been polyphonic—that is, employing some sort of harmony or counterpoint or accompanied melody.

The fact that eighth-century Roman liturgical song—cantus in Latin, from which we get the word “chant”—was singled out for preservation in written form had nothing to do with musical primacy, or even with musical quality. The privilege came about, as already implied, for reasons having nothing to do with music at all. It will not be the last time such “extramusical” factors will play a decisive role in our account of musical history. That history, like the history of any art, is the story of a complex and fascinating interaction of internal and external influences.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-001.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-001.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 The Curtain Goes Up." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-001.xml