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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 6 Notre Dame de Paris

Parisian Cathedral Music in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries and its Makers

CHAPTER 6 Notre Dame de Paris
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Many circumstances conspired to make Paris the undisputed intellectual capital of Europe by the end of the twelfth century. The process of urbanization, traced to some degree in chapter 4, brought about a decline in the importance of monasteries as centers of learning and a swift rise in the prestige of cathedral schools. These schools were learning centers attached to cathedral churches, the large urban churches that were the seats (cathedrae) of bishops and that served as administrative centers for a surrounding ecclesiastical territory called a diocese.

The enhanced importance of the cathedral beginning in the twelfth century, especially in northern Europe, was underscored by the gigantism of cathedral architecture. The Gothic style (so called since the nineteenth century to emphasize its northern European provenance), with its soaring lines and huge interior spaces, had its start precisely at this time. Paris and the surrounding area (including the northern suburb of Saint-Denis, site of the royal crypt) was one of its earliest sites. The abbey and basilica of Saint-Denis were constructed between 1140 and 1144. The cornerstone of the present-day cathedral of Paris, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and affectionately known therefore as Notre-Dame de Paris (“Our Lady of Paris”), or simply as Notre Dame, was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexander III himself. The altar was consecrated twenty years later, and the building began to function, although the whole enormous structure was not finished until the beginning of the fourteenth century.

Within and around the great Gothic cathedrals, the clergy was organized into a community modeled in many of its aspects on the feudal ideal. The resident staff or faculty was sworn to a quasi-monastic regime defined by a canon or consensual law. From this word they derived their title: a full member of the community was a “canon regular,” or simply canon. The canons elected the bishop who ruled them, and who parceled out the church lands and their incomes to the canons in the form of prebends (from praebenda, that which is to be granted), much as a lord would deed land to his vassals. The community of canons, known as the college or chapter, was organized into a hierarchy of ranks and offices overseen by the chancellor or dean, the bishop’s chief of staff. They included the scolasticus (school director) and the precentor (musical director).

Much of this vocabulary, as the reader has surely noticed, is now used to designate the ranks and offices in a university, and that is no coincidence. The university as we know it—or as it was originally called, the universitas societas magistrorum discipulorumque (universal association of masters and disciples, i.e., teachers and pupils)—was a twelfth-century innovation, formed initially by consolidating and augmenting the faculties of cathedral schools. The University of Paris, the first great northern European university, was by far the largest. It was preceded only by the University of Bologna, originally endowed in the eleventh century as the pope’s own vocational school of “canon law” for training church administrators.

Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris

fig. 6-1 Interior of the cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Its instructional and administrative staff was formed out of the faculties of three large existing schools: that of Notre Dame, that of the canons regular at the abbey of St. Victor (known to us already as a center of sequence composition), and that of the collegiate church of St. Geneviève. (A collegiate church was the next lower rank after cathedral: it had a dean and chapter but no resident bishop.) As a physical plant the University of Paris grew up alongside the new cathedral. It was fully functioning by around 1170 with the cathedral’s chancellor as its ecclesiastical superintendent, charged with granting its faculty the licentia docendi (license to teach), known to us as the doctor’s degree. It was formally chartered by a papal bull—a letter carrying the pope’s bulla or seal—in 1215. Since the sixteenth century it has been known as the Sorbonne, after its largest constituent college, an elite doctoral school of theology founded—that is, funded—by Robert de Sorbon, the royal chaplain, in 1253.

Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris

fig. 6-2 Philip II of France (Philip Augustus, r. 1180–1223), handing the royal privilege to the masters and students of the University of Paris in 1200. Illumination from a mid-fourteenth-century Latin chronicle known as the Book of Procurors, now kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

This unprecedented royal/papal ecclesiastical/educational establishment was the environment in which an equally unprecedented musical establishment thrived. Our knowledge of it, while extensive, is curiously indirect, pieced together by collating evidence from two or three skimpy descriptive accounts, four immense musical manuscripts, and half a dozen more or less detailed theoretical treatises. What we now call the “Notre Dame School” of polyphonic composition, and are accustomed to regarding as the first great “classical” flowering of Western art music, is actually a sort of grand historiographical fiction. Constructing it was one of the earliest triumphs of modern musicology—and still one of the most impressive.

The musical documents, three service books compiled in Paris in the mid-to-late thirteenth century and one compiled in Britain somewhat later (but seemingly containing a somewhat earlier version of the repertory), house an imposing body of polyphonic chant settings that stands in relation to the modest repertories of the “St. Martial” and Compostela manuscripts in more or less the same way that the great central cathedral-university complex itself stood in relation to the outlying monasteries and shrines of an earlier age.

The earlier repertories had been local ones in the main, emphasizing patron saints and intramural observances, and concentrating on recent chants like sequences and versus. The new one emphasized the general (“catholic”) liturgy, the great yearly feasts, and the largest, musically most elaborate liturgical items. The Parisian or Parisian-style music books consisted mainly of settings of the Great Responsories for matins and the highly melismatic “lesson chants” (Gradual and Alleluia) of the Mass, arranged in the order of the church calendar, with particular concentrations around Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost (along with the Feast of the Assumption, in recognition of the Virgin Mary’s status as patron at Notre Dame; but even so, she was hardly a local figure).

Where the earlier repertories had consisted, with only the rarest (and oft-times dubious) exceptions, of two-part settings that paired the original chant tenor with one added voice, there is a whole cycle of Notre Dame settings with two added parts for a total texture of three voices, and even a few especially grandiose items with three added parts for an unheard-of complement of four. The earlier repertories had favored two styles: a note-against-note style called discant, and a somewhat more florid style called organum, with the tenor sustained against short melismatic flights in the added voice. A typical Notre Dame composition alternated the two styles and took them both to extremes. In “organal” sections, each tenor note could literally last minutes, furnishing a series of protracted drones supporting tremendous melismatic outpourings; the discant sections, by contrast, were driven by besetting rhythms that (for the first time anywhere) were precisely fixed in the notation.

The chant settings associated with Notre Dame, in short, were as ambitious as the cathedral for which they were composed. They took their stylistic bearings from existing polyphonic repertories but vastly outstripped their predecessors in every dimension—length, range, number of voices. They set the world (well, the Western-world) record for “intrasyllabic melodic expansion,”1 to use a wonderfully precise term a Russian folklorist once coined to describe melismatic proliferation and the way it eats up a text. (That record still stands, by the way, after eight hundred years.)

To find the motivation for this astonishing copiousness, one might look no further than St. Augustine’s metaphor of “a mind poured forth in joy.” But there may be more to it. The overwhelming dimensions these composers achieved may not only have accorded with the size of the reverberant spaces their works had to fill, but may also have carried a message of institutional triumph at a time notable for its triumphant institutionalism.

In any case, the Notre Dame composers aspired to an unprecedented universality. Their works, unlike those created at previous polyphonic centers, could be used anywhere the Latin liturgy of the western Christian church was used. And they aspired to encyclopedic completeness: it is evident that the surviving codices reflect an attempt—indeed, multiple attempts—to outfit the entire calendar of feasts with polyphony. (A codex, plural codices, is a large manuscript consisting of several smaller component “fascicles” collected and bound together.) Thus, with their works, the musicians of Notre Dame symbolized the strong, united church they served, and promoted catholicism in the literal and original sense of the word. As we know from the dispersion of their works in the extant sources, their program was successful. The central Parisian repertory was copied far and wide and sung well beyond its home territory. Either as such or as the basis for further elaboration, moreover, the repertory lasted for generations after its creators’ lives had ended.


(1) In Russian, vnutrislogovaya raspevnost’; see Izaly Zemtsovsky, Russkaya protyazhnaya pesnya: Opït issledovaniya (Leningrad: Muzïka, 1967), p. 20.

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. 18 May. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-006.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 18 May. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-006.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 18 May. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-006.xml