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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

The importing of the Roman chant to the Frankish lands was one of the many facets of that Renaissance, during which all kinds of art products and techniques, from Ravenna-style architecture to manuscript illumination, were brought north from Italy to France and the British Isles, and all kinds of administrative, legal, and canonical practices were standardized. The central figure in this process was an English scholar, Alcuin or Albinus of York (ca. 735–804), whom Charlemagne invited to Aachen around 781 to set up a cathedral school.

A great proponent of literacy, Alcuin instituted one of the earliest systems of elementary education in Europe. He also devised a curriculum for higher education based on the seven “liberal arts” of the ancients, so named because they were the arts practiced by “free men” (men of leisure, which is to say the rich and the well-born). They consisted of two basic courses: the three arts of language (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), known as the trivium, which led to the Bachelor of Arts degree, and the four arts of measurement (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music), known as the quadrivium, which led to the Master of Arts. (Doctoral studies were devoted to canon law and theology.) Within the quadrivium, music was conceived in entirely theoretical terms as an art of measurement: measurement of harmonic ratios (tunings and intervals) and of rhythmic quantities (the classical poetic meters). This made possible its academic study in the absence of any form of practical musical notation. As a university subject music continued for centuries to be studied in that generalized and speculative way, quite unrelated to actual singing or playing. And yet Alcuin’s zealous emphasis on writing things down became a Carolingian obsession that was eventually extended to practical music as well.

The reason the Roman chant needed to be imported had to do with the stress the Carolingians laid on centralization of authority, both worldly and ecclesiastical. The Carolingian territories were vast, incorporating peoples speaking many languages and a large assortment of local legal systems and liturgies. With the establishing of the Roman pope as spiritual patron of the Carolingian Empire, the liturgical unification of the whole broad realm according to the practices of the Roman See became imperative. It would symbolize the eternal order that undergirded the temporal authority of the Carolingian rulers and established their divine mandate.

This meant suppressing the so-called Gallican rite, the indigenous liturgy of the northern churches, and replacing it with Roman liturgical texts and tunes. “As King Pepin, our parent of blessed memory, once decreed that the Gallican be abolished,” Charlemagne ordered the Frankish clergy on 23 March 789, in a document known as the Admonitio generalis (“General advisory”), “be sure to emend carefully in every monastery and bishop’s house the psalms, notes, chants, calendar material, grammars, and the Epistles and Gospels. For often enough there are those who want to call upon God well, but because of poor texts they do it poorly.” The texts in question, of course, were texts to be sung, as all liturgical texts are sung (for one does not “call upon God” in the kind of voice one uses to converse with one’s neighbor). The words of the Roman liturgy could be imported easily enough in books, but in the absence of a way of writing down the tunes, the only means of accomplishing the required “emendation” was to import cantors (ecclesiastical singers) from Rome who could teach their chant by laborious rote to their Frankish counterparts. Difficulty was compounded by resistance. Each side blamed the other for failure. John the Deacon, an English monk writing on behalf of the Romans in 875, attributed it to northern baseness and barbarity. Notker Balbulus (“Notker the Stammerer”), the Frankish monk who wrote Charlemagne’s first biography around the same time, attributed it to southern pride and chicanery.

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. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001004.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001004.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001004.xml