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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

From these squabbles we can guess at the reason for a venerable legend that became attached to the Roman chant around the time of its advent into written history. It was then widely asserted that the entire musical legacy of the Roman church was the inspired creation of a single man, the sainted Pope Gregory I, who had reigned from 590 until his death in 604. John the Deacon’s complaint about Frankish barbarism actually comes from his biography of the presumed author of the chant. “St. Gregory compiled a book of antiphons,” John wrote, using the contemporary term for a kind of liturgical singing. “He founded a schola,” the chronicler continued, using the contemporary term for a choir, “which to this day performs the chant in the Church of Rome according to his instructions; he also erected two dwellings for it, at St. Peter’s and at the Lateran palace, where are venerated the couch from which he gave lessons in chant, the whip with which he threatened the boys, and the authentic antiphoner,” the latter being the great book containing the music for the whole liturgical calendar.

That book could not have existed in St. Gregory’s day, because there would have been no way of putting music into it. As Gregory’s contemporary St. Isidore, Bishop of Seville (ca. 560–636), put it in his great encyclopedia called Etymologiae (or “Origins”), “Unless sounds are held in the memory by man they perish, because they cannot be written down.” By the ninth century, however, the legend of Pope Gregory as composer of what has been known ever since as “Gregorian chant” was firmly in place. It was propagated not only in literary accounts like that of John the Deacon but also in an iconographic or pictorial tradition that adapted a motif already established in Roman illuminated manuscripts containing Gregory’s famous Homilies, or sermons, on the biblical books of Job and Ezekiel. According to this tradition, the pope, while dictating his commentary, often paused for a long time. His silences puzzled the scribe, who was separated from Gregory by a screen. Peeping through, the scribe beheld the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering at the head of St. Gregory, who resumed his dictation only when the dove removed its beak from his mouth. (It is from such representations of divine inspiration that we get our expression, “A little bird told me.”)

The Legend of St. Gregory

fig. 1-2 Two Carolingian manuscript illustrations showing divinely inspired authors at work. (a) In this illustration, from the so-called Gospel Book of Ebbo (first quarter of the ninth century), St. John is receiving the Gospel from the Holy Spirit in the guise of a dove. (b) This illustration, dating from about half a century later, is one of the earliest representations of Pope Gregory I (Saint Gregory the Great), who is receiving the chant from the same source. It comes from a sacramentary, a book containing the prayers recited by the celebrant at a solemn Mass. Charlemagne is known to have requested and received just such a book from Pope Hadrian I in 785.

These pictures are again found in early written antiphoners, or chant books, which began appearing in the Carolingian territories during the eighth century. Such books were generally headed by a prologue, which in the ninth century was occasionally even set to music to be sung as a “trope” or preface to the first chant in the book. Gregorius Praesul, it read in part, composuit hunc libellum musicae artis scholae cantorum: “Gregory, presiding [over the Church], composed [or, possibly, just ‘put together’] this little book of musical art of the singers’ choir.” Thus the legend of St. Gregory’s authorship was closely bound up with the earliest notation of the chant, suggesting that the two phenomena were related.

In fact both inventions, that of the legend and that of musical notation in the Christian west, were mothered by the process of musical migration decreed by the Carolingian kings. The legend was a propaganda ploy contrived to persuade the northern churches that the Roman chant was better than theirs. As a divine creation, mediated through an inspired, canonized human vessel, the Roman chant would have the prestige it needed to triumph eventually over all local opposition.

Gregory I was chosen as the mythical author of the chant, it is now thought, because many of the leading intellectual lights of the Carolingian court—like Alcuin and his predecessor St. Boniface (675–754), the reformer, under Pepin, of the Frankish church—were English monks who venerated St. Gregory as the greatest Christian missionary to England. (It was Alcuin’s teacher, Bishop Egbert of York, who first referred to the Roman liturgy as “Gregory’s antiphoner.”) To this great figure, already reputed to be a divinely inspired author, these English writers may have attributed the work of his successor Pope Gregory II (reigned 715–731), who, it seems, really did have something to do with drawing up the standard Roman liturgical books some decades before their export north.

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. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001005.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 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001005.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 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001005.xml