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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

One of the first steps toward organizing the ceaseless cyclic psalm-chanting of early monastic vigils into a liturgy—that is, a prescribed order—was taken by St. Benedict of Nursia in his famous Regula monachorum, the book of rules that governed the lives of the monks in the monastery Benedict founded at Monte Cassino in 529. With apologies for the laxity of his ordinance, he required that the Psalter be recited not in a single marathon bout but in a weekly round or cursus of monastic Offices, eight each day. The greatest single portion went to the Night Office (now called matins, literally “wee hours”), in which twelve or more full psalms were performed, grouped by threes or fours (together with prayers and readings from scripture) in large subdivisions known as “nocturns.”

The Night Office, traditionally the primary site of psalmodic chanting, thus accounted for roughly half of the weekly round of psalms. It being the most spacious of the monastic services (since there was nothing else to do at night but sing or sleep), many psalms were sung, and the lessons were framed by lengthy responsoria (responsories)—chants sung in a more expansive style in which individual syllables could be sung to two, three, four, or more notes, even whole cascades called melismas.

Melismatic singing was held by Christian mystics to be the highest form of religious utterance: “It is a certain sound of joy without words,” St. Augustine wrote of melismatic chanting in the fourth century, “the expression of a mind poured forth in joy.”4 It came to be called jubilated singing, after jubilus, Latin for a “call” upon God (as in Charlemagne’s Admonitio, quoted earlier; compare the root ju-, pronounced “yoo,” as in “yoo-hoo!”). This musical jubilation, in fact, was the means through which the Latin word took on its secondary (in English borrowings, primary) association with joy.

The jubilated singing at matins was a lusher version of the refrains that were added to psalms—together with a concluding doxology (from the Greek for “words of praise”) to the Holy Trinity—in their other Christian uses. These simpler refrains were called antiphons, possibly because they alternated with the psalm verses in a manner that recalled biblical multichoral antiphony.

The shorter services were the day offices. They began with the dawn office of praise (Lauds) and continued with four “minor hours” named after the clock hours in medieval parlance: prime (the first hour; in present-day terms, 6 a.m.), terce (the third hour, or 9 a.m.), sext (the sixth hour, or 12 noon), and none (the ninth hour, or 3 p.m.; the fact that our word noon derives from none is just one of those things). At these tiny services (often combined in pairs so that there would be more uninterrupted time for work), we can observe the liturgy in microcosm. At a minimum an office included a psalm, a scripture reading (“chapter” or capitulum), and a hymn, which was a metrical song of praise derived from Greek pagan practice, showing again how eclectic were the sources of the Christian liturgy that was once thought to descend in simple fashion from that of the temple and synagogue. St. Augustine’s definition of a hymn is neat:

A hymn is song with praise of God. If you praise God and do not sing, you do not utter a hymn. If you sing and do not praise God, you do not utter a hymn. If you praise anything other than God, and if you sing these praises, still you do not utter a hymn. A hymn therefore has these three things: song, and praise, and God.5

The public liturgical day ended with evensong or Vespers, consisting of several full psalms with antiphons, along with the psalm-like “Canticle of Mary” (known as the Magnificat after its first word). There was a bedtime service for monks called Compline (completion), at which special elaborate antiphons (or “anthems,” to use the English cognate) came to be sung, in the later middle ages, to the Blessed Virgin as a plea for her intercession. (Compline and Lauds are the other services that contain canticles—texts from the New Testament that are sung in the same manner as psalms, with antiphons and doxology.)

Just as the liturgical day was a cycle of services, and the monastic week was a cycle of psalms, so the whole church calendar was organized in a yearly cycle of commemorations, known as feasts, that became ever more copious and diverse over time—wheels within wheels within wheels, within which Christian monastics lived out their lives, fulfilling the prophet’s mystical vision (see Ezekiel 1:15–21). The basic framework was provided by the Proper of the Time, or temporale, commemorating events in the life of Christ, organized in two great cycles surrounding the two biggest feasts, Christmas and Easter.

Their complicated relationship epitomizes the eclecticism of Christian worship. The Christmas cycle, beginning with four solemn weeks of preparation called Advent and ending with the feast of Epiphany, is reckoned by the Roman pagan (secular and solar) calendar. The Easter cycle, beginning with the forty-day fast called Lent and ending with the feast of Pentecost, is reckoned by the Jewish lunar calendar, as modified by councils of Christian bishops to insure that Easter fell on Sunday (Dominica—“the Lord’s Day”—in Latin). Since the date of Easter can vary by as much as a month relative to that of Christmas, the calendar allows for a variable number of Sundays after Epiphany (on one side of Easter) and Sundays after Pentecost (on the other) to take up the slack.

The church calendar also came to include a cycle of Saints’ commemorations (the sanctorale), a cycle of feasts of the Virgin Mary, and many other occasions as well, including special (so-called votive) occasions where prayers and offerings are made, such as weddings, funerals, or the dedication of a church. As official occasions were added to the calendar—and they continue, in a small way, to be added and deleted to this day—they had to be provided with appropriate texts and tunes. The actual book of psalms was fixed, of course, but the antiphons and responds drawn from it could vary; indeed they had to, for this was the primary means of differentiating the feasts. Antiphons and responds, then, became the primary site of new musical composition during the centuries in which the evolution of the chant was hidden behind the curtain of “oral tradition.” Antiphons remain, by and large, settings of psalm verses; but they are composites, made up of individual, freely selected verses that have some reference to the occasion. Selecting individual verses for setting as antiphons and responds is called the “stichic” principle (from the Greek for “verse”) as opposed to the “cursive” principle of complete cyclic readings. The stichic chants are not merely sung to a monotonous recitation “tone,” as in cursive psalmody, but are set as real melodies, the glory of the Gregorian repertory.


(4) Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Latina, Vol. XXXVII (Paris, 1853), p. 1953, trans. Gustave Reese in Music of the Middle Ages (New York: Norton, 1940), p. 64.

(5) Martin Gerbert, ed., De cantu et musica sacra, I, trans. R. Taruskin (St. Blasien, 1774), p. 74.

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. 17 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001008.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 17 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001008.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 17 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001008.xml