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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

It is this special body of psalmodic chants for the Mass, consisting of about five hundred antiphons and responds, that is in strictest terms the repertory designated by the phrase “Gregorian chant.” It was this corpus that was imported by the Carolingian Franks under Pepin and Charlemagne and thus became the earliest music in the European tradition to be written down. The interesting thing, as we have already observed, is that this writing down, which seems to us such a momentous event, seems to have occasioned so little notice at the time.

There is not a single literary reference to document the invention of the so-called neumes that tracked the relative rise and fall of the tunes, and the placement within them of the text syllables, in the earliest musically notated (“neumated”) manuscripts. Etymologically, the word “neume,” which comes to us by way of medieval Latin from the Greek word pneuma (“breath,” whence vital spirit or soul), referred to a characteristic melodic turn such as may be sung on one breath. By now, however, the word more commonly denotes the written sign that represented such a turn. Since surviving antiphoners with neumes do not seem to date before the beginning of the tenth century, several generations after the Carolingian chant reform had been undertaken, scholarly speculation about the actual origins of the neumes and the date of their first employment has enjoyed a very wide latitude.

Traditionally, scholars assumed that the Carolingian neumes were an outgrowth of the “prosodic accents,” the signs—acute, grave, circumflex, etc.—that represented the inflection of poetry-recitation in late classical antiquity, and that still survive vestigially in the orthography of modern French. (As originally conceived, the acute accent meant a raising of the vocal pitch, the grave a lowering, the circumflex a raising-plus-lowering.) Others have proposed that the neumes were cheironomic: that is, graphic representations of the hand-signaling (cheironomy) by which choirmasters indicated to their singers the rise and fall of a melody. A more recent theory associates the neumes with a system of punctuation signs that the Franks seem to have developed by around 780—functional equivalents of commas, colons, question marks, and so on, which break up (parse) a written text into easily comprehended bits by governing the reader’s vocal inflections. All of these explanations assume that the neumes were parasitic on some earlier sign-system, and yet we have no actual basis in evidence to rule out the possibility that the neumes were independently invented in response to the immediate musical purpose at hand.

There were other early schemes for graphically representing music, some of them much older than the Carolingian neumes. Some did not even reflect melodic contour but were entirely arbitrary written signs that represented melodic formulas by convention, the way alphabet letters represent speech sounds. The ancient Greeks used actual alphabetic signs as musical notation. Alphabetic notation survived to a small extent in medieval music treatises, like that of the sixth-century encyclopedist Boethius, which formed the basis for music study within the quadrivium curriculum.

More familiar examples of special formula-signs for music, called ecphonetic neumes, include the so-called Masoretic accents (ta’amim) of Jewish biblical cantillation, which Jewish children are taught to this day in preparation for their rite of passage to adulthood (bar or bat mitzvah), when they are called to the pulpit to read from scripture. To learn to read ta’amim one must have a teacher to instruct one orally in the matching of sign and sound. Such matching, being arbitrary, can vary widely from place to place, and also varies according to the occasion, or according to what kind of text is being read. The same signs, for example, will be musically realized one way in readings from the prophets and another, usually more ornate, in readings from the Pentateuch; the very same portion of Scripture, moreover, will be variously realized on weekdays, Sabbaths, or holidays.

The contour-based Carolingian neumes follow an entirely different principle of representation. It is the only system that has direct relevance to the history of Western music, because out of it developed the notation that is familiar to every reader of this book, the one that has served as graphic medium for practically all music composed in what we consider to be our own continuous (or at least traceable) musical tradition.


fig. 1-4 Easter Introit, Resurrexi, as it appears in three neumated manuscripts from the Frankish territories. (a) From a cantatorium, or soloist’s chant book, prepared at the Swiss monastery of St. Gallen early in the tenth century (before 920). (b) This may be the oldest version of the chant to have survived into modern times; it comes from a graduale, or book of chants for the Mass, prepared in Brittany in the late ninth or early tenth century and kept at the municipal library of Chartres, near Paris. It was destroyed toward the end of World War II. (c) From a graduale prepared perhaps 250 years later (early twelfth century) in the cathedral town of Noyon in northern France and kept today at the British Library in London. By this time the neumes might have been written on a staff to fix their pitches precisely, but the scribe did not avail himself of this notational innovation—indicating that the notation still served as a reminder to the singer of a melody learned orally and memorized.


fig. 1-5 Passage from the Book of Genesis showing ta’amim, ecphonetic neumes entered above or below each word in the Torah along with the vowels. Starting at the number 23 (remember that Hebrew is written from right to left), in the first word the neume is the right-angled corner below the middle letter; in the second word it is the dot above the last letter. In the hyphenated word that follows there are two neumes: the vertical dash below the first letter and the right angle under the penultimate letter. Unlike Gregorian neumes, ta’amim do not show melodic contour and must be learned orally by rote according to an arbitrary system that can vary from place to place, book to book, or occasion to occasion.

Some scholars think that the Carolingian neumes, in their very earliest application, were used not to notate the imported, sacrosanct Gregorian repertory, which was learned entirely by heart, but to notate lesser, newer, or local musical accessories to the canonical chant such as recitation formulas (known as “lection tones”) for scriptural readings, as well as the explanatory appendages and interpolations to the chant, including polyphonic ones, about which there will be more to say in the next chapter. (It is true that the earliest neumated sources for such “extra” items do predate the earliest surviving neumated antiphoners.) Other scholars assume that prototypes for the surviving Carolingian antiphoners once existed, perhaps dating from as early as the time of Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor at the end of the eighth century, more than a century before the earliest surviving manuscripts were produced.6

Whenever the Carolingian neumes first appeared, whether before 800 or after 900, the fact remains that they shared the limitation of all the early neumatic systems: one cannot actually read a melody from them unless one knows it already. To read a previously unknown melody at sight, one needs at a minimum a means of precise intervallic (or relative-pitch) measurement. It was not until the early eleventh century that neumes were “heighted,” or arranged diastematically, on the lines and spaces of a cleffed staff (invented, according to tradition, by the monk Guido of Arezzo, whose treatise Micrologus, completed around 1028, included the earliest guide to staff notation). Only thereafter was it possible to record melodies in a way that could actually transmit them soundlessly.


(6) For a summary of this controversy and a bibliography, see Kenneth Levy, “On Gregorian Orality,” Journal of the American Musicological Society XLIII (1990): 185–227. The article, but not the bibliography, is reprinted in K. Levy, Gregorian Chant and the Carolingians (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 141–77. See also James McKinnon, The Advent Project: The Later-Seventh-Century Creation of the Roman Mass Proper (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000).

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 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001010.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 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001010.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 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001010.xml