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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

As scholars are beginning to recognize, the fact that the earliest notations of the canonized liturgy did not communicate actual pitch content shows that no one expected or needed them to do so. In some theoretical treatises of the ninth century, when pitch content needed to be shown, alphabetic notation adapted from the quadrivium treatises was employed. On the other hand, manuscripts with unheighted neumes went on being produced in Frankish monastic centers—even St. Gallen (now in eastern Switzerland), where the earliest surviving neumated antiphoners were inscribed—until the fifteenth century. This shows that the communication of the actual pitch and interval content of liturgical melodies went right on being accomplished by age-old oral/aural methods, that is, by listening, repeating, and memorizing. Most monks (and regular churchgoers, too, until the chant was largely abandoned by the church in the 1960s) still learn their chants that way. Notation did not supersede memory, and never has.

Persistence of Oral Tradition

fig. 1-6 Greek-derived alphabetic notation from Musica enchiriadis (ca. 850). Such notation (used by Boethius in the sixth century) did fix pitch precisely; this suggests that Gregorian chant might have been notated that way from the beginning, had anyone seen the need for it.

After a thousand years of diastematic notation, five hundred years of printing, and a generation of cheap photocopying, Western “art-musicians” and music students (especially those with academic educations) have become so dependent on texts that they (or rather, we) can hardly imagine minds that could really use their memories—not just to store melodies by the thousand, but to create them as well. By now, we have all to some degree fallen prey to the danger about which Plato was already warning his contemporaries some two and a half millennia ago: “If men learn writing, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls” (Phaedrus, 275a). So it is no wonder that “classical” musicians habitually—and very wrongly—tend to equate musical composition in an oral context with improvisation.

Improvisation—making things up as you go along in “real time”—is a performance art. It implies an ephemeral, impermanent product. But while some forms of orally transmitted music (jazz, for example) do enlist the spontaneous creative faculty in real time, there have always been musicians (today’s rock bands, for example) who work out compositions without notation yet meticulously, in detail, and in advance. They fix their work in memory in the very act of creating it, so that it will be permanent. Every performance is expected to resemble every other one (which of course need not preclude retouching or improvement over time, or even spontaneously). Their work, while “oral,” is not improvisatory. The creative and re-creative acts have been differentiated.

And that is how Gregorian chant seems to have been created over a period spanning half a millennium at least. It was the exigencies of migration northward that made notation desirable as a fixative, but the nature of the early written sources (tiny books, for the most part) suggests that notation was at first not the primary means of transmission but only a mnemonic device (that is, a reference tool to refresh memory), or an arbiter of disputes, or even a status symbol. (If the Mass celebrants—the priests and deacons—had their little books, why not the cantors?) So it is important to remember that literacy did not suddenly replace “orality” as a means of musical transmission but gradually joined it. Since the time of the earliest Carolingian neumated antiphoners, the two means of transmission have coexisted in the West in a complex, ever-evolving symbiosis. There are plenty of familiar tunes that are still transmitted within our culture almost exclusively by oral means: national anthems, patriotic and holiday songs (“America,” “Jingle Bells”), songs for occasional use (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “Happy Birthday to You”), folk songs (“Home on the Range,” “Swanee River”), as well as a vast repertory of children’s songs—or songs that have become children’s songs—in transmitting which adults rarely play a part (“It’s raining, it’s pouring,” “Oh they don’t wear pants in the sunny south of France”).

Almost all of these songs, many of them composed by literate musicians (like Stephen Foster, author of “Swanee River” and many other songs that now live mainly in oral tradition), have been published and even copyrighted in written form. Yet while almost every reader of this book will be able to sing them by heart, very few will have ever seen their “sheet music.” They are generally encountered “in situ”—in the places and on the appropriate occasions of their use. Some of them, especially patriotic and religious songs, are formally taught by rote in schools or churches or synagogues; many others, perhaps most, are simply “picked up” the way a language is by its native speakers.

At the same time, the Western music most likely to be thought of as belonging exclusively to the literate tradition—sonatas, symphonies, “classical music” generally—actually relies for its transmission on a great deal of oral mediation. Teachers demonstrate to their pupils by aural example many crucial aspects of performance—nuances of dynamics, articulation, phrasing, even rhythmic execution—that are not conveyed, or are inadequately conveyed, by even the most detailed notation; and the pupils learn directly to imitate what they have been shown (or better, to emulate it, which implies an effort to surpass). Conductors communicate their “interpretations” to orchestras and choruses by singing, shouting, grunting, gesticulating. Earlier, the composer may have sung, shouted, grunted, and gesticulated at the conductor. Not only jazz performers, but classical ones, too, copy the performances of famous artists from recordings as part of their learning process (or as part of a less openly admitted process of appropriation). All of this is just as “oral” a means of transmission as anything that may have happened in Rome to produce the Gregorian chant before its migration northward.

Persistence of Oral Tradition

fig. 1-7 Original sheet music for the chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a waltz song composed in 1908 by Albert Von Tilzer to words by Jack Norworth. Very few people remember these facts about the song’s provenance, and virtually nobody learns it from the printed page. Its utterly forgotten lead-in verse puts the famous chorus in the mouth of a young girl: “Katie Casey was baseball mad,/Had the fever and had it bad;/Just to root for the hometown crew,/Ev’ry sou Katie blew./On a Saturday, her young beau/Called to see if she’d like to go/To see a show, but Miss Kate said, ‘No,/I’ll tell you what you can do.”‘ The chorus has flourished by itself in oral tradition for almost a century. As always, the oral tradition has modified what it transmits, here only in small ways, but irrevocably. The tune has survived the mouth-to-mouth process unchanged, but many people now sing “Take me out to the crowd,” and everyone sings “For it’s root, root, root.”

The great difference, of course, is that when a work within a partly literate tradition is completed, it need not be committed to memory in order to go on in some sense existing. It is the sense that an art work may exist independently of those who make it up and remember it that is distinctive of literate cultures. (As we shall see, it is that sense that allows us even to have the notion of a “work of art.”) And another difference is that having works of music, however large their scale, in written form encourages us to imagine or conceptualize them as objects, which is to say as “wholes,” with an overall shape that is more than the sum of its parts. Concepts of artistic unity in works of performing art, and, conversely, an awareness of the function of the parts within the whole in such works (what we call an analytical awareness), is thus distinctive of literate cultures. Since the performance of such works must unfold in time, but the written artifacts that represent them are objects that occupy space, one can think of literate cultures as cultures that tend conceptually to substitute space for time—that is, to spatialize the temporal. This is an important idea, one that we shall have many occasions to refer to in the course of our survey of Western music in history.

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. 29 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001011.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 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001011.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 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001011.xml