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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

It is time now for some music. Many of the points in the foregoing account of the history and prehistory of Gregorian psalmody, and also something of its many genres and styles, may be illustrated by tracing settings of a single psalm verse through its various liturgical habitats. The twelfth verse of Psalm 91 (according to the numbering in the standard Latin Bible, known as the Vulgate, translated by St. Jerome in the late fourth century) was especially favored in the liturgy, perhaps owing to its vivid similes. It crops up time and again in many contexts, running the full stylistic gamut of Gregorian chant from the barest “liturgical recitative” to the most flamboyant jubilation.

In the “original” Latin the verse reads, Justus ut palma florebit, et sicut cedrus Libani multiplicabitur. In the Authorized (King James) Version of 1611, long the standard English translation (in which the parent psalm carries the number 92), it reads, “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” In its simplest musical form, the verse takes its place in the cursive recitation of the psalm from which it comes, within the weekly monastic office round. In such contexts it is sung to an elementary reciting formula or “tone,” each verse alternating in historical practice with an antiphon. In modern, somewhat streamlined practice the refrain sandwiches the entire psalm rather than alternating with every verse. In Ex. 1-1, the psalm is paired with an antiphon consisting of its own twelfth verse, the Justus ut palma verse, extracted according to the stichic principle for use in a service commemorating a martyr saint, to whom the sentiments expressed in the text are especially pertinent.

A psalm tone like the one given here is music stripped to its minimum functional requirements as a medium for the exaltation of a sacred utterance. In the example, the tone formula is analyzed into its constituent parts, which function very much like punctuation marks. First there is the intonation (in Latin, initium or beginning), given the first time by a soloist (called the precentor) to establish the pitch. As in a declarative sentence, the intonation formula always ascends to a repeated pitch, called the reciting tone or tenor (because it is held, for which the Latin is tenere; other names for it include repercussa, because it is repeated, and tuba, because it is “trumpeted”). The tenor is repeated as often as necessary to accommodate the syllables of the text: since psalms are prose texts, the number of syllables varies considerably from verse to verse. In a long verse there will be many repetitions of the tenor, lending the whole the “monotone” quality often associated with the idea of “chanting.” The longest verses (in the abbreviated version shown in Ex. 1-1, only verse 2) have a “bend” (flexus) as additional punctuation.

Psalmody in Practice: The Office

ex. 1-1 Justus ut palma as antiphon to Psalm 91

The end of the first hemistich is sung to a formula known as the mediant (in Latin, mediatio), which functions as a divider, like the comma or colon in the text. The second hemistich again begins on the tenor, and the whole verse ends with the termination (in Latin, terminatio), often called the cadence because, again as in a declarative sentence, it entails a lowering (or “falling,” for which the Latin is cadere) of pitch. Note that at the end of the psalm, the doxology—the Christianizing tag invoking the Holy Trinity (a notion assuredly unfamiliar to the Old Testament authors of the Psalter)—has been appended. It is treated simply as an extra pair of psalm verses.

Psalm and lection tones like these are very ancient. They carry a whiff of the origins of music, at least in its cultish uses. Singing, however minimal, is numinous; it elevates words out of the context of the everyday. Like the biblical readings themselves, the use of lection tones is a definite point of kinship between Christian and Jewish worship. The Roman psalm tones are mentioned and described in Carolingian service books as early as the eighth century. They were not actually notated until the early tenth century, however, and are not found in the early antiphoners, for which reason they are not part of the “Gregorian” repertory in what we have identified as the strictest, most authentic sense of the term. But the term “Gregorian” is used by now to cover the whole medieval repertory of the Roman church.

Eight psalm tones (of which the one given in the example is listed last in the standard books) are used in the Latin liturgy, plus one called the tonus peregrinus (“migrating tone”) because the tenor of the second hemistich is different from that of the first. The eight-tone system seems to have been borrowed in concept (though not in actual musical content) from that of the Greek (Byzantine) church. Because the music of a psalm tone is so obviously related in its function to that of punctuation, the Gregorian tones (incorporating those used for prayers, as well as psalms and scriptural readings) are often collectively characterized by the word accentus, or “accent,” already associated with chant notation in one hypothesis of its origin.

Although the designation accentus seems to have been used in this sense no earlier than the sixteenth century, it is nevertheless very apt, because a psalm sung to a tone is in fact an accentuated or heightened recitation. Sixteenth-century and later writers who use the word accentus in this way contrast it with the word concentus, a Latin word associated with the pleasures of music (it may be translated as “harmony,” or “concert,” or “choir,” or “concord,” depending on the context), which denotes the more distinctive and decorative melodies found in antiphons, responds, or hymns.

The antiphon in Ex. 1-1 is a modest example of concentus melody. Where the relationship between the text and music in the psalm tone is straightforwardly syllabic (one note to each syllable, the reciting tone accommodating most of them), the antiphon is a moderately neumatic chant, in which nine of the twenty-one syllables in the text carry what were known as “simple” (two- or three-note) neumes. In the figure accompanying Ex. 1-1, the antiphon is printed exactly as it is found in the Liber responsorialis, a book of Office chants published in 1895 by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes, who carried out a vast restorative project during the late nineteenth century in which the corpus of Gregorian chant was reedited from its original manuscript sources. The notation they used, called “square” or “quadratic” after the shape of the note-heads, was adapted from a calligraphic style that became prevalent in twelfth-century manuscripts, especially those containing polyphonic music, in which (as will be seen in due course) the various neume shapes often assumed specific—eventually measured—rhythmic values.

As early as the tenth century, neumes were learned from tables in which each shape was given a distinctive name. The two-note ascent over pal-, for example, was called the pes (or podatus), meaning “foot.” Its descending counterpart, over -ma, was called the clivis (meaning “sloped”; compare “declivity”). The three-note neumes (grouped, appropriately enough, over a word meaning “flourish”) were known respectively as the scandicus (from scandere, “to climb”), the torculus (“a little turn”), and the trigon (“a toss”). The motion opposite to the torculus (i.e., down-and-up) is shown by the porrectus (“stretched”), with its striking oblique stroke: . The pes, clivis, torculus, and porrectus were the basic shapes, corresponding to the acute, grave, circumflex, and anticircumflex accents. They were retained in later notational schemes, where we will encounter them again.

The group of six notes following the antiphon verse, set over the letters E u o u a e (sometimes informally combined into a mnemonic, pronounced “e-VO-vay”) shows the ending of the psalm—or rather the doxology, for the letters are the vowels in “…seculorum. Amen.” The six-note formula is called the differentia, because it tells you which of the different available endings of the psalm tone to employ in order to achieve a smooth transition into the repetition of the antiphon. The differentiae are now given in books, but even today’s practicing monks have them down cold and need only glance at the required “evovay” formula in order to sing the psalm from memory (or at most from the written text).

Justus ut palma appears twice more in the Office of Martyrs. At Vespers it also functions as a psalm antiphon, but is sung to a different melody requiring a different psalm tone (Ex. 1-2). And a really minimal setting of the verse functions as a concluding versicle (from the Latin versiculum, “little verse”), sung by the officiant and answered by a congregational response at the end of one of the “lesser hours.” The one on Justus ut palma comes at the end of none (Ex. 1-3). The extreme simplicity of the versicle illustrates the direct connection between the importance of an occasion and the elaborateness of the music that enhances it.

Psalmody in Practice: The Office

ex. 1-2 Justus ut palma as a Vespers antiphon

Psalmody in Practice: The Office

ex. 1-3 Justus ut palma as a versicle

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001012.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001012.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001012.xml