We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

No fewer than four stichic settings of the Justus ut palma verse are found in the original Gregorian corpus of “Mass propers,” the psalmodic chants for the yearly round of feasts, recorded formulary by formulary in the early Carolingian antiphoners. Like the Office chants, they are more or less elaborate depending on the occasion and the liturgical function they accompany. All of the examples from the Mass are given in square notation, as they are found in the Liber usualis, an anthology of the basic chants for Mass and Office, issued by the Benedictine monks of Solesmes for the use of Catholic congregations following the official adoption of their restored version by Papal decree in 1903.

The Justus ut palma verse, being an encomium (that is, an expression of praise), is particularly suitable for Mass formularies honoring saints. As an Introit antiphon (Ex. 1-4) it is sung in tandem with the next verse in its parent psalm at Masses commemorating saints who were priests but not bishops (or confessors but not martyrs). Then comes “Bonum est,” the opening verse of Psalm 91 (plus the obligatory doxology, given in a space-saving abbreviation), sung to an accentus tone—the vestigial remains of full cursive psalmody such as now survives only in the Office. Being Mass chants, though, both the antiphon and the vestigial verse are considerably more elaborate, indeed rhetorical, than their Office counterparts.

The antiphon has a few compound neumes verging on the melismatic style. The very first syllable is set to a seven-note complex that ends with a long drawn-out, throbbing triple note (tristropha). Over palma there is a three-note ascent (salicus), immediately followed by a climacus (cf. “climax”), a three-note descent from a high note (virga, meaning “staff” or “walking stick” after its shape), the latter being sung twice for additional emphasis (bivirga). The highest note, a full octave above the lowest note (on ut), is reached in the middle of a torculus on -ca-, which is then coupled with a clivis to produce a five-note complex. The final phrase of the antiphon, Dei nostri, returns three times to the lowest note before cadencing on D. Overall, the antiphon thus describes the same graceful, characteristic arclike shape we have already observed in microcosm in the Office psalm tones. Meanwhile, the psalm tone used here, in a festal Mass, is almost as pneumatically ornate as the Office antiphons already examined.

The pair of “alleluia” exclamations that comes between the antiphon and the verse is sung when the saint’s commemoration happens to fall during the fifty-day period after Easter known as Paschal Time, the gladdest season of the church year.

Psalmody in Practice: The Mass

ex. 1-4 Justus ut palma as Introit

The Offertory and the Communion, the psalmodic chants of the Eucharist, have by now been entirely shorn of their psalm verses, which in the case of the Offertory were once very elaborate indeed. They are sung as free-standing antiphons amounting to autonomous stichic “arias” for the choir. The Offertory on Justus ut palma is sung at a Mass commemorating a saint who was a “Doctor of the Church,” especially distinguished for wisdom and learning. (Many of the early Church Fathers whose pronouncements have been quoted in this chapter belong to this category.)

The setting (Ex. 1-5) is even more ornate than the foregoing example: each of the words set to compound neumes in the Introit (justus, palma, multiplicabitur, plus the Paschal alleluia) now carry full-fledged melismas. In addition, the use of what are called ornamental or liquescent neumes implies a particularly expressive manner of singing, though its exact nature is uncertain. The third note over justus, for example, as well as the second note over cedrus, has a “trembling” shape called quilisma (from the Greek kylio, “to roll”), which may denote a trilling effect or a vibrato. The word in is set to a clivis liquescens or cephalicus, which involved an exaggerated pronunciation of the “liquid” consonant n.

Psalmody in Practice: The Mass

ex. 1-5 Justus ut palma as Offertory

Finally, settings of the Justus ut palma verse function as “lesson chants,” sung between the scripture readings that cap the Synaxis portion of the Mass, at a time when there is little or no liturgical action going on. Of all the chants in the Mass, these are the most florid, because more than any other they are meant as listener’s music, filling the mind with the inexpressible joy of which St. Augustine wrote so eloquently. Justus ut palma is found both as a Gradual, following the Epistle, and as an Alleluia verse (Ex. 1-6), preceding the Gospel. The rhapsodic, essentially textless, fifty-one-note jubilus that follows the word “alleluia” in the latter setting (sung at a Mass commemorating a saint who was an abbot, or head of a monastery) is repeated note for note at the end of the verse, showing an apparent concern for ideal musical shaping that is mirrored on a smaller scale by the internal repetitions (representable as aabb) that make up the internal melisma on the word cedrus. The lesson chants are responsorial chants, in which a soloist (precentor) alternates with the choir (schola). At the beginning, the precentor sings the word “alleluia” up to the asterisk, following which the choir begins again and continues into the jubilus. The same precentor/schola alternation is indicated in the verse (given mainly to the soloist) by the asterisk before multiplicabitur. The choral alleluia is repeated like an antiphon after the verse, giving the whole a rounded (ABA) form.

Psalmody in Practice: The Mass

ex. 1-6 Justus ut palma as Alleluia

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. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001013.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001013.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001013.xml