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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 The Curtain Goes Up
Richard Taruskin

The repetitions that give the Alleluia setting its striking shape are memorable not just for the listener, but also for the performer. Such things were, in fact, a vital memory aid in an age of oral composition and show the relationship between this extraordinarily ornate, mystically evocative composition and the simple psalm tone with which our survey of chant genres began. However protracted and however beautiful, the jubilation-melismas served a practical, syntactical purpose as well as a spiritual or esthetic one. Like the mediant and termination formulas in the tones, albeit at a much higher level of expressive artistry, they mark endings and give the precentor and the schola their cues.

Repetitions of this type not only link the parts of individual chants, they link whole chant families as well. Ex. 1-7 contains two Graduals, each consisting of a melismatic respond and an even more melismatic verse for a virtuoso cantor. The respond in the first of these Graduals, from a formulary assigned in Carolingian times to the commemorative feast of St. John the Baptist, is a setting of the Justus ut palma verse. The second (Ex. 1-7b) is the very famous Easter Gradual, in which the text consists of two verses from Psalm 117, one functioning as respond, the other as soloist’s verse:

  • R: Haec dies, quam fecit Dominus: exsultemus, et laetemur in ea.
  • V: Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus: quoniam in saeculum misericordia ejus.
  • [Ps. 117, 24: This is the day which the Lord hath made: we will rejoice and be glad in it.
  • Ps. 117, 1: O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good: because his mercy endureth for ever.]

Evidence of “Oral Composition”

ex. 1-7a Justus ut palma as Gradual

Evidence of “Oral Composition”

ex. 1-7b Haec dies (Easter Gradual)

It is easy to show (here, by bracketing them) that these two chants draw heavily upon a shared fund of melodic turns. In fact a whole family of Graduals, numbering more than twenty in all, have these formulas in common: besides the two given here, they include the Graduals for the Christmas Midnight Mass (to the words Tecum principium, “With Thee in the day of Thy power”) and the funeral Mass, called the Requiem after the opening word of its Introit, which happens to recur in the Gradual (Requiem aeternam, “Eternal rest”). Again, what is striking is that the shared formulas are found most frequently at initial and (especially) cadential points, and that internal repetitions regularly occur to accommodate lengthier texts. In other words, these extremely elaborate chants still behave, under their flowing melismatic raiment, very much like the psalm tones they may once have been.

How did the one evolve into the other? While we will never find a contemporary witness to musical developments that took place before there were any means of documenting them, an answer to this question is nevertheless suggested by recent research into the practices of more recent, in some cases still active, oral traditions of church music. Nicholas Temperley, investigating the history of what has sometimes been called “the Old Way of Singing” in English parish churches of the seventeenth century and New England Congregational churches of the eighteenth, and the “surge songs” of black churches in the American south, noted a pattern.7 Musically unlettered or semilettered congregations that sing without professional direction over long periods of time tend to develop a characteristic style: “the tempo becomes extremely slow, the sense of rhythm is weakened; extraneous pitches appear, sometimes coinciding with those of the hymn tune, sometimes inserted between them.” Wesley Berg, a Canadian scholar working with Mennonite communities in Western Canada, has corroborated the process by direct observation.8

What both scholars describe is the transformation, over time, of simple syllabic melodies into ornate, melismatic ones. (And the point about rhythmic weakening jibes tellingly with the notorious nonmetrical rhythm of the chant, about which little is known and about which, therefore, many strong opinions are maintained.) In New England, the process was thought to be one of corruption. Professional singing masters, armed with notated hymnbooks, sought to counteract the tendency by training their congregations to be not only literate but literal-minded in their attitude toward written texts. In a wholly oral age, when alternative methods of transmission were not available, the process of transformation was more likely seen as desirable, since it produced an ever more artistic, “skilled” product. In the context of the evolving Christian liturgy, degrees of melismatic elaboration served as a means of differentiating types of chants as well as liturgical occasions on the basis of their relative “solemnity.” As we will see in the next chapter, moreover, there is evidence that the Gregorian chant itself continued to develop melismatic embellishments in parts of Europe where a relatively fluid oral culture seems to have continued, perhaps for centuries, after the Franks had begun relying on notation as a fixative.

It used to be thought that the large amount of shared material within chant families reflected a “patchwork” process of composition, called centonization (after the Latin cento, “quilt”). Peter Wagner, one of the pioneering historians of early Christian music, compared centonized chants to articles of jewelry in which prized gems have been selected to receive “a splendid mounting, an ingenious combination, and a tasteful arrangement.”9 Today, scholars prefer a different analogy or model: instead of a fund of individual memorized formulas from which chants are assembled on the basis of artistic ingenuity and taste, one imagines a process of elaboration from a repertory of simple prototypes for various liturgical genres and classes.

The shared formulas found in the Graduals we have been comparing, for example, are found only in Graduals. Another type of chant that is comparably formulaic in its melodic content is the Tract, a long, sometimes highly melismatic psalm setting that is sung in place of the Alleluia during penitential seasons such as Advent and Lent, when the joyous ejaculation alleluia—Hebrew for “Praise God!”—is suppressed. Tracts come in two mutually exclusive formula-families, and their characteristic turns are not found in any other chant genre.10

A fund of shared melodic turns characterizing the chants of a given functional type, or those proper to a certain category of ritual observance, is exactly how the term mode is defined in its earliest usages. The concept of mode as formula-family is still prevalent in the Greek Orthodox (Byzantine) church, where the liturgical singing follows what is known as the oktoechos, an eight-week cycle of formulaic “modes” (echoi in Greek).

Our more recent concept of mode, based on that of a scale, and defined mainly in terms of its final note, fits the Gregorian repertory poorly. (We have already seen, in fact, that Gregorian psalm tones often have a variety of potential final notes, the differentiae—see Ex. 1-8.) The concept of mode as a function of scale and final was originally the product of Frankish and Italian music theory of the tenth and eleventh centuries, in which an attempt was made to organize the chants of the Roman church according to the categories of ancient Greek music theory, which was well known from treatises, even if practical examples of ancient Greek music are virtually nonexistent. (As we shall see, the chants composed by later Frankish musicians who had been trained according to this theory conform much more closely to our accustomed idea of what a mode is.)

Evidence of “Oral Composition”

ex. 1-8 Differentiae of the first psalm tone


(7) N. Temperley, “The Old Way of Singing: Its Origins and Developments,” Journal of the American Musicological Society XXXIV (1981) 511–44.

(8) W. Berg, “Hymns of the Old Colony Mennonites and the Old Way of Singing,” Musical Quarterly LXXX (1996): 77–117.

(9) Peter Wagner, Einführung in die gregorianischen Melodien, Vol. III (Leipzig, 1921), p. 395.

(10) They are described and illustrated in Leo Treitler, “Homer and Gregory: The Transmission of Epic Poetry and Plainchant,” Musical Quarterly LX (1974): 347–53.

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 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001014.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 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001014.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 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001014.xml