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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 New Styles and Forms
Richard Taruskin

Like the jubilus itself, the early sequentia vocalises—sung on the word “Alleluia” but so melismatic as to be virtually textless—had many internal phrase repetitions designed to make them easier to memorize. Another memory aid employed by Frankish singers was of far-reaching artistic significance: they added words to melismatic chants that turned them, perhaps paradoxically, into syllabic hymns. This led to a fantastic flowering of new devotional song that developed over three centuries and reached its peak in twelfth-century France.

Its beginnings are what concern us now. Amalar’s neuma triplex can serve as our starting point. As its surviving sources attest, it begat several little prose poems, or prosulae; compare the pair in Example 2-2 with the climactic third melisma in Ex. 2-1.

The texts are in prose (or “art-prose” as it has been called, since its diction is very high-flown) because the original melody, like most melismatic chants, is rhythmically rhapsodic and irregular. (The use of prose was nothing new, of course; the psalms themselves are examples of art-prose.) But the melody’s one regularizing feature—the use of a repeated phrase at the outset (disguised by the interpolation of a pair of low notes)—lends the texted version a slight suggestion of strophic or “couplet” form. (In strophic form every line of text is set to the same melody; in couplet form the melody changes after every pair of lines.) Also note parenthetically the interpolated “key signature” of one flat in Ex. 2-2a. This was not part of the original notation, but reflects the way we assume any medieval singer would have sung a melody in which B immediately preceded or followed an F, or in which F and B described the outer limits of a melodic “turn.” (The augmented fourth, not recognized by the Frankish music theory we will shortly be investigating, was adjusted to the perfect fourth in practice long before it was “prohibited” in theory.)


ex. 2-2a Prosulae to the neuma triplex, Facture tue


ex. 2-2b Prosulae to the neuma triplex, Rex regum

A similar underlaying of a prose text or prosula to a preexisting melisma adorns a famous chant we met in the previous chapter. The eleventh-century Gradual of St. Yrieux, which contains elaborated versions of the Mass propers, has what looks like a syllabic version of the Alleluia Justus ut palma: an entire poem is interpolated into the text of its verse to correspond with the notes of the long melisma on “cedrus.” As we may recall from Ex. 1-6, that melisma is distinguished by regularizing internal repetitions that can be represented as aabb. When the prose text is underlaid to the melisma, the resulting prosula has the appearance of a poem in couplets (pairs of lines set to the same tune). As we shall see, paired verses are characteristic of many medieval chants. We may be witnessing the procedure in its embryo (compare Ex. 2-3 with Ex. 1-6).


ex. 2-3 Prosulated version of Alleluia, Justus ut palma

An early witness to the practice of “prosulation”—as good a term as any for the interpolation of syllabic texts into melismatic tunes—is Notker Balbulus (Notker the Stammerer, d. 912), a monk at the East Frankish monastery of St. Gallen, already known to us as Charlemagne’s first biographer. In the introduction to his Book of Hymns (Liber hymnorum), which dates from about 880, Notker recalls that in his youth he learned the practice from a monk who had escaped from the West Frankish abbey of Jumièges (near Rouen in northwestern France), after it had been laid waste by marauding “Normans” (that is, Vikings).3 This would have been in 852, about twenty years after Amalar had first described the sequentia and promoted it among the Franks. This monk, Notker tells us, had with him an antiphoner in which some sequentia melismas had been “prosulated.” Notker, so he tells us, leapt at this device for making extra-long vocalises (longissimae melodiae, he calls them) memorable, and went on, so he boasts, to invent what we now call the sequence.


(3) The best translation of the preface to Notker’s Liber hymnorum is Richard Crocker’s, in The Early Medieval Sequence (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 1–2. An adaptation of it can be found in Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (2nd ed., Belmont CA: Thomson/Schirmer, 2008), p. 39.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 New Styles and Forms." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 May. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 New Styles and Forms. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 May. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 New Styles and Forms." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 May. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002002.xml