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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 New Styles and Forms
Richard Taruskin

We now use the English word “sequence,” derived from the Latin sequentia (or, sometimes, “prose,” derived from the Latin prosa) to denote not the jubilus-replacing melisma itself but the syllabic hymn that (as Notker tells us) was originally derived from it by matching prose syllables to its constituent notes. The sequence eventually became a canonical part of the Mass, on a par with the Alleluia that it followed and the Gospel reading that it preceded. It is one of the indigenous Frankish contributions to the evolving “Roman” liturgy, and Notker (despite the studied modesty of his diction) may have exaggerated his role in its creation.

Also evidently exaggerated in his telling is the dependency of the sequence, as Notker and others actually practiced it in the late ninth century, on the earlier sequentia described by Amalar. Only a handful of surviving sequences (out of the thirty-three in Notker’s book, only eight) can be linked up with a known sequentia melisma. By the time Notker completed his book, the sequence had already matured into a substantial composition, fresh in both words and music and novel in style, that was sometimes (but far from always) modeled on a liturgical Alleluia melody. It is of course possible that a lost or unrecorded sequentia lurks behind each of Notker’s “hymns.” But to assume that this is the case would be to confuse the origin of the genre with the origin of each individual specimen (as if every symphony were assumed to be an operatic overture because, as historians have learned, the earliest ones were). That kind of false assumption about origins is known as the “genetic fallacy.” To illustrate the early sequence we can examine two specimens from Notker’s own Liber hymnorum, reminding ourselves that Notker himself was able to notate only the texts of his sequences; the melodies come from later manuscripts that may or may not transmit them exactly as Notker composed or adapted them in the ninth century. Angelorum ordo (Ex. 2-4a) represents the earliest stage, a simple prosulated sequentia melisma that belongs to the Alleluia Excita Domine (third Sunday in Advent). It conforms to Notker’s description of how the sequence was born. The little melodic repetitions are of the kind we have already encountered in many melismatic chants.


fig. 2-1 Notker Balbulus, a ninth-century monk from the Swiss monastery of St. Gallen, shown in an illumination from a manuscript probably prepared there some 200 years later. He looks as though he is cudgeling his brain to recall a longissima melodia, as he tells us he did in the preface to his Liber hymnorum (Book of hymns), which contains some early examples of prosulated melismas known as sequences.

Altogether different is Rex regum (Ex. 2-4b), a mature sequence that happens to share its text incipit with one of the items in Ex. 2-2. Its opening melodic phrase is artfully derived from the Alleluia Justus ut palma (Ex. 1-6); there are other similarities between the two melodies as well. The sequence may thus have been meant to link up with that particular Alleluia (sung at St. Gallen, Notker’s monastery, at the Mass commemorating St. John the Baptist), but there is no reason to suppose it would have been limited to that use. The melodic resemblance being approximate rather than exact, it has effect of an allusion: an honorific, like those in the text, that might compliment any distinguished churchman. In any case, the reference to Justus ut palma is not in this case the automatic result of an adaptive process but a deliberate artistic touch, replete with a couple of neumes that in this context suggest flourishes.

Thereafter, the sequence proceeds in strictly syllabic couplets, successive pairs of lines sung to repeated portions of the melody. (In sequences of a later date, when texts in rhymed verse replaced the earlier “prosa” type, the couplets are often called “paired versicles.”) There is no preexisting sequentia melisma with such a regular structure, but it would remain standard for sequences for the next three hundred years. That structure, which begins to suggest strophic repetitions, may be the reason why Notker called his compositions “hymns.”

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. 31 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002003.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 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002003.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 31 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002003.xml