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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 New Styles and Forms
Richard Taruskin
How they were Performed

ex. 2-4a Sequence by Notker Balbulus, Angelorum ordo

How they were Performed

ex. 2-4b Sequence by Notker Balbulus, Rex regum

Even greater regularity, and even greater independence from preexistent models, can be seen in Rex caeli (Fig. 2-2; its first five lines are transcribed in Ex. 2-5), a composition of such sophisticated, artful shape that its status as a sequence has been questioned. (So let’s call it a sequence-type hymn.) Unlike most early sequences, it is structurally “rounded” on several levels. Its lines are arranged not only in couplets but occasionally in quatrains—groups of four successive lines sung to the same melody. The melody of the first couplet recurs in the fourth, and the whole series of seven melodic strains then repeats (in a so-called double cursus or “double run-through”) to provide the next seven. The last pair of melodic units recapitulates the opening and closing strains of the cursus. Line lengths are almost uniformly in multiples of four syllables (eight, twelve, sixteen), giving an impression of regular meter. Not only that, but the words of many of the couplets are linked by such a strong use of assonance—similarity of vowel placement—as to approach rhyme.

This was not only a remarkable composition but a famous one. It is found complete on a French manuscript leaf dating from the tenth century, but we know that it was a ninth-century composition—and already famous in the ninth century—because its first two couplets were chosen as a didactic illustration in Musica enchiriadis (“Handbook of music”), the earliest surviving Frankish treatise about practical music-making, which is thought to date from some time between 860 and 900. The illustration is reproduced in Fig. 2-2. It is one of several examples in the treatise of polyphonic singing, and can serve us as a forceful reminder that polyphony was routinely practiced among the Franks as early as we have any evidence of their musical practice at all.

How they were Performed

fig. 2-2 Rex caeli Domine, a sequence-like hymn probably dating from the ninth century. (a) Its most complete source, a French manuscript from the tenth century written in an alphabetic notation that specifies pitch precisely. (b) Its earliest source, the ninth-century treatise Musica enchiriadis, which shows a fragment of it, in a similar notational style, adapted to illustrate a common practice whereby monophonic chants were amplified polyphonically in performance. This provides evidence of polyphony as early as any evidence of the chant itself.

How they were PerformedHow they were Performed

ex. 2-5 Rex caeli Domine (Fig. 2-2a) transcribed

How they were Performed

ex. 2-6 Polyphonic example from Musica enchiriadis (Fig. 2-2b) transcribed

In this arrangement (transcribed in Ex. 2-6), the upper voice sings the original Rex caeli melody, for which reason it is called the “principal voice” (vox principalis). The lower voice, called the vox organalis because it produces the harmony or counterpoint (called organum at the time), begins at the unison and holds on to its initial pitch as a drone until the principal voice has reached the interval of a fourth above it, the smallest interval considered consonant according to the theory of the time. At this point, the two voices move in parallel until the cadence (or occursus, as it was called, meaning the coming-together), which restores the unison. In the second phrase, the augmented fourth against B is avoided first by sustaining the “organal” G, and then by leaping to E. Once again unison is restored at the end.

This is not a polyphonic “composition.” Rather, it is an example of how Frankish cantors harmonized the chants they sang “by ear.” How did that style of harmony get into their ears? The answer to that question is lost among the unnotated musical repertories that existed alongside the privileged repertory of notated Roman and Frankish chant. Literate musicians have always been much affected by the music in their aural environment, and the performance of all music, whether written down or not, is governed in part by unwritten conventions. (Otherwise, one could learn to compose or to play the piano simply by reading books.) We can assume that the monks who recorded our first examples of polyphony were not inventing it but adapting it from oral (probably secular) practice, and that the early examples were meant as models for application to other melodies.

Which melodies? More likely the new Frankish repertory of proses, hymns, and suchlike than the canonical Roman chant. That chant, being largely psalmodic, had (as we have seen) an exceptional “ethical” tradition demanding unison performance. The other, simpler examples given in Musica enchiriadis of polyphonic “performance practice” (strictly parallel doubling at the fourth, the fifth, and the octave) are based, like the one shown in Fig. 2-2, on syllabic Frankish compositions in the new style. But we do not really know what restrictions or preferences there may have been at this time; and it is tantalizingly possible that polyphonic singing was not the exception but the rule, at least in certain monastic communities.

The other remarkable feature of the Rex caeli hymn, both in its complete source and as quoted in Musica enchiriadis, is its notation. It is called Daseian notation after the Greek prosodia daseia, the “sign of rough breathing” used in various modified forms by Greek music theorists to indicate pitches, and it is found mainly in didactic treatises. In Fig. 2-2b, Daseian signs showing the pitches from c to a are written in ascending order inside the column preceding the first phrase of Rex caeli, and those from c to c’ precede the wider-ranging second phrase. Here is proof that the Franks had at their disposal a notation that showed exact pitches. They could have used it in their chant manuscripts, too, if they had wanted to do so. Again we must confront the fact that music was still primarily an art of memory, and that in practical sources all that was required was enough notation to bring a melody forward, so to speak, from the back of the mind. “Sight-reading,” as we know it today, was not yet thought a useful skill.

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. 12 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002004.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 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002004.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 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002004.xml