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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 New Styles and Forms
Richard Taruskin

Sequences and hymns were complete compositions in their own right—freestanding songs, so to speak, on a par (but contrasting in style) with the psalmodic chants of the inherited Roman chant. Another large category of Frankish compositions consisted of chants that did not stand alone but were attached in various ways and for various reasons to other—usually older, canonical—chants. One of the commonest ways of attaching new musical settings to older ones was by casting the new one as a preface, to amplify and interpret the old one for the benefit of contemporary worshipers. Although the practice, like most Frankish musical innovations, can be dated to the ninth century, it was cultivated most intensely beginning in the tenth, reflecting (if only indirectly) the spiritual and creative ideals of the so-called Cluniac reform of monastic life.

The Benedictine monastery of Cluny, in east-central France, was founded by the Abbot Berno in 910 under the patronage of Guillaume (William) the Pious, the first duke of Aquitaine. It was established on land recently won by William from the duke of Burgundy and deeded to the monastery outright so as to free it from lay interference. There, Berno sought to reestablish the original Benedictine discipline that had seriously eroded during two centuries of Norse invasion. The chief means of purifying monastic life was vastly to increase the amount of time and energy devoted to liturgical observances. That meant not only expanding the duration and gravity of services but also educating the monks in devotion. This was a possible purpose of the newly composed prefaces, called tropes (from the Latin tropus, possibly related to the Byzantine-Greek troparion, or nonscriptural hymn stanza in art-prose).

The primary sites of troping were the antiphons of the Mass proper. Attached most characteristically to the Introit, the trope became a comment on the Mass as a whole, as if to say, “We are celebrating Mass today, and this is the reason.” Tropes were also attached to the other Gregorian antiphons that accompanied ritual action, especially the Offertory (“we are offering gifts, and this is the reason”) and the Communion (“we are tasting the wine and the wafer, and this is the reason”). While troping became a very widespread practice as the Cluniac reform spread over large areas of France, Germany, and northern Italy, the individual tropes were a more local and discretionary genre than the canonical chant. A given antiphon can be found with many different prefaces in various sources, reflecting local liturgical customs.

At their most elaborate, tropes could function not only as preface to a complete Introit, say, but also as prefaces to each stichic psalm-verse in the antiphon, or to the cursive verse or verses that followed, or even to the doxology formula. Thus, in practice, tropes could take the form of interpolations as well as prefaces. Unlike the syllabic sequence, which contrasted starkly with the melismatic alleluia that it followed, tropes imitated the neumatic style of the antiphons to which they were appended, to all intents and purposes becoming part of them. Because the first words of chants are always sung by the precentor to set the pitch, it is thought that the tropes may have been differentiated from the choral antiphons by being assigned to soloists.

Manuscripts containing tropes, called “tropers,” are preeminently associated with two monasteries. One is the East Frankish monastery of St. Gallen, where Notker played his part in the development of the sequence, and where the monk Tuotilo (d. 915) may have had a similar hand in the development of the trope. The other is the West Frankish monastery of St. Martial at Limoges in southwestern France, which in the tenth century belonged, like Cluny, to the Duchy of Aquitaine. The three tropes or sets of tropes in Ex. 2-8 and Ex. 2-9 are all found in tenth-century St. Martial tropers (but with later concordances in staff notation), and all meant to enlarge upon the same canonical item—the Introit of the Easter Sunday Mass, the most copiously troped item in the entire liturgy.

The canonical text of the Introit consists of excerpts from three verses—18, 5, and 6 respectively—of Psalm 138, words that by the ninth century already had a long tradition of Christian exegesis, or doctrinal interpretation. Within the original Psalm, the verse excerpt that opens the Introit—Resurrexi, et adhuc tecum sum (“I arose, and am still with thee”)—refers to an awakening from sleep. Amalar of Metz was one of the many Christian commentators who construed these words as having been addressed by the eternal Christ to his Father through the unwitting agency of the psalmist David, and thus to refer prophetically to the event the Easter Mass commemorates: Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. It was one of the functions of the tropes to confirm this interpretation and render it explicit.

The first and simplest trope in the sample (Ex. 2-8a) consists of a single exhortation or invitation to the choir to sing, strengthening the assumption that the trope would have been performed by a precentor or cantor. Despite its brevity, it manages most economically to accomplish the task of an exegetical trope, identifying the psalmist’s words with the victory of Christ. Ex. 2-8b contains what might be called a full set of tropes to the Introit, introducing not only the first stich but each of the other two as well. An even more elaborate set has a fourth line to set off the concluding “alleluia.” Like the one in Ex. 2-8b, it amplifies the psalm verses with a patchwork of texts freely mined and adapted from the Bible and meant in this context, like the Introit verses themselves, to represent the words of Christ. Yet another set of Introit tropes from St. Martial embeds the Introit text within a narrative that imitates the style of the Gospels, and attaches neumae or interpolated melismas to each stich in the antiphon as a further embellishment.


ex. 2-8a Prefatory trope to the Easter Introit, Resurrexi


ex. 2-8b The Easter Introit, larded with two sets of tropes from the monastery of St. Martial

By all odds the most famous of the Resurrexi tropes, probably the most famous of all tropes, are the ones that recount the visitatio sepulchri—the visit of the three Marys to Christ’s tomb on the morning after his burial—in the form of a dialogue between them and the angel who announces the Resurrection, thus furnishing a very neat transition into the Introit text. In Ex. 2-9, which gives an early version of this trope from a St. Gallen manuscript dating around 950, the text carries special directions (known in liturgical books as rubrics, since they were often entered in red ink made from rubrica, Latin for “red earth”) somewhat needlessly specifying what is a “question” (interrogatio) and what an “answer” (responsorium). These rubrics seem to be an indication that two (or several) singers were to act out the dialogue in parts. Tropes like this one were the earliest and simplest of what became a large repertory of Latin church plays (sometimes called “liturgical dramas”) with music. More elaborate ones will be described in the next chapter.

Like many favorite chants, the Easter dialogue trope gave rise to parodies. An eleventh-century manuscript at St. Martial contains a dialogue trope for Christmas that mimics the Easter prototype in entertaining detail, beginning with the famous incipit Quem quaeritis (“Whom do you seek?”), then substituting the manger for the tomb and the shepherds for the Marys. Once again, the object is to justify an Old Testament reading as a prophecy of Christ’s coming, in this case the famous lines from the book of Isaiah (“Unto us a child is born”) on which the Christmas Introit is based. Christmas, too, became a fertile site of church dramas (“manger plays”) in centuries to come. Scholars used to think that the eventual medieval church plays, enacted not at Mass but after matins, were amplifications of actual Introit tropes (tropes on tropes, so to speak). The relationship has turned out to be far less direct than that, but the general practice of acting out the liturgy did nevertheless originate in the dialogue tropes for Easter and Christmas.

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. 27 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002006.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 27 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002006.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 27 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002006.xml