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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 New Styles and Forms
Richard Taruskin

The remaining “ordinary” chant, the Kyrie eleison, has a more complex—indeed, a somewhat puzzling—history. Its special status is evident first of all from its language: the one Greek survival in the Latin Mass. Kyrie eleison means the same thing as Domine, miserere nobis: namely, “Lord, have mercy on us” (compare the middle part of the Gloria in Excelsis and the Agnus Dei refrain). It used to be a common liturgical response, especially appropriate for use in the long series of petitions known as litanies, which often accompanied processions. Pope Gregory the Great, in one of the few musically or liturgically significant acts that may be firmly associated with his name, decreed in a letter that the formula Kyrie eleison should alternate with Christe eleison (“Christ [that is, Savior], have mercy on us”). By the ninth century, when the Frankish musicians went to work on the chant, the Kyrie had been established as a ninefold acclamation: thrice Kyrie eleison, thrice Christe eleison, thrice Kyrie eleison.

As in the case of the other “ordinary” chants, there are simple Kyries that probably reflect early congregational singing, and more decorative melodies that were probably produced at the Frankish monasteries, beginning in the tenth century, for performance by the schola. These more artful Kyrie tunes often reflect the shape of the litany they adorn, matching its ninefold elaboration of a three-part idea with patterns of repetition like AAA BBB AAA’ or AAA BBB CCC’. (In both cases the last invocation—the A’ or C’—is usually rendered more emphatic than the rest, most typically by inserting or repeating a melisma.) Ex. 2-14a is one of these tenth-century tunes; note that while the words Kyrie–Christe–Kyrie are set to a non-repeating (ABC) pattern, the word eleison has an AA’B pattern. The retention of the same formula for eleison while Kyrie changes to Christe and back seems to be a vestige of an old congregational litany refrain.


ex. 2-14a Kyrie IV

The earliest sources for ordinary chants were little books called Kyriale, by analogy with Graduale, the much bigger book that contained the Mass propers. Most Kyriales date from the tenth and eleventh centuries. One of their curious features is the way Kyrie melodies are recorded in them. They are entered twice, first in melismatic form as shown in Ex. 2-14a, and then in syllabically texted form as shown in Ex. 2-14b.


ex. 2-14b Kyrie, Cunctipotens Genitor Deus

The easy explanation would be that the melismatic Kyrie is the canonical version, and the syllabically texted one has been enhanced (or corrupted) by a prosula. That, at any rate, was the assumption made by the sixteenth-century editors of the chant who, in the purifying spirit of the Counter Reformation, purged all Kyries of their syllabic texts. (Even so, their old incipits are still used to identify the Kyrie melodies in modern liturgical books: Ex. 2-14a is now called “Kyrie IV, Cunctipotens Genitor Deus.”) There are several reasons to question that assumption. For one thing there is no evidence that the melismatic Kyries are any older than the texted ones. They appear side by side in the sources from the beginning. Indeed, the earliest text we have for a Mass Kyrie, from Amalar of Metz himself, writing around 830, is “texted,” as follows: Kyrie eleison, Domine pater, miserere; Christe eleison, miserere, qui nos redemisti sanguine tuo; et iterum Kyrie eleison, Domine Spiritus Sancte, miserere. [Lord have mercy on us; O Lord our father, have mercy on us; Christ, have mercy on us, O Thou who hast redeemed us with Thy blood; and again, Lord, have mercy on us; O Lord, Holy Spirit, have mercy on us.]

This, then, was a Kyrie that to a ninth-century writer looked normal, consisting as it did of a traditional Greek acclamation amplified with newer and more specific Latin ones.

Evidence concerning chronology—the age of sources, the testimony of early witnesses—counts as “external” evidence. There is “internal” evidence, too, on behalf of the primacy of texted Kyries—that is, evidence based on observation of the musical artifacts themselves (or rather, their appearance in the manuscripts we have). If the texts in the texted Kyries are indeed prosulas—that is, words added to a preexisting melismatic chant—then why is the short neuma on eleison left “unprosulated” every time? Would it not be more plausible to assume that the regular alternation of syllabic and neumatic prosody was part of the original conception? In the case of Cunctipotens genitor, the texted form must have come first for the additional reason that the text is in verse, not prose. What is not prose is no prosula. Less tautologically, there is little likelihood that the notes of a preexisting melisma will by chance accommodate the strict requirements of poetic scansion.

It has been suggested that the reason for the appearance of texted and melismatic Kyrie melodies side by side has to do with the state of notation in the tenth century, when the neumes had been well established, but the staff had yet to be invented. The syllabic notation was necessary in order to show which syllables were sung to which notes; but the melismatic notation, in which the various neume shapes indicated rise and fall much better than single notes could do, was necessary in order to record the melodies’ contour accurately enough to serve even a rudimentary mnemonic purpose. The same double-entry procedure is found in early sequence manuscripts. Both the syllabic sequence melody and a melismatic counterpart, conventionally texted Alleluia, are frequently found side by side, or else in consecutive sections of the book. The assumption that these melismatic tunes were in every case preexisting sequentia melismas, to which the words of the sequence were later added, has been questioned on the same grounds of chronology as in the case of the Kyries, and this has led to a thorough revision of the history of the sequence.4 It was probably cases like these, where double notation was necessary in order to convey all the needed information, that made it urgent to find a way of conveying all the information at once. This, in short, may have been the necessity that mothered the invention of the staff.


(4) The chief questioner is Richard Crocker, in The Early Medieval Sequence.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002008.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002008.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002008.xml