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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 New Styles and Forms
Richard Taruskin

The reintroduction of the Frankish redaction, or adaptation, of the Roman chant back to Rome was to have marked the final stage in the musical unification of Western Christendom. It also entailed the importation of the Frankish neumes, which were soon adapted to the staff and became a universal European system of notation. Once neumatic chant manuscripts began to be produced in Rome, however, some surprising anomalies appeared. The most surprising consists of a small group of graduales and antiphoners, produced in Rome between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries, containing a repertory of chants for the Mass and Office that, while clearly related to it, differs significantly from the standard Franco-Roman “Gregorian” chant. It is, generally speaking, both more formulaic and more ornamental than the standard redaction.

Most scholars agree that this variant repertory, which has been nicknamed the “Old Roman” chant, shares with Gregorian chant a common origin in the Roman church singing of the eighth century. The basic, as yet unanswered, question is whether the Old Roman chant, despite the late date of its sources, represents this original tradition, which later Roman singers (perhaps under Pope Vitalian, who reigned from 657 to 672) or even the Franks themselves radically edited and streamlined; or whether the Old Roman chant is the evolutionary result of three hundred years of oral tradition in Rome itself that took place after the original eighth-century version had gone north.

To put these matters in terms of a bald “either/or” is very much to oversimplify a complicated situation. Yet of the two alternatives just described, the second seems to accord better with what is known of the nature of oral transmission. Repertories, even those available in written form, are never wholly stable but are in a constant, indeed daily state of gradual incremental flux that comes about inescapably with use. Any living tradition, whatever its ostensible aims, is an engine of change.

Thus, although it is much more common, and certainly appropriate, to pay tribute to the Carolingians’ centralizing achievement by remarking on the high degree of uniformity among the earliest Frankish manuscripts containing the Gregorian chant, the fact remains that there are also many small discrepancies among them—indeed, between any two of them. There are also distinct, recognized local or geographical “dialects” within the tradition of Gregorian chant. East Frankish (that is, German) sources often turn the semitones in West Frankish (that is, French) sources into minor thirds, possibly reflecting the habits of ears and throats accustomed to a pentatonic (or, more precisely, an anhemitonic—that is, semitoneless) folk idiom (see Ex. 2-15).

“Old Roman” and Other Chant Dialects

ex. 2-15 Incipit of the Gaudeamus Introit and the climactic phrase of the Haec dies gradual in West Frankish and East Frankish versions

To ignore these differences in favor of the uniformity (or, contrariwise, to de-emphasize the uniformity in favor of the differences) is a decision one makes depending on the kind of story one wants to tell. Stories that emphasize sameness are, in the first place, shorter and more manageable than stories that emphasize difference. The tendency in a book like this is to minimize exceptions and get on with things. But one pays a price for the space or the time one saves. One can form the mental habit of looking for sameness instead of difference, which can lead to an actual (perhaps unconscious) preference for simplifying sameness, and a concomitant (equally unconscious) antagonism toward complicating difference.

In the case of the history of Gregorian chant, such an antagonism toward difference recapitulates on the apparently innocuous plane of historiography the ruthless political program of the Carolingians and the papacy. (This seems to be one reason why the Old Roman chant, whose existence—or persistence—makes for a pesky complication of an otherwise simple and triumphant narrative, has received from many scholars a very negative “aesthetic” assessment.5) To generalize even further, antagonism toward difference implies sympathy with the interests of elites. This tendency is particularly characteristic of histories of the fine arts, for the fine arts have always depended upon political, social, and religious elites for support.

That is why it seems appropriate, as a way of ending a chapter about the propitious musical achievements of the ninth- and tenth-century Franks who succeeded in establishing and canonizing one particular repertory of plainchant, briefly to cast an eye at some pockets of resistance—chant repertories that, like the Old Roman, managed to hold out (at least for a while) against the Gregorian tide.

The most successful of these was (or is) the liturgical chant of the archdiocese of Milan, which has lasted to this day, although, like the Gregorian chant, it is falling out of use (or where still used, sung in Italian translation) in the wake of the liturgical reforms instigated by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Milan, as we know, was the fourth-century seat of St. Ambrose, a figure with a legend and an authority equal to St. Gregory’s; and so the myth of Ambrose has legitimized the survival of the Milanese (or “Ambrosian”) rite and sustained it even as the myth of Gregory legitimized the ascendency almost everywhere else of the Franco-Roman.

Like the Old Roman chant, the Ambrosian entered the written tradition later than the Gregorian; most manuscripts containing it were notated in the twelfth century or later. Whether because of its actual age or because of its longer preliterate tradition, the Ambrosian chant tends to be more melismatic than the Gregorian and, in the Mass propers, more given to responsorial psalmody, in which a soloist sings verses in alternation with melismatic choral refrains, a practice largely confined to the Office in Gregorian psalmody. Since they were never mediated by Frankish editors, the Ambrosian melodies conform only vaguely with the familiar system of medieval “church modes” (the subject of our next chapter).

Also notated in the tenth and eleventh centuries was the chant sung on the Iberian peninsula, sung at least since the seventh century, but called Mozarabic (a term referring to Christians living under Islamic domination) because it continued to be sung after the Moorish invasion of 711, which ushered in a period of Muslim political rule that lasted almost until the end of the fifteenth century. The Mozarabic chant was officially suppressed in favor of the Gregorian in 1085 following the Christian reconquest of Toledo, the seat of the Spanish church. Hence almost all of the Mozarabic sources are notated in nondiastematic neumes that cannot now be read for their precise pitch content. But even so, the makeup of the liturgy, the style of its constituent melodies (whether syllabic or melismatic, etc.), and hence its relationship to other rites can be assessed; and because they are the largest body of liturgical manuscripts to preserve an authenticated pre-Carolingian Latin rite, the Mozarabic sources have attracted a good deal of scholarly attention, if not as much as they deserve. The rite underwent a spurious nationalistic revival in the late fifteenth century, when the Moors were expelled from Spain. Printed books of “Mozarabic chant” were then prepared, but the melodies they contain (some of them still sung at the Cathedral of Toledo) bear no discernible relation to the neumes in the authentic Mozarabic sources.

The so-called Beneventan chant, a repertory sung at various locales in southern Italy (Benevento, Monte Cassino, etc.) was another rite that lasted just long enough alongside the Gregorian to make it into neumatic notation. Beneventan manuscripts dating from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries survive, but only the oldest layer (mainly consisting of chants for Easter and Holy Week) is free of Gregorian infiltration. Judging from what little remains of it, it is possible that the Beneventan repertory was largely a Latinized import from the Byzantine church. The same may be said for the rite of Ravenna, the ex-Byzantine city that Pepin conquered and bestowed on Pope Stephen II. It survived into the manuscript age in shreds and was mostly extinct by the end of the eleventh century.


(5) It is given a stern “interrogation” in Leo Treitler, “The Politics of Reception: Tailoring the Present as Fulfilment of a Desired Past,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association CXVI (1991): 280–98.

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. 29 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002010.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 29 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002010.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 29 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002010.xml