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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Retheorizing Music
Richard Taruskin

Thanks to the work of the “tonarists” who coordinated the Roman antiphons with the psalm tones, and the theorists who drew general conclusions from the tonarists’ practical observations, a new concept of mode arose. Instead of being a formula-family, a set of concrete, characteristic turns and cadences arising out of long oral tradition, a mode was now conceived abstractly in terms of a scale, and analytically in terms of functional relationships (chiefly range and finishing note or final). We owe this change, on which all our own theoretical notions of musical “structure” ultimately depend, and the classifications and terminology outlined above, primarily to the work of two Frankish theorists of the ninth century.

Aurelian of Réôme, the earlier of them, was a member of the Benedictine abbey of St. Jean de Réôme in what is now the Burgundy region of France, southeast of Paris. His treatise, Musica disciplina (“The discipline of music”), was completed sometime around 843. Beginning with its eighth chapter, subtitled “De octo tonis,” it consists of the earliest description (or at least the earliest naming, for it is impressionistic and nontechnical) of the eight church modes with their pseudo-Greeky tribal names. Aurelian changed the order of the tones from what it was in Byzantine theory. Instead of grouping the four authentic modes together and following them with the four plagal modes, Aurelian paired authentic modes with plagal ones that shared the same finals, thus enhancing the role of what we now call the “tonic” in establishing a tonality. Aurelian’s chapter on psalm recitation contains the oldest extant notations in early Frankish neumes.

Hucbald (d. 930), a monk from the abbey of St. Amand, was the real genius of medieval modal theory. His treatise, De harmonica institutione (“On the principles of music”), thought to have been completed around 880, is a far more original work than Aurelian’s and far less dependent on the received academic tradition. It was the earliest treatise to number the modes, following the order established by Aurelian, straight through from one to eight. It is also the earliest treatise we have that replaces the relative-pitch or interval/degree nomenclature of ancient Greek music—the so-called Greater Perfect System, transmitted by Boethius—with the alphabet letter names still in use. The name of the lowest note of the Greek system, proslambanomenos, was mercifully shortened to “A,” and the rest of the letters were assigned from there. Hucbald did not, however, recognize what we now call “octave equivalency,” but continued the series of letters through the full two-octave compass of the Greeks, all the way to P. Modern usage, in which A recurs after G and so on, was established by an anonymous Milanese treatise of ca. 1000 called Dialogus de musica, once attributed erroneously to Abbot Odo of Cluny.

A New Concept of Mode

fig. 3-3 The Abbey of St. Amand, where Hucbald lived and worked, as it looked in the eighteenth century. This painting was made by J. F. Neyts shortly before the abbey was destroyed, an early casualty of the French Revolution.

Hucbald sought to ground his theory as far as possible in the chant itself. He grasped that the “four finals” used in actual singing formed a tetrachord in their own right (T–S–T), and he showed how the scale of the first mode could be built up from it by means of disjunct replication: TST–(T)–TST. He defined the four finals in a manner that resonates fully with our modern notion of a tonic: “Every song” he wrote, “whatever it may be, however it may be twisted this way and that, necessarily may be led back to one of these four; and thence they are termed ‘final,’ because all things which are sung may take an ending in them.” By relocating the tetrachord of the four finals (D – E – F – G) on its fourth note rather than its first (or, to speak technically, by conjunctly replicating it: T – S – T/T – S – T), he deduced the tetrachord G – A – B♭ – C. Thus he was able to rationalize within the new modal system the old singer’s practice of adjusting the note B to avoid the tritone with F. In effect he admitted two versions of B (the hard and the soft, as they came to be known) into the system (Ex. 3-3) to account for the pitches actually called for by the Gregorian melodies.

A New Concept of Mode

ex. 3-3 Disjunct and conjunct replication of the T-S-T tetrachord (the tetrachord of the four finals) as described by Hucbald

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Retheorizing Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Retheorizing Music. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Retheorizing Music." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003003.xml