We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Retheorizing Music
Richard Taruskin

The very latest genre of medieval chant to be incorporated (in some part) into the canonical liturgy was the votive antiphon. Votive antiphons were psalmless antiphons—that is, independent Latin songs—attached as riders onto the ends of Office services to honor or appeal to local saints or (increasingly) to the Virgin Mary. As a human chosen by God to bear His son, Mary was thought to mediate between the human and the divine. One fanciful image casts her as the neck connecting the Godhead and the body of the Christian congregation. As such she was the natural recipient of personal prayers or devotional vows (and it is from “vow” that the word “votive” is derived). From the cult of Mary arose the Marian antiphon or “anthem to the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Our English word “anthem,” meaning a song of praise or devotion by now as often patriotic as religious, descends (by way of the Old English antefne) from “antiphon.” These ample songs of salutation to the Mother of God appear in great numbers in written sources beginning early in the eleventh century. By the middle of the thirteenth, a few had been adopted for ordinary use in monasteries to conclude the Compline service (hence the liturgical day itself). At English cathedrals they enhanced the Evensong service, which lay worshipers attended. It was to keep these prayers for intercession going in perpetuity that the “choral foundations”—endowments to fund the training of choristers—were set up at English cathedrals and university chapels. They have lasted to this day.

Marian Antiphons

ex. 3-11a The Play of Daniel, Astra tenenti (conductus)

Marian AntiphonsMarian Antiphons

ex. 3-11b The Play of Daniel, Heu heu (Daniel’s lament)

At first the Marian antiphons were sung, like the psalms, in a weekly cursus. In the modern liturgy, only four have been retained, and they follow a seasonal round. In winter (that is, from Advent until the Feast of the Purification on February 2), the seasonal anthem to the Blessed Virgin Mary is the penitential Alma Redemptoris Mater (“Sweet Mother of the Redeemer … have pity on us sinners”). In spring (from Purification until Holy Week), it is the panegyric Ave Regina coelorum (“Hail, O Queen of the heavens”). For the exultant fifty-day period between Easter and Pentecost, known as Paschal Time, Regina caeli, laetare (“O Queen of heaven, rejoice”) is the prescribed antiphon (Ex. 3-12a); and during the remaining (biggest) portion of the year, encompassing late summer and fall, it is Salve, Regina (“Hail, O Queen”), the most popular of the Marian antiphons (Ex. 3-12b) and the only one for which a plausible author has been proposed: Adhémar, Bishop of Le Puy and a leader of the First Crusade (d. at Antioch, 1098).

Marian AntiphonsMarian Antiphons

ex. 3-12a Marian antiphon, Regina caeli, laetare

Marian Antiphons

ex. 3-12b Marian antiphon, Salve, Regina

These eleventh-century melodies, the one exultant and the other penitent, exemplify in their contrast of modes the persistence of the doctrine of ethos, alive even today in our conventional assignment of contrasting moods to the major and the minor. Regina caeli, in fact, is in the major mode to all intents and purposes. Its final, F (tritus), became ever more prevalent in the later Frankish genres; and when it appeared, it was usually given a “signature” of one flat to “soften” progressions from B to F (of which Regina caeli is especially full). The resulting “Lydian” octave species, TTST–TTS, is identical to what we would call the major scale. (Its “natural” diatonic occurrence, beginning on C, was not recognized as a mode in its own right until the middle of the sixteenth century, but it was obviously in practical use for centuries before its theoretical description.) The mode here works in tandem with other traditional earmarks of rejoicing, notably “jubilation” (melismas on portare and, especially, alleluia, replete with internal repeats clearly modeled on those of the Mass Alleluia).

Salve Regina is dark. Like so many late Dorian chants it covers the combined (or “commixed”) plagal-authentic ambitus, but its tessitura favors the lower end. (Its official assignment to mode 1 was due, most likely, to the repeated cadences of the concluding acclamations—O clemens: O pia: O dulcis—on A.) Although there are no real melismas, there is a great deal of melodic parallelism; indeed, the first two main phrases (“Salve Regina…” and “Vita dulcedo…”) are nearly identical. This last, it turns out, is a common feature of many medieval songs, although it is not found in many chants. (It should not be confused with the paired versicles of a sequence, because the first line of a sequence was the one line that was not usually paired.) Compare the melody in Ex. 3-1. This is a canso, a song of “courtly love.” Its language is Provençal, then the language of what is now central and southern France. The composer, Raimon de Miraval (d. ca. 1215), was a troubadour, that is, a member of the first school of European poets to use for creative purposes one of the then “modern” languages of Europe. Their line began with Guillaume IX, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers (1071–1127), a younger contemporary of Adhemar, the putative author of the Salve Regina. Like Adhemar, Guillaume took part in the Crusades, as did many other troubadours.

Marian Antiphons

ex. 3-13 Raimon de Miraval, Aissi cum es genser pascors

Raimon’s canso begins, like the Salve Regina, with a repeated melodic phrase. Like the Salve Regina, it is a song of devotional praise to a remote, idealized lady. Like the Salve Regina, it is a Dorian tune in a lightly neumatic style. The Salve Regina, in effect, may thus be looked upon as a canso to the Blessed Virgin. There is no inherent or intrinsic difference between the idioms of sacred and of “secular” devotion, and no stylistic difference between the sacred verse-music of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and such “secular” verse-music as was deemed worthy, beginning in the twelfth century, of preservation in writing.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Retheorizing Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003008.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 14 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003008.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 14 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-003008.xml