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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 6 Notre Dame de Paris
Richard Taruskin

There are large sections devoted to spare parts like these, sometimes called “substitute clausulas” or “ersatz clausulas,” in all four major Notre Dame codices. (In addition to Flo, W1, and W2, there is a slightly smaller one called Ma, roughly contemporaneous with W2, copied in Spain for the cathedral at Toledo, and now kept at the National Library in Madrid.) They raise tantalizing questions about the nature of this music, its transmission, and its history.

Every piece in the so-called Magnus Liber—the “great book” attributed to Leonin by Anonymus IV—exists, as we have observed in the case of Viderunt omnes, in significantly different versions in its various sources, and since all the extant written sources were copied at least two or three generations, and in some cases as much as a century, after the purported time of Leonin, it is impossible to determine what the original form of any of these pieces was. And every piece in the Magnus Liber is equipped with a multitude of interchangeable parts like the clausulae we have observed on “Do-.” Besides the ones on “Do-,” the Notre Dame codices contain interchangeable Viderunt clausulas on the tenor fragments “om-” (from omnes), “su-” (from suum) in the verse, and even on “conspectum gentium” from the verse, which is not a melisma.

One can only conclude that the identity of a “piece of music” was a far more fluid concept for the Notre Dame cantors than it is for us. An organum as actually performed was essentially a patchwork created more or less on the spot, or after a brief consultation, from the many available parts in the manuscripts we have (and who knows how many others that were never entered in those lucky survivors or—now here’s a thought—that were never written down at all).

Even if we limit the choice to what is written and what is extant, it is nevertheless hard to imagine the Notre Dame cantors furiously leafing forward and back through their books during the service to find the clausulas they wished to perform on a given day. And as we have already observed about the earliest chant books, the Notre Dame codices, while “immense” (as noted above) in terms of their total contents, were tiny in actual physical dimensions. The actual written area of a page from W1 measures approximately 51/2 × 21/2 inches, while Flo, the largest, measures approximately 61/4 by 4. A musicologist in her study, working at leisure, has to squint at W1 to make its bitsy flyspecks out; one can hardly assume that such a book could have been used in the act of performing. The assumption has to be, rather, that the Notre Dame cantors, and anyone else who sang their music in the dark confines of a medieval church, performed from memory.

The question of memory once again opens out quickly onto a much larger, more critical terrain. There are absolutely no written sources of Notre Dame polyphony from the period from the 1170s to the 1190s, when Anonymus IV’s Leonin supposedly lived and worked (or, for that matter, when Professor Wright’s Leonius actually lived and worked). All the extant sources postdate the lifetime of Anonymus IV’s Perotin as well, even if we grant Perotin the longest conceivable life span (say, to the time of Philip the Chancellor’s death in 1236). The sources were all written between the 1240s and the 1280s, and the author of Anonymus IV, as well as all the other theorists of “modal rhythm” and its notation, lived and worked around the same time.

A strong suspicion arises from these circumstances that the organa dupla of the so-called Magnus Liber were not part of a liber at all during their period of greatest use, but were created, sung, and transmitted from singer to singer within what was, yes, still predominantly an oral culture. Far from adding to the mystery of this music, however, the assumption of an oral tradition actually suggests the best answer to the riddle of how Notre Dame polyphony came to be the epoch-making thing it was—namely, the first “measured music” in the West.

Now it is time to pose explicitly the questions that have been stalking our discussion of modal rhythm from the beginning: What was its purpose? What did it accomplish? Often it is claimed that the Notre Dame composers, whoever they were, finally managed to “solve” a longstanding “problem,” namely that of notating rhythm precisely, thereby making it possible for precisely measured music to be composed. But that puts the cart before the horse, in fact several carts before several horses.

If we know one thing for certain from the history of medieval music to the point where we have traced it, it is that notation follows rather than precedes practice. In the case of Gregorian chant, it followed by a matter of centuries, not to say millennia. In the case of chant-based polyphony it also followed, perhaps by centuries, as we know from the implicit testimony of the Scolica enchiriadis. So if the theorists of the thirteenth century finally took up and “solved” the problem of notating a metrically organized melismatic polyphony, our assumption should be that they were finding a notation for something that was already well established in oral practice.

Furthermore, to say that rhythmic notation was a “problem” to be solved before there could be rhythmic composition is to assume that without such notation music was perceived as lacking something. We easily imagine such an absence as a lack, because the absence of a method for notating precise rhythms would be a crippling lack for making our music. To assume that the composers of twelfth-century Paris felt such a lack is to assume that they wanted to make our music, too. Only the assumption that it is up to “them” to become “us”—in other words, the ethnocentric assumption—can sanction the notion that discovering modal rhythm was a progressive evolutionary step (from “themness” to “usness”).

So, if it was not the solution to an obvious notational problem, what was the motivation for developing the patterning techniques collectively known as modal rhythm? The best theory so far, recently advanced by the medievalist Anna Maria Busse Berger, is that modeling musical rhythm on classical versification served the same purpose that versification itself originally served—namely, a mnemonic (or more precisely, a “mnemotechnic”) purpose.4 It enhanced memory skills, an essential function in an oral culture.

Rhythm has always been an imprinting device, and remains one to this day. That is why so many rules and aphorisms are cast as jingles. (Cross at the green,/Not in between; or Red sky at morning:/Sailor, take warning!; or Early to bed and early to rise/Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.) It is why no medieval treatise on anything from shipbuilding to organum-singing was without rhyming rules. It is why the poet Leonius, who may or may not have been Leonin, gave as his reason for writing his 14,000 lines of biblical verse that it helped “the mind, which, delighted by the brevity of the poetry and by the song, may hold it more firmly.”5

Here is a catchy Latin rhyme, attributed to Guido of Arezzo, that every literate or academic musician from the eleventh to the fifteenth century learned at the beginning of his training since is a popularization of one of Boethius’s main ideas:

Musicorum et cantorum magna est distancia.

Isti dicunt, illi sciunt, quae componit Musica.

Nam qui facit, quod non sapit, diffinitur bestia. It’s a long way from a musician to a singer. The one knows what music is made of, the other just talks about it. And he who performs what he knows nothing about is considered an animal.

So “Guido well puts it in his Micrologus,” wrote John of Afflighem.6 But the rhyme is not found in the Micrologus at all; and John surely heard it, and memorized it, years before he ever read it, which is why he forgot where he actually came across it. It is found in Guido’s Regulae rhythmicae, a brief digest of Guido’s teachings on the gamut, intervals, staff notation, modes, and finals, all cast for easy retention (as the title, “Rhyming Rules,” already indicates) in verse.

And that is why the composers of Notre Dame, who were creating a music of unheard-of melismatic profusion, found it advantageous to cast their enormously long melodies in an untexted musical counterpart to verse. In this form it evidently went from mouth to mouth for a generation or two before a notation for it was invented. And when the notation for it was invented, it was not really for it, but for something else. Again, and even more spectacularly, what was prompted by practical need became the stimulus for luxuriant artistic play.

Here is where the generation of Anonymus IV’s “Perotin the Great” comes in. As you may recall, the treatise credits the great discantor with having abbreviavit the Magnus Liber. The translation has been put off until now because the word has an ambiguous range of meaning in Latin. The closest English cognate, “abbreviated,” though followed by many writers, does not seem to fit the facts of the case, since so many “substitute clausulas” (like the one on “Do-” in Ex. 6-3c) so clearly lengthen rather than shorten the pieces into which they are inserted.

Another possible translation of abbreviavit is “edited.” This fits better, since the differing versions of the organum duplum repertory in the four Notre Dame sources obviously show the hand of a reviser—or likelier, of many revisers. And yet, to cite a case we have already seen, the presence of the same revised “Do-” clausula within the body of the organum in W2 and in the section containing the “substitute clausulas” in Flo would seem to indicate that whoever revised the Magnus Liber did not have in mind the goals of a modern editor. That is, he (or they) aimed not at establishing an improved, corrected, or definitive text. The aim, rather, seems to have been just to make a wealth of interchangeable material available.

And so we are left with the third and most general possible translation of abbreviavit—simply, “written down.” This one not only fits but explains a great deal. If we assume that the “Perotin” generation finally wrote down the music of the “Leonin” generation (in the process devising a notational method that opened up a whole new world of musical possibilities that they were quick to exploit), then we can not only account for the gap between the twelfth-century repertory and its thirteenth-century sources, but also make sense of the fact that the theoretical descriptions of modal rhythm come as late as they do. As a fully elaborated system of metrics and notation, modal rhythm pertains not to the orally created and rhythmically transmitted music of the Leonin generation, but to the very intricate and stylized output of the Perotin generation, which is found in all its many sources in essentially one version, and which may have been the first musical style in the West that actually depended on notation for its composition.


(4) See Anna Maria Busse Berger, “Mnemotechnics and Notre Dame Polyphony,” Journal of Musicology XIV (1996): 263–98.

(5) Wright, “Leoninus: Poet and Musician,” p. 19.

(6) John of Afflighem (a.k.a. John of Cotton), De Musica, trans. Warren Babb, in Hucbald, Guido and John on Music, ed. Claude Palisca (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 105.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-006004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 1 Dec. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-006004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 1 Dec. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-006004.xml