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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

Giraldus himself supplemented his observations of contemporary lore with a keen historical speculation. Noting that polyphonic folksinging in the British Isles was mainly endemic to two areas, Wales and the northern territory occupied by the old kingdom of Northumbria, he ventured that “it was from the Danes and the Norwegians, by whom these parts were more frequently invaded and held longer, that they contracted this peculiarity of singing.”

There is a musical document, unknown to Giraldus, that seems to corroborate his theory. The Northumbrian style of “symphonious” singing, as Giraldus described it, consisted not of many parts in harmony, but only two, “one murmuring below and the other in a like manner softly and pleasantly above”—that is, “twinsong” (tvìsöngur), to give it its old Scandinavian (or modern Icelandic) name. A late thirteenth-century manuscript, now at the University library in Uppsala, Sweden, but copied at a monastery on the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, contains a strophic hymn setting that seems to fit Giraldus’s description (Fig. 11-2; Ex. 11-3). From around 875 to 1231 the Orkneys were a Viking earldom under the Norwegian crown, and even afterward remained a part of the Scandinavian archbishopric of Nidaros—the most northerly of the Christian sees, with its seat at Trondheim, Norway—incorporating Iceland, Greenland, the Faeroe Islands, and the Western Isles of Scotland.

Viking Harmony

fig. 11-2 “Hymn to St. Magnus” (Nobilis, humilis) as it appears in its source, Uppsala (Sweden), Universitetsbiblioteket, MS C 233, fols. 19–20.

Viking Harmony

ex. 11-3 Nobilis, humilis in transcription

The hymn, Nobilis, humilis, sings the praises of St. Magnus (d. 1115, canonized 1135), the Norwegian patron saint of the Orkneys. By the time it was noted down the Orkneys were under Scottish temporal rule, but the music still undoubtedly represents a Nordic style of singing about which virtually nothing else is known. It cannot be connected with any other surviving Scandinavian music of the period (or even with the modern Icelandic tvìsöngur, for that matter, which proceeds for the most part in parallel fifths). It seems to have been known elsewhere in the British Isles, however: the English theorist Robert de Handlo quoted the incipit of what appears to be its upper part in a treatise written early in the fourteenth century (with a text, Rosula primula, “Our dear first-among-roses,” that substituted praise of the universally venerated Virgin Mary for the local Orkney saint).

The critical point is that the treatment of the third as primary normative consonance in Nobilis, humilis jibes with many early English musical remains. Besides the Sumer canon, with its normative triads, there is the roughly contemporaneous testimony of “Anonymus IV”—the Paris lecture notes, as we recall, of an English disciple of Garlandia—that English singers, especially those from “the area known as Westcuntre” (the West-country, bordering on Wales) called thirds, rather than octaves or fifths, “the best consonances.”

And there is the tiny repertory of surviving English twinsongs, which maintains the emphasis on thirds, and also shares with the Sumer canon (and with Giraldus’s account) the use of the F mode with B-flat, known to us as the major scale. These songs, among the earliest polyphonic vernacular settings to survive in any language, employ a more sophisticated sort of voice-leading, through contrary motion and voice-crossings, in addition to strictly parallel thirds; but they still seem, like the other pieces sampled in this chapter so far, to be the sort of “harmonizations” more often extemporized by ear than written down (Ex. 11-4).

Viking HarmonyViking Harmony

ex. 11-4a Edi beo thu, hevene Quene

Viking Harmony

ex. 11-4b Foweles in the frith, beginning

The most elaborate piece of this type is a translated sequence from the late thirteenth century, Jesu Cristes milde moder (from Stabat juxta Christi crucem, related to the famous Stabat mater). It is found in a manuscript that otherwise contains Latin-texted music, mainly plainchant (Ex. 11-5). The two voices in this case are really twins. They occupy the same range and constantly cross, so that neither produces “the tune” or “the accompaniment.” What is heard as “the tune” in a situation like this is actually a resultant of the constant voice-crossing. The voices are actually in a kind of “pivot” or “fulcrum” relationship, radiating outward from a central unison (to which cadences are ultimately made, occursus-fashion) through a third to a fifth; no larger interval is used. Although the F scale with B-flat is the medium through which the whole piece moves, and although the third F–A is its most characteristic (and normative) harmony, it begins and ends on unison G, the fulcrum-pitch between F and A (a true tone “center,” in a curiously literal sense).

Historians often call twinsong-type pieces like these “gymels,” appropriating from the English musical vocabulary of the fifteenth century a handy word that actually derives from the Latin gemellus, “twin.” A true fifteenth-century gymel, however, is something else: a temporarily split choral voice, like a modern orchestral “divisi.”

Viking Harmony

ex. 11-5 Jesu Cristes milde moder, beginning

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 Island and Mainland. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011002.xml