It might seem strange that music as seemingly innocuous as that used in Christian worship should become a site for conflict, but this was the case in the eighth and ninth centuries when the Carolingian
dynasty used the alleged deficiencies of the clergy in the performance
of the liturgy to justify its takeover
of the Frankish state and the extension of its authority over the Church. As major
of the palace and later as king of the Franks, Pippin III/I (d. 768) declared
the variant traditions of liturgical performance that had evolved in diverse
ecclesiastical establishments throughout the Frankish world inauthentic in
so far as they differed from those of ‘their true source’, the Church of Rome.
By posing as the purveyors of ‘Roman truth’ in
an activity that was so central to every Christian’s experience of the
faith the dynasty asserted a certain moral supremacy which entitled them
to supervise the affairs of the Church—and to identify those among
the élite who were appropriate to fill its senior posts. The papacy, for its
part, went along with these pretensions in the hope that the Carolingians would
constrain the Lombard lords who were encroaching on its lands in central
Italy. Thus, Walahfrid Stabo, looking back from the 830s, says that Pope Stephen II, when he came north
over the Alps in 753/4 to seek justice agains the Lombards and to anoint
Pippin king, brought with him to Frankia, at Pippin’s
request, clerics armed with ‘the more perfect knowledge of plainchant; from
that time onwards its use was validated far and wide’ (Libellus
de exordio, pp. 168–9).
This project was later taken up and continued by Pippin’s son Charlemagne,
who warned the clergy in the Admonitio generalis of 789 that they should ‘fully
learn Roman chant and correctly celebrate the night and day offices, as our
father of blessed memory, King Pippin, decreed when he abandoned the Gallican
[chant] for the sake of unity with the Apostolic Chair and pacific concord
within the holy Church of God’ (§ 80, ed. Boretius, p. 61). In reality
much of what came to be recognised as authentic Roman chant was probably
worked out and defined in Frankia, at important ecclesiastical centres such as Liège, Metz and Aachen; but
in the ninth century the papacy embraced this idea of its supremacy in the
matter of plainchant, nurturing the myth that it was Pope Gregory the Great
(590–604) who was responsible for creating and defining the chant repertory
of the Roman Church, hence the name ‘Gregorian
Chant’. It was claimed that
the Holy Spirit—in
the form of a dove sitting on Gregory’s shoulder—dictated the entire
corpus into the papal ear. One witness to this myth is the following poem in hexameter verse, which dates from the late eighth-century:
|Gregorius praesul, meritis et nomine dignus,
Unde genus ducit, summum conscendit honorem.
Renovavit monumenta patrum iuniorque priorum
Munere caelesti fretus sapiens ornabat.
|Bishop Gregory, illustrious in merits and name,
rose through his noble birth to the highest honour.
He renewed the works of the Fathers of old and, being younger,
relying on heaven’s grace, adorned them wisely.
|Tum conposuit scolae cantorum huncque libellum,
Qui reciproca deo modoletur carmina Christo,
Quando sacer sacraque libans libamina vatis.
Dulcibus antiphonae pulsent concentibus aures
Classibus et geminis psalmorum concrepet oda,
|Then he compiled this little book for the papal school of singers,
that they might chant antiphonal songs for Christ, their God,
when the holy priest, as celebrant, offers the holy sacrifice.
Then let the antiphons strike the ears with their sweet harmonies,
and the melody of the psalms sound out from the double choir;
|Hymnistae crebro vox articulata resultet,
Ut celsum quatiat clamoso carmine culmen.
Fratres, concordi laudemus voce tonantem
Cantibus at crabris conclamet turba suorum.
Hymnos ac psalmos et responsoria festis
|Let the precentor’s dedicated voice often ring out,
to shake the roof’s high vault with clamoring song
Brethren, with harmonious voice let us praise the Thunderer,
and let his people often join in with their songs.
We shall bring forth hymns, psaims and responsories
|Congrua promemus subter testudine templi,
Psalterii melos fantes modolamine crebro,
Atque decem fidibus nitamus tendere liram,
Ut psalmista monet bisquinis psallere fibris;
Hec claro argenta clare fabricata nitescit.
|fitting the feasts, beneath the temple’s arch,
voicing the psalter’s music with frequent melody,
striving to tune the ten-stringed lyre,
jubilating on twice five strings, as the Psalmist bids [Psalm 33:2];
this lyre, wrought with bright silver, brightly shines.
|Talibus ornabat donis opuscula Christi
Gregorius felix, caelesti munere dives,
Quem munerosa dei ditarat gratia summi.
Hic opibus fulsit magnis et honoribus actus,
Hunc etiam duplicis decorans sapientia legis,
|With such gifts blissful Gregory, rich in heaven’s grace,
adorned the heritage of Christ,
he whom the highest God’s precious favour had endowed.
He was resplendent, spurred by great wealth and honours,
graced by Wisdom’s twofold law [love of God and neighbour],
|Ut populum domini magno moderamine rexit.
En felix domini famulus pro munere tanto,
Qui noscis rivo venarum corda rigare,
Dum sacra comis late praecordia verbis
Luciferisque simul mandatorumque maniplis,
|he ruled, guiding his people greatly as the people of the Lord.
You servant of the lord, blissful in such great grace,
who know how to irrigate hearts with the coursing streams,
while far and wide you make breasts holy by your words
and by the luminous sheaves of your commands—
|Ut variis florum fragis saturare solebas
Prata, virum et fragiles animos accendere biblis,
Ut homines pacem dlscant servare per orbem
Angelicam in terris passim cum foedere firmo,
Quam Christus castis, tractim sperantibus arcem
|you were wont to flood the fields as with varied scents
of flowers, and kindle men’s frail minds with books,
that men may learn to keep angelic peace
everywhere in the world, with firm compact,
the peace Christ freely promised to the chaste—fair citadel
|Perpetuis ac iugiter praecepta sequentibus, ultro
Sedibus in celsis pulchram promisit habendam
Salve, fortunate pater semperque beatus,
Atque memor nostri pollens per saecla magister!
|for those who follow his teachings and hope perpetually:
they shall dwell in it set upon thrones on high.
Hail, fortunate father, forever blessed—
master mighty through the ages, remember us!
This poem was subsequently set to music and used in the liturgy for Gregory’s
cult (see below). The legend was elaborated in later works, such as the monumental life
of Pope Gregory which John the Deacon (d. 880) wrote for Pope John VIII (872–82). In this work John describes how Charlemagne acknowledged
the supremacy of the Roman ‘source’:
The sweetness of
this (Roman) chant, which the Germans, Gauls and other European peoples might
creditably have learned and accurately transmitted, they were unable to conserve
intact. This was due both to frivolity of spirit for they mixed in music of
their own with the Roman chants; and also to a natural barbarousness of their
alpine constitutions. Their brilliant, thunderous voices would not correctly
render the [Roman] musical sweetness. The unrefined roughness of those bibulous
(northerners') throats, when dealing with the nuanced and reiterated pitches
of a mellow (Roman) chant, would give the sounds of a certain vocal harshness,
like the noisy, confusing racket of a cart upon steps. Thus the music that
was supposed to caress the hearers’ spirits instead irritates and considerably
Our patrician Charles, king of the Franks, when at Rome was
distressed at the difference between Roman and Gallic chanting. The Gauls
impudently claimed that our [Roman] musicians corrupted the chant with popular
songs; our musicians countered by exhibiting what was obviously an authentic
Charlemagne is said to have asked then, ‘Between a stream
and its source, which has the purer water?’ He prudently answered them
when they said ‘the source!’, ‘We, who until now have drunk
impure water from the stream, must henceforth return to the original flow
of the perpetual font’.
Though the authority of Roman norms was widely accepted, the notion
of their supremacy in these matters did not go unchallenged.
In, for example, his Gesta Karoli magni, a work composed in the early
880s, Notker of St Gallen cast some of the blame for
the Franks’ alleged failure to learn the ‘true’ art of
chanting upon the Romans:
At this point I must tell a story. It is one which,
due to the great dissimilarity between our chants and the Roman’s chants,
people nowadays may find hard to believe... but I choose to rely on the chance
that our forebears were truthful... Charlemagne... was troubled by the fact
that all his provinces, cities, and even smaller places continued to differ
in their manner of divine worship, and particularly in their plainchant melodies.
He therefore asked Pope Stephen of blessed memory... to send him some
monks who were highly skilled in divine song. The Pope, who was greatly pleased...
dispatched to him in Francia... a dozen monks well trained in chanting—the
same number as there were apostles...
When the time came for these monks to
set out from Rome, being, like all Greeks and Romans, greatly envious of
the glory of the Franks, they plotted among themselves to see how they could
vary the ways of singing and so prevent the Franks in the kingdom and territory
of Charlemagne from ever achieving uniformity. When they reported to Charlemagne
they were received with honour, and they were apportioned out to a number
of very famous places. Each in his own appointed locality began to chant
with as much variation and as incorrectly as he knew how, and did all he
could to teach others to do the same.
Charlemagne... discovered in time that
the monks he had sent to the other cities were all singing differently. He
reported this to Pope Leo of holy memory, who had succeeded Stephen. And
Leo recalled the monks to Rome and punished them with exile or life imprisonment. ‘If
I send you more’, he said to the illustrious Charlemagne, ‘they
will be just as blindly envious as the first ones, and they will cheat
you again. This is how I will satisfy your wish. Let me have two of the
smartest monks in your own entourage, doing it in a way that will not
let my people notice they are yours. With God’s help they will
acquire the proficiency in this art which you are looking for’. Charlemagne
did as he was told. In a short time the two were perfectly trained and Leo
sent them back. One of them Charlemagne kept with him. At the request of
his son, Drogo, bishop of Metz, he sent the other one to the church there.
That monk became the most influential in Metz, and the effect of his teaching
soon spread throughout all the land of the Franks, so that in our time church
singing is called Metz chant... The holy emperor also ordered the second
cantor, Peter by name, to spend some short time at the monastery of St Gall.
There he took care that church singing was taught and learnt according to
the Roman manner (trs. Levy, pp. 188–9 / Thorpe, pp. 102–4).
Notice how this story validates Saint-Gall’s claims to being a source of genuine and authentic Roman chant, an issue of some importance to Notker (d. 912), who was himself responsible for composing the music for many sequences and hymns.
Pieces and Manuscripts for Discussion
- Gregorius praesul, ‘Bishop Gregory’. John
the Deacon’s poem about how Gregory the Great compiled a book of
chants for the schola cantorum in Rome was itself set to music
and used as a ‘trope’, presumably in the liturgy for his
feast. Two early music ensembles, Sequentia and Dialogos, have made a
brilliant recording on their joint-CD, ‘Chant
Wars: The Carolingian Globalisation of Medieval Chant’ (DHM 82876666492).
They take their version of the words (reproduced above) from Lucca, Biblioteca
capitolare, MS 490, fol. 232v, a copy dating from between 787 and 816. The
music has been ‘reconstructed’ by K. Livljanic from Paris, Bibliothèque
nationale de France, fonds lat. 776 (‘the Gaillac Gradual’), where
the poem is one of the opening items in the book (fol. 4v). The polyphonic
elements have, as they put it, been ‘improvised in the style of Carolingian
BnF 776, it should be noted, is
one of a number of important liturgical books with notation that survive
from southern France. Produced in the mid eleventh century, it was used
at the Abbaye Saint-Michel de Gaillac near Albi. Its exact origins are obscure,
but the editors of the recent facsimile have identified connections to
the musical tradtions of the Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Moissac: see N. Albarosa, H. Rumphorst
and A. Turco (eds.), Gaillac: Il cod. Paris Bibliothèque nationale de France lat. 776, sec.XI Graduale,
Codices Gregoriani 3 (Padova, 2002).
- Natus ante saecula, ‘Born before
the World’. This sequence was sung in the Christmas
liturgy at St Gallen. The text and notation are to be found in a manuscript
dating from around 930, which was possibly copied by a monk named Salomon:
Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 381. This is a small, modestly
decorated, book, probably intended for practical use. It has four main
sections: one comprising versicles, the second hymns, the third tropes
and the fourth sequences. The collection of sequences on pages 325–498 is clearly attributed in its rubrics to Notker (d. 912). Natus ante
on pp. 333–5. There is an excellent recording by Sequentia
and Dialogos on ‘Chant
Wars: The Carolingian Globalisation of Medieval Chant’ (DHM 82876666492).
- Laus tibi Christe, ‘Praise to you, O Christ’. This
sequence was performed at St Gallen during the liturgy for the Feast of
the Holy Innocents (29 December). It is also to be found among the sequences
attributed to Notker in St
Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 381.
It appears on pp. 352–4. There is a fine recording on a different
CD, this time from Dominique Vellard and the Ensemble Gilles Binchois, ‘Musique
et poésie à Saint-Gall: Séquences et tropes du IXe
(Schola Cantorum Basiliensis / Harmondi Mundi 905239), recently re-issued as ‘Music and Poetry in St Gallen’ (Glossa GCD922503).
Relevant Primary Sources
- Notker Balbulus, Gesta Caroli magni,
trs. L. Thorpe, Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth,
1969), esp. pp. 102–4. MSDC.
- Notker Balbulus, Liber Ymnorum, ed. and trs. Calvin Bower, Henry Bradshaw Society 121–2, 2 vols. (London, 2016). Provides a full edition of Notker’s dedicatory preface, followed by 49 sequences. Each sequence is presented with two musical notations (‘Carolingian’, in neumes, and pitched on staves), followed by translations and commentary.
- Walahfrid Strabo, Libellus de exordiis et incrementis
quarundam in observationibus ecclesiasticis rerum: A Translation and
Liturgical Commentary, ed. and trs. A. L. Harting-Correa, Mittellateinische
Studien und Texte 19 (Leiden, 1996). Reprints the standard edition
of Walahfrid’s ‘Little Book on the Origins and Developments
of Some Aspects of the Liturgy’, a liturgical handbook written c.840–42,
but with a facing page translation and with extensive annotation.
This work is remarkable for its evolutionary perspective on liturgical
matters and for its citation of its sources.
M., ‘In Quest for Chant Primeval’, Choir and Organ, 14:2
(2006), 42–44. Online at Academic Search Complete. An interview with
Benjamin Bagby and Katarina Livljanic, the creators of Chant Wars.
- Bullough, D. A., and A. L. Harting-Correâ, ‘Texts, Chant, and the Chapel
of Louis the Pious’,
in P. Godman and R. Collins (eds), Charlemagne’s Heir: New Perspectives
on the Reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) (Oxford, 1990), pp. 489–508;
rpt in D. A. Bullough, Carolingian Renewal: Sources and Heritage (Manchester,
1991), pp. 241–71. MSD.I.
- Crocker, R., ‘Medieval Chant’, in R. Crocker and D. Hiley (eds), The
New Oxford History of Music, vol. 2, Early Medieval Music up to
1300 (2nd edn, Oxford, 1990), pp. 225–309. VV8.
- Crocker, R., The Early Medieval Sequence (Berkeley and Los Angeles,
CA, 1977). Oversize VXE8.B. Edits and discusses Natus ante saecula at
pp. 234–8 and Laus tibi Christe at pp. 296–8.
- Levy, K., ‘A
New Look ot Old Roman Chant’, Early Music History,
19 (2000), 81–104; and ibid.,
20 (2001), 178–87. JSTOR.
- Levy, K., ‘Latin Chant Outside the Roman Tradition’, in R. Crocker and D. Hiley (eds), The New Oxford History
of Music, vol. 2, Early Medieval Music up to 1300 (2nd edn, Oxford,
1990), pp. 69–110. VV8.
- Levy, K., and P. Jeffery (eds.), The Study of Medieval Chant: Paths and Bridges, East and West. In Honor of Kenneth Levy (Woodbridge, 2001).
- Rankin, S., ‘Ego itaque Notker scripsi’, Revue Bénédictine, 101 (1991), 268–98.
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