Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

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The Robertsbridge Codex (c1325)

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The Robertsbridge Codex is a rare little thing. It’s only a few pages in an otherwise obscure manuscript, but it’s noteworthy because it’s the first known collection of music meant specifically for keyboard instruments.

Here’s a page from the Codex. This is a photograph of a page in Carl Parrish’s book, so you might want to look online to get an image with better resolution.

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The treasure currently resides in the British Library, in London and the tale of how such an important piece of music came to be in this obscure little place is a good one.

Robertsbridge is a village in East Sussex, England, about 10 miles north of Hastings (made famous in the Battle of Hastings in 1066). The Rother River passes through it. The town is thought to have developed around a 12th century Cistercian abbey, named by Richard I (1157-1199) in 1198 for his steward, one Robert de St. Martin (dates unavailable). It was settled by monks from the mother abbey in Boxley, in Kent, about an hour’s drive north, and was probably built roughly on the site of a war memorial and a spring known as St. Catherine’s well. The monks at Robertsbridge were known as the “white monks” because they wore tunics of undyed wool.

The site was probably originally a small chapel, but it received many gifts and endowments from such families as the Bodiams (who later had a castle nearby) and the Etchinghams (nearby landowners since before the Norman Conquest). As a result, they were able to build a new abbey about a mile east of the original site in about 1210.

The Robertsbridge abbot was sent, along with the abbot from nearby Boxley, to search for King Richard I (1157-1199), who was being held hostage in Bavaria after his return from the Crusades in 1192, and when they found him, they went back to England to raise his ransom. Later, these same two abbots were sent as agents for the Archbishop of Canterbury to see the pope about a quarrel with the monks at Canterbury. In 1212, 1221, and 1225, the abbot of Robertsbridge was again sent as the king’s emissary to Europe (first John then and Henry III twice), and the Henry III also paid the abbey a visit in 1225. The abbey had faded in fame by the 1400s and escaped the first suppression of the monasteries.

It survived until 1538, when it was dissolved under Henry VIII (1491-1597). It was surrendered by the abbot and eight monks—everyone else had long gone. After the dissolution, the abbey buildings were acquired by Sir William Sidney of Penshurst (1482?-1554), and it stayed in that family until 1720. The remains of the abbey survived for most of the 18th century but were then destroyed. All that remains today is the former abbot’s house, now a private residence.

The town flourished without the abbey, with some fine castles and good schools and such. Today, it’s the home of Heather Mills (b.1968), former wife of Beatle Sir Paul McCartney.

Robertsbridge came to fame when the eponymous codex was discovered among other records at Penshurst Place in Tonbridge, Kent (about half an hour’s drive south of London) in the mid-19th century. It was found in a bundle with an old register from the Robertsbridge Abbey. Originally, it was thought to be from as early as 1325, but later scholars determined that 1360 was more likely.

It’s an important document because it’s the earliest known collection of music written specifically for keyboards. It’s also the earliest preserved example of German organ tablature. It’s called “German” because it appears later only in Germany, slightly more developed, where it’s also known as the Ludolf Wilkin tablature, from 1432. This tablature was adopted exclusively for writing down organ music and was used until Samuel Scheidt’s (1587-1654) Tablatura Nova and Johann Ulrich Steigleder’s (1593-1635) Ricercar Tablaturen, replaced it in 1624. After this date, particularly in Northern Germany, many important sources of keyboard music are written in this notation.

It’s a little off topic, but Old German tablature, from the early 15th century to mid-16th century, used letters to identify the notes to be played, rather than neumes or mensural notation on the staff, in all the voices except the highest, which was in neumes that we would recognize as notation today. These highest parts were usually red in color and provided decorative musical figuration; it’s also where we get the term that survives until today in the modern word “coloratura.” Cool, eh?

This tablature also included the squared lower-case B, which resembles a lower-case H that represented B-natural (which nomenclature survived well past Johann Sebastian Bach’s time, where he called things H-moll for B-minor, as in the B Minor Mass) and an S for “sine,” which is Latin for “without,” and meant a rest, or silence.

Another cool thing is that the keyboard selections offered required all twelve keys of the modern octave. It’s the first evidence of this—things were modal and only contained eight notes to an octave before. (You can learn more about modes here: Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes.)

The Codex contains other things than music, although I didn’t find a source that said what exactly those other things are. There are only two musical sections, containing six pieces. Three are estampies, which is an Italian dance from the trecento, and had scholars convinced that the music came from Italy originally. Three songs are arrangements of motets, two of which are from the Roman de Fauvel. You can learn more about that in my post, Composer Biography: Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361). The Codex contains instrumental transcriptions of two of Vitry’s Fauvel motets (Firmissime/Adesto and Tribum, quem non abhorriuit), and another motet from Roman de Fauvel with organ accompaniment. There are also three Italian-style dances (estampies).

Now then. On to the music itself.

The Codex contains the end of a purely instrumental piece in the estampie form. There are two complete pieces in this form, the second of which is marked “Retroue.” There’s also an incomplete transcription of the hymn Flos vernalis. These may have been meant to be played on an organ, and a little later, Edward III (1312-1377) presented his captive, John II of France (1319-1364) with an eschiquier (an instrument that was the predecessor to the harpsichord) and a copy of the piece.

The Robertsbridge transcriber went a little heavy on ficta (accidentals, more often sharps than flats), to the point of inserting naturals to return the note to its original state rather than assuming the natural as the default. He also transposed one piece from the Fauvel motet up a step, forcing a single sharp into the key signature of the right hand. (The left hand had its own key signature and stayed as it was.) He also occasionally added notes where he thought the harmony was too thin.

It’s possible that the motets were included in the Robertsbridge Codex for political reasons as allegories for political events of the period, such as the public hanging of Philip the Fair’s (France, 1268-1314) unpopular chancellor Enguerrand de Marigny (1250-1315), or about some enemy of Robert of Anjou, King of Naples (1277-1343), or perhaps a celebration of the new Pope Clement IV (1190-1268).

All of the music is unattributed (late scholars have identified de Vitry as one source), and all is written in tablature. The estampies are written for two voices, often in parallel fifths and using the hocket technique (where one voice has artful rests that are filled in by another voice, like an exchange of hiccups).

It’s important to note that at this time (the 14th century), organ keys became narrower so that more could fit onto a keyboard table, and also accommodating a wider range of pitches (such as 12 notes to an octave) and sustained chords. This made it possible for a rhythmically fluid and complex decorative voice to unfold beyond the earlier isorhythmic pieces. Robertsbridge features an isorhythmic motet with a patterned scaffolding in the left hand as a foundation for a dramatic instrumental display played by the right hand. This became a pattern that we’re still using today.

The Rupertsbridge Codex marks the beginning of our modern sense of a slower or chordal left hand with a busy and ornamental right hand. Despite its quiet lack of fame, it’s really a very important document.

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“The History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600,” by Willi Apel. The Mediaeval Academy of America, Cambridge, 1961.

“The Notation of Medieval Music,” by Carl Parrish. Pendragon Press, New York, 1978.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

“Music in Medieval Manuscripts,” by Nicolas Bell. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2001.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Medieval West; Western Music in Context,” by Margot Fassler. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1959.

 

Written by Melanie Spiller

December 29, 2014 at 11:55 am

Composer Biography: Byzantine Women Composers (8th and 9th Century)

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I was researching something else, and I came across the most wonderful CD. It was music by Byzantine composer Kassia, from the 9th century. And here I thought Hildegard was the first named composer! Apparently, she was only the first named composer in the West—Byzantium was naming them left and right, and Kassia is not only earlier, but she’s also a woman!

First, a little history about how Byzantium (which is a modern appellation, by the way. I’ll use it here as a convenience) came to be separate from the West in religion, culture, and language.

The Catholic papacy had a long tradition of eastern orientation, but in the 8th century, the Byzantines split off after the papacy refused to pay taxes to the Byzantine Empire. They also refused to destroy religious icons, because such destruction seemed too close to the Islamic policy banning religious images. There was more to it than iconoclastic differences and fear of Islam, but the result was a papacy vulnerable to the Lombards of Northern Italy, which ultimately led to an alliance with the Carolingian family in the form of Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father.

There was a lot of arguing about whether the Eucharistic bread actually became God’s body and so forth, but the great split between Eastern Orthodox Catholics and Roman Catholics happened when Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne (c742-814) as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Charlemagne was the first to be named Holy Roman Emperor since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier, when Justinian tried to bring Eastern (Byzantine) power further west and ended up dividing rule of the land into several pieces.

Not only the religions but also the cultures diverged wildly after this point. Byzantium used the Cyrillic alphabet, incorporated Indian and Arabian influences into music, architecture, and other art forms, and the language of the literate was Greek. Under Roman rule, Latin was the unifying language of the literate, music and other art forms took on what we now identify as distinctly European affects, and the Roman alphabet was used.

Byzantine music tends to be wildly ornamental, with lithe wriggling endings to long notes, quick turns and decorations in instrumental parts, and extremes of high and low voices. Roman music is more straightforward, requiring less virtuosity but with its own kind of serene beauty. Where church modes (see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes) developed in Roman Catholic lands involving a tuning based on a sequence of three whole tones, a half tone, and another whole tone, Byzantium retained the old Greek modes, which were based on a stricter, more mathematical splitting of string lengths into five pentatonic notes. (For those interested in temperament, this ends up being the difference between Just and Mean tones before they knew it was called that.)

Byzantium became the Ottoman Empire, after bunches of wars and other disruptions, around the 15th century. Even so, a sharp divide between the sound of eastern music and that of western still remains.

Now that you have some context, let’s take a listen to some Byzantine music and explore some composers’ biographies.

Recordings:

  • “Les Tres Riches Heures du Moyen Age, CD 1: Les Premieres hueres de l’Ere Chretienne.” Harmonia Mundi, 1995
  • Hesperion XXI, Montserrat Figueras, Gürsoy Dinçer, Lior Elmaleh, Jordi Savall, et al. “La Sublime Porte, Voix d’Istanbul 1430-1750.” Alia Vox 2011.
  • Peter Rabenser, Belinda Sykes, Jeremy Avis, Oni Wytars Ensemble. “From Byzantium to Andalusa, Medieval Music and Poetry.” Naxos 2006.
  • Soeur Marie Keyrouse, SBC. “Chants Sacres Melchites, Hymnes a la Vierge.” Harmonia Mundi France, 1994.
  • Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum. “Chant Mozarabe, Cathedrale de Tolede (15th Century).” Harmonia Mundi France 1995.
  • Sister Marie Keyrouz, SBC. “Byzantine Chant,” Harmonia Mundi France, 2008.

Sources:

  • “The Early Middle Ages, Part 2 of 2,” by Professor Philip Daileader of the College of William and Mary. The Teaching Company’s “The Great Courses,” Chantily, 2004.
  • “Charlemagne, A Biography,” by Derek Wilson. Vintage Books, New York, 2005.
  • “Charlemagne,” by Roger Collins. Unversity of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2008.

 

Kassia (c805-before 865):

Kassia (also Kassiani, Ikasia, Cassie, and Cassianne), was a Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer. Her name is the feminine Greek form of the Latin name Cassius.

She was one of the first Medieval composers whose scores have survived. We have about 50 of her hymns, and 23 are included in Orthodox Church liturgical books that are still used today. The exact number of her compositions is difficult to assess, as many hymns are ascribed to different authors in various manuscripts or are identified as anonymous. About 790 of her attributed non-liturgical verses still exist.

Kassia was born between 805 and 810 in Constantinople into a wealthy family, and was said to be very beautiful and intelligent. Three reliable chroniclers claim that she participated in a Bride Show where the prospective groom gives a golden apple to the woman of his choice, from among all the potential brides lined up at a party. In this case, the prospective groom was the soon-to-be-emperor Theophilos (813-842). He chose Kassia, and when he quoted a Bible verse meant as a compliment (something about all sin coming from intelligent and beautiful women, a reference to Eve), she responded to it in kind (something about good things coming from women, a reference to the Virgin Mary). He felt rebuffed and chose someone else, but remained Kassia’s supporter until his death.

In 843, Kassia founded a convent in Constantinople near the Constantinian Walls. She was the abbey’s first abbess. The monastery had a close relationship with the nearby monastery of Stoudios, which would play a key role in re-editing the Byzantine liturgical books in the 9th and 10th centuries, and which is why her work survived.

Emperor Theophilos was bothered by the Eastern Orthodox veneration of icons. Despite being scourged with a lash as punishment, Kassia remained an outspoken icon defender. When the Theophilos died, the age of iconoclastic destruction also ended.

Kassia is notable for being one of very few women to write in their own names during the Middle Ages. Her most famous composition is the “Hymn of Kassiani” is still sung every Holy Wednesday. It has a large range and is considered to be one of the most difficult pieces of solo Byzantine chant. It’s a unison piece, sometimes with a vocal bass drone. Church attendees make an issue of going to church specifically to “listen to Kassiani.”

Other important works include the “Doxastichon” (for Vespers on Christmas Eve), numerous hymns honoring saints, the “Triodon” (sung during Lent) and the “Irmoi” (for Matins for Great Thursday), and her longest piece, “Canon for the Departed” (for requiem services).

Kassia briefly traveled to Italy and then settled in the Greek Island of Kasos, which is where she died sometime between 867 and 890. Kassia’s tomb and reliquary are in a church in Panaghia.

Her feast day is September 7th, and she’s often pictured on the icon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy (the first Sunday of Great Lent).

Recordings include:

  • VocaMe: “Kassia—Byzantine Hymns of the First Woman Composer,” 2009. Only works by Kassia, including Augustus. (This is the one I’m completely hooked on.)
  • Kronos Quartet: “Early Music,” 1997. Includes an instrumental version of “Using the Apostate Tyrant as His Tool.”
  • Sarband: “Sacred Women, Women as Composers and Performers of Medieval Chant,” 2001. Includes “Augustus.”
  • Deborah Kayser and Nick Tsiavos: “The Fallen Woman,” 2008. Includes the Kassiani Hymn. Search for this one on YouTube
  • Capella Romana and the English Chamber Choir: “Choral Settings of Kassiani and When Augustus Reigned,” 2011.

Sources:

  • “The Byzantine World,” edited by Paul Stephenson, 2013.
  • “Byzantine Women, Varieties of Experience, 800-1200” edited by Lynda Garland. Ashgate, 2006.

 

Khosrovidukht (8th century)

Also Xosrociduxt.

One of the earliest known women musicians, Khosrovidukht was once thought to have been a member of the Armenian royal family, but experts are now uncertain. There are stories that her brother was abducted by Arabs and that she was taken to the fortress of Ani Kaakh (now called Kemah) for safekeeping. She stayed there as a hermit for 20 years.

She’s thought to be the composer of a sarakan, or canonical hymn, called “Zarmanaii e Ints” (How Wondrous it is”), which honors the memory of her brother, thought to have been assassinated in 737 for his conversion to Christianity. It’s a secular piece, but it was sanctioned for use in the Armenian Church.

Recordings include:

Sources:

  • “Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

 

Sahakdukht (8th century)

Sahakdukht came from a musical Armenian family, and had a famous brother, music theorist Stephannos Syunetsi (dates unavailable—like hers).

She herself was a composer of hymns, and she was a poet and pedagogue. She lived in a cave near present-day Yerevan, and wrote ecclesiastical poems and liturgical chants. Only one survived, “Srbuhi Mariam” (St. Mary), a nine-stanza verse. Many of her works are Marian Hymns, and some may have helped to shape the genre. (In the Latin liturgy, the Marian hymns are my favorites. They’re often gentle and sweetly loving, and use metaphors that I find particularly pleasing.)

Sahakdukht is said to have taught lay musicians and clerical students who visited her cave. According to custom, she stayed seated behind a curtain during all interviews and visits. It must have been a very long and slow 20 years…

Recordings include:

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1995.

Composer Biography: Perotin (c1160-1230)

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Also Perotinus and Perotin the Great. Perotinus and Perotin are both diminutives of Pierre. There were five men named Pierre attached to Notre Dame during the same period, and although some can be eliminated because of their superior rank (you wouldn’t call a priest “Joe” or “Freddie” in public), it’s presumed that the one who was only a deacon (not a priest), is the one who made a great contribution to the art of music, and the one whose history is covered here.

Perotin was the most famous member of the Notre Dame School of polyphony, and along with Leonin, he was one of the last masters of the Ars Antigua style. Like Leonin, he earned the academic degree of Master of Arts at the school that would later become the University of Paris, and he was licensed to teach.

Little is known about the man himself, but his name appears in the treatise of Anonymous IV (whose dates and actual name aren’t known, only that he was a student visiting Paris from England) in 1285. This comprehensive treatise refers to Perotin as a “master” and he’s called “optimus discantor” in several manuscripts, meaning that he was the ultimate discant writer. (There’s more about discants in the blog post Composer Biography: Leonin (fl. c1150-c1201). Perotin was probably the most celebrated musician involved in the revision and re-notation of the Magnus Liber attributed to Leonin.

Perotin and his contemporaries created organa (plainchant with another voice or two floating above it) for two or three voices. A two-voice organum was called a duplum, a three-voice a triplum, and a four-voice—Perotin’s innovation—a quadruplum. The voices above the tenor were named in descending order, so the highest voice was the quadruplum, and so forth. The upper voices used the rhythmic modes, allowing exact coordination among them, and they moved in similar vocal ranges, crossing repeatedly (meaning that one voice starts high and ends low, and another starts low and ends high).

He was probably born around 1160 and died around 1220. His exact dates aren’t known, but are extrapolated based on evidence that he flourished in Paris between 1180 and 1205. Some of his dates are approximated from some late-12th century edicts by the Bishop of Paris, Eudes de Sully (d. 1208), that mention organum triplum and quadruplum regarding a “feast of the fools.” The bishop’s edicts are quite specific and suggest that Perotin’s organum quadruplum Viderunt omnes was written for Christmas 1198, and that Sederunt principes, also a quadruplum, was for St. Stephens Day in 1199, for the dedication of a new wing of the Notre Dame Cathedral that was just beginning construction.

Not everyone liked the new music. An Englishman, John of Salisbury (1120-1180), who would become Bishop of Chartres, taught at the University of Paris during the years that Leonin and Perotin were there, and attended many services at the Notre Dame School. He compared the duo of voices to the singing of sirens rather than men and equated it to birdsong. But, he warns, the beauty of it might be likely to incite lust rather than devotion. It must be moderately done, he insists, in order to transport the soul to the society of angels.

Perotin’s major achievements include the revision of Leonin’s collection of organa in the Magnus Liber, as I mentioned earlier, and the introduction of new elements of style and scoring. He used all the rhythmic modes, providing rhythmic interest in both voices of two-part writing (which was a new idea), and added more voices to produce music in three or four parts. The celebrated organa on the Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day Graduals (Viderunt and Sederunt) are four-part settings conceived on a monumental scale apt for the new Cathedral of Notre Dame and are rich in eloquent, imaginative, and delicate vocal writing. They are justly hailed as masterpieces of Gothic music. Sederunt principes and Viderunt omnes are the only known four-voice organa.

Perotin was also a composer of clausulae (rhythmic features at the ends of short phrases) that may have been used to shorten Leonin’s organa (where one voice slowly sings the plainchant and the other parts dance around it), and conductus (where the various voices sing at the same speed) in up to three parts. Perotin probably invented conductus based on Leonin’s organum.

He wrote many pieces with a phrase from one voice repeated in another. Using phrases this way emphasizes dissonances before resolving to the fifth and octave above the chant melody (called the tenor line), using harmonic tension to reinforce the consonance while sustaining the listener’s interest.

He also used a form called a rondellus, where three voices sang a sort of round, like this:

Triplum                 a b c

Duplum                c a b

Tenor                    b c a

Because all three voices in a rondellus are in the same vocal range, the listener hears the polyphony three times, with voice parts traded so the timbre changes each time. There are also rondellus-motets. Rondellus sections appear frequently in English versions of conductus from the later 13th century; Anonymous IV may have brought this form back with him when he finished his studies in Paris.

Where Leonin wrote primarily in the first rhythmic mode (long-short) for the upper voices and the fifth mode (long and a half, totaling the same duration as the long-short combination) in the tenor (cantus firmus), Perotin’s most important development was the use of all six rhythmic modes in the tenor line. This is earth shattering in that suddenly, all the voices are rhythmically interesting and there’s a rhythmic counterpoint for the first time. This is the parent of motet writing.

Early motets put text to the melismatic upper voice of conductus for the first time—upper voices had been either played on an instrument or sung on open vowel sounds. This important innovation led to a notational change for the upper voices. Previously, syllabic block notes (see The History of Music Notation for more on this) took only two forms: syllabic (simple conductus) and duplum (the organa dupla of the early Leonin period). Perotin’s innovations added two more: modal (for organa and clausulae of the Perotin period), and motet (the earliest motets).

Organum puts the main melody in the tenor (from the Latin tenere); a duplum organum creates a second voice with either a more melismatic version (with wiggly bits that diverge from the primary melody at a greater speed) of the tenor or a sort of opposite melody, creating counterpoint. With only two voices, the upper voice can wiggle around ecstatically while the tenor plods earnestly on, but when you add a third and fourth voice, rhythm becomes essential, if only to keep things together. That’s how conductus was born.

In Perotin’s time, the liturgical melody serving as the tenor line appears twice, the second time in half the values (or double—twice as fast) of the first appearance. Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) would do the same thing in the 14th century.

Conductus uses the same principles as organum, but sets a rhymed Latin poem to a repeated melody, much like the later hymn form that was particularly expanded upon by William Byrd (1543-1623) in England and Johann Sebastian Bach (1675-1750) and other Lutheran Germans in the 18th century.

Perotin is known to have collaborated with poet Philip the Chancellor (c1160-1236), whose Beata viscera he could not have set before about 1220 although some sources suggest that Perotin died around 1205. It isn’t known exactly where or when he died nor where he’s buried.

Sources:

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Anness Publishing, Ltd., Wigston, 2012.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1978.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York 1981.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

“Music in the Medieval World,” by Albert Seay. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1965.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

“The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600,” by Willi Apel. The Mediaevel Academy of America, Cambridge, 1961.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University o California Press at Berkeley, Berkeley, 1997.

Composer Biography—Leonin (fl c1150-c1201)

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The Englishman known as Anonymous IV (nothing is known about him, not even his name) published an eponymous treatise in 1285 that told of two musicians creating polyphony for the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris: Leoninus and Perotinus. Latinized to sound more Catholic and snooty, their names were actually Leo and Pierre, but they were commonly known by their diminutive names, Leonin and Perotin (1160-1225, biography to come). If you’ve heard much Medieval polyphony, you’ve either heard their work or you’ve heard music that evolved from their work. It’s hard to talk about them separately, but I’m going to give it a try.

Leonin may have been the first composer to use the rhythmic modes, and he also possibly invented a notation system for them. You can learn more about rhythmic modes here: Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes.

Leonin served at the Cathedral of Paris in many capacities, beginning in the 1150s, before the building that stands there now was even begun (construction of Notre Dame started in 1163). Anonymous IV refers to Leonin as a “master,” which means that he held a Masters of Arts degree from the school that would become the University of Paris (in 1200).

Nothing at all is known about his childhood or family. He turns up at Notre Dame in the 1150s, and we can guess that, because he was a canon and a priest, he was around 30 at the time. He was also affiliated with the monastery of St. Victor, also in Paris. This is the same abbey where Peter Abelard (1079-1142) lectured before his unfortunate love affair with Heloise and ensuing castration in 1116 or 1117.

At any rate, Leonin was a poet who paraphrased the first eight books of the Bible in verse, and he did the same for several shorter works as well.

Anonymous IV called Leonin an excellent organist (meaning a singer or composer of organum rather than a keyboard player) and credits him with compiling a Magnus liber organi (“Great book of Polyphony”). The collection contained two-voice settings of the solo portions of the responsorial chants (Graduals, Alleluias, and Office Responsories) for the major feasts of the year. Elaborating the chants like this, showing the whole year’s music, was a vision as grand as that of the architects who designed Notre Dame Cathedral.

Leonin didn’t collect all that music alone, despite the suggestion by Anonymous IV that he did. At the very least, Leonin was a leading driver of the project, but it’s doubtful that any one person could have accomplished the deed. The original collection didn’t survive, and it isn’t certain whether there was music notation (as we know it) available for use at the time, so it may have been a collection of poems with some sort of code or annotation for how the music sounded. The repertory survives in two later manuscripts, in Wolfenbüttel, Germany and Florence, Italy. There’s no way to know how much of the music or poetry was actually written by Leonin, though.

Although the documentation is missing, Leonin was probably the composer who developed the contrast between melismatic plainchant writing (without rhythm or measurement) and discant (somewhat rhythmic) in two-part organa for Graduals and Alleluias, and in processional Office Responsories, that often proceeded from one style to the other. It was Leonin who developed the pattern of a slow plainchant-like melody in the tenor line (now called cantus firmus) that provides a foundation for an upper voice to affect runs and melodic sequences against. This dancing upper voice, called the duplum, demanded a new kind of documentation for the aforementioned rhythmic modes so that things would line up nicely and everyone could finish at the same time.

Leonin’s settings are impressive in their length, but they’re still shorter than those set by Perotin, who may have been his student. Many were recycled tunes, and because there are many variations on a theme that survive into today’s chant, it seems likely that a lot of music was transmitted orally and that musicians felt free to interpret, add, or change as they felt inclined. Building from a familiar foundation is a good way to go when you’ve got lots of people trying to memorize something.

Most music of the time was unison—monophony. Two discrete voices were a novelty in the 12th century, and it was Leonin who first documented the rules for this new form of music, now called polyphony, that would ultimately evolve into the chords and complex rhythms that we know today.

One of Leonin’s pieces, Viderunt omnes, was documented by Anonymous IV. It’s also in both the Wolfenbüttel manuscript and the Florence manuscript. It uses two voices and features two different styles of polyphony: organum and discant. The organum set one or two notes in the upper voice for every single note in the lower voice. The discant style is note-for-note in both parts, parallel melodies in synchronized rhythm. The intonation of the respond and most of the verse were sung polyphonically, probably by solo voices and the rest was sung in unison by the choir. In Viderunt omnes, all three styles (plainchant, organum, and discant) are on display.

The melismatic portions of Gregorian chant (the parts with multiple notes on a single syllable) is extracted to provide separate pieces, with the original note values of the chant slowed down, and the organum or discant in the upper part moving faster and superimposed against it. This is called clausulae and Is an element of organum.

Between 1150 and 1175, Leonin provided two-part organa for all of the Responsorial chants on major feasts, Responsories and their verses for Vespers and Matins, and the Graduals and Alleluias for Mass. His plan to write them all was subsequently rivaled only by the somewhat smaller cycle of three-part organa by Perotin (1160-1225, biography to come), and by the phenomenal publications of Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517) in the 16th century and William Byrd (1543-1623) in the 17th. Leonin’s new style of music was widely accepted across Europe.

Leonin’s Magnus Liber includes 13 pieces to be used for the Hours (Vespers, Compline, etc.) and 33 works for the Mass. Both sections begin with works for Christmas and continue into the liturgical year, providing not only items for the major feast days, but also works for various other occasions. The emphasis on the material for the Hours is placed on various Processional Responsories, and those from the Mass stress the Gradual and the Alleluia, the two chants already singled out as especially suitable for polyphonic treatment due to their soloistic character. All of the works in the Magnus Liber are for two voices and reflect the division into the two styles of organum and discantus.

These early motets (using the term loosely) were the first to put text to the melismatic upper voice of a clausulae—previously, the text was only written below the longer, slower tenor part. This important innovation was accompanied by a notational change from modal notation to syllabic notation for the upper voice or parts. Syllabic block notes took four forms: syllabic (simple conductus), duplum (organa dupla of the early Leonin period), modal (organa and clausulae of the Perotin period), and motet (the earliest motets). For the most part, this is too heavily technical for this biography, but maybe one day I’ll write a blog post on the subject. If you want to read more about music notation from the period, check out The History of Music Notation.

Some theorists think that Leonin derived the six rhythmic modes from his study of St. Augustine’s De musica, a treatise on metrics. He writes of three “long” notes tied together by a ligature and followed by three sets of two “short” notes—essentially each of the first three notes divided equally in two. The pattern evolves into sets of three counts, a long note being roughly equivalent to two short notes, so that the pattern of long-short-long-short can be counted out as six beats (in the modern sense of 6/8).

Leonin contributed a masterly use of flexible and variable rhythms, nearly always limited to the first rhythmic mode, which alternates long and short notes, with a lilt much like today’s 6/8 pattern. He breaks up the long and short notes into lesser values (called copulae, or links, by theorists of the day), which foreshadows what would come in the Baroque era (1600-1750) but baffled historians because contemporary theorists described them as being “between discant and organum and having the character of both.” That’s not very helpful, really. It’s like saying it’s a color that lies between navy blue and cyan.

Although Leonin played with melismas, they were short, only rarely containing a melodic leap larger than a third. They often contain glissando-like passages running through a whole octave or even more. Leonin’s melodic curve is broader than Perotin’s, which tend toward squarer rhythms and short motives. You’ll meet Perotin in my next post.

Nothing is known about where Leonin is buried, what he died of, or when. We can probably assume that he’s somewhere in Paris, as he spent very little time away from there. At least, he spent little time away that we know about.

Sources:

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Anness Publishing, Ltd., Wigston, 2012.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1978.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York 1981.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

“Music in the Medieval World,” by Albert Seay. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1965.

“The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600,” by Willi Apel. The Mediaevel Academy of America, Cambridge, 1961.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press at Berkeley, Berkeley, 1997.

Composer Biography: Paolo da Firenze (c1355-1436/d Arezzo, 1419)

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Also known as  Paulo Tenorista and Magister Dominus Paulas Abbas de Florentia (as he’s called in the Squarcialupi Codex.)

Musically, Paolo da Firenza was conservative and progressive at the same time. He borrowed and combined musical practices from the past and the innovations of his own times, both Italian (old school) and French (new school). He had a distinctively rich and varied musical style. More music from ars nova period survives from Paolo than any other composer except Francesco Landini (c1325-1397), with whom he was friends.

It’s not known if Paulo was born in Florence, but he did live most of his life there, so it’s probable. His father’s name is thought to have been Marco and his family was poor. Paolo is thought to have had three brothers, but their names and what became of them isn’t known.

Paolo became a Benedictine monk around 1380 and his portrait in the Squarcialupi Codex shows him in a suitable black cassock. In 1401, he took the abbot position at Saint Martin al Pino and later became the rector of Orbetello, where he stayed until 1427. In around 1410, he supervised the compilation of the Squarcialupi Codex.

As abbot, he must have been a public figure, because in 1404, Paolo witnessed the signing of a document written at the cardinal’s house in Rome. The only other known date from his life comes from his madrigal Godi, Firenze, which celebrates the victory of Florence over Pisa in 1406.

Much of Paolo’s work is secular and all is vocal, although some of the attributions on Paolo’s ballate are erased in the source. All of his known output is for two or three voices, and through sources or stylistic elements, it’s all datable prior to 1410. Four of his vocal duets are credited to “Don Paolo,” and “P.A.” Is the composer of another 13 pieces.

He wrote three types of songs: 13 madrigals, more than 40 ballate, and two liturgical pieces. The three types of songs represent a sort of chronological journey. Paolo began with the traditional two-voice ballata but soon picked up the French fashion of three voices.

His use of the madrigal form—a third of his 30 surviving secular pieces are madrigals—is unusual at this time, when other forms had largely superseded it. His madrigals reveal a mixture of progressive and conservative elements, some with French influence (more on that in a minute). His two liturgical pieces combine an upper melodic line in the Italian manner with a cantus firmus. He also wrote at least one musical treatise.

His vocal duets use traditional forms and styles. One unusual feature is the provision of open and closed endings for the ritornelli of six madrigals; in one of these, the text doesn’t require repetition of the music (a ritornelli returns both in melody and text—the word means “return”). The same madrigal has open (doesn’t resolve to a satisfying ending) and closed endings (does resolve) in the first musical section (there’s an A and a B section). Earlier composers didn’t use these kinds of endings, although Lorenzo da Firenze and Jacopo da Bologna (fl 1340-c1386) used them in one piece each. It’s the number of times Paolo used these endings that’s unusual. The departure from common practice is less important, though, than the variety of rhythmic and melodic figures.

Paolo went beyond the two-part madrigal only once, in the three-voice Godi, Firenze when Florence defeated Pisa in a small war (remember, Italy was a collection of small city-states, much like Germany was at the time, each with their own rulers and armies). Perhaps the celebration that inspired him also encouraged him to leave his fuddy duddy ways behind.

Where his madrigals are conservative, his ballata are innovative, and he wrote more in the new style of three voices than for two. He was the first composer to do that in the case of the ballata. Of the 26 pieces concretely attributed to Paolo, only six are in two voices. Ten have the French disposition of solo cantus (chant-based melody line) with instrumental tenor and contratenor (higher voices sung against the chant melody), and ten have the hybrid form of vocal duet with instrumental contratenor. Three of these last also exist as vocal duets without a contratenor, but the three voice versions are probably the original.

Of his sacred music, the Benedicamus Domino is for two voices, and Gaudeamus omnes in Domino is for three voices.

With Landini and Andrea da Firenze (d. 1415), Paolo’s output marks the end of Florence’s dominance over Italian musical styles as musicians and their patrons moved to Milan, Venice, and Padua, and eventually on to Rome. Even Paolo spent the end of his life away from Florence.

Paolo’s ballate are the most modern of his works, being mostly for three voices, and all are lyrical, melodic and use some of the more extreme rhythmic intricacies of the ars subtilior school. Landini’s influence, which would have predominated Florence in the late 14th century, is evident in both the madrigals and the ballate.

Paolo was one of the supervisors who produced the musical anthology called the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come). Despite this, the 32 pages reserved for his works, with his portrait (in the black cassock of the Benedictine monk) on the first page and his name at the top of the rest, contain nothing but empty staves. Some think his music wasn’t yet available, although other sources suggest that he was simply away from Florence, attending to the needs of Cardinal Acciaiuoli (d. 1409) at the deadline.

Paolo’s unique style is evident in the sound of the music and in the notation that he used. He used Italian notation and its varied note shapes, mixed with notation of the French principles of mannered notation that introduced new (and needlessly) complex ways of expressing rhythmic patterns. His manuscripts combine Italian and French notation and show the influence of the Avignon mannerist school of ars subtilior in their rhythms, which are complex and intricate.

Using music notation was considered progressive in the 14th century, especially in Italy, and the proportional survival of Paolo’s secular to sacred music may be representative of a trend to document all music, not just sacred.

A resurgence of interest in the Renaissance in the 1970s translated Paolo’s work into modern notation, so it’s a lot easier for us to perform now.

His date of birth is estimated based on information in his will, written within a day or so of his death. When he resigned as abbot in 1433, he was approximately 78 years old. He died in Florence at the age of 81.

Sources:

“Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hippin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

Lux Aeterna, the Chant of Eternal Light

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This blog post is part of a blog hop on the subject of light and illumination, to celebrate the Winter Solstice. To read other posts that are part of the “hop,” check out the links at the end of my post, or follow this one (after you read my piece, of course): http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/21st-december-one-day-blog-hop.html

Casting Light Image

Once a week, I sing Gregorian chant. It’s a wonderful, ancient, simple, deep, and deeply satisfying thing to do regardless of religion. We’re a motley crew with only one practicing Catholic among us, but singing Gregorian chant isn’t about the religious nature of the music. It’s about preserving an ancient tradition, about connecting to the earliest of Western music’s roots, and about being part of a loving community that accepts us all despite bumps and snaggles, regardless of musical experience or education, regardless of religion or spiritual practice. It’s a place where people come to SING.

There are thousands of Gregorian chants. They were collected in many different ways over the millennia, but most who sing Gregorian chant today sing from the Liber Usualis, which was collected by the Benedictine Abbot Andre Mocquereau (1849-1930) at Solesmes, France in 1896. But he didn’t write them—he only collected them in one tidy place. The chants have been heavily used from the earliest days of Christianity, documented by order of Pope Gregory (c540-604) in the 6th century (and from whom they get their name), and performed as part of every Mass and every Divine Office, until Vatican II in 1962 allowed the Catholic Mass to be performed in the vernacular, and chant lost its ubiquity.

In the spirit of the changing light at the Winter Solstice, I thought it would be fun to look at one particular chant, one of my favorites, called Lux Aeterna. It’s the communion piece of the Requiem Mass, and therefore, only something you’d hear at a funeral. But it’s incredibly sweet and it’s about eternal light, which is something that feels absent on these dark winter days.

First, a little background.

In the Beginning

Sometime around the 4th century CE, in Carthage, the practice developed of singing from the book of Psalms in the Old Testament during the collection and blessing of the offering, and during the distribution of the bread and wine in communion. Saint Augustine (354CE-430) mentions this psalm-singing as a new practice, and also mentions that it was the Schola, a trained group of priest-musicians, who did the singing.

The Schola sang a chunk of a psalm, the doxology (Gloria Patri et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum—if you’ve heard any Christian service, you’ve heard this doxology in some form, in English, Latin, or the vernacular of the service in question. Sometimes it’s sung, sometimes it’s spoken), and then a repeat of the psalm verse. During the singing, the congregation lined up for their individual portions of bread and wine, and if the chant ended, the rest of the people took communion in silence.

In the 7th century or so, the practice of giving individual communion was abandoned, and they also abandoned the need for such a long piece of music. But music was evolving and by the 8th and 9th centuries, the communion portion of the Mass had become an impressive piece of music. You have to remember that music of this time was memorized—music notation wasn’t invented until the 10th century (for more on this, see my post on the History of Music Notation), so a long and complex chant was exciting on many levels. It might be different every time you heard it.

At first, the communion chant was sung as a responsory, with the congregation singing back certain predictable phrases to the Schola. But it evolved into something more complex and interesting, a chant worthy of contemplation and consideration by the congregation during this holy portion of the Mass service.

By the 12th century, only the initial verse of the psalm and the doxology remained, with psalm tones (verses sung on a reciting note) included to lengthen the piece to accommodate the entire congregation stepping forward for communion. Eventually, even the psalm tone disappeared, except in the Mass for the Dead, which uses Lux Aeterna, the subject of this blog post. (Yay! I’m finally getting to it!)

A Look at the Chant

The Requiem Mass, as you might imagine, tells stories of life eternal, of peace and light being part of a permanent slumber, and offers comfort to the survivors. And the Communion, the last piece of the Propers (the music that changes daily, as opposed to the Ordinaries—the Kyrie, Credo, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei—that are part of every Mass), is the final opportunity to impart wisdom.

This is what the chant looks like:

Lux Aeterna

The neumes that make up the notes have been used since the late 11th century and people who sing chant today still use them. There’s a lot of information there: the intervals between the notes, the duration of the notes in context of the rest of the notes (not rhythm, just length), when to change notes and how the text syllables line up, when to breathe, and what mode the piece is in (for more on modes, read my post on Church Modes), and there’s even a cool little thing called a custos, that tells the singer what the first note on the next line will be. I don’t know why this little gem didn’t make it into modern music, as it’s incredibly useful.

You can see that the notes all have similar shapes, mostly square blocks, some with dangly bits, a few diamond-shaped notes, and the occasional squiggle. There are some vertical lines that break up phrases, and others that group the neumes into groups of two and three notes. There are only four lines on the staff (modern staves have five), and the clef, the one that tells where the scales begin and end, is only roughly similar to a modern clef. In truth, this early music offers all the information you need. Modern notation adds key signatures, another staff line, rhythmically countable measures, and a greater variety of note types and lengths, but those things weren’t necessary before about the 13th century, when polyphony began to develop. (You can read more about polyphony in Chords versus Polyphony.)

The Sound of Lux Aeterna

This is what Lux Aeterna sounds like:

  • This version was sung by Giovanni Vianini at the Schola Gregoriana Mediolanensis in 2008: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vm0x3EtFcf8. What I like about it is that it’s unhurried; he enjoys letting each note, each word, each phrase float out into the space and resonate there.
  • Here’s another version, sung by a group of men in unison: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bytwTiBIsM. They hurry a little through each clump of words with long pauses at the end of each phrase, so I don’t like it as well as the solo performance, but the chant is much more likely to be sung by a group than as a solo, and I thought you should hear it.

The words they’re singing are:

           Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine; cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es.

          Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua, luceat eis.

That translates (according to my 1949 Liber Usualis) as:

May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord, in the company of your saints for eternity, for you are full of goodness.

Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them.

Now here’s the interesting bit. Unlike most chant texts, this one comes from a book of the New Testament that was written in Hebrew rather than Greek and isn’t included in the New Testament of most Christian denominations.

I asked a Bible-scholar friend about context for the text, as the Liber Usualis cites a chapter and verse of a book that none of my Catholic friends had heard of. Lux Aeterna is from the fourth chapter of Esdras or Ezra, my scholarly friend reports, a deuterocanonical work. That means that it was written by Christians to be part of the Old Testament before the New Testament was available. None of the original texts have survived and the only existing copies are in Latin, so they’re all translations from Hebrew. That means that no one knows what words were originally written.

My friend found the chapter in the Latin Vulgate Appendix and in the Slavonic Bible. Its presence in the Vulgate means that it was known to Latin Christendom by the late 5th century, so Saint Augustine (354-430) wouldn’t have read it or heard this specific chant. It’s about a hundred years too late.

The text is purported to have been written by Ezra the Scribe (fl 480-440 BCE), who led a group of Judean exiles from Babylonia and reintroduced the Torah to Jerusalem.

Ezra writes:

I received a command from the Lord on Mount Horeb to go to Israel. When I came there, they rejected me and refused the Lord’s commandment.

          Therefore, I say to you, “O Nations that hear and understand; wait for your shepherd; he will give you everlasting rest, because he who will come at the end of the age is close at hand. Be ready for the rewards of the kingdom, because perpetual light will shine on you forevermore.”

The relevant words in Latin (not the original Hebrew) are these, from Ezra 2:35:

          Parati estote ad praemia regni, quia lux perpetua lucebit vobis per aeternitatem temporis.

Which translates to:

Prepare for the rewards of the kingdom, for the everlasting light shall shine upon you forever.

You might notice that there’s no literal quotation here to match the one I offered earlier. It’s fairly safe to assume that this difference is caused by a different translation—varying interpretations are always a problem with translations.

The story Ezra tells is about going to Israel to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is rejected, and tells the Israelites of the promise of eternal light if they behave themselves. The Liber Usualis version is less of a compelling argument and more of a promise to the already faithful, which may be the interpretation of someone who was convinced that the Messiah had already come—the main difference between Christians and Jews.

A Little Historical Context

At the end of the 4th century, the nomadic (and violent) tribes from the north (such as Goths, Frisians, and Franks) began to adopt Christianity and abandon some of their pagan ways. Clovis I (c466-c511) had a battlefield conversion, and he and his wife convinced other Germanic tribes to convert. By the end of the 5th century, Catholicism—especially monastic Catholicism—had made its way to Ireland and became hugely popular there. Saint Brigit (c421-525) and Saint Patrick (dates unknown, but in the 5th century) were both seminal figures in Irish history, and both embraced a monastic lifestyle.

Also in the 5th century, the Catholic Church held synods that declared Mary the mother of the Christ but not the mother of God Himself. Those who disagreed fled east, eventually forming what we today call Oriental Orthodoxy (the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches—basically Byzantium).

It was at that same synod in the 5th century that Greek was abandoned as the language of scholars and Latin was adopted. Also in the 5th century, the tradition of monasticism, which came from certain strains of Judaism, was refined and broadly adopted—Saint Benedict, who wrote the seminal (and eponymous) Rule, was born near the end of the 5th century.

As you can see, this little Lux Aeterna chant came to being during a tumultuous and interesting time and allows us to peek at a change in attitudes toward Christianity itself.

Listening Corner

The story of this chant doesn’t end there. It’s time to settle yourself into a comfy chair and do some listening!

These polyphonic and chordal offerings are based on the Gregorian Lux Aeterna (they’re alphabetically listed by composer, so you’ll be leaping around in time), and you can hear the chant in them:

  • Ivo Antognini (b. 1963) wrote a haunting piece with elements of the chant mixed in with such a full sounding choir that it sounds like an orchestra. The piece resolves in a surprising way. Listen twice! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e21Xt4xtBmM
  • Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) wrote an incredible Requiem where the chant is very present throughout. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voVqgfbkfdM
  • Morten Lauridsen (b 1943) wrote an elaborate Funeral Mass and included the Lux Aeterna movement. The total recording is about half an hour, and this is the third 10-minute portion of it, as performed by the Lost Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izsW6LjExEQ. The Lux Aeterna movement begins at about 3 minutes in, and you can hear the original chant only slightly.
  • John Rutter (b. 1945) has the chant in it as performed by a soloist against more complex large-choir and orchestra backdrop. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86qJSIYxV_g
  • Z. Randall Stroope (b.1953) wrote this version for women’s voices and organ accompaniment. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FKRxDM7dFo. There are nice nods to the chant, and lots of interesting dissonances. Sadly, an abrupt ending to the recording leaves us not knowing if we’ve heard the last note and it’s musically weird enough that it’s impossible to guess.
  • Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote a version, performed here by the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m-5_2NAUxc It’s very much based on the chant, until it evolves into something more operatic. Love love love Nicolai Ghiarov, the bass (but they’re all good). So delicious, it felt almost naughty, that’s how much I liked it.
  • Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611, biography to come) wrote a Lux Aeterna movement in his Missa Pro Defunctis. You can hear it performed by the Gabrieli Consort here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNyKKH5wzA4. In this piece, you can hear each movement of the Mass announced first by chant, and it’s up to you to decide whether he stayed true to the chant in the polyphony or not.

Other pieces by the same name had no chant reference in them at all, but it was an interesting study (again, alphabetical):

  • Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) wrote a chant-like piece, only there’s rhythm (some chants have rhythm, but Gregorian chant never does). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh6oPghFnt0 This was recorded in the Vatican Basilica.
  • David Briggs (b.1962) wrote a Requiem, here performed by Euphony and members of the Northern Chamber Orchestra http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbPFN6_GgbY. It’s chant-like and haunting.
  • Steve Dobrogosz (b1956) uses chant elements, although he doesn’t quote the chant exactly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCOCT0264sE
  • Sir Edward William Elgar (1857-1934) wrote a movement that’s chant-like, although it doesn’t use the Gregorian chant. Lots of interesting things happen melodically, including a return to the sense of lightness from leaping high notes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnE_2_7XOPk
  • Gabriel Fauré wrote a Requiem in D Minor (Op. 48). This version was performed by the Orchetre de la Suisse Romande with the Chorale de la Tour de Peilz, conducted by Robert Mermoud. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xePppyFyLc The Agnus Dei is compelling even though it’s not at all chant-based. The Lux Aeterna begins at about 2:05, and continues the trend of not being based on the Gregorian chant.
  • György Ligeti (1923-2006), wrote a note-clustering style for 16 solo voices that resolves into a familiar chord only occasionally. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgRZnsAgKng
  • Clint Mansell’s (b.1963) movie version Requiem for a Dream is repetitive and intense, and frankly, I enjoyed a metal version of it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Exsu5a-rvz0 more than the intended orchestral version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbS-Zhz31CA. The Kronos Quartet did a version as well, which I also liked better than the movie version. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpL7YqtD28o
  • Fernando Moruja (1960-2004) wrote an exquisite offering that I thought was too short. I want more, but it looks like he had a short life. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=No822zwTUp0
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote a Lux Aeterna movement in his Requiem Mass, which he meant to have performed at his own funeral. This version is conducted by Karl Richter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CE2oyU3fBP8. There’s no real evidence of the chant melody in this rather staunch version.
  • Pawel Szymansky (b.1954) wrote a splinky bells, harp, and random vocal notes version that sounds simple but is probably devilishly hard to perform. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T–mACkxMz8
  • This last one is uncredited. There’s dreadful (in my opinion) organ chording underneath the chant, and then it bursts into thankfully unaccompanied polyphony. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hR5e-vQ2LvQ When the chant starts up again, so does the organ. Too bad. (I suppose some might like it, but it sounds very wrong to my ears.)

Recordings That Might Interest You

These are some recordings I had on my shelf, so I can vouch for their yumminess. They’re in no particular order.

  • Tallis Scholars “Requiem,” which includes Victoria’s (c1548-1611) Requiem Mass (exceprted above), Duarte Lobo’s (1565-1646) Requiem Mass, and Manuel Cardoso’s (1566-1650) Requiem Mass.
  • Athestis Chorus, conducted by Filippo Maria Bressan, which includes the Requiem in the Venetian Manner, by Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739).
  • Ensemble Organum, conducted by Marcel Peres, on a recording of Johannes Ockeghem (c1420-1497), Requiem, 11th track. Yay. Very chant based, and only barely polyphony, as polyphony was in its infancy.

And now for something completely different: Having (perhaps) nothing to do with the chant, but using the name Lux Aeterna, here’s a nice dance company. There are no credits for music or dancers, but it was intense and fun to watch! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zkzYVdBVO0

Sources:

“Gregorian Chant,” by Willi Apel. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990.

“Liber Usualis,” edited by the Benedictines of Solesmes. Society of St. John the Evangelist, Tournai Belgium, 1949.

“New Revised Standard Bible,” edited by Bruce M. Metzger. Oxford University Press, New York, 1991.

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Instrument Biography: The Positive Organ

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Note: A LOT has been written on the subject of organs. In order to make a more digestible article, I’ve split out portative and positive organs into separate articles from the main pipe organ piece, along with short pieces on harmoniums (reed organs), regal organs (pump organs) and electric organs. You may find that some basic information is repeated in each for the purposes of clarity.

The positive is a small, usually one manual (a keyboard played with the hands), pipe organ built to be mobile. It was commonly used for both sacred and secular music between the 10th and the 18th century, and it was also popular as a chamber organ, used to play the basso continuo in ensemble works. The smallest positive is little more than keyboard-height, and is also called a chest or box organ. These are still popular for basso continuo work because you can move them into the suitable spot in a suitable chamber. Positives that were meant to be the center of attention were usually taller.

Despite its similarity to an ordinary English word, it’s actually French and is pronounced pos-ih-teev. It’s also called the  positiv, positif, portable organ, and chair organ. It comes from the Latin verb ponere, which means “to place.”

The positive is also a name for a large organ that had the pipes behind the organist’s back. This type is also known as a chair organ or Rūckpositive. Modern organs (after the Romantic era) often call a whole division of pipes the chair organ because they’re the most likely to be in the portable positive. The pipe organ came in many forms between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (see the Church Organ biography for more about those). By the Baroque, even processional and tabletop organs existed, although they were less popular than the larger positives. The Orgelbewegung (the guiding treatise to the 20th century revival of historical instruments) didn’t emphasize them much in the 20th century, though.

The earliest specifically instrumental music notation was for organ, probably because, since Carolingian times, an organist was likely to be musically literate—meaning that they could attach a letter name (see Odo of Cluny) or solmization (see Guido d’Arezzo) to specific notes. The small amount of instrumental music that survives from the 13th and 14th century is monophonic dances, with notation resembling that of vocal music. Keyboard sources, unlike vocal music, use a variety of types of score and tablature to document two or more parts for the convenience of a single player.

There is an obvious connection between the development of the bagpipe and the development of the pipe organ well into the 2nd century (because of the bellows) just as there’s an obvious connection between the panpipe and both the organ and the bagpipe (wind, passing through or across the pipes, makes them sound).

The invention of the organ dates from the 3rd century BCE and the instrument features prominently in musical life by medieval times. Small portative organs, with bellows operated by one of the player’s hands, are commonly depicted in the iconography of the period. By the 15th century, larger positive organs were placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and had their bellows operated by a second person. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged.

Positive Organ History

The key element of the organ dates back to Ctesibius of Alexandria (flourished 285-222 BCE), who is credited with inventing the hydraulis. The hydraulis used water to affect the air pressure in a tube and if that’s sounding familiar, that’s because it’s also the system on which pneumatics are based.

Ctesibius’ interest in the hydraulis had more to do with making music than with lifting things up. His organ used the same principle as the bagpipe, with its bellows and multiple pipes, most shaped like a flue, which were the precursors of the recorder’s fipple (a blog on recorders is in the works). Air was pumped into a cylinder that was half full of water. The cylinder had a hemispherical container inside it that forced the air to flow around it and, conveniently, kept debris in the water from gunking up the pipe. The water acted much as later versions’ wind-reservoir would, holding the air pressure steady. The pipes attached to a connecting tube that released the air into the appropriate pipe when a simple set of keys was depressed. Later instruments offered a series of pipes using this same system in various tunings that could be accessed by a series of plugs (called stops) on the side of the instrument.

The organ found its way to Rome in about 50 CE. It was used in theatrical performances and at gladiatorial contests, possibly with horns and tubas. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum. It was probably a domestic instrument as well, and was thought to have been played by Nero.

The hydraulis’ popularity waned and 1000 years later, when the hydraulis was brought into France from Byzantium, it was an unknown novelty. Sadly, by then, it was also missing its most important part, the water compressor.

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It had been presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes, three stopped ranks, one open rank, and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

An early positive is visible on a carving of Theodosius, commemorating his death, in the 4th century.

In the 7th century in the Christian world, Pope Vitalian is credited with introducing the much-evolved bellows organ to the Catholic church service. It served as support for singers, both as a foundation, playing lower notes than could be sung, and to offer timbre options in the higher registers. It’s ideally suited to accompany singing, whether by a congregation, a choir, cantor, or other soloists. Many church services still include organ accompaniment as well as a solo repertoire, often as a prelude at the beginning of the service and a postlude at the conclusion.

Early organs were preserved in Italy, Spain, and England, but the decisive stimulus to the development of the organ came from Byzantium through Franconia, during the reign of Pepin and Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th century. This organ wasn’t the hydraulis of history, because that didn’t really make it out of the first century CE. Instead of complicated water and air pumps, the new instrument used a bellows that could be worked by hands or feet. By the end of the 9th century, Franconian organ building was so highly esteemed that Pope John VIII summoned a master from the diocese of Friesing to build an organ for him in Rome.

Monastic churches had early organs by 1100, probably portatives and positives, and by 1300, positives were common in cathedrals as well. In the 12th century, substantial improvements were made. After that, proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them.

Organ tablature (written music, but not on the staff) was probably invented in the late 13th century. The earliest organ tablature known is from the early 14th century, and is called the Robertsbridge fragment. In this British fragment, all 12 keys of the octave are already required (remember, music was predominantly modal (see The History of Music Notation and Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes) for more on this). There are questions about whether the accidentals (sharps and flats that are not part of the key signature) are written in by the original documenter or by a later hand.

Until around 1400, the organ had a single keyboard with a range of one to three octaves, the keys were large and cumbersome or consisted of sliders that moved in and out, and there were no stops to allow the variety of color and tone that we’re used to today. The sound was a fixed, and fairly loud, mixture of several ranks of pipes. Pedals and a second manual were added in Germany and the Netherlands in the late Middle Ages, the second manual having its own pipe-work located behind the player (which is why it’s called Rūckpositive in German).

National preferences for organ building emerged during the Renaissance. German innovations included additional manuals and interesting new tone colors. Italian and English organs remained simpler, often with a single manual and a basic chorus of stops with only one or two individually distinctive colors. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) wrote the richest source of knowledge about organs as part of Syntagma Musicum.

With the refinement of the keyboard and development of finger techniques in the 13th and 14th centuries, a small movable positive was devised, suitable for church or secular surroundings. In contrast with the church organ, it required only one person to work the bellows. The secular version later became the chamber organ found in English homes and used in consort music.

The Halberstadt positive organ is the first instrument known to cover the chromatic scale. A great many pipes would have been necessary and a great number of keys, and because the combination would have needed more space for this, it’s probable that the chromatic adaptation happened in the 14th century.

There are many miniatures that include positive images among the illuminated manuscripts at the British Museum from the Middle Ages, especially from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Because a second person was necessary to work the bellows, and because it was neither super portable like the portative nor grand like the Great Organ, the positive organ’s popularity also dwindled during the 16th century.

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, positives were used at many civil and religious functions. They were used in the homes and chapels of the rich, at banquets and court events, in choirs and music schools, and in the small orchestras of composers as conspicuous as Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) (biography to come) at the beginning of musical drama (which would later become opera).

According to Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), the two middle manuals of the Halberstadt organ were designed for two-part playing. The two outer ones, the Descant manual, in which each key sounded as many as 32, 43, or even 56 pipes, and the pedal board, where each pedal key controlled 16, 20, or 24 pipes, were provided for powerful effects. Praetorius said it was quite loud.

Less appreciated during the Classical period than the Baroque, the positive was regarded as too rigid and lifeless. Both the portative and the positive gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the church organ remained in general use.

The positive was regarded as too rigid and lifeless during the Classical period than the Baroque,. Both portative and positive gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the Church organ remained in general use.

Positive Organ Structure

The positive organ was sized somewhere between the tiny portative and the huge church organ. You might think of it as about the same size as a spinet piano, although it would have been less wide and a little deeper, and possibly taller behind the keyboard.

The instrument is portable, but unlike the portative, it isn’t meant to be played while moving. It has a larger keyboard than the portative, usually having 49 notes or more (older instruments have slightly fewer), and a portative might have as few as 12 or 13 notes.

Many positives, both of the box and cupboard types, can be thought of as upper and lower parts that can be moved separately. The lower part contains the bellows, blower and treadle, and perhaps the largest of the pipes. The upper part contains the pipes and the manuals. Wheeled casters or a custom-made hand truck are used to move them.

The positive has more than one register, and because it was played with both hands, was satisfactory to play later music that used newfangled chords. The Orgelbewegung treatise (a 20th century revival of historical instruments) has created an interest in small positives that can be played with both hands. These small instruments are occasionally called portatives, especially if their pipes are arranged like those of the true portative.

The positive was usually used as accompaniment rather than as a solo instrument. It had a tender and gentle tone, and was popular during the Baroque period.

The hydraulis used water to determine the note played (see the Church Organ post for more). The positive developed from this ancient concept, where the pipes were sounded by moving air pressure that was maintained by the weight of water, and that could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device rather than by finger holes along the pipe. The air was moved by a bellows.

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It was presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes (three stopped and one open) and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

The number of pipes controlled by individual keys and pedals was possible because of something called register-stops. These weren’t a new development in the Middle Ages but track back to antiquity. The Middle Ages appreciated the mixtures in which every note was accompanied by several fifths and octaves (overtones and harmonics), making the original note sound fuller and richer.

By the Middle Ages, it was understood that pipe structure affected the tone and color of the notes, and whole ranks of pipes were built with differing lengths but similar dimensions—some were wide, some were narrow, some conical, some inversely conical, some stopped, and some open—in order to get a certain uniformity of sound within the rank. In the 15th century, sharper and shriller reed pipes were invented, where the pitch was determined by a simple metal reed and the tone was colored by a belled mouth. All of these various groups of pipes could be connected by register-stops.

German organ builders drew on elements of French and Dutch organs just as German composers drew on musical styles of the Italians, French, and northern lands. The best known builders were Arp Schnitger (1648-1718) and Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). They adopted the Dutch practice of dividing the pipes into a main group and subsidiary groups, each with its own keyboard and pipes having a particular character and function. The main group, the Hauptwerk (Great Organ), sits high above the player. Other groups include Ruckpositive, mounted on the outside of the choir balcony rail behind the player’s back, a Brustwerk, directly above the music rack in front of the player, the Oberwerk, high above the Great, and the pedal organ, whose pipes are usually arranged symmetrically on both sides of the Great.

Only the largest German organs had all of these components. Yet even a modest two-manual instrument could create a great variety of sounds combining variously voiced principal, flute, and reed pipes as well as mixtures, in which pipes sounding upper harmonics add brilliance to the fundamental tone (the fundamental is the note you mean to sound and the harmonics and overtones are the other notes that make up that note).

The pipes were usually flue pipes in 4’ and 2’ and occasionally a 1’ tone. Positive organs with reed pipe registers were rare.

Innovators made it easier to move the slides by creating keys that could be pressed and returned to the original stopping position by springs. The spring mechanism was first mentioned in Hero of Alexandria’s “Pneumatics” in the 1st century CE. His contemporary, Vitruvius (c80-c15 BCE) describes a more complicated instrument with double pumps and four, six, or eight canals that admitted or denied wind to a separate rank of pipes. Early images often depict a bagpipe rather than an organ to illustrate the principles on which this pneumatic system was based.

The earliest image of keys is in a 7-inch high terracotta model of an organ with its player from the 2nd century CE, found at Carthage. It had 18 broad keys that play three ranks each of 18 pipes. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, not reeds). The player would have used both hands, the left hand for changing the drone note, and the right for playing the melody. This idea of playing against a drone wasn’t new; Roman philosopher Seneca (c4 BCE-65 CE) makes reference to consonance on stringed instruments in the 1st century CE. (This is an indication of simultaneous differing sounds rather than any kind of polyphony.)

The introduction of pedals was probably because the largest pipes were hard to sound—great pressure was needed to overcome the air-pressure and make the wind move in the pipes. The feet were simply stronger, and so a keyboard for the feet developed. Most positives offer only one keyboard and no foot pedals, although some use pedals to control stops.

In the 15th century, both portative and positive organs had only a few chromatic notes (B-flat, F-sharp, and C-sharp). The Halberstadt positive organ is the first instrument known to cover the chromatic scale. A great many pipes would have been necessary and also a great number of keys, and it’s probable that the chromatic adaptation happened in the 14th century when they were making other renovations.

The wind was supplied by a second person operating the bellows, but modern positives have electric blowers. In the Baroque period, they developed a reservoir to store air so that the bellows didn’t have to be pumped constantly. Air pumped from bellows passes through conduits into the wind-chest and goes from there into the soundboard, where the keyboard uses it to sound a note through the associated pipe.

The larger the organ, the more stops they can offer; some are specifically treble and some are divided, allowing each stop to be activated in the treble or bass portions of the keyboard. This makes it possible to play a melody and an accompaniment using different registrations at the same time.

Positives usually have few stops compared to larger organs. There are three that are standard—the 8’ stop, a 4’ flute, and 2’ principal (diapason). Somewhat larger positives might also have 2 2/3’ or other mutation stops and a small mixture of other pipes. Some have an 8’ reed stop, like a regal organ.

In a slider soundboards, the grooves underlying all the pipes are specific to a particular key. The sliders work across the grooves and are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off. The solid portions of the sliders close the pipes. When the register is to be included, the slider is pulled out until the holes are situated under the feet of the pipes so that the wind can enter unimpeded when the key is depressed. It was less likely to break than the spring version of stops, and was universally adopted in the Baroque period.

Positive Organ Name

I didn’t find anything to explain why the positive is named that way in English or any other language. It’s called a Rūckpositive in German, because the pipes were behind the player.

Positive Organ Players

Abt Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) was a German who wandered all over Germany and England, and whose fame spread far beyond those boundaries. He opened three music schools and saw a lot of excellent musicians become professionals. He also did some work on changing the design of the organ. The English poet Robert Browning wrote a poem to him.

Cesar Franck (1822-1890) was a Belgian who came to study at the Paris Conservatoire and became a professor of organ there in 1871. His improvisatory style expanded on the repertoire of Bach and the French Baroque, and in the end, the design of the organ adapted to accommodate it as well. This style included lyrical themes, contrapuntal development, and orchestral color. He reportedly had huge hands  that could easily span 12 white notes on the keyboard (most people can reach eight), which may have affected his style. He only wrote 12 pieces for the organ (he was into improvisation), but was considered the best organ composer after Bach.

Gilles de Bins (c1400-1460), known as Binchois (biography to come), was a chorister and organist in France for three decades. He spent time working for William Pole, earl of Suffolk, who was in France with the English occupying forces. He also joined the chapel of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy sometime around 1427, and served at the Duke’s court until he retired in 1453. His involvement with English musicians affected the French music that he wrote.

Positive Organ Composers:

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) wrote the “Fauvel” motets (the story of a horse’s exploits), some of which were to be played on the organ.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) documented the rapid development of the positive organ by documenting the Halberstadt Cathedral organ, placed on record in 1618. The instrument had been built in 1361 and renovated in 1495. It had three hand-claviers or manuals and one pedal board (for the feet).

Sources:

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.