The Medieval Review 10.03.12

Planchart, Alejandro, ed. Embellishing the Liturgy: Tropes and Polyphony. Music in Medieval Europe. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. Pp. liv, 559. $250 ISBN 978-0-7546-2764-7.

Reviewed by:

Robert Lagueux
Columbia College Chicago

The term "trope" refers to the addition to plainchant of text, music, or both. The practice saw its heyday in the tenth and eleventh centuries, though it began in the ninth century in reaction to the Gregorian chant that had been newly imposed by the Carolingians. Tropes offered the opportunity to "augment, embellish, explain or make more solemn the liturgy," and are of particular interest to scholars for the light they shed on the ways specific communities understood their liturgies and on patterns of composition and transmission (xi). This impressive collection is one of seven volumes in Ashgate's Music in Medieval Europe series, edited by Thomas Forrest Kelly, which aims to provide "an overview of the best current scholarship in the study of medieval music" (ix). The twenty-one well-chosen articles collected here, and the rubrics under which they are presented, will provide a solid foundation to anyone interested in the subject and help to lend some organization to a vast and ever-expanding corpus of trope scholarship.

The selections are grouped into five useful categories: Tropes in General (nine selections); Aquitaine and the West (three); St. Gall and the East (three); The Ordinary (four); and Tropes in the Office (two). The Table of Contents serves as a telling indicator of the way scholarship on this topic has unfolded: of the twenty-one articles, the four most recent date from 1992-4, and three of these appear in "St. Gall and the East." Indeed, "current scholarship" is a relative term. Two of the selections date from 1963 and eight appeared before 1980. The intent of this series, however, is to "sketch a picture of the shape of the field and of the nature of current inquiry" (ix); in light of this, it seems all but imperative that the earlier seminal works be included.

An extensive introduction by Planchart provides an important overview of troping, carefully explaining the problematic and ambiguous application of the term in both the Middle Ages and modern eras. Planchart provides a useful tripartite typology of tropes: those that add music without additional text; those that add words to a pre-existing melody; and those that add new text and music to a pre-existing chant. He then delineates how each of the three types of trope appears for each applicable genre of chant (antiphon, Gradual, Credo, etc.). Much of this will be familiar to those who know Planchart's trope article in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, but with one crucial exception: the discussion of the second category of trope, which receives only a few hundred words in Grove, is happily treated here to the same in-depth discussion as the other two categories. The list of works cited is an extensive, almost overwhelming, assemblage of primary and secondary sources. As it too overlaps, understandably, with the bibliography in the Grove article, one wonders if a categorized list like that in Grove might not have been more useful to the reader using this volume to approach the subject for the first time.

All of the selections in Part I, "Tropes in General," struggle in some way with the definition and origin of tropes and troping. Richard Crocker's 1966 article "The Troping Hypothesis" is a fitting start, as Crocker tries to undo some of the confusion wrought by scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The titular hypothesis is the "single, clear explanation...for the confusing wealth of musical forms introduced in the 9th and 10th centuries" (4); such uniformity, Crocker demonstrates, simply does not exist. Likewise questionable is the received wisdom that tropes are new texts and/or melodies appended to older, "official" chants, or that tropes "grow out of" source chants in an "impersonal, organic way" (10). David Hiley's 1983 "Some Observations on the Interrelationships Between Trope Repertories" takes advantage of the catalog of Christmastide tropes collected in first volume of Corpus Troporum (1975) to group manuscripts into families based on trope concordances, noting with interest that the "relationships between sources according to their trope repertories often contradict the evidence of the other aspects of liturgical tradition" (29-31).

Two contributions from Michel Huglo follow. The first, "Aux origins des tropes d'interpolation: le trope mloforme d'introt" (1978), provides a detailed catalogue of meloform tropes--that is, interpolated melismas without text--that appear in Easter and Pentecost Introits. Huglo also posits that in "melogene" tropes--those in which text is added to a pre-existing melisma--"on devrait chercher les plus anciens exemples de tropes" (74). The second, "Les 'libelli' de Tropes et les premiers Tropaires-Prosaires" (1986), examines not so much tropes themselves as the way they were transmitted in written form. Libelli composed of a few folia and containing tropes of a certain liturgical item (Gloria, Sanctus, etc.) could be circulated independently; the earliest Tropers collected libelli together but retained the layout of each libellus (starting each trope genre at the top of a new folio, for example). Later codices eliminated such traces, resulting in a through-copied manuscript.

Ritva Jacobson's and Leo Treitler's "Tropes and the Concept of Genre" (1986) tackles head-on the implications of the term "trope" among medievals and moderns, proposing that genre be "not simply a taxonomic class" but rather "the basis for an understanding of art works as aesthetic object, for the critic today, as well as for the beholder in history" (97). When we label a chant as hymn or trope, they posit, we make "a claim about the way the whole system of medieval ecclesiastical song worked" (98), and that process has not always been a fruitful one. Using the famous Quem quaeritis Easter dialogue as an example, they propose that medievals viewed tropes not as we might wish to, with clearly demarcated boundaries, but rather as part of the "higher order genre" of the mass text and thus "never as something one ought to study apart from its context" (123). John G. Johnstone's "Beyond a Chant: 'Tui sunt caeli' and its Tropes" (1983) is an important corrective to earlier claims about the stylistic distinctiveness and compositional self-sufficiency of the trope repertory. Examining a Christmas offertory and a set of Aquitanian tropes, Johnstone provides a case study on the combining of music and text "to form an organic entity unifying chant and trope" (128). In "The Liturgical Function of the Tropes" (1983), Ritva Jonsson does a close reading of the texts of Easter tropes in a source from Prüm. Noting that "the music of the tropes cannot itself explain the function of the tropes" (154), she calls attention to the power of trope texts to be exegetical and dramatic, as well as to be a "binding element" that helps a celebration cohere (156). She proposes a descriptive model based on a continuum from "firm" texts (introits such as Resurrexi) to "floating" trope elements (155).

The next selection, Planchart's "On the Nature of Transmission and Change in Trope Repertories" (1988), presents persuasive evidence that trope repertories transmitted in written form were subject to "acclimatization" to make them "conform to local tastes" (181). This process, which involved not just composing new pieces, "but also the textual and/or melodic reworking of tropes received from elsewhere" (186), was possible because tropes did not have the "juridical status of the Gregorian chant" (197). These local emendations thus reflect the influence of a local, oral tradition on an imported written repertory. Part I concludes with Bruno Stäblein's "Zum Verständnis des 'klassischen' Tropus" (1963). He, like Crocker, notes that several Ordinary chants that appear for the first time in the tenth and eleventh centuries do so with tropes, suggesting that both chant and trope were composed at the same time. This makes problematic the received wisdom that tropes were new compositions appended to older, more established chants.

Part II, Aquitaine and the West, opens with Paul Evans's "Northern French Elements in an Early Aquitainian Troper" (1970). This examination of the early 10th-century source Paris, BN lat. 1240 suggests that it reveals the early influence of northern France on the St. Martial trope repertory, an influence that eventually spread through the "Aquitainian notational area" before developing "specific, standardized local variations" (226). James Grier's "A New Voice in the Monastery: Tropes and Versus from Twelfth-Century Aquitaine" (1994) compares those two different genres--"the most important forms of devotional expression in their respective centuries" (231)--and accounts for the shift from one to the other by positing a change in the culture of their monastic creators to one that had "outgrown the restrictions of the liturgy" (273). The third selection, David Hughes's "Further Notes on the Grouping of the Aquitanian Tropers" (1966), provides a statistical method for comparing the affinities among trope sources.

Part III turns to tropes of "St. Gall and the East." Gunilla Björkvall and Andreas Haug provide an extensive overview in "Tropentypen in Sankt Gallen" (1993). David Hiley's "Some Observations on the Repertory of Tropes at St. Emmeram, Regensburg" (1992) offers thoughts on the early trope repertory at St. Emmeram and its relationship to other communities. In "From Tuotilo to the First Manuscripts: The Shaping of a Trope Repertory at Saint Gall" (1993), Susan Rankin offers a detailed codicological and musicological examination of two groups of tropers from St. Gall as evidence for a process of "sorting, selecting and organizing a proper trope repertory" (380), with the majority of the composing and assembling complete by the late tenth century.

Four selections compose Part IV, "The Ordinary." Charles Atkinson's 1977 article "The Earliest Agnus Dei Melody and its Tropes" takes up the question posed by Crocker: was there, in the ninth and tenth centuries, an established text and chant for the Agnus Dei? He concludes that indeed, the Agnus Dei predates its attendant verses, which can rightfully be labeled "tropes." In "The Kyrie Trope" (1980), David A. Bjork provides a far-ranging analysis and notes the musical independence of Kyrie tropes from the Kyrie to which they are attached, as well as a provisional chronology for the Kyrie trope repertory. Gunilla Iversen's "Pax et Sapientia" (1986) traces the central themes in tropes to the Agnus Dei and Sanctus and finds that they are primarily "theological expositions over the nature of divinity," and that they often "recall other liturgical texts in the same tradition" (481). Completing this survey of the Ordinary is Thomas Forrest Kelly's "Introducing the Gloria in Excelsis" (1984), which describes a chronology for the development of introductory tropes to the Gloria.

Part V, "Tropes in the Office," consists of two selections. Hans-Jörgen Holman's "Melismatic Tropes in the Responsories for Matins" (1963) advances the view that the melismatic conclusions of the great responsories from the tenth through thirteenth centuries were "originally conceived as additions to the respond proper," that is, as tropes (519). The collection concludes with Thomas Forrest Kelly's "New Music from the Old: The Structuring of Responsory Prosas" (1977), which illustrates "the prosa's increasing independence from the music of the Responsory" (549).

The volume does present a few disappointments. First, the subtitle is misleading, as there is scant discussion of polyphony (a topic that is deserving of its own dedicated volume, to be sure). Second, the selections in each section are organized by the authors' last names, rather than by date of publication, or, even more helpfully, topic. This is an issue only in the lengthy Part I, but even so it would have been helpful to place Hiley's and Planchart's articles on transmission, for example, next to each other, rather than separating them. In addition, the appearance of the musical examples in the Introduction is somewhat lacking: they appear to have been rendered in a notation program and slightly compressed horizontally; a thin line surrounds them, and the top of the example on p. xxxiv has been cut off. While this does not detract from their value, one might have expected their appearance to be more in line with the otherwise elegant presentation of the book. Finally, I was disappointed not to have Planchart as a guide throughout the volume. His Introduction offers a valuable overview of the subject and makes reference, when appropriate, to the selections that follow, but the reader who does not read all of the (lengthy) Introduction may not appreciate the import of a given article nor any developments subsequent to its publication. Brief editorial introductions to each article would have been immensely valuable in delineating the larger academic context and the ongoing nature of this scholarship.

Overall, this is a collection of considerable value. Stalwart readers who make their way through the entirety of this volume will come away with a rich understanding of the shape of scholarly investigation to date, as well as questions that remain unanswered and avenues for future research. What is more, this volume includes an index, which is extremely useful for a collection of this size and scope and a luxury that one cannot always expect. While medieval musicologists will already be familiar with most of the items collected here, medievalists in other disciplines, graduate students, and perhaps especially ardent chant enthusiasts will find much of value here.

This value comes at considerable cost, however. At $250, this book is priced well beyond the budgets of graduate students in musicology, the population that would likely benefit from it most. While ten of the selected articles originally appeared in Festschriften and collections that might not be readily available, eleven of them originally appeared in scholarly journals, and seven of those in the widely available Journal of the American Musicological Society. While non-specialists would benefit from some guidance in contextualizing individual selections, the scope of the collection, the quality of the scholarship, and the broad view of the field it provides make this book a significant contribution to Ashgate's and Kelly's admirable project.