00.02.02, Flynn, Medieval Music as Medieval Exegesis

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Gabriela Ilnitchi

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.002


Flynn, William T.. Medieval Music as Medieval Exegesis. Studies in Liturgical Musicology Vol. 8.. London: Scarecrow Press, 1999. Pp. ix, 288. ISBN: 0-81808-3656-4.

Reviewed by:
Gabriela Ilnitchi
Eastman School of Music

Interdisciplinary perspectives have long been recognized as critical to the study and understanding of the medieval liturgical practice in general, yet few authors embark on a such compelling journey as William T. Flynn does in his recent book. The issues he addresses are of interest to a wide range of students of medieval culture, from musicologists and liturgists, to scholars of medieval Latin literature and scriptural exegesis. One of his starting premises is that eleventh-century monasteries and cathedrals shared in common a "liturgical culture" marked by a synthesis of learning and devotion and dedicated to the interpretation of the scripture and the celebration of the liturgy. In order to uncover this exegetical and celebratory scope of eleventh-century cathedral liturgies, he suggests that one should read them as "interpretation[s] of the sacred page through understanding, appropriating, and proclaiming the scripture," as sacra pagina. Particular attention is to be given to the newly composed tropes and sequences, for they "display how monastic and clerical composers used their command of biblical and liturgical texts and their exegetical and rhetorical finesse, in order to find connections between the Old and New Testaments, and how they used ornamental language and music in order to enrich and adorn the rite." (245)

The specific tropes and sequences under consideration are taken from the eleventh-century Troper from the cathedral of St. Nazarius in Autun (Paris, Bibliotheque de L'Arsenal, MS 1169); the liturgical context for their musical and textual analysis is provided by the author's reconstruction of the Christmas and Easter "troped" masses as they might have been celebrated in Autun during the eleventh century. This analytical and interpretive undertaking occurs in Chapter 4 ("Liturgical sacra pagina"), the last chapter in the book. The first three chapters, on the other hand, examine the various aspects of the educational program designed to develop grammatical, rhetorical, musical, and exegetical skills that were considered necessary for a proper understanding of, and participation in, the liturgy. They also provide the theoretical underpinning for the analytical principles at work in the last chapter.

Flynn devotes the first chapter to the relationship between the study of grammar and rhetoric, and the composition or discussion of liturgical tropes and sequences. The analysis of several eleventh-century statements by Ekkerhard IV and Ademar of Chabannes in which the new liturgical compositions are explicitly related to grammatical terms and concepts, is followed by a very brief explanation of the grammatical and liturgical meanings of the terms tropus and prosa (sequentia), and by a lengthy presentation of the classical theories of ornamental language developed by Donatus, and their changes and adaptations in the hands of Augustine and Cassiodorus. The concepts, terms, and techniques thus surveyed inform Flynn's concluding discussion of the tropes and sequences as liturgical genres distinguished by their liturgical placement and functions. He relies heavily on earlier scholarship on the tropes and sequences in general, and their musical, functional, and textual relationships with grammatical and rhetorical models current at the time of their composition. Flynn's conjectures, however, seem to suggest that the same poetic and exegetical principles operated both in the composition of the new texts and in their interpretation, and that, as the reader will find out in the last chapter, such an interpretation was actuated in the celebration of the liturgy.

Following a similar program and having a similar purpose is chapter 2, where Flynn focuses on several ways in which grammar and rhetoric informed not only notational, but also analytical and pedagogical medieval practices as they can be extrapolated from several eleventh-century music treatises. As in the previous chapter, most conceptual premises are borrowed from the pre-existing scholarly literature on the various subjects. The discussion on the employment of liquescent, rhythmic and other types of neumes in the Autun Troper serves the purpose of exemplifying the notion that chant notation "encode a careful and accurate pronunciation of the text that reflects the rules of pronunciation found in the grammar treatises." (57) The survey of grammatical terms employed in music-theoretical discourses of the eleventh century in general and particularly of the relevance they have to medieval discussions of musical syntactics as witnessed in the writings of Guido of Arezzo and John (of Afflighem?) provides the equipment necessary to follow Flynn's analysis of the Introit trope set Discipulis flammas/SPIRITU DOMINI. This analysis also supports the author's notion that in tropes it was the musical "syllable" that more than any other grammatical division was used to construct larger syntactic units, and that the musical setting of tropes "was analogous to the function of linguistic tropes: creating patterns of association between words and phrases which were unusual and syntactically improper." (90)

Flynn tries to persuade us that there was a medieval perception of this ornamental aspect of the musical discourse (viewed of course in grammatical and rhetorical terms). He argues that the term tropus, as employed by Guido of Arezzo in his Micrologus, carries in one instance the meaning of "musical ornament, which highlighted the modes' powers of association through characteristic musical gesture." It is quite an attractive interpretation of Guido's text, but unfortunately questionable. Quite beneficial to the reader, however, are the discussion and the tables featured in the last segment of the chapter. We are here offered a synthetical view of how the various syntactical, verbal, and musical levels follow grammatical models, how verbal and musical strategies were employed for the purpose of "ornating" the liturgy in a compensatory fashion, and how the tropes and sequences reflect different forms of mediation between their textual and musical aspects.

The liturgical use of the scripture, Flynn argues in the next chapter, strengthened the interpretive techniques learned through the study of grammar and music. Patterns in the selection of the scriptural readings in liturgical context furthered the exercise of allegorical exegesis (the selections for the seasonal cycle, for example, reinforced typological interpretations of the scripture). The mass was allegorically interpreted by medieval commentators (Flynn briefly discusses passages from Amalar's Eclogae). The liturgical cursus in itself and the very celebration of the Mass, therefore, become loci for scriptural study and allegorical interpretation. Variable number of tropes and the presence of the sequence lead to a greater musical and poetic ornatus for some of the feasts and celebrations that in turn lead to a clearer distinction between various types of ferial and festal masses (the examples provided are culled from the Autun Troper). Tropes and sequences, Flynn affirms, "were geared towards the effective and eloquent proclamation of scripture-based songs ...which were themselves chosen for their allegorical richness." (137)

In chapter 4, Flynn provides a hands on analysis of the reconstructed Christmas and Easter celebrations at Autun. The textual and musical analysis of the Proper and Ordinary chants together with their accompanying tropes and sequences, draws upon methods of "reading" the liturgy developed in the previous, theoretical chapters. Even though one may disagree with some of his analytical and interpretive solutions, most of his conjectures are quite sound and they strongly support the central hypothesis of the study: that not only is the liturgy to be viewed as an exegetical textual and musical construct, but that the very enactment of this construct in its liturgical celebratory context becomes an expression of medieval method of sacra pagina. Composition and performance become thus complementary processes of liturgical action that generate and reinforce the typological, allegorical, and tropological interpretation of the scripture; in short, they are enactments of the medieval practice of scriptural exegesis.

Although the title of the book can be somewhat misleading, for the author is primarily concerned with liturgical chant and particularly with tropes and sequences and not with "medieval music" in general, and although some readers may find the various discussions centered around grammatical, rhetorical, or music theoretical concepts in need of further development and conceptual refinement, this study proposes some very appealing interpretations of the trope and sequence repertoires in the context of liturgical celebration. Even though this study is by and large a recasting of the material found in his 1992 doctoral dissertation, which may explain some of the organizatoric and discursive idiosyncrasies, one of Flynn's main accomplishment is that he succeeds quite elegantly in mediating between types of evidence, technical vocabulary, and methodologies specific to several distinct specialties. Scholars of various medieval disciplines will find this work thought provoking.

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Gabriela Ilnitchi

Eastman School of Music