09.12.19, Kelly, ed., Chant and its Origins

Main Article Content

Rebecca Maloy

The Medieval Review 09.12.19

Kelly, Thomas Forrest, ed.. Chant and its Origins. Music in Medieval Europe. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. Pp. 542. ISBN: 978-0-7546-2632-9.

Reviewed by:
Rebecca Maloy
University of Colorado

The repertory known as Gregorian chant comes down to us in a highly developed state, leaving few clues about how it was created. The broad outlines of the central problems of chant studies are these. We know that a similar repertory of chant was sung in Rome by at least the late seventh century. Beginning in the mid-eighth century, this repertory was widely disseminated through the Frankish kingdom as part of the liturgical reforms propagated by Pepin and Charlemagne. This Frankish version of Roman chant became the tradition known as Gregorian chant. The earliest manuscripts with musical notation, however, were copied in ninth-century Francia. Our earliest musical sources from Rome itself date from the late eleventh century, over three-hundred years after the melodies first reached the Franks. These Roman sources have many of the same chant texts and liturgical assignments that we find in the early Frankish sources, but they preserve substantially different versions of the melodies, a dialect that scholars have come to call Old Roman chant. The Frankish and Roman manuscripts contain no direct evidence about when the Roman chant originated or how closely the Gregorian and Old Roman melodies reflect those of seventh- or eighth-century Rome. Nor do they speak directly to how notation began or how the melodies were transmitted before notation.

These questions and the vigorous debate they have stimulated are the focus of the first two volumes in Ashgate's series Music in Medieval Europe, comprising seven volumes of reprinted articles. Thomas Forrest Kelly has chosen a broad spectrum of essays that will give readers a sense of the richness and diversity of chant scholarship. The articles in the first volume, Chant and Its Origins, address the early history, the questions surrounding Frankish and Roman contributions to the repertory, and, all too briefly, traditions outside the sphere of Franco-Roman chant. Volume 2, Oral and Written Transmission in Chant, deals with the origins of notation and the problems of oral and written transmission. Shorter sections of each volume are devoted to more practical issues, such as editions and performance.

The primary audience for these volumes will not be musicologists specializing in chant, who will already be familiar with most of this work. I envision a diverse readership: Medievalists outside the discipline of music, scholars from related disciplines such as liturgical studies, performers and other plainsong enthusiasts, graduate students preparing for comprehensive exams, and musicologists who do not specialize in chant. Despite the stated goal to provide "an overview of the best current scholarship" (italics mine), readers will find only a small sampling of recent developments. Most of the 37 selections were written in the 1970's and 1980's. Only six of the articles have appeared in the past 15 years, and only four in the last decade. The focus, then, is decidedly historiograhical, showing how the field evolved in the second half of the twentieth century.

The debate over the nature of orality seems a sensible place to begin an overview of the achievements these volumes represent. Helmut Hucke, Kenneth Levy, and Leo Treitler have been central figures; together, their contributions account for nearly a quarter of the reprinted essays. Kelly's equitably chosen selections will give readers a balanced picture of the different sides of the debate. Treitler's seminal "Homer and Gregory" (1974) re-imagined how the melodies could be made and transmitted without notation. Treitler envisioned chant as living oral tradition in which singing from memory and composing are closely related processes. Examining a group of related formulaic melodies, he proposed a set of rules and principles that would have aided singers in learning and remembering the melodies. Taking a view that was similar in many essentials, Hucke characterized the melodies as "documentations of a performance practice," proposing that we could discover the processes that guided the performance through imaginative melodic analysis. This approach is demonstrated in "Chant Research at the Turn of the Century and the Analytical Programme of Helmut Hucke," Edward Nowacki's translation of and commentary on one of Hucke's articles, presented in the second volume.

Hucke's and Treitler's proposals shook to its core a field previously focused on the reconstruction of archetypes and became the starting point for the decades-long conversation documented in the second volume of this series. Much of the argument centered on the degree of melodic fixity that characterized the oral tradition. Assuming that a reconstructive model of transmission must involve a varied melodic tradition, David Hughes ("Evidence for the Traditional View," 1987) pointed to the stability of written sources as evidence that the melodies acquired a "fixed form" before they were notated. Although Levy argued for the role of "verbatim memory" in the early transmission of the melodies, he ultimately held that memorization of the full repertory was impossible, a springboard for his theory that a notated archetype existed by the year 800 ("Charlemagne's Archetype," 1987). Particularly welcome voices in Kelly's presentation of the debate are those of Lázsló Dobszay and Emma Hornby. Dobszay explores the orality question in the light of the tradition of Estergom, where pitched notation was a late arrival, noting that "the only source for recording the local variant tradition must have been the living memory of the community itself." In a more recent piece, Hornby emphasizes the variability among early sources, characterizing the situation as one of compatibility rather than uniformity.

As attentive readers will see, central epistemological differences often underlie these debates. Much turns on the interpretation of facts that can be read in a number of reasonable ways, and the participants often lack a set of shared assumptions about how specific pieces of evidence should be used to construct a past. These disparities perhaps come most clearly to the fore in the debate over Levy's theory of a neumed archetype by the year 800. Levy's "indices" for this archetype range from the interpretation of the word "neumas" in a key primary source, to the similarity of notation forms in regional scripts, to the shared notational groupings of a rare chant in disparate sources, which, he argues, attest to a written transmission. Treitler's response and Hornby's essay are devoted in part to showing that there are other plausible ways to read the evidence, leading to very different conclusions.

As introductions to the history of the field, these articles give a sense of the striking variety of methodologies brought to bear on the central questions. Many contributions are informed principally by a close engagement with primary sources. Susan Rankin demonstrates how close paleographical work on a group of related sources can shed new light not only on scribal practice at a specific monastery (St. Gall), but also on the very origins of notation. Joseph Dyer's "The Offertory Chant of the Roman Liturgy and Its Musical Form" demonstrates how liturgical history can shed light on the origins of a genre, overturning a once-persistent view that the offertory originated as an antiphonal chant. Charles Atkinson's close reading of grammatical sources and notational documents allows him to argue persuasively for the place of prosodic accents in the origins of music notation. As mentioned, other contributions employ musical analysis as a means of gaining insight into the pre-notational transmission process. Nowacki's "Gregorian Antiphons and the Comparative Method" illustrates well the fruitfulness of this approach. James McKinnon examines the origins of the communion with an innovative synthesis of liturgical and musical evidence that became the basis of his 2000 book The Advent Project.

On some of these issues, the coverage tends too far in the historical direction and not enough toward recent work. In the section titled "Roman and Frankish Chant" (volume 1), for example, the view that the Gregorian and Old Roman melodies both originated in Rome assumes a prominent role, not only in the contributions of Stäblein (1974) and van Dijk (1963) but also that of Paul Cutter (1967), which is devoted largely to a critique of these positions. While this opinion was widely held in the 1950's and 1960's, support for it has faded in the past thirty-five years, as scholars have embraced the more plausible view proposed by Hucke: the Gregorian melodies arose in an eighth- and ninth-century northern context, reflecting a Frankish redaction of the Roman chant. Stated another way, the Gregorian and Old Roman melodies both descend from the eighth-century Roman chant tradition. Hucke's views on the matter are represented here by his single English- language article, "Toward a New Historical View of Gregorian Chant" (1980).

Since that time, the debate has turned to the question of which tradition more closely reflects the seventh- and eighth-century Roman chant. In contributions to this volume, Thomas Connolly (1972) proposes that the eleventh-century Roman dialect is closer to the eighth-century tradition, whereas Edward Nowacki (1985) argues for at least some change on the Roman side, anticipating a view that has gained further ground in the past decade. [1] The only two contributions from recent years explore the possibility of a reverse, Frankish-to-Roman transmission. Levy's "Gregorian Chant and the Romans" posits that the Old Roman melodies reflect an exchange between Francia and Rome subsequent to the Frankish reception of Roman chant; Gallican melodies with Roman texts, he argues, were transmitted back to Rome and partially incorporated into the existing Roman dialect. Andreas Pfisterer's "Remarks on Roman and non-Roman Offertories," concerned with verbal texts rather than melodies, places the interaction between Rome and Gaul during the time the Roman repertory was being assembled in the fifth and sixth centuries. While these essays provide a valuable perspective, they do not (yet) change the sense that a good part of the repertory originated in Rome, and that separate branches of this tradition are reflected in the Gregorian and Old Roman melodies. Many important contributions to the Roman-Frankish question, made more recently, do not appear in these volumes. [2]

Volume 1 includes two introductory essays that give a broader overview of the field. David Hiley's "Writings on Plainchant in the 1980's and 1990's" is especially valuable for its survey of subfields that are not otherwise covered in the volumes, including studies on people, places, and manuscripts. [3] Readers will readily appreciate Hiley's penchant for explaining the issues in an easily graspable way. Richard Crocker's "Gregorian Studies in the 21st Century" (1995), by contrast, does not sit well as an introduction to chant studies (which, in all fairness, it was never intended to be). Crocker assesses the field with an extreme pessimism toward the very enterprise these volumes represent. As I read him, Crocker would have us concern ourselves with the existing repertory rather than asking how it came to be that way. He is certainly right to point to the hypothetical nature of this work. With so little direct evidence about the origins of chant, many of the theories expressed in these volumes are unlikely to move from hypothesis to established fact. Crocker, however, goes as far as to say that "any ideas we can derive from the Gregorian itself about how Western Latin chant might have been before c. 650 are fantasy," as if there were no difference between hypothesis and fantasy. If I were a nonspecialist stumbling upon these volumes, I would hardly be encouraged to read further. While it may be intellectually risky to deal in a hypothetical realm, these volumes show that the risks have been well worth it. The dialogue has brought us to a much deeper understanding of the issues--and the repertory--than we would otherwise have.

As admirable as the selections on origins and orality are, any reviewer would be remiss not to note what is missing. Because the articles are reprinted without updates or commentary, nonspecialist readers will receive scant guidance on their reception and subsequent developments. Some of the reprints do speak for themselves, in part because they have not received due attention. Kelly has done a great service in including some important essays that originally appeared in less prominent places, such as Festschriften and conference proceedings. Because these collections are not readily available for purchase or perusal in academic libraries, the articles they contain are likely to be unfamiliar to nonspecialists. Among these is Dobszay's critique of Jean Claire's theories on the origin of octoechos (the system of eight modes), which persuasively demonstrates their untenability. In particular, Dobszay takes issue with the extreme evolutionary assumptions that underlay Claire's views. Although Claire's theories may not be widely accepted among English- and German-speaking scholars, they have informed the editions of chant performed at Solesmes and elsewhere, and they may have adherents among the potential readership. Another important reprint is Don M. Randel's reflection on the importance of Old Hispanic chant as a window into pre-Carolingian liturgies, one of a small number of essays fully devoted to non-Roman chant. Randel argues persuasively for the potential of Old Hispanic chant to shed light on questions that have occupied scholars of Roman chant, an agenda that has not been fully pursued in subsequent scholarship. While many readers will know Peter Jeffery's work on the liturgy and chant of early Christian Jerusalem, they may be less familiar with the contribution included here, where he employs those findings as a framework for interpreting the small bits of evidence about the early Roman liturgy. With a new accessibility in these collections, these essays may assume a more influential role in the debates.

On the other end of the spectrum are prominent articles that have already been extensively pored over in places ranging from graduate seminars to flagship journals. In these cases, the continuing threads of the discussion are crucially important, and readers of an anthology like this need some guidance on where to find them. Treitler, for example, subsequently responded to a main objection to his reconstructive model of oral transmission, seeking to reconcile it with the stability of the written tradition. The same Levy and Treitler essays included in these volumes, in fact, have also been published in more recent retrospective collections of their work, along with prefaces in which they review or refine their arguments in the light of recent developments. [4] Printing these essays a third time, without these updates or any new commentary, does seemingly little to move the conversation forward. McKinnon's theory that the Roman communion cycle was completed in the eighth century, a central thesis of his fifty-page contribution (1992), was substantially amended in The Advent Project (2000), where he argues for a completion in the late seventh century. Nowacki's views on the chronology of office antiphons, while not the main focus of the article included here, were also revised in subsequent publications. [5] Jeffery entered into the orality debate in 1992, followed by a heated exchange in Journal of the American Musicological Society and elsewhere. [6]

Although the inclusion of Hiley's survey of scholarship compensates for some missing strands of the orality and origins debate, it is current only through 1997. Much important work on origins has appeared in the past decade, though often in monographs rather than articles. To name only a few examples, Jeffery has demonstrated the influence of monastic reading on early Roman chant, and James Grier has argued for an early origin of music notation for different reasons than Levy. [7] Most crucially, two major studies on the origins of Roman chant, reaching very different conclusions, have been published in the last decade, McKinnon's The Advent Project and Pfisterer's Cantilena Romana. Kelly's brief introductions to the volumes mention both books in passing but do not summarize their findings. McKinnon proposes that the bulk of the Roman repertory was created in the late seventh century, whereas Pfisterer, argues that the repertory was assembled gradually, between the fifth and early-seventh centuries. Each book has chapters that are self-contained enough to be extracted, and it is a shame not to find them represented here, either by excerpts from the books themselves or by reviews of them.

Each of the volumes has one section devoted to more practical issues: editions, repertories, and performance. Like the earlier articles on Old Roman chant, some of these pieces will be of interest primarily to readers with a historiographical bent. The section titled "Editions and Repertories," for example, consists of two articles, published in 1978 and 1987. In the first, Jacques Froger describes the efforts of the Solesmes monks in the 1960's and 70's to find an "authentic" version of the repertory through detailed comparison of manuscripts. Next Hartmut Möller assesses René Jean Hesbert's Corpus antiphonalium officii, a monumental edition of the texts of sources for the Divine Office completed in 1979. Since that time, most of the scholarly community has moved beyond the search for an authentic text, acknowledging the oral origins of the repertory and the distance that separates the written sources from the oral tradition. These two pieces, however, make interesting reading from a historiographical perspective. Möller gives a particularly good demonstration of why Hesbert and others who searched for an archetype were asking the wrong questions. Faced with a great variety in the order and selection of chants, Hesbert sought to establish an original repertory and order, primarily through the majority principle. Möller explains not only the mathematical flaws of this method but, more crucially, how Hesbert's search for an archetype masks the individual structure of the tradition represented in each source. In this respect, the chant scholarship of this period lagged far behind liturgical studies, where efforts to establish an archetype for sacramentaries and other texts had long been abandoned.

As Möller notes, the great achievement of Corpus antiphonalium officii was to create an indispensable tool for identifying and studying local traditions and the relationships between them. Since that time, scholars have embraced the variety obscured in Hesbert's calculations as a topic of interest in its own right. To find the fruits of that work, however, readers of these volumes will need to turn elsewhere. In a section devoted in part to repertories, it is disappointing not to find any of the available short articles describing the CANTUS database created under the leadership of Ruth Steiner, an ongoing project currently maintained at the University of Western Ontario. [8] This database puts inventories of hundreds of sources for the Divine Office at scholars' fingertips, greatly facilitating the type of work Möller envisioned twenty years ago.

It would be hard to overestimate the value of the work presented in these collections. Although the volumes would be strengthened by the inclusion of commentary, current bibliographies, and extracts from monographs, nonspecialists will nevertheless find a broad range of perspectives on issues that lie at the very foundations of Western music. One can only admire Ashgate's initiative in publishing a seven- volume retrospective collection on medieval music and Kelly's decision to devote two of those volumes to chant scholarship.

-------- Notes:

1. See James McKinnon, The Advent Project: The Late-Seventh-Cantury Creation of the Roman Mass Proper (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Andreas Pfisterer, Cantilena Romana: Untersuchungen zur Überlieferung des gregorianischen Chorals (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2001).

2. For example Dyer, "Tropis semper variantibus: Compositional Strategies in the Offertories of the Old Roman Chant." Early Music History 17 (1998): 169; Hornby, Gregorian and Old Roman Eighth-Mode Tracts: A Case Study in the Transmission of Western Chant (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2002); McKinnon, The Advent Project; Pfisterer, Cantilena Romana; John Boe, "Deus Israel and Roman Introits." Plainsong and Medieval Music 14 (2005): 125-67.

3. Important studies in these areas have appeared since the original publication of Hiley's article. See, for example, Susan Boynton, Shaping a Monastic Identity: Liturgy and History at the Imperial Abbey of Farfa (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006); and James Grier, The Musical World of a Medieval Monk: Adémar de Chabannes in Eleventh-Century Aquitaine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). A comprehensive bibliography of chant studies, current through 2005, may be found at a website of chant resources maintained by Hiley http://www.uni- regensburg.de/Fakultaeten/phil_Fak_I/Musikwissenschaft/cantus/

4. Kenneth Levy, Gregorian Chant and the Carolingians (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); and Leo Treitler, With Voice and Pen; Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

5. Edward Nowacki, "Antiphonal Psalmody in Christian Antiquity and the Middle Ages," in Essays in Medieval Music in Honor of David G. Hughes, ed. Graeme M. Boone (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 287-316.

6. Peter Jeffery, Re-envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Leo Treitler, "Singers and Sinners: A Morality Tale" Journal of the American Musicological Society 47 (1994): 137-71.

7. Peter Jeffery, "Monastic Reading and the Emerging Roman Chant Repertory" in Western Plainchant in the First Millennium: Studies in the Medieval Liturgy and Its Music (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 45104; and James Grier, "Adémar de Chabannes, Carolingian Musical Practices, and Nota Romana," Journal of the American Musicological Society 56 (2003): 4398.

8. For example, Debra Lacoste and Andrew Mitchell, "The Cantus Database: Progress Report," Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 45/1-2 (2004): 119-129; Ruth Steiner, "CANTUS," in Computing in Musicology: An International Directory of Applications 9, eds. Walter B. Hewlett and Eleanor Selfridge- Field, 49-50 (Menlo Park: Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities, 1994); and idem, "CANTUS: A Database for Gregorian Chant," Medieval Academy News 117 (November, 1993): pp. 5-6. The database may be found at http://publish.uwo.ca/~cantus/

Article Details

Author Biography

Rebecca Maloy

University of Colorado