Additions to the Sacred Repertory

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Additions to the Sacred Repertory

Continual Change.

It is tempting to view something as old and formal as the sacred liturgy—the Mass and the Hours—as immutable, with a body of works and system of practice that has remained unchanged since it began. Nothing can be further from the truth. The entire liturgy, both its format and repertory, was in a constant state of flux throughout the period. New compositions and ceremonies were added, older items were revised and altered, and regional variants of all types arose and were suppressed all during those centuries. Discussed below are some of the major changes that came about during this period involving music, although there were also numerous changes to the prayers and the format of the ceremonies themselves. The inclusion of musical drama, the addition of new chant items and devotional works, and the application of polyphony to new and old repertory are evidence of a sacred ritual that was constantly under revision.

Liturgical Drama.

During the reign of Charlemagne in the early ninth century, the church authorities at his principal residence in Aachen (northern Germany) decided to dramatize the most important event in the liturgical year, the Resurrection of Christ on Easter morning, by acting out the scene in which the three Marys (Mary the mother of James, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobi) visit Christ's tomb and find it empty. Three monks were assigned to take the part of the Marys, impersonating women by raising their cowls over their heads, and another monk sang the part of the angel who tells the Marys that Christ has risen. Initially, the entire dialogue consisted of only three lines of text and music, sung during the procession on Easter morning and enframed by a number of processional antiphons. The idea of dramatizing the major celebrations of the Church spread quickly throughout all areas of Europe, where they became immediately popular and attracted additional creative inspirations. In some places the drama was enlarged by the addition of other scenes from the biblical account of the Easter story: the seller of spices, pilgrims who passed by the grave, apostles who arrived later at the tomb. By the twelfth century the tradition of dramatizing the liturgy had grown in some monasteries to include church celebrations at other times of the year, including biblical events such as the Adoration of the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and the Raising of Lazarus. In some places the enactments were removed from their original setting within a liturgical ceremony and presented as independent musical plays lasting over an hour. The most elaborate set of plays is found in a manuscript known as the Fleury Play Book (named for the French monastery where it is believed the manuscript originated), written in the early thirteenth century. This source contains a total of eleven grand plays, all set to music, on subjects such as the St. Nicholas legend, the Son of Getron, the Pilgrims, and the Conversion of St. Paul, as well as the original topic of the Resurrection.


introduction: The earliest known sacred play with music was the recreation of Christ's Resurrection on Easter morning. There were hundreds of different versions of this play, all of which contain the following basic lines and music.


Tropes were additions of new text phrases and music inserted at the beginning and between the existing text phrases of antiphons for the Mass. The new phrases served as a commentary on the original text. In the example of the Resurrexi Antiphon With Trope, the original text is underlined. Just as the new text phrases amplified the original text, the new music was written to match the melodic style of the old. Tropes continued to be added to antiphons to the point that they were even collected in separate manuscripts, called Tropers, which would provide a singer with a choice of a number of different sets of tropes to add to specific antiphons.


Sequences are additions for the end of the Alleluia, one of the chants for the Mass, as a replacement for the long, extended melodic rhapsody on the final syllable of "Alleluia." The name "sequence" refers to the texts, which are in paired lines all with the same syllable count, although not rhymed. The music is very melodic (as opposed to psalm-tone), but not elaborate in that only one note is assigned to each syllable, much in the style of a hymn. Thousands of sequences were composed beginning in the Carolingian era sometime around 850 and continuing until the twelfth century. One of the earliest sources was the music written by Notker Balbulus (c. 840–912), a monk at the Swiss monastery of Saint-Gall, who gathered his sequences into a book (Liber Hymnorum), thus becoming the first known composer. Tropes and sequences continued to be sung until the reforms of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, when all tropes were eliminated from the liturgy, as well as all but four sequences.

Rhymed Office.

The largest repertory of new sacred material during the late Middle Ages was written for the Office. Over a thousand new saints were added to the liturgical calendar during this period, meaning that new chants had to be written for their services. Although the earliest of the new texts were written in prose, as the older texts had been, by the twelfth century it became the custom to write them as poetry, in strict meter and rhyme. The matching or coupling element of a rhymed text inspired the composers to write music with similarly matching phrases, resulting in new office chants that were quite different from those that preceded them. Since many of the new saints were venerated only in a particular region, this provided the opportunity for new composers in each area to contribute material to their local sacred observances.


introduction: The following is an antiphon for Easter Introit with trope lines. The original antiphon, in italics, begins with "I am risen." The trope lines are added before the first line and following each phrase, ending with a final trope line. All of the trope lines and the first phrase of the antiphon are sung by a soloist. The choir sings the rest of the antiphon phrases, alternating with the solo performances of the trope lines. Following this, the soloist sings an antiphon verse, and that is followed by another troped performance of the antiphon.

Today there came forth a strong lion from the sepulchre on account of whose victory the heavenly ministers shall rejoice in God, and we rejoice singing
I am risen
The prince of hell having been vanquished, all doors are open.
And yet I am with you, Alleluia
from whom I never went away while I was lying in the flesh, dust
You placed upon me
whom you alone created, O God, before all time
Your hand, Alleluia
By your order death was tasted
A wonderful thing has been done
to one to whom no wisdom in the world can be equated
Your knowledge, Alleluia
That wish such a victory you laid low the boastful victor, Alleluia.


Thomas P. Campbell and Clifford Davidson, eds., The Fleury Playbook; Essays and Studies (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985).

Reinhard Strohm and Bonnie J. Blackburn, eds., Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages. The New Oxford History of Music 3.1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

see also Religion: Medieval Liturgy

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Additions to the Sacred Repertory

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