Reading Room Log: Exploring the World of Late Medieval Liturgy and Music, Part 2

Detail of the sequence Celi cives in colono, f114 of the Burns Franciscan antiphoner, MS.1996.097, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In my previous post I gave an overview of medieval liturgical and musical books. One of these is the antiphonale or antiphoner, which contains the proper antiphons for the Divine Office. The Burns Library owns a beautiful (and now digitized) 14th century Franciscan antiphoner from southern Germany.

Like the Augustinian Gradual, this Antiphoner was made large enough to be used by more than one person at once. It was, in other words, a choir book.

Most of the Burns Antiphoner reflects the dominant musical tradition of the Middle Ages, monophonic Gregorian chant. This type of chant is “monophonic” because it contains a single line of melody sung by all. Monophony is not the same as monotony, which has no variation in pitch. Monophony can be, in fact, quite complex. (Listen to this classic example from the Gregorian repertoire.)

Among the more typical chants, however, lies a rarity: an example of multiple notes being chanted at the same time. Here is a description from the Finding Aid:

A second vocal part has been added to the first stanza of the sequence Celi solem imitantes, in a simple organum style consisting almost entirely of octaves and fifths. This, the only polyphonic source of this sequence, provides valuable evidence of polyphony being employed as a performance style by Franciscans in this period. (Further evidence is provided in the Quatuor Principalia, of similar date, by an anonymous Franciscan friar from Bristol, preserved in London, British Library Add. 4909.)

Celi solem imitantes. Sequence for the Apostles, Franciscan Antiphoner.

The text in question is a sequence, a metrical Latin poem intended to be sung in Mass between the gradual and the gospel. Few of these survived the massive liturgical reforms of the past five centuries, but at least a handful of well-known sequences remain: the Lauda Sion sequence for Corpus Christi, the Veni Sancte Spiritus for Pentecost, the Victimae Paschali for Easter, and the Stabat Mater for Our Lady of Sorrows (used more often now at Stations of the Cross).

As I mentioned in the previous post, the late medieval liturgy was already relatively standardized before the Tridentine reforms. The sequences, however, give an especially telling window into local variation. The Burns Antiphoner contains a very rare sequence for St. Francis, Celi cives in colono.

The sequence Celi solem imitantes, however, was widely used for commemorations of the Apostles. The sequence was written by Adam of St. Victor in the 12th century, and a somewhat paraphrastic  (but metrical) translation of the first stanza runs as follows, from Digby Wrangham in 1881:

Like the setting sun in heaven,
These, most glorious in life’s even,
Introduce the Sun’s new birth,
Yea, the true Sun’s rise and setting ;
Of whose fate, their deaths relating,
Tell thus all the ends of earth.

Homophonic detail from the sequence Celi solem imitantes in the Franciscan Antiphoner.

It is probably more correct to call the manuscript’s unusual second line of notes homophony rather than polyphony (though the terms are not always used consistently). Homophony involves multiple tones but the same rhythm and text; that is, it involves harmony. Polyphony, as it developed later, involved not only multiple tones but multiple independent rhythmic and melodic lines. (One of the most famous and sumptuous examples is Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium, involving some forty parts.)

Selection of the Kyrie from the four part Missa de Beata Virgine in the first book of Cristobal de Morales Masses, M1490 .M67 1546 Oversize.

The Burns Library has quite a few musical scores that feature polyphony, not least from the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council, featured in the Liturgy and Life Collection. Closer to the medieval period, however, is the work of 16th century Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales. Burns has a 1546 edition of his polyphonic mass settings. This book, with the compositions it contains, represents the golden age of Renaissance polyphony. Note, in the Kyrie from Missa de Beata Virgine, the four parts are written separately, but sung together. A more recent edited version of this same mass is available online through the Choral Public Domain Library.

Detailed capital illustration for a Kyrie in the 1546 edition of masses by Cristobal de Morales, M1490 .M67 1546 Oversize.

From monophony to polyphony, from ordinary to proper, music has much to tell us about the liturgy and culture of the late medieval and early modern era.

  • Samuel Keyes, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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One Response to Reading Room Log: Exploring the World of Late Medieval Liturgy and Music, Part 2

  1. Reblogged this on The Templar Knight and commented:
    Really interesting blog on medieval music

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