Microtonal intervals: a 12th-century clash of cultures

‘University Library Utrecht, Ms. fr. 4.3’ refers to a collection of twenty folios of manuscript fragments which were once part of a 12th-century antiphonary, and belonged to St Paul’s Abbey in Utrecht. Its musical notation includes symbols for microtonal intervals which point to the survival of local chant traditions despite Roman attempts at standardization.

The Transmission of Chant

Since the ninth century, signs with musical meanings were added above chant texts as a mnemonic tool for the melodies linked to the text. These symbols, called neumes, range from a dot (punctum) or a diagonal line (virga) for one note to figures representing a melodic movement linked to a syllable. Although recent research reveals that the early neumes contain other information for the performance of chant, it is not possible to define exact intervals between pitches. Hence they are called adiastematic neumes (Greek, lit. ‘without intervals); the exact pitches of the melodies still had to be learned by heart. Several regional neume families existed. Research by the Utrecht musicologist Ike de Loos indicates that the Utrecht neumes belonged to the Utrecht-Stavelot-Trier family, after the region where these neumes were current.

Revolution

A true revolution in the transmission of chant was introduced by Guido d’Arezzo (995-1050). He put the neumes on horizontal lines, enabling the representation of intervals between pitches. Initially, only two lines were used, but soon the staff with four lines was introduced, as it has been used in Gregorian chant until now. These neumes are called diastemic neumes: neumes that can represent the intervals between notes. The transmission of chant melodies now had become possible ‘by the book’ instead of via the individual interpretations of adiastematic neumes by local cantors only.

Gregorian chant

In order to understand some remarkable notational aspects of the Utrecht-Stavelot-Trier family (which has both early adiastematic and later diastematic representatives, amongst which the Utrecht fragments under discussion), some music theory is needed. Gregorian chant as written on the staff based upon Guido’s invention underlies a diatonic pitch system. Simplified, the diatonic system applies a scale of whole tones, with semitones between e/f and b/c. Starting at c, it is the scale on the piano with the white keys only. Guido added the letters c and/or f as clefs to the lines of his grid: the intervals leading up to the c and/or f line were the semitones. Sharps (raising a pitch by a semitone) were not applied in Guido's diatonic system. Only one flat was allowed: b could be lowered by a semitone to b-flat. The diatonic scale was known from Antique treatises. But in these treatises, other tonal systems are mentioned as well, in which steps occur that we now would call microtonal (smaller than a semitone). Nowadays, Western ears perceive these intervals as ‘strange’ or ‘false’. Listen to Arabic or Indian music for example: the ‘strange’ notes to Western ears are microtonal intervals.

Microtonal intervals: a clash of cultures

The staff travelled from Italy to northern Europe fairly fast, backed by Pope John XIX, who had quite a centralist view on the performance of liturgy, its chants included. Guido's ‘invention’ was a perfect tool for further standardizing the performance of melodies. But apparently, many local traditions applied notes that did not fit on Guido's diatonic grid, so their scribes introduced special symbols to represent these notes belonging to their tradition. It is in the diastematic Utrecht-Stavelot-Trier family where by the superimposition of the diatonic grid in combination with special neumes and other signs previous non-diatonic traditions surface. Most remarkable are the symbols that represent intervals smaller than a semitone.

Clivis and porrectus

In the Utrecht fragments three symbols occur that represent microtonal intervals: two neumes (a clivis, representing a microtonal downward step and a porrectus in which a microtonal upward step can be represented) and a special b-flat sign. The microtonal steps occur between e-f and b-c, two semitonal intervals in diatonic music. These neumes are also found in the antiphonary of St Mary’s Chapter (Utrecht, University Library, Ms. 406), mainly of the 12th century, which is the most famous manuscript of the same neume family. This manuscript can be accessed digitally via DIAMM (registration required (free)). Other neumes may represent microtonal intervals as well, but their interpretation is more complicated and subject of debate. If all these neumes indeed represent microtonal intervals, then pre-Guidonian chant was full of it.

Open questions

Many questions remain about the origin, the syntax and the function of microtonal intervals in chant. Their origin may be Frankish, or perhaps they reflect Hellenized Christian practices, introduced by the so-called Syrian Popes (7th-8th centuries). It may also be Byzantine. Other hypotheses see them originating from contacts with Arab culture during the 10th and 11th centuries. Is their underlying syntax based upon non-diatonic scales, or were they merely applied as deliberate ornamentations, like trills nowadays? An analysis of the positions of microtonal intervals in the Utrecht fragments seems to indicate that their positions might at least have had a mnemonic function: a microtonal interval as part of a marker for the content of the melody fragment following it.

The Utrecht fragments

University Library Utrecht, Ms. fr. 4.3 consists of 20 folios, but the digitized version includes also a folio discovered in the Louvain University Library (BRES Ms. 1290) with identical codicological and palaeographical characteristics, their notation included. It has been digitized by kind permission of the Louvain University Library. The 21 folios (the Utrecht fragments referred to above) belonged to an early 12th-century antiphonary from St Paul’s Abbey in Utrecht. They were or still are bound as flyleaves into 15th-century printed books from the library of St Paul’s Abbey. It has been established that the binder(s) used flyleaves from old manuscripts from the abbey itself. The order of the leaves is given here below, with reference to the ‘page number’ in the digital version. For the catalogue numbers of the 15th-century printed books (E fol 147, F qu 116, etc.), see the records in the electronic catalogue.

The folio sequence according to the liturgical calendar.

Sign

  Site Page

Feast

 Characteristics

Remarks

4.3 C 3r

1

Dom. 3 Adventus

Red E top left, 8477 lower right

Loose page from E fol 147

4.3 C 3v

2

Dom. 3 Adventus

Lower right: Do

Loose page from E fol 147

 

 

Blank row: Lacuna      

 

 

F qu 116 front 1r

3

Dom. 4 Adventus

Ex libris

Page upside down

F qu 116 front 1v

4

Dom. 4 Adventus

Remains of glue

Page upside down

 

 

 

 

 

E fol 149 2r

5

Ant. Maiores

Ex libris. Red and green O’s

 

E fol 149 2v

6

Ant. Maiores (end)

Calendar with red colonnade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

E fol 149 4r

7

 

Unfinished colonnade for calendar (identical to E fol 149 2v)

 

E fol 149 4v

8

Vigilia Nat. Domini

Red P and S

 

E fol 149 6r

9

Nativitas Domini

Illuminated H

Page upside down

E fol 149 6v

10

Nativitas Domini

Leather imprint

Page upside down

E fol 149 5r

11

Nativitas Domini

Red V halfway the page

Page upside down

E fol 149 5v

12

Nativitas Domini

Red B upper left

 

E fol 149 3r

13

Nativitas Domini

Hole lower right

 

E fol 149 3v

14

Nativitas Domini

Hole lower left

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.3 C 4r

15 

Stephani

Half line of red text, from halfway right onwards

Loose page from E fol 147

4.3 C 4v

16

Stephani

Blue stamp at the bottom

Loose page from E fol 147

4.3 B 1r

17

Stephani

Remains of glue

Loose page from E fol 68

4.3 B 1v

18

Stephani

Stamp lower left

Loose page from E fol 68

4.3 B 2r

19 

Stephani

8486, 8487 lower right

Loose page from E fol 68

4.3 B 2v

20

Stephani

Remains of glue

Loose page from E fol 68

4.3 B 2v

20

Iohanni Evangelista

 

 

E fol 147, strip r

21

Iohanni Evangelista

Strip from a leaf. In the middle Dlige from Diligebat autem (CANTUS 002232)

Front cover

E fol 147, strip v

22

Iohanni Evangelista

Strip from a leaf

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.3 C 1r

23

Innocentium

Stamp at bottom. Remains of paper. Halfway the page: De innocentibus antiphonae (in red). um.

Loose bifolium from E fol 147

4.3 C 1v

24

Innocentium

Red S left above. 

Loose bifolium from E fol 147

4.3 C 2r

25

 

Ex libris

Loose bifolium from E fol 147

4.3 C 2v

26

Epiphania

Remains of paper at the bottom

Loose bifolium from E fol 147

 

 

 

 

 

X fol 88 fol 2r

27 

Dom. 2 post Epiphanea

Red: Dominica tertia

 

X fol 88 fol 2r

27

Sab. 3 post Epiphanea

 

 

X fol 88 fol 2r

27

Dom. 3 post Epiphanea

 

 

X fol 88 fol 2v

28

Dominica prima post Octavam Epiph.

Red D, lower left (back cover)

 

 

 

 

 

 

X fol 88 fol 1r

29 

Feria 2 infra Hebd. I post Epiph.

Third text line Deus qui sedes (front cover)

 

X fol 88 fol 1v

30 

Dominicae II usque VI post Epiph.

Fourth text line: red C

 

 

 

 

 

 

E fol 275 1r

31 

Feria 6 infra Hebd. I post Epiph.

Red: sabbato invitatorum. At lower right: 20481

 

E fol 275 1v

32

Sabbato infra Hebd. I post Epiph.

Red: in LXXX

 

 

 

 

 

 

F qu 116 back 1r

33 

Purificatio Mariae

Red in sedo noct a V. Above 516 upside down (back cover)

Page upside down

F qu 116 back 1v

34

Purificatio Mariae

Remains of glue

Page upside down

 

 

 

 

 

BRES MS 1290 1r

35

Agathae

Red M and G

 

BRES MS 1290 1v

36 

Agathae

First staff: Theol 275

 

 

 

 

 

 

E fol 149 1r

37 

Benedicti

Red F to the right

 

E fol 149 1v

38

Benedicti

Illuminated F

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.3A 1r

39

Dom. 2 Quad.

Remains of glue.

Loose page from E fol 66

4.3A 1r

39

Feria 2 Hebd. 2 Quad.

 

 

4.3A 1v

40 

Feria 3 Hebd. 2 Quad.

Ex libris

Loose page from E fol 66

4.3A 1v

40

Feria 4 Hebd. 2 Quad.

 

 

4.3A 1v

40

Feria 5 Hebd. 2 Quad.

 

 

4.3A 1v

40

Feria 6 Hebd. 2 Quad.

 

 

4.3A 1v

40

Sab. Hebd. 2 Quad.

 

 

4.3A 2r

41 

Sab. Hebd. 2 Quad.

Stamp at lower right. Red V

Loose page from E fol 66

4.3A 2r

41

Dom. 3 Quad.

 

 

4.3A 2v

42

Dom. 3 Quad.

Remains of glue

Loose page from E fol 66

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further Reading

  • Ferreira, Manuel Pedro, ‘Music at Cluny: the tradition of Gregorian chant for the proper of the mass — melodic variants and microtonal nuances’. PhD diss., Princeton University, 1997.
  • Jaski, Bart, ‘Een codicologische queeste naar de oudste handschriften en handschriftfragmenten uit de bibliotheek van de Paulusabdij’, in: H. van Engen & K. van Vliet (ed.), De nalatenschap van de Paulusabdij in Utrecht (Hilversum, 2012), p. 103-169 (Bijlage 2 en 3, 161-163, by Kaj van Vliet, Bijlage 4, 164-169, in cooperation with Kaj van Vliet).
  • Loos, Ike de, ‘Duitse en Nederlandse muzieknotaties in de 12e en 13e eeuw’. PhD diss., Utrecht University, 1996.
  • Lousberg, Leo, ‘Early-twelfth-century Utrecht responsories: a quest for musical style elements’. MA thesis Musicology and Medieval Studies, Utrecht University, 2013.
  • Rankin, Susan, ‘On the treatment of pitch in early music writing’, in: Early music history 30 (2011), p. 105-175.
Leo Lousberg, Nov 2013 (leolousberg@gmail.com); updated March 2014
F qu 116, front, fr. 1r (p. 3)
Mark of ownership on scraped leaf, E fol 149, fr. 2r (p. 5)
Scraped page, E fol 149, fr. 2r (p. 5)
Microtonal clivis, Ms. fr. 4.3 C, 3v (p. 2)
Microtonal porrectus, Ms. fr. 4.3 C, 3v (p. 2)
B-flat sign, Ms. fr. 4.3 B, 1v (p. 18)
Illuminated F, E fol 149, fr. 1v (p. 38)
Illuminated H, E fol 149, fr. 6r (p. 9)
Colonnades with calendar, E fol 149, fr. 2v (p. 6)
Ms. fr. 4.3 C, 4r (p. 15)
Beatus Stephanus, Ms. fr. 4.3 B, 2r (p. 19)
F qu 116, back, fr. 1r (p. 33)
E fol 149, fr. 1r (p. 37)
Ms. fr. 4.3 A, 1v (p. 40)
Ms. fr. 4.3 A, 1v (p. 40)
Binding of St Paul's Abbey, Utrecht (E fol 149)

Antiphonary fragments, University Library Utrecht, Ms. fr. 4.3

  • Utrecht, Benedictine abbey of St Paul, c. 1100-1120.
  • Parchment, 21 ff., originally 310 x 215 mm., but often trimmed and several are scraped. Bound as flyleaves in printed books (1494-1499) from the abbey.
  • Pregothic with music notation (neumes of the Utrecht-Stavelot-Trier family on a 4-line staff).
  • Latin.
  • Two illuminated initials (E fol 149, fr. 1v and 6r); unfinished colonnades in red (E fol 149, fr. 4r and 6r).
  • One leaf of the same antiphonary is now Louvain, University Library, BRES Ms. 1290.