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Oliver Gerlach for Emilysue Reichardt:

What is the most recent published work about these microtones, and where can I find it to read it?

I would like to learn more. Preferably in English.


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Replies to This Discussion

Everybody is welcome to answer your question, especially Leo Lousberg. As far as I know, it is his doctoral thesis:

Microtones According to Augustine : Neumes, Semiotics and Rhetoric in Romano-Frankish Liturgical Chant

Abstract—The discovery of microtonal pitches on positions concurring with those of the Greek enharmonic genus (five symbols in MS Montpellier H159, in 1846) led to a discourse which some musicologists still consider as open-ended. The present analysis strengthens previous confirmative views about this phenomenon by revaluating the central arguments of the discourse and by adding new evidence. My crucial research question was why microtones were applied. Chronicles and treatises mention their performance from 400 up to 1400. Music notation exists from the ninth century onwards. How could a tradition survive for at least a millennium without an underlying function? Previous research (Jacques Froger, 1978) unsuccessfully tried to unravel formal melodic rules that could explain the occurrence of the symbols in Montpellier H159. For Andreas Pfisterer (2006) the lack of melodic systemacy was one of the main reasons not to take microtones into consideration in his analysis of the early transmission of Gregorian chant. The findings strongly suggest that microtones are triggered by text and channelled via rhetoric, not by formal melodic considerations, which explains previous failures to contextualize the phenomenon from a musicological point of view. A sample of more than 500 cases from seven manuscripts, based upon the same sources Manuel Pedro Ferreira analysed for his PhD thesis (1997) confirms this hypothesis for all cases tested. The manuscripts were written in Utrecht (Antiphonary U406, s.xii, Missal ABM h62, s.xii/xiii), Aachen (Graduale G13, s.xii) Stavelot (2 Missals BL Add MS 18031/2, s.xiii) Dijon (Tonary Montpellier H159, s.xi) and Cluny (Graduale, BnF 1087, s.xii). The Utrecht, Aachen and Stavelot manuscripts represent the Utrecht-Stavelot-Trier notation on a staff as analysed by Ike De Loos (1996). The performer/scribe could accentuate words by microtones ad libitum; this amongst others explains the observed lack of melodic systemacy. Rhetorical ductus (“the way(s) that a composition, realizing the plan(s) set within its arrangements, guides a person to its various goals, both in its parts and overall”, Mary Carruthers 2010) is the underlying principle for choosing the words. In its turn, the ductus is supported by affect, logic and loci aimed at convincing the audience by affect (movere) and arguments (docere). On the one hand, the performative choices are constrained by the rhetorical consideration of avoiding overkill by too many repetitions of the same effect. On the other hand, it appears that the diatonic core melody prescribes whether microtones can be inserted or not. The occurrence of a (preceding) c or f apparently was a conditio sine qua non for modulare recte. Comparative analysis points toward identical or very similar rhetorical workings of a number of melodic tools observed in the sources consulted, which are presented under the common denominator “museme”: non-diatonic semitones, quilismas, litterae significativae, liquescent notes, emphatic phrases and modal shifts. Revaluating sémiologie grégorienne as proposed by Eugène Cardine (1970), the conclusion is that its terminology is insufficient to describe the essence of the processes bridging the meanings of text and melodic expressions as observed in the sources. A number of new semiotic terminologies is proposed.

The author announced he will publish soon additional essays about his findings.

Dear Emilysue

Please allow me some remarks about “these microtones”.

The phenomenon of microtonal shifting is usually caused by modal attraction and can be found in modal traditions all over the world. It is not a very surprising aspect, surprising is rather the approach known among musicologists concerned with Western church music to reduce the discussion to the question, whether there was microtonal attraction or not within the Latin application of oktoechos theory to the musical memory. The explanation for this particular attitude is, that there was an early interest for the historical approach to the own tradition which has unfortunately ended in a current desinterest. The result is that there is no chant at all during the services or it has been even replaced by something else to be up-to date. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson described it as “re-invented traditions”, some might even call them “padded traditions”. Their beginning was poor without any sense for modality, probably caused by an arrogance that clerics or monks who did engage in studies of the manuscripts felt superior to musicians in their environment who were familiar with the still living tradition of oktoechos modality.

Concerning the scholarly approach one might mention that it is a common cognitive short-circuit that one only perceives which one has learnt to perceive. It definitely depends on the musical socialisation, what a human ear is capable to perceive or not, despite the fact that it is conditioned physiologically.

In ethnomusicology, this bareer that an ethnomusicologist has to overcome in confrontation with her or his field is well-known.

From a historical perspective one can say that there is plenty of evidence in the Latin sources concerned with modal attraction that something similar did once exist in manyfold forms. I established this group to talk about this source evidence (discussing terms like “diesis”, “absonia”, the mention of different tone systems or simply verbal descriptions of various modal subtleties in intonation which were in most of the cases not dealing with a scientific measuring of musical intervals or their modification), but also to discuss fieldwork experience.

As you might easily imagine it must have been part of an oral tradition which could be different between various local schools. It is well known that protagonists coming from different schools do not easily agree on these topics due to the local variety. It is a typical symptom of a living tradition. If a tradition is no longer alive, a lack of knowledge makes it impossible to agree or to disagree about something one does not know...

If one would avoid to resign and to cause later a disinterest, the only way is a combination of all these methodologies and to keep always the ears open for surprises.

This is just my way to tell you, that I understood that “these microtones” are concerned with those publications in the huge field of Western plainchant, not with any other tradition of religious chant in Europe or the Mediterranean.

If I got it wrong, please let me know, because there are plenty publications about the topic modal intonation...

Dear Leo

I hope you don't mind, if I paste your answer here in this discussion, where it belongs:

Dear Emilysue, dear Oliver,

My thesis proposes some answers to the question WHY microtones were applied in seven mss written in NW Europe between roughly 1000 and 1250.

There seems to be no systematic formal musical explanation, only an intertextual explanation: in the 500+ cases of my sample from these mss, without exception, the microtonal inflections are signals for rhetorically important words/expressions. They refer to emotion, logic and loci. In most cases, a link was found in Augustine's writings.

They seem to be interruptions of the diatonic schemas applied in all modes and all chant genres for Mass and the Office, except psalms. I call the microtonal inflection a parapitch, a phenomenon in between verbal and melodic texts.

In my thesis, I address the question whether oriscus, quilismas, non-diatonic semitones, liquescent notes, certain litterae significativae, formula variants (Emma Hornby's "Emphatic phrases"-2009) and tonal shifts are all tonal interruptions of the diatonic schemas, are all "musemes": melodic phrases with encoded rhetorical content.

My analysis does not provide new theoretical insights about microtonal inflections in relation to modes and scales, although I could demonstrate the existence of a melodic grammar applicable to the employment of microtonal inflections in second-mode tractus.

Reviewing Manuel Pedro Ferreira's doctoral thesis about microtonal inflections, Andreas Pfisterer assumes they were a regional oddity (Cantilena Romana). I disagree. In foreseeable time, I hope to put forward support for an hypothesis demonstrating that "before Guido", these (melodic ¿and rhythmic?) interruptions were an essential characteristic of Gregorian chant in its earliest phases.

Best wishes,


I will delete your personal comment, because it was not personal, but addressed to Mrs. Reichardt and me in the context of this discussion. The comment as a whole is quoted here, without dropping anything. Just to let you know, if you do not force me to move your comments to the right place, you have the advantage that you can delete it, whenever you like. You cannot delete somebody else's contribution which is quoting a former post of yours. You see the reply function is sometimes useful…

I understand from your answer that you avoid to draw any further conclusions concerning your analysis of microtonal shifts on the level of modality. I wonder about your reasons (with Augustine you are definitely on the safe side, from a dogmatic point of view, but what is exactly the problem?). It seems to me impossible that such conclusions can be avoided for a long time. If you will not do it, somebody else will... But why leaving your merit to somebody else, after you have done all this work?

It seems that these details are mainly testified by 11th-century sources associated with the Cluniac school. William of Volpiano developed his system of letter notation, while he was abbot at Dijon, and he also used it, when he was in charge to found new monasteries in Normandy. Nevertheless, he was educated at Cluny Abbey under direction of Mayeul. Probably that was the encouragement to discuss central French neumes as well, since they had been also used by William.

I think the role of Cluny is here very similar to the one concerning the practice of organum. There might have been a period under Bernard of Clairvaux, when the custom of organum was disputed due to the anti-Cluniac attitude of Cistercian reformers, but Christian Meyer and other later evidence by manuscripots have proved that the performance of organum was continued, even at Cistercian abbeys. The same is true for the parallel evidence of microtones in other local neume dialects, there are plenty of related discussions, whether certain occasional forms used in Aquitanian and Saint Gall notation means a tone alteration.

If this discussion is usually reduced to the question "where I have to sing b flat?", it is just a common confusion of staff notation with neume notation in campo aperto, even with a projection of current performance habits which are obviously not familiar with modality. There is a difference between a diesis and b fa, b diesis and b mi, which is very simple: a diesis leads to b fa and b diesis to c fa, likewise E diesis to F fa. I hope my reference to Guido might encourage you, even if it is not always appropriate to rely too much on Guido's Micrologus.

This short comment might encourage some scholars to a wider focus on the sources. After that it might be even possible to discuss about differences between local schools.



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