Have I told you lately that I Trope you?

This is a photo of me hard at work. Gotta love summer!
In preparation for my History Guidance Exams at UCSB I have been charging through my history texts from EWU. At the moment I'm making progress through Medieval Music by Richard H. Hoppin, an older text (1978) that despite certain blatant shortcomings (no mention of Hildegard?) has all a growing boy needs for a refresher course in pre-1400s, Western musical culture. (See right.) Being something like the fourth time that I've danced to this tune (Westmont, interim period, EWU, now) I'm beginning to pick up different aspects of the story that only comes with repetition.

Here's my observation:

The story of medieval music (at least up to the twelfth century) is like the opening title of a Harry Potter movie. The screen is black, Williams' reappropriated Saint-Saëns theme commences, and suddenly the title of the movie emerges in huge, metallic or granite lettering, looking like something straight from a dwarfish dungeon or a Celtic ogham stone, powerful, mysterious, daunting, massive. (See below.)

At this point in the analogy, the student of medieval music is learning about liturgical music of the Western Church and, if you're at all like me, you are similarly struck by the imposing order, the solid structure, the imperviousness of a liturgical system that has even survived in many ways to modern time: Mass and Offices, antiphons and responsories, psalm tones and church modes, Matins-Lauds-Prime-Terce-Sext-None-Vespers (with how many Nocturnes?)-Compline, Antiphonals, Graduals, Topiaries, etc., etc. The weight of information is perhaps my main sensation, and I am also struck by the medieval mind's overwhelming desire for law and order.

But then something happens. (Of course talking about it sequentially, and therefore chronologically, is something of a fallacy, but that's the only way I can describe it.) It's as if our stolid Harry Potter title slowly and almost imperceptibly begins to crack. And out of those cracks come trickling little rivulets of water. More and more the waters flow until everywhere you look this impervious edifice is flowing with torrents of gushing, splashing, frolicking, unruly water! It's a deluge! It's the Rock of Horeb! It's a big mess! (The closest I can get to this in an actual movie is in the opening titles of  the movie Independence Day, where the shiny, metallic letters literally explode!)

Now the student of medieval music has been introduced to the art of troping. The easy definition of troping is any liturgical addition either musical or literary. It starts innocuous enough. In order to increase the solemnity and majesty of a certain day, someone may add a new and longer and more glorious jubilus to the end of the Alleluia; just a few more melismatic notes won't hurt. Then another person will add some more words to a Kyrie, just to clarify and increase the meaning of the text. Pretty soon you have people interpolating entirely new musical/literary sections into a piece, then they throw in some sequences, then rhythmic clausulae and early motets, then the introduction of notated polyphony totally blows the lid off of everything! Suddenly a once simple piece of Gregorian chant is bursting with tropes and is now a multi-sectional, monophonic/polyphonic, chironomic/rhythmic theological treatise, as complex and meaningful and busy as the statuary of a cathedral or pictures in a stained glass window. The explosive effect of troping is all the more dramatic in that you don't see it coming until you're left standing there in the thirteenth century, soaked up to the knees in the outright effulgence of a liturgy that at first was presented in clearly delineated and straightforward terms.

That's my observation. It's only to get more complicated the more I read. At some point you abandon any hope that you could clearly keep it all tucked away safely in your head. Perhaps at that point, you really begin to let it sink in.

Happy reading this summer!

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