Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Mozarabic Chant

The Iberian Peninsula is home to the convergence of many different traditions. The Strait of Gibraltar guards the Mediterranean and is the meeting place of Europe and Africa. Ambitious expeditions to the new world by Columbus spread the culture and traditions of the Spanish people to the Western Hemisphere, and interactions with the Moslem invaders served to gather together influences from across the entire globe. The peoples of the Iberian Peninsula cultivated a rich pagan tradition that developed through the influence of Christian missionaries into the Mozarabic chants of the eighth through the eleventh centuries (Angles, Relations of Spanish Folk Song to the Gregorian Chant, 1964). What transformed sacred Spanish music from its pagan roots into the predominantly Gregorian tradition of the seventeenth century? These sacred musical practices did not develop in an isolated manner, but were altered, enriched and eventually exterminated by the cultural expectations of their conquerors, especially those of the Latin Church. The first wave of influence on the native traditions of Spain was Hellenistic, brought by the Greek, Carthaginian, and Roman colonists (Chase, 1941). The second wave took place before and after the fall of Rome by the spread of Christianity, aided greatly by the rule of the Visigoths from 312 to 711 (The Mozarabic Rite, 1906). Sacred music experienced an upheaval during the conquest and rule of the Moors from 711 to the recapture of Toledo by the northern Christians in 1085, but little or no evidence of its influence on chant can be conclusively deciphered (Parrish, 1958). The main Moorish influence on the Spanish sacred musical tradition is the name “Mozarab,” a term referring to the Christians who did not flee or convert to Islam (Prado, 1928). The last wave of influence on the sacred tradition of Spanish music was the reconquest of Spain by Christian forces in 1085. This Reconquista was the final and most drastic transformation of sacred music. No longer concerned with correcting liturgical abuses, this final invasion by the northern Christians served to usurp the place of organic sacred traditions with Gregorian chants.
            The sacred music of ancient Spain revolved around rhythms and instruments most suited for dance, which they used in worship of the moon and other natural deities (Livermore, 1972). Evidence of pre-Greek musical instruments are found in the cave paintings of Aigues Vives, which depict perforated shells used as wind instruments, and of Cuento de la Mina, where there are paintings of animal horns, perhaps used both as wind and as percussion instruments (Chase, 1941). The influence of dance did not fade from sacred ceremonies until the late sixth century, when the Council of Toledo forbade dancing and singing ‘unholy songs’ during the liturgy (Angles, Hispanic Musical Culture from the 6th to the 14th century, 1940). Greek colonists expanded upon the ancient musical traditions of the time and introduced Greek musical theory and instruments, and the later Roman conquerors continued the exposure to classical musical traditions, which spread the influence of Greek musical theory to further reaches of the Iberian Peninsula (Chase, 1941). The Greek colonists erected ports on the southeastern and northern coasts, especially in the regions of Cantabria and Galicia, where the ruins of temples to Diana give testament to the presence of sacred Greek music (Livermore, 1972). A large lyre at Merida, known as Mercury’s great lyre, was placed in the temple dedicated to him, and ceramic illustrations depict instrumentalists playing the double aulos and a horn or tropa. (Livermore, 1972) Carthaginian influences can be seen in more ceramic illustrations of dance ceremonies from the 5th century B.C. (Livermore, 1972). When the Roman conquerors marched into Hispania, they established a system of mutual enrichment. Spain herself contributed many poets, philosophers, and even emperors to the Roman kingdom, while Rome brought their vast technological advances and military practices as well as their art and architecture (Chase, 1941). “In the south of Spain musical history begins with a quotation from Martial and the dances of the saltatrices of Cadiz – de Gadibus improbis puellae – famous in Rome in the second and third centuries.”[1] His contemporary, Quintillianus, also stressed the use of dance rhythms and classical instruments such as the pipe and the lyre (Chase, 1941). The colonies established by the classical empires brought not only classical theory and philosophy, but also contributed to the collection of instruments. Sacred music in Spain continued to draw from these influences, especially rhythmic foundations, well into the 10th century (Trend, 1924).
            During the fourth century, Spain experienced their own “twilight of the gods” as Christianity spread its sacred practices abroad. The influx of Christianity transformed the prior sacred traditions through their experience with Ambrosian, Gallican and Old Roman chant. Before the fall of Rome, the Christian influence in Spain was already widespread. Christian missionaries were on the move to the western reaches of the Roman Empire by 167, and after the Edict of Milan in 313 an explosion of conversion took place throughout Europe. One of the first Gnostic missionaries, Priscillius, kept most of the pagan practices of the native people and set religious texts to originally pagan melodies (Trend, 1924). Priscillianist tunes and dances exerted influences on future devotional hymns and chants and acquired a more devotional character as they were gradually freed from pagan and sometimes phallic imagery (Trend, 1924). Church officials attempted to purge liturgical music of pagan influences during the Council of Lugo in 571 (Trend, 1924), though dancing and the use of instruments continued to be present in the early Spanish liturgy until the sixth century at the third Council of Toledo (Angles, Relations of Spanish Folk Song to the Gregorian Chant, 1964). In addition to the pagan roots of this music, Latin influences on early sacred repertoire exist as early as the fifth century as evidenced in the martyr poems of Prudentius (Messenger, 1947).
            As the Visigoths spread and solidified their empire, they gradually assimilated into the culture and the religion of the Catholic populace. Originally adherents of the Arian heresy, the Visigoths officially reconciled to the Church at the third Council of Toledo in 589 (Angles, Hispanic Musical Culture from the 6th to the 14th century, 1940). It was during the period of Visigothic rule that the three centers of musical culture developed: Seville, Toledo, and Saragossa (Huglo, 2007). The Hispano-Gothic chants, precursors to the Mozarabic chants, developed during this time through the often direct action of liturgists and members of church hierarchy. The brothers St. Leander and St. Isidore, musicians and successive archbishops, were responsible for the initial musical developments in Seville (Angles, Hispanic Musical Culture from the 6th to the 14th century, 1940). St. Leander and his contemporaries were especially important because of the influences they brought with them from sojourns in Constantinople and because of the many compositions credited to them. St. Isidore summarized the musical theories of Cassiodorus, themselves the intellectual offspring of Aristoxenos, in the monumental work Etymologiae (Chase, 1941). Book III of the Etymologiae consists primarily of writings on musical practices and its place in philosophy. Isidore’s De ecclesiasticis officiis deals exclusively with sacred musical practices, including hymns and psalmody (Huglo, 2007). In Toledo, St. Eugene codified the liturgical chants, as St. Gregory did with Roman chant. For this reason, chants from this time (Hispano-Gothic) are commonly referred to as Eugenian chants (Livermore, 1972).
It is easy to surmise the influence of other western chants on Hispano-Gothic chant when comparing manuscripts from Hispanic, Gallican and Ambrosian sources. Similarities in chant melodies across Ambrosian, Gallican and Hispano-Gothic chant may be observed by comparing the notation of the introit “Sitientes” which appears in the Mozarabic Liber Ordinum of Silos, a manuscript of St. Gall and the Antiphonarium of Montpellier (Prado, 1928).  For example, “at the median of the verse there is only a short rest without melodic formula, exactly as in Ambrosian psalmody.”[2] The similarity between the modalities of Old Roman and Hispano-Gothic chants are not surprising, being built on the same Greek theories of tonality and developing in the same family of chant (Huglo, 2007).  Prado, Huglo, and Parrish all contend that the Hispano-Gothic modes were identical to the modes of Gregorian chant and a diagram in Musica Isidori establishes the musical scale of Hispano-Gothic chant, the original source of which seems to be the Byzantine trochos. Huglo also suggested that the common Mozarabic practice of centonization has its roots in Byzantine tradition (Huglo, 2007). These Byzantine influences seem to owe at least part of their origin to St. Leander and his companion Johannes of Gerona, who spent seventeen years in Byzantium (Angles, Hispanic Musical Culture from the 6th to the 14th century, 1940). The presence of four distinct languages (Latin, Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew) in the Illatio (Sanctus) alone indicates further the vast treasury of influences on the liturgy (Rito Hispano-Mozarabe Ordinario de la Misa, 2009) and Prado even went so far as to suggest Jewish influences in the Pater Noster and the various Preces (Prado, 1928).
            The Visigothic rule, however favorable for the cultivation of sacred music, was economically and politically weak and offered little resistance to the pressing wave of Muslim conquest that swept into Spain from Africa in the eighth century. Though it is a point of pride for Spanish musicians to claim that they received no musical influence from their Muslim rulers, the Moorish invasion in 711 brought the musical traditions of the Middle-east to Spain. Many historians have emphasized how Islam tolerated much of Christian practice, though St. Eulogius decried the periods of intense purgation when “persecution filled the prisons with martyrs”[3] and the chanting of the Divine Liturgy fell silent. It was during this time period that the term “Mozarab” surfaced as the name given to those Spaniards who held to their Christian beliefs instead of becoming Muslim. Over time the name came to refer to the liturgical practices, language and chants of the Christian Spaniards during this time (Trend, 1924). As well as bringing their instruments, the Moors also brought their unique theoretical practices and their preference for extended melismas and lively rhythms. The philosopher-musician Al-Farabi in his Kitab al-misiqi al-kabir, the Grand Book on Music, prescribed seven series of rhythms that were often strongly marked and decorated with ornate, florid embellishments (Livermore, 28). One of the most prominent examples of Muslim melodic influence on sacred music, las Cantigas de Sancta Maria, are not genuinely sacred but secular genres with sacred text, as it was with most of the musical practices of the time, blending the realms of sacred and secular (Livermore, 1972). The Moorish influence on chant was an influence of negation, i.e., because of their presence the musical center of Saragossa and Toledo declined as centers of liturgical music. Nevertheless, the northern, mostly Christian centers such as Cordova survived and even flourished during this time in their own traditions (Angles, Hispanic Musical Culture from the 6th to the 14th century, 1940).
            The final stage of influence on the native sacred chants of Spain prior to the Renaissance occurred during the Reconquista, the purging of Moorish rule by Christian powers. The Reconquista so altered the sacred musical traditions of Spain that it is nearly impossible to render the ancient chants with any fidelity (Spain in the Eleventh Century, 1858). This movement attempted to drive the physical presence of the Moors out of Spain and also sought to unite Spain with the rest of Catholic Europe by adopting the Roman rite and with it Gregorian chant (The Mozarabic Rite, 1906). The main proponents of the shift from native to more universal forms of worship were Alphonse IV of Castile and his queen, Constance, the daughter of Guido of Aquitaine. A French-born princess, Queen Constance was therefore warmly attached to the Roman liturgy (Trend, 1924).  She collaborated with a French monk, Bernard, whom Alphonse VI had instated as Bishop of Toledo, to replace the Mozarabic liturgy and chants with those of Latin practice (Spain in the Eleventh Century, 1858).  The main center of resistance to the liturgical reforms took place in Toledo, where Alphonse VI made the Roman rite obligatory immediately following his capture of the city in 1086. The people even held superstitious contests to “prove” which rite was superior, including trial by both fire and the sword (Trend, 1924). Although the results invariably favored the Mozarabs, Alphonse IV, Queen Constance, and the monks of Cluny were determined that the Roman rite should have the pride of place (The Performance of Music in Spain, 1929). Their efforts were ultimately successful, though six parishes in Toledo were granted special permission to continue celebrating the Mozarabic rite. At the turn of the thirteenth century, however, even there it had become obsolete (Angles, Hispanic Musical Culture from the 6th to the 14th century, 1940). Only about twenty or so genuine Mozarabic pieces exist in their entirety to this day, mostly at the Benedictine Monastery of Domingo de Silos. Other sources of chant and descriptions of liturgical music of the time that survive to this day are the Gradual of the Vall d’Aran, the Codex II of the Escorial, the Liber Sacramentorum, Codex Veronensis, and the Antiphonarium of Leon.
At the end of the 15th century Cardinal Francesco Jimenez de Cisneros of Toledo attempted to revitalize the chants and printed a Breviary and a Missal in 1500 (Mozarabic Liber Ordinum, 1928). Thanks to the two hundred years of silence, however, the diastematic neumes could no longer be translated by contemporary musicians. The difficulty of understanding Mozarabic neumes is compounded by the extreme demographic variety of notation and the ambiguity of distinctions between relative pitch and rhythmic indicators (Prado, 1928). For example, the neume types “scandicus, punctus, podatus, clivis and torculus are written in 9, 10, 13, 17, and 28 ways, respectively.”[4] In an effort to make performance of the chants possible, Cisneros imposed strict verse rhythms on melodies which were meant to be sung freely (Mozarabic Liber Ordinum, 1928). As it is today, modern scholars have tried to render the chants in a more faithful format by stripping them of whatever seems to be artificial, including the highly metered rhythms. (Prado, 1928). According to Messenger (1947), the two fundamental issues with understanding the Mozarabic neumes lay in understanding the number of notes indicated by a neume and deciphering the relative tonal height indicated by the neumes. Comparison of the Mozarabic chants with other chant traditions offers modern scholars many clues to their translation; nevertheless, performances of these chants remain highly speculative. A popular example of restored Mozarabic chant is Gaudete populi from the San Milan Liber Ordinum, a recording of which can be found on the Schola Cantorum CD, “A Treasury of Early Music.” Unique sources of Mozarabic hymnody, pilgrim songs sung at the Shrine of St. James of Compostela, lived on in oral tradition and were finally transcribed in 1897 (Trend, 1924). The Codex Calixti II also contains quite a number of these hymns, but in their transcription, the staff has only one line and the intervallic relationships rely on educated speculation. Because of the Reconquista the ancient traditional chants of Spain were abandoned for those of the Gregorian and as result, a great heritage of Spanish culture has been lost.
            In conclusion, each wave of new traditions brought change, sometimes drastic and other times quite subtle, to the sacred musical practices of the Iberian people. The classical colonists brought their wealth of musical philosophy, theory and their instruments to the region. Christianity then brought its riches from all the nations and combined them with the native, dance-like rhythms, contributing again to the store of musical instruments and theories. The glory of the Mozarabic chant, however, was short lived, as the last invasion by the Christian northerners stripped the regions of their cultural heritage in a disgusting display of ethnocentricism and political motivation (Spain in the Eleventh Century, 1858). No single development in music is completely self-fueled; it must influence and be influenced by various traditions and complementary movements. Mozarabic chant was no exception, being influenced by Ancient Classical theory, folk music, foreign chant traditions, and liturgical mandate. The history of sacred Spanish music is, however, exceptional in that it was always changing, i.e. there was never a point at which the chants and their performance were not actively developing. Vital and organic, Spanish sacred music prior to the Reconquista held a treasure-trove of unique musical practices, tragically beaten, but not destroyed completely. The Mozarabic chants are dead to all with the exception of the occasional celebration of the Mozarabic liturgy or the rare recording of intrigued musicians. As of today, there exists no habitat for these unique chants, and until there is, they will continue to lie forgotten by the broader musical community and the religious community for whom they existed in the beginning.


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Angles, H. (1964). Relations of Spanish Folk Song to the Gregorian Chant. Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 16, 54-56.
Chase, G. (1941). Music of Spain. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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[1]  J. B. Trend, “Music in Spanish Galicia,” Music & Letters 5, no. 1 (1924): 14
[2] Michel Huglo, “The Diagrams Interpolated into the Musica Isidori and the Scale of Old Hispanic Chant,” in Western Plainchant in the First Millennium: Studies in the Medieval Liturgy, ed. Sean Gallagher, (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2003), 256.
[3]   Higini Angles. “Hispanic Musical Culture from the 6th to the 14th Century.” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Oct., 1940) p. 500.
[4]  Anne Livermore, A Short History of Spanish Music (New York: Vienna House, 1972), 14.

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