“Justus ut palma”

This clip may or may not be the most accurate performance-practice wise (all female chorus), but it gives you a good sense of these early chants. It also has a lot of shots of the square-note notation itself – in a few pictures, you’ll see red squiggly lines over the music, like accents. These are “neumes,” the earliest notated form. This version of “Justus ut palma,” [“The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree”] is sung as a Gradual. The same text appears in many different settings for different moments in the liturgical day. Furthermore, different versions of “Justus” exist in different scriptoria, suggesting that there was no fully codified musical text that represented the supreme interpretation of the tune.

Chant has become, in recent years, synonymous with serenity, relaxation, and spiritual quietude. The multi-million selling “Chant” record from 1994 cemented the New Age connection to this ancient repertory (and showed its market potential). But listening to this clip, there are lots of fleeting moments of jagged musical surprise. The melody is unpredictable and wanders into places that don’t strike the modern ear as necessarily intuitive. Calming, yes, but there’s a lot more going on here than just that. (Of course, try marketing “unpredictable melodic turns” to a mass audience..)


  1. zachwallmark says:

    Wait, I’m not sure about my early assertion that women singers wouldn’t be historically accurate for this repertory. Were nuns singing this stuff too? Help!

  2. Nathan Baker says:

    I really liked Taruskin’s comparison of the various neume shapes to the linguistic accents used in ancient Latin. It makes me wonder how many of the world’s languages used to be tonal in nature (like Mandarin Chinese today), and if a widespread tonal element to language would hint at any now-obscured links between language and the development of music. After all, Taruskin also pointed out how singing might be used as a way of sacrifying spoken language and thus make it appropriate for worshipping God; it is worth noting that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all use singing for sacred purposes.

  3. Adding to what Nathan said, I liked Taruskin’s comment that one doesn’t worship God in the same voice used for talking to one’s neighbor! (As someone who grew up hearing music at religious services, I tend to forget that the singing of music for sacred purposes is a deliberate choice.)

  4. Zach: Possibly. From the time of St. Benedict, convents were established, and a woman would have served as cantrix.

    You might be interest in Judith Tick’s article in Grove, “Women in music, §II: Western classical traditions in Europe & the USA,”

    and also:

    J.M. Bowers and J. Tick, eds.: Women Making Music: the Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950 (Urbana, IL, 1986)

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Shelley — Thank you for following up on this question! I’ll definitely check out the articles you mention. Women musicians are all too often left out of histories until the appearance of Hildegard in the 12th century. I’m afraid Taruskin is guilty of this too.

  5. Panos Vlagopoulos (Ionian University, Corfu GR) says:

    Just a remark on the “Neumes” chapter: “Etymologically”, writes RT, “the word “neume,” which comes to us by way of medieval Latin from the Greek word pneuma (“breath,” whence vital spirit or soul), referred to a characteristic melodic turn such as may be sung on one breath”. This pneuma/neuma corruption is standard dictionary material (see the Webster, eg). Be that as it may (who is “us”, by the way?), one should say, first of all, that “neuma” means “gesture” in Greek – the monks might not have been as bad in Greek after all!

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