'Melodic Variation in Northern Low Countries Chant Manuscripts'

In 2020, I graduated magna cum laude for PhD studies in Musicology at Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany. In the alongside sections, you can find more info on my research. The appendix of the dissertation is available for download.

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A single piece of Gregorian chant can be found in as many guises as there are manuscripts, each with its own ‘local’ peculiarities. This especially goes for the chants recorded in the manuscripts of the Low Countries, in which many types of melodic variation are found. This study sets out to map the melodic variation occurring in northern Low Countries chant manuscripts from the oldest known notations to those of the sixteenth century, and to explore their relationships and attributions through this variation. It includes case studies on the melodic traditions of Utrecht’s chapter church of St Mary and the Haarlem Commandary of the Knights Hospitaller. 


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Gregorian chant: uniformity and diversity

When one realises that thousands of liturgical chants were transmitted over more than three centuries in which there were no accurate means of melodic notation, the core repertoire of Gregorian plainchant has been transmitted with an astonishing degree of uniformity.

On the other hand, these chants – or better still, the notations of chants – are reflections of a living liturgy, and thus reflections of their particular surroundings: a specific church, a group of churches, a congregation, or a monastic order. In these surroundings worked singers and writers, each of whom contributed to the development of ideas of what chant should be and of habits of composition and notation, before passing them on to their successors. Any monastic or collegial environment could develop its own conventions in relation to what only seems to be a uniform repertoire at first sight.

Although relationships between specific manuscripts and their associated variants of Gregorian plainchant certainly exist, how the different variants of chants developed has been, and continues to be, a highly debated topic. Moreover, how these different developments were valued has varied widely.


Peter Wagner

Examples of this can be found in the publications of Solesmes Abbey, but likewise in those of Peter Wagner. In his 1930 publication of the gradual from Leipzig’s St Thomas church, Wagner contested the idea of a single primeval version of all chants (as propagated by Solesmes) and introduced the term Choraldialekte to indicate different traditions of Gregorian chant.

Wagner’s publications have been the main sources on the subject in the twentieth century, although his observations were primarily based on the criterion of pitch in Mass proprium chants. Moreover, Wagner’s anti-French sentiments shimmer through in most of his writings – an element which unfortunately clouds his research on the topic. One of the few studies on the subject from a later date by Maria-Elisabeth Heisler corrects Wagner’s assumptions and terminology where necessary, expands on his source material, and adds the criterion of notation to enable the inclusion of adiastematic neume notations.


Low Countries sources

Low Countries sources have had to wait longer before they were included in the study of chant dialects. The relevance of the current study lies in the fact that, for the first time, sources from the northern Low Countries have been studied in detail for melodic variation. In order to do justice to the complexity of the political and ecclesiastical variation found in this region, sources from all corners of the region and all types of locations have been included.



As became clear during the first stages of research, the terminology of chant dialects as initially proposed by Wagner was inadequate to the description and analysis of the variation occurring in these notations of chant. Therefore, the research was widened to include all possible types of melodic variation. In addition, the corpus of chants analysed was enlarged from solely proprium to ordinarium and officium chants, including ferial antiphons.

The research was guided by the questions on the nature, extent, consistency, exclusivity and correlations of melodic variation. It became clear that, in order to answer these questions, the manuscripts’ melodic variation would have to be approached from different angles. This varied from the straightforward tallying of a particular variant to more complex calculations of a variant’s frequency, with the possibility of differentiating the scope of analysis from single to groups of manuscripts, the one or the other chant genre, ecclesiastical location and particular time spans. In order to gain a detailed understanding of variation and the relation between variants, statistical analysis was made wherever possible.

Differentiation was also given shape in the diachronic analysis of a group of manuscripts from Utrecht’s chapter church of St Mary, complementing the synchronic analysis that is found most often in chant research.

The differentiation of analysis has shown the contingent nature of variation, and this contingency draws attention to the critical awareness required in the study of melodic variation.



The observations of Wagner and later authors mostly concern the subject of pitch variation, in particular semitone variation. The findings of the current study confirm the general idea of Wagner’s groupings (the ‘dialects’) based on specific pitch propensities in Low Countries sources, but also show that this should be seen as a general rather than an exclusive grouping, which moreover varies with each chant genre. The current study expands Wagner’s and Heisler’s list of distinctive pitch variants with

·         ‘flexus variation’;

that is, the variation whereby one of the variants features an ‘extra’ lower note;

·         variation in ascending and descending note groups;

that is, the variation whereby one of the variants features an ‘extra’ sub-semitonal note;

·         pitch variation related to anticipation liquescence;

that is, the variation whereby one of the variants features the addition of a pitch that is also featured in the next neume;

·         ‘intonation variation’;

that is, some manuscripts have a melodic ‘re-intonation’ through number of lower notes, while in other manuscripts, a recitative is simply continued;

·         a further distinction within supra-semitonal propensities;

that is, that some manuscripts adhere more to supra-semitonal pitches (DO, FA) than others; although already known as a factor of distinction between the East- and West-Frankish sources, this phenomenon also offers a means of distinction within the East-Frankish group.


Difference in variation between chant genres

An important observation made is the difference in pitch variation between chant genres. The degree of variation occurring in proprium and officium chants is mostly similar, while the ordinarium category often differs from its two ‘colleagues’, with some variation overviews displaying no variation whatsoever in the ordinarium category.

This is partly explained by certain melodic formulas being exclusive to particular chant categories, but there appears to be a more fundamental difference between the ordinarium and the other two categories: ordinarium melodies are transmitted in a much more uniform way in sources than others and are much less prone to the propensities as outlined by Wagner. It appears that ordinarium melodies are handed down more as complete entities, while proprium and officium chants are handed down more as ‘contours’.


Other variables

Next to pitch variation, the variations of melisma, repercussion, quilisma and melodic variation related to textual differences were explored. This has revealed new variants distinctive of smaller manuscript groups or single manuscripts, and the correlation of specific variants. Examples of propensities other than pitch variation recurring in a group of manuscripts are:

·         the occurrence of unique melismata[1]

·         the adherence to repercussion in the mode-4 cadence[2]

·         preferred melodic positions for quilismata[3]

·         and textual differences

Particular propensities were found to be exclusive to single sources, such as a strong propensity for apostrophae[4] or the pressus minor[5], or particular kinds of melodic redaction.[6] 

Along the way, some highly interesting phenomena were observed, two of which deserve special mention.


The use of quilismata to indicate ‘initio debilis’

The first is an almost excessive use of quilismata which can be observed in the 15th-century missal NL-Uu405 from Lopik. There is only one type of neumatic phenomenon similar to the quilisma’s use in the Lopik missal, and that is initio debilis. A comparison to all such instances from Codex Einsiedeln 121 confirms such a possibility. This is a highly remarkable phenomenon, since the Lopik Missal concerns a 15th-century manuscript in hufnagel notation, while the phenomenon is only associated with the oldest known adiastematic neumatic sources. As far as known, hufnagel notations never include initio debilis, nor is there any symbol associated with this phenomenon. Two other Low Countries sources were also pointed out for similarities in Lopik’s use of the quilisma.


The ‘quilisma tristropha’

Next to this, a neume of unknown significance encountered in a number of Low Countries sources could be explained by the hypothesis for the quilisma indicating initio debilis: a comparison of sources has shown that the unknown sign in all probability indicates a quilisma as part of a tristropha, with the quilisma ‘leading’ – as initio debilis does – towards the ensuing strophae: for this, I proposed the term ‘quilisma tristropha’. The remarkable feature here is that the quilisma can occur as part of a tristropha, and that in that case, the quilisma is notated as an isolated element.


Preliminary observations

Next to the aforementioned observations, a number of preliminary observations have been made which could not be researched further, as they require the examination of sources exceeding the scope of the present study. An example of this is the difference in repercussion in the manuscripts of Tertiary and Augustinian communities within the Devotio Moderna, which could be of use as a criterion to distinguish the provenance of such manuscripts. Another example is the repercussion in prefaces in a Knights Hospitaller manuscript, presumably related to the solemnity of particular feasts. Future studies could perhaps continue on these trails.


Potential of study

The different types of melodic variation encountered underline the complexity of such a subject in this particular region of Europe. But at the same time, they offer the potential to clarify connections, similarities and divergence between sources and their locations of use, as has been shown in greater detail in the explorations of the sources from St Mary’s and the Haarlem Hospitallers.



A number of sources were included in a scientific study for the first time, such as the Cantuale of Leiden’s Pieterskerk, the Cantuale Novum of Delft and the manuscripts associated with the Haarlem commandary of Knights Hospitaller.

Also, the already more extensively studied manuscripts of Utrecht’s chapter church of St Mary have been explored for melodic variation. In this, manuscripts which are probably not part of St Mary’s melodic tradition have been pointed out, among which the famous Utrecht Pontifical Uu400, whose provenance has long been a point of debate.

An unexpected development in the writing of this study was the discovery of a collection of liturgical fragments in the collection of monsignor Jan Valkestijn, which await future study.

The final result of three years of research is a large collection of photographic material, a corpus of transcription tables with a uniform presentation of different melodic renditions, and the present thesis. It is hoped these results can be of aid in future research into this fascinating subject after the conclusion of this study.

As is apparent from almost all studies on medieval liturgical manuscripts, such works are a sum of different crafts, such as parchment production, script, illumination and musical notation – to name only the most obvious. The current PhD dissertation is a demonstration that the study of melodic variation offers new means for such research, making it possible to more fully appreciate the relevance and unique nature of each particular source.

[1] The Rijnsburg gradual B-Br II 3825, and the older layers of the Hospitaller gradual NL-Hs 184 C7 and St Agnes’ gradual Leiden UL BPL 3683.[2] In general, the northern Low Countries manuscripts show a propensity for the mode-4 cadence without repercussion, while three of St Mary’s oldest antiphoners, the 14th-century gradual NL-184 Hs C7 and the Rijnsburg sources show a propensity towards the repercussive variants. This is one of many elements suggesting that the 15th-century Rijnsburg sources retained an older tradition of chant.[3] In the case of the Utrecht diocese, the minor-third interval with a wholetone as its basis has far more quilismata, while the same interval is rarely found with a quilisma in the imported tradition of the Hospitallers’ sources.[4] Uu408.[5] Hs 184 C5 and Uu411.[6] St Agnes’ gradual LEIDEN UL BPL 3683; the Hospitaller’s gradual NL-184 HS C7.


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The appendix can be freely downloaded here.



2021. Review of Symphoniae - Gesänge der Hildegard von Bingen. Praxisbuch.  (Stefan Klöckner, Dominik Schneider, Ursula Wilhelm), in: Gregoriusblad, September 2021. Utrecht: Gooi & Sticht.

2021. 'Met barmhartige ogen: het 'Salve Regina'', in: Tussenbeide, July 2021.  Antwerpen: Halewijn NV. 

2021. 'De duisternis verdreven – een ontketende jubel', in: Tussenbeide, March 2021.  Antwerpen: Halewijn NV.
2020. ‘Antonio Caldara – Kapelmeester temidden van muzikale bloei’, in: Gregoriusblad, September 2020. Utrecht: Gooi & Sticht.
2020. Melodic Variation in Northern Low Countries Chant Manuscripts (1150-1600). See above.

2018. 'Oude handschriften en hun praktische betekenis', in: Muziek en Liturgie, October 2018.

2018. '‘In stillness every human being is great’ - De liturgische muziek van Leonard Bernstein', in: Gregoriusblad, March 2018. Utrecht: Gooi & Sticht. 

2017. Het oudste boek van Oegstgeest - Een laatmiddeleeuws gregoriaans zangboek. (In collaboration with Freek Lugt.) Oegstgeest: Vereniging Oud Oegstgeest.
2017. 'Eén hand, twee tradities: de zangboeken van broeder Adriaan', in: Tijdschrift voor Gregoriaans, September 2017.

2017. '‘Una nobile severità di canto’ - De muziek van Domenico Bartolucci', in: Gregoriusblad, March 2017. Utrecht: Gooi & Sticht. 

2016. The Late Choral Works of Ton de Leeuw: an Analytical Study. (MA thesis, Birmingham University.) Available via Donemus Publishing, The Hague.

2016. ‘De religieuze muziek van Max Reger’, in: Gregoriusblad, June 2016.  Utrecht: Gooi & Sticht. 

2014. 'De Erfenis van Jeroen vereeuwigd', in: Kernpunten 87.  Noordwijk: Vereniging De Oude Dorpskern.

2013. Past Traditions – Present Tense: Composing in Confluence with Gregorian Chant. (Master’s Research Conservatory of Amsterdam.) (Published in summary in: Tijdschrift voor Gregoriaans 2015.)

2012. Missa sancti Jeroni: de gregoriaanse misgezangen voor de heilige Jeroen van Noordwijk. Private publication.

2011. ‘Liturgie zonder en mét kerk’, in: Gregoriusblad, June 2011. Utrecht: Gooi & Sticht.