Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Tonus peregrinus


Renaissance painting of people in procession in an ornate twisting mountainous background. Journey of hte Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli.

Tonus peregrinus is an ancient plainchant mode.  It differs from other modes in that the first half of the verse begins on one note of the scale, and the second half begins on a different note (this was a deviation from the norm at the time).   Here’s what the chant looks and sounds like in its basic form.

The name means “wandering tone,” or as I saw it described in one source “pilgrim’s tone.”  Of course, both names work.  The phrases “wander” to an extent that is unusual for plainchant.  Christian pilgrims wandered their way across Europe to the Holy Land.  It has also been suggested that this rule-bending chant mode may have come from Eastern Christian religious practice, or perhaps an even more ancient form of chant.  So, it appears to have done a bit of wandering itself.

Here is an example of the use of the tonus peregrinus, which is typically used in the singing of Psalm 114.  In this example it is sung in English with organ accompaniment.

I haven’t written much here on the blog lately because I have been doing a bit of peregrination myself of late, physical and virtual, as a number of changes have occurred around me.

I have helped no fewer than three sets of folks move their belongings from one household to another, some over long distances.  Anyone who has ever moved knows it is not just the physical moving of stuff that is exhausting—it is all the paperwork, and details, and the sheer mental adjustment to new surroundings (where did I put the light bulbs? where is the nearest bank?).  Thankfully, my only challenge was lifting things and finding my way from point A to B.  GPS made my peregrinations much easier than those of the pilgrims of old.

Earlier in the year, a place where I spent a great deal of time as a child passed from family hands, so the places where I once walked were no longer mine to tread, my steps redirected from once familiar paths. Rooms deprived of their furniture echo differently.  The tone is shifted, slightly, but perceptibly.

The elderly relative who had lived there is living a contented life, but can no longer clearly identify other family members.  They are familiar, perhaps, on a good day, but, as they say, the mind wanders.

Even more changes:  recently, our choir director retired.  While we are sad to see him step down from the podium, we are happy that he will enjoy a well-deserved retirement.  When the new director signals the downbeat, some of the music will be the same, but we know it may sound a little different.  After all, Glenn Gould’s Chromatic Fantasy (Bach) is different from András Schiff’s Chromatic Fantasy, and Wanda Landowska’s Chromatic Fantasy (and of course, Gould’s Goldberg Variations are different from … Gould’s Goldberg Variations).

Also, recently I performed a piece of music that I had written.  It was first set to paper five years ago.   It has undergone some changes since then, though the basic tune remained the same.

Tonus peregrinus.  Things change, they shift in unexpected ways.  And we continue to meet new challenges and new opportunities.  It may not be clear how things will turn out, or where we’ll end up.  But we keep wandering anyway.

In my search for examples of tonus peregrinus, I stumbled upon a work by Perotin on an album by the group Tonus Peregrinus.  The work, Beata viscera, is not an example of tonus peregrinus; it is a monophonic conductus, a work for one voice, typically used in processions.  This was probably sung at Notre Dame in Paris–it too will return, but be not quite the same.  The twisting and turning of the melody, beautiful and haunting, made it a perfectly imperfect accompaniment to this post.  Here is Beata viscera by Perotin, performed by soprano Rebecca Hickey.


Image attribution:  Procession of the Youngest King, also known as Journey of the Magi, by Benozzo Gozzoli [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons,

2 thoughts on “Tonus peregrinus

  1. BWV 733 fur Orgel. Franz Schubert verwendet den Tonus peregrinus in seinem Lied Gretchen am Spinnrade in der ersten Strophe, die als Refrain noch zweimal wiederholt wird. Nach den ersten vier Takten in d-moll ( [BWV 733 for organ. Franz Schubert used the tonus peregrinus in his song Gretchen am Spinnrade in the first verse, and then repeated it twice as a refrain. After the first four bars in d minor ( ]

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