Western Music History/Medieval Music


The Medieval period dates approximately from 700 A.D. to 1400 A.D

During this time European society was rigidly divided into three social classes: the nobility, consisting of kings, queens, barons, princes and lords; serfs and peasants; and thirdly, the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. All segments of society felt the power of the Roman Catholic Church because Christianity had risen in western Europe to fill the power vacuum left by the demise of the Roman empire around the fourth century. Rome still exerted a powerful influence over western Europe especially after the Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity. Rome at the beginning of the Medieval period was still a distributive base of regional information and a central hub of European learning. It was also the cumulative center of Christian liturgical musical life. Many musicians were priests or members (predominantly of minor orders) of the clergy, and as such liturgical singing played an important role in worship. It is thought that the church discouraged the use of musical instruments although we can infer from period paintings and literary descriptions that instruments were played. It is thought that instruments were used when good singers were not available. The instruments would then either replace the vocal part or help the voice stay in tune. The church discouraged instruments because it was the desire of the church leaders to keep the congregation's focus on the words that were being sung. Anything that would detract from that was considered at odds with the holy purpose of the music.

Gregorian Chant (plainsong)Edit

Pope Gregory by Francisco de Zurbarán - painted 1626-1627. Though there are no contempoary images existing, the life of Gregory has inspired generations of artists to put brush to canvas.

For over 1000 years, the official music of the Roman Catholic Church was the Gregorian Chant, which was named after Pope Gregory I. He began the task of organizing and codifying the chants in the 6th century used by the church. By the era of Charlemagne in the early 9th century, Gregorian Chant was a mostly unified body of music throughout western Europe.

With Gregorian Chant, there is no definite sense of rhythm, the timing is very flexible and there is no sense of beat. This creates a floating, improvisational quality to the music. The chant essentially consists of a Melody, set to a sacred Latin text, sung unaccompanied which moves predominantly in stepwise motion within a narrow range of pitches. It may be either Syllabic - one note for each syllable - or Melismatic - many notes to one syllable. The composers of the chants were anonymous, and the chants were based on church modes (Ionian, Dorian etc...).

Development of PolyphonyEdit

Polyphony was developed during the period of 700 A.D. to 900 A.D. where the chant melody was duplicated at an interval of a 4th or a 5th. The voices moved in parallel motion with the actual chant being sung by the bottom voice. Medieval music consisting of Gregorian chant and one or more melodic lines moving in parallel motion is called Organum.

From 900 A.D. to 1200 A.D Organum became truly polyphonic, with the melodic lines becoming independent and each line had its own rhythm and own melody. Generally, the chant in the bottom voice was sung in very long, drawnout notes, while the added melody on top moved in shorter note values. Early polyphony was still quite rhythmically free.

Then during the period of 1170 A.D. to 1200 A.D. the Notre Dame School of Composers developed rhythmic innovations. The leading composers at the school were Leonin and Perotin, who used measured rhythm with definite time values and a clearly defined meter. The newly developed notation indicated precise rhythms and pitches. However, the beat could only be subdivided into threes, which was symbolic of the Trinity. Few triads were used, resulting in Medieval polyphony sounding very hollow, thin and stark to the modern ear. The interval of a 3rd was hardly ever used as it was considered to sound dissonant...

Secular MusicEdit

The first large body of decipherable, secular songs that have survived, comes from the 12th and 13th centuries. It was written by French noblemen Troubadours (coming from Southern France) and the Trauvéres (coming from Northern France). Most of the songs deal with the subject of love. There were also dance and spinning songs (spinning songs come from when the maidens would spin cloth and sing songs to pass the time). Their songs were played mainly by court minstrels. Many of the songs have been preserved because the nobility had clerics to write down the songs.

Secular songs also appear in Italy, Spain, England and Germany. They use a regular beat, unlike the Gregorian Chant. Instruments used included : Harps; Fiddles, Recorders; Lutes; Flutes; Shawms; and Bagpipes.

Ars Nova (new art)Edit

Ars Nova began in the 14th century as a result of a conscious effort to write music in a new style. An essay entitled “Ars Nova”, by Phillipe de Vitry (a musical theorist), was published describing the new characteristics of style in music.

A significant development in rhythm which occurred during this period was that the beat could now be subdivided into two equal parts. Syncopation was introduced and polyphonic compositions became increasingly complex and sophisticated. One important form of music was the Mass, consisting of the PROPER and the ORDINARY. Composers set the ordinary to music which contained five sung prayers : Kyrie; Gloria; Credo; Sanctus; Agnus Dei.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098 - 1179)Edit

Hildegard was a female German composer, born the last of ten children. She was given to the church as a tithe, as it was custom to give the Roman Catholic Church one tenth of a family's possessions. She became known for having diverse occupations, such as composer, musician, playwright, and poet, among others. She was a master of the Gregorian chant, a craft that began as early as the 5th century.

Leoninus (died c. 1201)Edit

Leonin, a French composer, was the first-known significant one to write in polyphonic organum. He most likely worked at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and heralded the Notre Dame school of polyphony. His widely known moniker is the French form of his Latin name, Leoninus. He wrote a book called Magnus liber organi, which was a great book of religious music. Later it was revised by Perotinus.

Perotin (fl. c. 1200)Edit

Perotin is arguably the most well-known figure in the Notre Dame school of polyphony. Like Leonin, he is assumed to be French, and the name Perotin is derived from his Latin name, Perotinus. He is often paired with Leonin as they both pioneered choral polyphony. He expanded on the developments of Leonin, and helped create three and four-part polyphony. Viderunt omnes is an example of a Gregorian chant, written centuries before, in which Perotin inserted an organum.

Guillaume de Machaut (1300 - 1377)Edit

Guillaume de Machaut was arguably one of the most important composers of Medieval Music. He was a poet and musician born in France who wrote in the Ars Nova style. He mainly composed secular music and worked for various royal families. He travelled extensively and his output consisted mainly of love songs for two voices and instrumental accompaniment. He is most famous for his ‘Missa Notra Dame’ (Notre Dame Mass), which is one of the finest compositions of the 14th century. It was the first polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary and was written for four voices – possibly doubled by instruments.

Agnus Dei movement Arranged for four voices – one soprano, two altos and one tenor. It made use of triple meter – symbol of the Trinity - and consisted of complex rhythms and syncopation. The two upper parts are rhythmically active while the two lower parts move in longer note values and play a supportive role. The movement includes dissonances and triads which sounds fuller than previous Organum.

Francesco Landini (c. 1325 - 1397)Edit

The Italian Landini, like Hildegard, fits the characteristics of a Renaissance man. He was a composer, singer, organist, instrument maker, and poet. He was a master of the trecento. Though considered a Medieval composer by most musicologists, his music paved the way for the musical quattrocento and the early Renaissance, both of which began around 1400.