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Chapter 4: Medieval Music

The Middle Ages is the longest of the chronological style periods. The traditional date for the beginning of the Middle Ages is the fall of Rome in 479 AD. Medieval music then, includes the music of the 6th through the 14th centuries.

Although music was indisputably an important part of life during the so-called Dark Ages, it is the music of the Gothic era that we know most about. The simple reason for this is that pitch-specific musical notation only dates from around the milenium.

Guido's Hand

Developed by Guido d'Arezzo, the "Guidonian Hand" was a visual tool used in teaching sight-singing to singers.

The invention of staff notationInformationA staff is the five lines and the four spaces in between them that serves as a backdrop for musical notation. is usually attributed to an Italian theorist named Guido d'Arezzo, who lived near Rome in the 11th century. Guido is also credited with inventing solmization, the method of sight-singing using syllables like re, mi, fa, sol, la. He devised a clever song a bit like "Do, a Deer, a Female Deer" to help the choirboys learn how to sing chant melodies at sight. Having them do that saved a lot of time in rehearsal because it was no longer necessary to teach singers every song by rote.

The first notated repertoire of music in Western culture is plainsong, also called Gregorian chant after Pope Gregory I, who legend tells us composed many of these liturgical songs. In truth, the pope did not compose plainsong; the lack of a pitch-specific notation would preclude that. More likely, he initiated and supervised an effort to collate the large body of liturgical song that had already accumulated by the 7th century.

For the sake of clarification, plainsong is a broader term than Gregorian chant. It encompasses Ambrosian chant from Milan, Gallican chant from France, Coptic chant from Egypt, and Mozarabic chant from moorish Spain. Chant scholars investigate all these sources, but Gregorian chant is the classic liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church in most areas of the world, including America.

Where in America does one go to hear Gregorian chant sung? Certainly not in your local parish church. Since Vatican II (1962-65), most congregations have moved in the direction of American popular styles for their liturgical music. With the exception of monasteries, a few large churches, like cathedrals and basilicas in major cities like Chicago and New York with paid choirs, plainsong is no longer used in worship.

Although it is hard to find live performances of chant, there are many recordings available. The music is very relaxing to listen to, even if you don't understand the Latin text. Generally, it's not the words people are interested in, it's the music. The Dies Irae ("Day of Wrath"), from the Mass for the Dead (Requiem) is a good example. The text is not a very soothing one; it speaks of the Day of Judgment when the earth will be consumed by God's anger. It's a musical (but not chronological) analogue to Michelangelo's famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But the music is still serene. What makes it so? What are the characteristics of chant?

Chant Characteristics Monophonic: There is no harmony or counterpointInformation"Point against point." Polyphony. The relationship between musical voices that are harmonically related, but melodically independent., only melody. The melodic lines are carefully constructed to avoid large leaps and awkward intervals so they can be sung unaccompanied in unison.

Modal: The available pitch set from which the melodies are taken is a seven-note series that resembles our modern major and minor scales. The eight modes used for chant form the basis of medieval music theory and are still used today.

Non-metric: The rhythm of the song is entirely based on the text. It's a phrase rhythm rather than a metric rhythm. There is nothing in the notation to tell the singers precisely how long to hold each note or syllable. There is no feeling of a beat, much less of consistently recurring patterns of long/short or strong/weak.

Texted: The sacred Latin text is either Biblical or liturgical. Many of the texts are taken directly from the Mass.
Pope Gregory

A famous and beautiful myth about the origin of plainsong tells us that a dove came down from heaven and sang into the ear of Pope Gregory the Great. These sacred melodies, dictated by the Holy Spirit, were written down by Pope Gregory's scribe and became known as Gregorian Chant.

painting: St. Gregory by Matthias Stomm (1600-1652)

While this music is arcane, it is not abstruse. It still has an appeal, both as functional liturgical music and as pleasant facilitator to relaxation. It also has scholastic value, because the principles of melody established in plainsong continue to influence composition through the 19th century. Composers of the Renaissance often borrowed and paraphrased plainsong melodies in their masses and motets. We'll investigate this more later.

Secular Music

If you stop reading here, you'll have the impression that the only music heard in the Middle Ages was plainsong. Of course, that is not the case. Secular music played an important role in medieval life. People sang and danced and played instruments, just as they do today. Of course, not very many people were trained to read and write notation, so most of the musicians played by ear or memory. There are no scores of this popular music that allow us to reconstruct the sound with any certainty, the way we do in the Renaissance. But we know from contemporary accounts that music was present at all kinds of secular events from weddings to jousting tournaments to coronations. There were even bands of peripatetic musicians and actors known jongleurs who traveled from village to town entertaining the common and well-born alike.

There is a repertoire of secular monophony that we know a lot about, largely because the composers and performers came from a social class that taught and encouraged them to write down their music. They were theTroubadours, and their relatives the Trouveres and the Minnesingers. These are the 12th century composers of chivalric song who glorified the women they loved and immortalized them in verse. The art of courtly love certainly included music.


Also in the Gothic era, notably in England, Spain and France, examples of polyphony begin to appear. Polyphonic music features the combination of two or more melodies to form musical texture (fabric). Early polyphony, known as organum, is very simple with one voice simply shadowing the other at a predetermined interval, usually a perfect fourth or fifth. It sounds hollow. There is very little rhythmic interest or contrast between the voices. As the practice became more advanced, composers attained a very high level of proficiency, combining an active, florid melody with a more static one. To do that, they required a more advanced system of rhythmic notation.

Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Biographical Sketch
Hildegard was the abbess of the Benedictine convent of Rupertsberg in the Rhine valley near the German city of Trier. She is known for her mystic and literary works, including recorded visions, medical and scientific treatises, hagiography, letters and lyrical and dramatic poetry, much of which has survived with monophonic music notation. In her lifetime she was famous for her prophecies and miracles (she was known as the "Sybil of the Rhine") and was consulted by and corresponded with popes, kings and emperors on diplomatic, political and religious issues of the day.

Hildegard's lyrical poetry is collected under the title Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum [symphony of the harmony of heavenly revelations]. In this work she expresses a mystical, visionary concept of faith that contrasts to the rational mainstream views of her scholastic contemporaries. The music consists of liturgical monophonic chants, primarily sequences, and a play with music called Ordo virtutum [The enactment of the virtues]. In it the Devil and the sixteen virtues battle for a Christian soul. It is by far the oldest example that exists of a "morality play," an allegorical drama that became extremely popular in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Though filled with repeated melodic patterns, Hildegard's plainchants are highly elaborate, with unusually wide ranges that reflect the visionary imagery of the texts.

The 13th century is notable for a great creative flourish at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Sacred music there under the direction of two famous musicians, Leonin and Perotin, became more sophisticated, especially in the area of rhythm. They developed a system that permitted accurate notation of fairly complex rhythmic patterns. Early polyphony flourished alongside plainsong rather than replacing it. The second half of the century brought about the genre called the motet, which combined secular French texts with sacred Latin words in the same song. The Gothic motet is different from the Renaissance motet, which is discussed in the next lecture.

In the 14th century, art music takes on an even greater sophistication. Composers like Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) exploit developments in rhythmic notation to produce extremely complex sacred and secular works. Mathematical proportions, which had figured into the calculation of pitch since ancient Greece, began to dominate the structure of music, permitting composers to produce much longer works.

The most famous of these was Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame, a complete musical setting of the Mass Ordinary. The Ordinary is the text of the Mass that remains constant throughout the liturgical year. For example, the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) is the same for Christmas or Easter or the Feast of Corpus Christi. This is in contrast to the Proper texts, which vary according to the liturgical occasion. The obvious advantage for a composer in setting the Ordinary is that the music can be used at any time during the church year rather than being reserved for a particular season or feast day. The Mass will become the most important musical genre of the Renaissance. We will examine that in more depth in the next lecture.

Chapter 4: Music for Listening