A Short History of Medieval Music

The Middle Ages, though bereft of the cultural influence of the Roman Empire, were a time of remarkable musical achievement. From the lowest troubadours in the market square to the great masters in sacred cathedrals, music was everywhere in medieval society. The late Middle Ages, especially, saw the rise of many talented composers. This was possible in part due to prospering merchant families, such as the Medicis, who sponsored musicians extensively. Even before the Renaissance of art, music was going through a rebirth in Christian monasteries.

After the fall of Rome, Europe went through a long period of barbarian invasions which rather distracted the people from music. After this wave ceased, there was finally a relatively peaceful time, around the reign of Charlemagne, in which musicians could prosper. There were always common musicians, of course: these were the guys who provided the music to dance to, to work to, and to get drunk to. These three activities have always taken place, throughout all time in every civilization, and they're usually accompanied by music. Meanwhile, in the monasteries the Christian monks (and very rarely nuns, such as Hildegard von Bingen) were busy writing music for church occasions. Perhaps the reason women were so excluded is the message of Saint Paul to the Corinthians: "Mulieres in ecclesiis taceant," or "Let your women keep silence in the churches". Monks, being monks, took this quite seriously. Some male chauvinists try to do the same today.

The birth of modern music, or basically all music as we know it, is said to have been with the Gregorian chant. This type of song is named after Pope Gregory I (who reigned from 590 to 604 AD), who claimed a bird flew from heaven and dictated the chants into his ear. Some historians claim that all he did was collect existing songs, and organize the Schola Cantorum, or 'Singing School' of Rome. Yet others insist he hasn't done anything at all, and his image was merely advanced by later Catholics who wanted to improve the heritage of the papacy. To avoid the controversy, I will refer to this music style as Plainchant, another name for it. There are also several other varieties of plainchant, including Ambrosian, Old Roman, Mozarabic, Gallican, and others.

Though far less complicated than later music, plainchant has many set rules which must not be violated. This is partly because it was set out by abbots, friars, and monks, who like rules that must not be violated. Only certain intervals are allowed between notes in this style, although this later changed when people became less fussy. Another feature of plainchant is modes, which are like our scales, but not so much so. There are eleven different modes, though hardly anyone knows all of them. Again, this is just some decorum for monks. If this had been designed by less orderly people perhaps the whole thing would be easier to understand.

The Frankish king Charlemagne was a big fan of music, and he had many Gregorian chants memorized. He even collected a book of rather lewd ballads of the day, which kept him amused. This collection was later burned by his son, Louis the Pious. After conquering a large portion of Western Europe, Charlemagne had time to enjoy the finer things of life. He promoted learning at every opportunity, although he never learned to read. Under his leadership plainchant became more organized.

Hildegard von Bingen

As mentioned earlier, just about the only woman involved in any of this was a German abbess named Hildegard von Bingen. She was born in 1098 and finally died in 1179. Born as the tenth child of a noble family, she was sent to a convent at a young age. Having little to do at the nunnery, Hildegard had plenty of free time. She used this time to write scholarly works, as well as music. Most of her music is dedicated to various saints, which was a common practice among pious musicians of that time. She wrote in the Gregorian tradition, and was renowned through religious circles around Europe during her lifetime.

At the end of the twelfth century in Paris were two composers at the cathedral of Notre Dame. Whether they were contemporaries or a teacher and pupil is unclear, but together they produced a whole mess of church music. This was compiled in a large text called the Magnus Liber, which simply means "big book". Most of what we know about these two great composers is from an unknown source by the name of Anonymous IV, who was probably a monk living around 1280. Anyway, Leonin and Perotin, along with several other less famous composers, were the at the center of musical happenings in Europe, at least in the 1100s. Starting with the original Plainchant, they would add a second, and later even a third and fourth vocal part. This was a big deal back then. In fact, duels have been fought over whether they intended a melody to go dum-ti-dum or ti-dum-ti-dum.

Troubadours & Trouvères

While all this important churchy stuff was happening, the common people continued singing their common songs. The chief musicians outside of the church were traveling performers in France called troubadours and trouvères. The only difference between a troubadour and a trouvère is this: the former were in northern France, while the latter were in southern France. This implied that troubadors spoke the langue d'oil, which has evolved into modern French, and trouvères spoke langue d'oc, which we know as Provençal. Most troubadour (or trouvère) songs are about how the singer loves the woman of his dreams so much, and how beautiful she is. Unfortunately, this woman is generally married to another man. Thus, such musicians had to be quite mobile sometimes. This type of music was usually accompanied by mandolins, lutes or guitars.

Well, there you have it: a brief history of Medieval Music. There's still much more to be discussed, but four pages is probably enough, isn't it? I haven't covered the early Renaissance at all, or Palestrina, Gesualdo, di Lasso, or any of the Italian crowd. But this essay has provided the reader with a good start in the interesting world of plainchant, and related forms.


Works Cited