Middle Ages 450-1450 Historical Themes The spread of Christianity The development of a European culture The influence of Islamic culture
Musical Context The music of the church The beginning of musical notation The birth of polyphony The rise of courtly culture
Style For such a vast period of time, there is a remarkable continuity in musical styles in the Middle Ages. In order to understand them better, it is a good idea to group their distinctive features within the broad categories of monophonic and polyphonic styles. Monophonic Style Polyphonic Style
HISTORICAL THEMES The spread of Christianity The Christian religion began as an underground sect of messianic Judaism in the first century C.E. Its practitioners were first persecuted, then tolerated; finally Christianity was accepted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Western Empire, it emerged as the central unifying force in medieval Europe. The development of a European cul ture After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the former Roman lands were ruled by various barbarian lords. These lands were eventually united by the Frankish kings, culminating in the crowning of Charlemagne (742-814) as Holy Roman Emperor. The influence of Islamic cul ture As the followers of the prophet Mohammed (570?-632) expanded their
territory through the Middle East and the Mediterranean, they preserved and built on the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Through conflict (the Crusades) and coexistence (the multicultural Iberian Peninsula), Europe gained much from its contacts with this rich culture. MUSICAL CONTEXT The Music of the Church Music was an integral part of Christian worship. The daily liturgy
provided innumerable texts, all set to music in the style we call Gregorian chant.
The church served as an important patron of the arts, specifically of music
Throughout the period, the majority of composers were associated with and supported by the church.
The Beginning of Musical Notation As in many non-Western cultures, music in early medieval Europe did not
have a system of notation. It was not until perhaps the ninth century that a basic system of notation was developed.
Notating music was a difficult and time-consuming process. It was only in the cathedrals and monasteries that such work could be done on a regular basis.
Therefore, nearly all the music preserved (until the twelfth century) was written for the church.
The advent of notation also produced a markedly stable body of music, one of the features of Western musical culture.
The Birth of Polyphony Descriptions of polyphonic singing date back to the ninth century, but the
practice actually began earlier in improvised performances. Polyphony is a distinctive feature of Western music. Its development
became the primary focus for composers from the thirteenth century on. Complex polyphony demanded specialized training for composers. The composition of plainchant was primarily an activity of the monastery
and convent, but by the fourteenth century, composers were more often
members of the university-trained elite of the church. This change explains, in part, the lack of female composers of
polyphony. The Rise of Courtly Cul ture The nobility of southern France created an elaborate society centered on
the court, a practice that spread throughout the whole of Europe. Music was an important activity of these courts, and the aristocracy took
part in the performance and composition of secular works. Surviving examples are found in music of the troubadours and trouvres, beginning in the twelfth century.
By the fourteenth century, the polyphonic style took hold in secular music.
Secular polyphony was produced by highly trained specialists in the art of music rather than by the aristocracy.
MUSICAL STYLE Monophonic Style A simple monophonic texture might be enriched by the use of drones
and (in secular music) percussion. Rhythm was often not notated. We assume that it was tied to text in vocal
music and to dance in instrumental music. Melodies are often long and flowing. Texted music is often melismatic. Form comes from text in vocal music. The structure of instrumental music
is based on repeating sections. Polyphonic Style Voices and instruments were often mixed. Nonimitative counterpoint, with voices moving at different rhythmic
speeds, is the primary texture. Rhythms are often restless and active. Melodies are long and asymmetrical. Harmony is based on open fifths and octaves. Dissonances are often sharp and unexpected. Pieces are often built on a cantus firmus, and the structure is formed from
repetitions of that melody.
COMPOSERS Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) Moniot d'Arras (f l.1213-1239) Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377) HILDEGARD VON BINGEN Born: 1098. Bermersheim, Germany Died: September 17, 1179. Rupertsberg, Germany Abbess, mystic, musician and writer. Composed plainchant and wrote learned treatises on natural science, medicine and theology. Was Hildegard inspired by divine visions, or did she suffer from migraines? The question has been asked in this century, but the answer only reveals our own view of the world. Hildegard's reality was indeed one of inspired visions and these visions reinforced a powerful will to succeed that made her one of the most remarkable women of the Middle Ages. Hildegard enjoyed a relatively privileged position as abbess of a wealthy convent. At the age of eight, her parents sent her to a local convent for religious training. She eventually rose to the rank of abbess, and succeeded in forming an independent convent near Rupertsberg. Over the course of her life, Hildegard managed to educate herself far beyond the knowledge demanded for a woman of her rank. Significantly, she passed this knowledge on in the form of learned studies of natural science, medicine and other matters. At the same time, Hildegard was a mystic, experiencing visions of what she called "the divine light" from an early age. These visions were accepted as authentic by the church, and this added to Hildegards stature. She exploited this by being an outspoken advocate of all she believed, even to the point of confronting popes and emperors when she thought they were not following
God's will. Hildegard also excelled in the craft of musical composition, and she wrote a large number of monophonic pieces for use in the church services, along with a mystery play with music (the Ordo virtutum ). Her musical style is individual. Perhaps because she wrote her works for female voices, her melodies explore a much wider range and often contain dramatic leaps. Her chants also use repeating melodic motives much more than other pieces in this style. Not surprisingly, since she never would have received the formal musical training that her male counterparts would have, her pieces have an improvisatory quality that suggests that they are the creations of a singer rather than of a "composer." Hildegard was not the only woman of her time to write music, but much of the music of others is lost to us or hidden in anonymity. Hildegard, however, uniquely among composers of her time, claimed authorship for all her works by overseeing their copying into manuscripts. It is thanks to this somewhat audacious act that we can listen to her music today. Works: 77 pieces in the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum and a mystery play, Ordo virtutum (includes 82 musical pieces) GUILLAUME DE MACHAUT Born: c.1300. Rheims(?), France Died: April 13, 1377. Rheims, France French poet and musician. Composer of monophonic and polyphonic music. Leading representative of the Ars nova tradition. The fourteenth century was, as the historian Barbara Tuchman notes, "a calamitous century." Europe was ravaged by plague, which killed up to one-third of the population in a three year period. France and England embarked on the disastrous Hundred Years' War (1328-1450) which inflicted great misery on the French people. On top of this, political conflicts resulted first in
the relocation of the papacy from Rome to Avignon in southern France (1309) and ultimately in the election of competing popes (at one point, numbering three) resulting in the Great Schism (1378-1417). Ironically, this was also a time of great achievement in music. A new class of highly trained composers continued the polyphonic traditions of the previous century and added new approaches to rhythm and structure. Among these composers of the so-called Ars nova (literally "new art") was Guillaume de Machaut. Machaut lived his life in the higher ranks of service, first as secretary to John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, and then as a canon (a church official) at the Cathedral of Rheims. Like many in the fourteenth century, Machaut's life and works reflect an equal measure of the sacred and secular. Most of his works were either secular (such as his many chansons) or a mix of sacred and ceremonial (including many of his motets and his hocket "David", which was probably written for the coronation service of King Charles V in 1364). At the same time, he wrote what is probably the first full setting of the Mass Ordinary by a single composer (the Messe de Nostre Dame ). He was a man of the cloth, having taken minor orders at an early age. Yet toward the end of his life he maintained a romantic/literary affair with a young woman named Perrone. Much of Machaut's polyphonic music reflects the interest that composers had in building complex structures based on the repetition and manipulation of borrowed melodies (a technique called isorhythm). In