When students of any age are learning about music, they will find their studies enriched by learning about the history of different musical forms. The following survey of medieval Western music can serve as one doorway into this topic for young musicians, as well as for adult learners interested in the musical history of Europe.
Defining an era beyond the stereotypes
The stereotypical view of anything “medieval” conjures up images of dank, fusty monasteries, brutal warfare, and stagnation in the arts and sciences. However, this is far from the truth. The Middle Ages in Western Europe were years of great creativity in the arts, sciences, and exploration.
Authorities differ on which time span precisely defines the Middle Ages. The most generous reckoning begins the period at the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century and ends it in the late 15th century AD.
A world centered on prayer
The medieval period was characterized by the central place of liturgical music as both high art and a daily companion for the nobility and common people alike.
The practice of singing psalms and setting prayer to music dates back much earlier than the Middle Ages, into the beginnings of human history. While much of this ancient religious music was performed a cappella, instruments often lent their voices to the mix, enhancing the sound.
The medieval Christian church took many of its cues from ancient Jewish sacred music, in forbidding the participation of women’s voices after the late sixth century AD and limiting or curtailing instrumentation.
In the church, mass was the chief occasion for the performance of this music, sung by priest, congregation, and choir. The choir typically filled an “answering” function, responding to the themes of the main part sung by the priest.
The human voice as instrument
The long tradition of prayer through song reached a pinnacle in the development of Gregorian chant, a variety of plainchant, during the ninth century AD. Gregorian chant is still often used today in Catholic ritual. This style of plainchant puts the religious text at the heart of the composition. The human voice is the only instrument used.
The music of Gregorian chant is described as monophonic—it consists of one melody, sung in unison. The chant serves to frame the words of the prayers, rather than to overpower them. The majority of Gregorian chants originate in the Latin Vulgate, the version of the Bible in widespread use in medieval Europe.
Although most Catholic congregations today celebrate mass in the community's vernacular language, traditional Gregorian chant holds an honored place, both esthetically and liturgically, in modern Catholic culture. Its popularity with both religious and secular audiences is attested by the many recordings now available.
Hildegard von Bingen – a composer of mystic devotion
Hildegard von Bingen, later Saint Hildegard, was born in Germany at the close of the 11th century and died near the end of the 12th. This abbess, mystic, and prophetic visionary is considered one of the first and most talented female composers. Her monophonic works are characterized by soaring lyricism and a deeply felt spirituality.
St. Hildegard set dozens of her own poems to music, assembling them into a collection entitled Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. She was also a scholar who wrote widely on science and medicine and traveled as an itinerant preacher.
Numerous musical ensembles have produced recordings of St. Hildegard’s surviving compositions in recent years, and contemporary audiences continue to find them musically and spiritually rewarding. Contemporary collections of her music have titles that reflect her mysticism: Canticle of Ecstasy, Music for Paradise, and A Feather on the Breath of God are only a few examples.
Moniot d’Arras – exemplar of the trouvère esthetic
One enduring tradition that flourished particularly in the later Middle Ages was that of the secular romantic balladeers and traveling entertainers known as troubadours and trouvères. Lutes, citterns, and other stringed instruments frequently accompanied these musicians' compositions, although their vocals often stood alone.
The city of Arras, France, in northern France was noted as a center of the delicate and refined trouvère style. The trouvères’ style evolved roughly in tandem with that of the troubadours, although the trouvères typically composed lyrics in their northern French dialect, and the troubadours drew from the vernacular native to southern France, the langue d’Oc.
One monk, Moniot d’Arras, earned widespread recognition as a composer in the early 13th century. While much of his output was focused on liturgy, many other pieces extol the culture of chivalry and courtly love between a nobleman and his lady. These were often the main subjects of troubadour and trouvère compositions.
The sacred and the secular
The traditions of the troubadours and trouvères were part of the larger growth of non-sacred medieval music from about the 13th century onward. The ballade, the rondeau, and the virelai were the three leading types of secular compositions in France at this time.
Guillaume de Machaut – lyricist supreme
Guillaume de Machaut, considered today one of the towering figures of medieval European music, was born at the beginning of the 14th century and is thought to have lived well into his 70s. He wrote in both French and Latin.
Machaut composed one of the first polyphonic treatments of the mass, a development moving away from the monophonic plainchants. Polyphonic music features two or more independent melodies. Machaut's dozens of motets demonstrate the full flowering of this type of music.
In 1337, Machaut became the canon of the cathedral at Reims. He wrote poems and musical compositions, with experts today viewing him as a master lyricist and versifier working in the then-current Ars Nova (polyphonic) style. Machaut also used and reworked the courtly love theme, creating beautifully constructed poems that blend technical virtuosity with lyricism.