Short Essays

The Middle Ages

The traditions of Western music can be traced back to the social and religious developments that took place in Europe during the Middle Ages, the years roughly spanning from about 500 to 1400 A.D. Because of the domination of the early Christian Church during this period, sacred music was the most prevalent. Beginning with Gregorian Chant, church music slowly developed into a polyphonic music called organum performed at Notre Dame in Paris by the twelfth century. Secular music flourished, too, in the hands of the French trouvères and troubadours, until the period culminated with the sacred and secular compositions of one of the first true genius of Western music, Guillaume de Machaut.

Music had been a part of the world's civilizations for hundreds of years before the Middle Ages. Primitive cave drawings, stories from the Bible, and Egyptian heiroglyphs all illustrate the fact that people had created instruments and had been making music for centuries.

The word music derives from the ancient Greek muses, the nine goddesses of art and science. The first study of music as an art form dates from around 500 B.C., when Pythagoras experimented with acoustics and the mathematical relationships of tones. In so doing, Pythagoras and others established the Greek modes: scales comprised of whole tones and half steps.

With the slow developmen of European society from the dark ages between the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of the Christian Church, dozens of "mini-kingdoms" were established all over Europe, each presided over by a lord who had fought for and won the land. Mostly through superstitious fear, the early Church was able to claim absolute power over these feudal lords. The Church was able to dictate the progress of arts and letters according to its own structures and employed all the scribes, musicians and artists. At this time, western music was almost the sole property of the Christian Church.

Gregorian Chant

Early Christians derived their music from Jewish and Byzantine religious chant. Like all music in the Western world up to this time, Christian plainchant was monophonic: that is, comprised of a single melody without any harmonic support or accompaniment. The many hundreds of melodies are defined by one of the eight Greek modes, some of which sound very different than the major/minor scales our ears are used to today. The melodies are free and seem to wander, dictated by the Latin liturgical texts to which they are set. As these chants spread throughout Europe, they were embellished and developed along many different lines in various regions. It was believed that Pope Gregory I (reigned 590-604) codified them during the sixth-century, establishing uniform usage throughout the Western Church. Although his actual contribution to this large body of music remains unknown, his name has been applied to this music, and it is known as Gregorian Chant.

Gregorian chant remains among the most spiritually moving and profound music in western culture. An idea of its pure, floating melody can be heard in the Easter hymn, Victimae paschali laudes (sound clip)

Many years later, composers of Renaissance polyphony very often used plainchant melodies as the basis for their sacred works. (sound clip)

Notre Dame and the Ars Antiqua

Sometime during the ninth century, music theorists in the Church began experimenting with the idea of singing two melodic lines simultaneously at parallel intervals, usually at the fourth, fifth, or octave. The resulting hollow-sounding music was called organum and very slowly developed over the next hundred years. By the eleventh century, one, two (and much later, even three) added melodic lines were no longer moving in parallel motion, but contrary to each other, sometimes even crossing. The original chant melody was then sung very slowly on long held notes called the tenor voice and the added melodies wove about and embellished the resulting drone. This music thrived at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and much later became known as the Ars Antiqua, or the "old art." The two composers at Notre Dame especially known for composing in this style are Léonin (fl. ca. 1163-1190), who composed organa for two voices, and his successor Pérotin (fl. early13th century), whose organa included three and even four voices. Pérotin's music is an excellent example of this very early form of polyphony (music for two or more simultaneously sounding voices), as can be heard in his setting of Sederunt principes (sound clip). This music was slowly replaced by the smoother contours of the polyphonic music of the fourteenth century, which became known as the Ars Nova..

The Trouvères and the Troubadours

Popular music, usually in the form of secular songs, existed during the Middle Ages. This music was not bound by the traditions of the Church, nor was it even written down for the first time until sometime after the tenth century. For this reason it often presents many challanges in study of early secular music. Having said this, hundreds of these songs were created and performed (and much later notated) by bands of musicians flourishing across Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, the most famous of which were the French trouvères and troubadours. The monophonic melodies of these musicians, to which may have been added improvised accompaniments, were often rhythmically lively. The subject of the majority of these songs is love, in all its manifestations of joy and pain. One of the most famous of these trouvères known to us (the great bulk of these melodies are by "Anonymous") is Adam de la Halle (ca. 1237-ca. 1286). Adam is the composer of one of the oldest secular music theater pieces known in the West, Le Jeu de Robin et Marion. He has also been identified as the writer of a good many songs and verses, some of which take the form of the motet, a piece in which two or more different verses are fit together simultaneously, without regard to what we now consider conventional harmonies. Such a piece is De ma dame vient! (sound clip) by this famous trouvère. Although secular music was undoubtedly played on instruments during the Middle Ages, instrumental dance music didn't come into its own until the later Renaissance.

Guillaume de Machaut and the Ars Nova
Born: Champagne region of France, ca. 1300
Died: Rheims, 1377

Having had a clerical education and taken Holy orders, Machaut's career as a poet and composer took flight when he joined the court of John, Duke of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia around 1323, serving as the king's secretary until that monarch's death in battle at Crécy in 1346. Sometime before this, Machaut had settled in Rheims where he remained until his death, serving as cantor in the cathedral there. His services as a composer were sought out by important patrons, including the future Charles V of France. His poetry was known throughout Europe and his admirers included Geoffrey Chaucer. Machaut is probably best remembered for being the first composer to create a polyphonic setting of the Ordinary of the Catholic Mass (the Ordinary are those parts of the liturgy that do not change, including the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei). The new style of the fourteenth century, called the Ars Nova by composers of the period, can be heard in the "Gloria" from Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame (sound clip). This new polyphonic style caught on with composers and paved the way for the exciting development of choral music in the Renaissance.

Although today the Mass is probably his best-known work, Machaut also composed dozens of secular love songs, also in the style of the polyphonic Ars Nova or "new art." These songs aer examples of the courtly love found in the previous century's vocal art, and capture all the joy, hope, pain and heartbreak of courtly romance. The secular motets of the Middle Ages eventually evolved into the great quanity and outpouring of the music of the great Renaissance Madrigalists.

Short Essays

Research by Jason R. Ogan, 2001