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Medieval music

History of art music
20th century

Medieval music is music of Europe in the Middle Ages. This era, using the interchangeable terms "medieval" and "middle ages", covers the period from the fall of the Roman Empire (476) and the papacy of Gregory the Great (sixth century) to approximately the beginning of the fifteenth century, though establishing the end of the Medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance is admittedly arbitrary. In addition, this excludes music of the Byzantine Empire, which has a largely separate development. Music was both sacred and secular, though there was almost no survival of secular music early in the era, and since notation was a relatively late development, reconstruction of music, especially before the 12th century, always contains an element of conjecture. The early portion of this music period is marked by the very gradual rise and development of polyphony and counterpoint.


Medieval sacred music

Gregorian chant

Gregorian chant, which is a type of plainsong, is central to the musical tradition of Europe in the Medieval era. Chant (or plainsong) is a monophonic secular form which represents the earliest known music of the Christian church; that which we call Gregorian chant is the stylistically consistent, doctrinally unified version which came together from several different chant traditions (Roman, Mozarabic , Gallican , Ambrosian , and others) under the supervision of Rome in approximately the ninth century. The actual melodies that make up the repertory probably come from several sources, some as far back as the pontificate of Gregory the Great himself (c. 540604). Many of them were probably written in the politically stable, relatively literate setting of western monasteries during the reign of Charlemagne. The earliest surviving sources of chant showing musical notation are from the early ninth century, though the consistency of the music across a wide area implies that some form of chant notation, now lost, may have existed earlier than this. It should be noted that music notation existed in the ancient world--for example Greece--but the ability to read and write this notation was lost around the fifth century, as was all of the music that went with it.

To what extent the music of the Gregorian Chant represents a survival of the music of the ancient world is much debated by scholars, but certainly there must have been some influence, if only from the music of the synagogue. Only the smallest of scraps of ancient music have survived (for instance, the Seikilos epitaph), but those that have show a not surprising similarity of mode, shape and phrase conception to later western music.

Chant survived and prospered in monasteries and religious centers throughout the chaotic years of the early middle ages, for these were the places of greatest stability and literacy. Christian chant (known as the Mozarabic liturgy) also survived in Spain under Moslem domination, though this was an isolated strand and this music was later suppressed in an attempt to enforce conformity on the entire liturgy.

Most developments in western classical music are either related to, or directly descended from procedures first seen in chant and its earliest elaborations.


Around the end of the ninth century, singers in monasteries such as St. Gall in Switzerland began experimenting with adding another part to the chant, generally a voice in parallel motion, singing in mostly perfect fourths or fifths with the original tune. This development is called organum, and represents the beginnings of counterpoint, that feature which most definitively distinguishes European music from the rest of world music. Over the next several centuries organum developed in several ways. The most significant was the creation of "florid organum" around 1100, sometimes known as the school of St. Martial (named after a monastery in south-central France, which contains the best-preserved manuscript of this repertory). In "florid organum" the original tune would be sung in long notes while an accompanying voice would sing many notes to each one of the original, often in a highly elaborate fashion, all the while emphasizing the perfect consonances (fourths, fifths and octaves) as in the earlier organa. Later developments of organum occurred in England, where the interval of the third was particularly favored, and where organa were likely improvised against an existing chant melody, and at Notre Dame in Paris, which was to be the center of musical creative activity throughout the thirteenth century.

School of Notre Dame (Ars Antiqua)

The impressive flowering of the Notre Dame school of polyphony from around 1150 to 1250 corresponded to the equally impressive achievements in Gothic architecture: indeed the center of activity was at the cathedral of Notre Dame itself. This is the period in which rhythmic notation first appeared in western music, as well as structure which was attentive to proportion, texture, and architectural effect. Sometimes this music is called the Parisian school, or Parisian organum, and represents the beginning of what is conventionally known as the ars antiqua. Composers of the period created several new musical forms: clausulae, which were melismatic sections of organa extracted and fitted with new words and further musical elaboration; conductus, which was a song for one or more voices to be sung rhythmically, most likely in a procession of some sort; and tropes, which were rearrangements of older chants with new words and sometimes new music.

The motet, one of the most important musical forms of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, developed initially during the Notre Dame period out of the clausula, especially the form using multiple voices as elaborated by Pérotin. It was further developed into a form of great elaboration, sophistication and subtlety in the fourteenth century, the period of the ars nova.

French ars nova

The beginning of the ars nova is one of the few clean chronological divisions in medieval music, since it corresponds to the publication of the Roman de Fauvel, a huge compilation of poetry and music, in 1310 and 1314. The Roman de Fauvel is a satire on abuses in the medieval church, and is filled with medieval motets, lais, rondeaux and other new secular forms. While most of the music is anonymous, it contains several pieces by Philippe de Vitry, one of the first composers of the isorhythmic motet, a development which distinguishes the fourteenth century. The isorhythmic motet was perfected by Guillaume de Machaut, the finest composer of the time. Most of the music of the ars nova was French in origin; however, the term is often loosely applied to all of the music of the fourteenth century, especially to include the secular music of Landini in Italy.

During the ars nova, secular music acquired a polyphonic sophistication formerly found only in sacred music, a development not surprising considering the secular character of the early Renaissance (and it should be noted that while this music is typically considered to be "medieval", the social forces that produced it were responsible for the beginning of the literary and artistic Renaissance in Italy—the distinction between Middle Ages and Renaissance is a blurry one, especially considering arts as different as music and painting). The term "ars nova" [new art, or new technique] was coined by Philippe de Vitry in his treatise of that name (probably written in 1322), in order to distinguish the practice from the music of the immediately preceding age.

Medieval secular music


The Goliards were itinerant poet-musicians of Europe from the tenth to the middle of the thirteenth century, hence overlapped with the troubador and trouvère tradition. Most were scholars or ecclesiastics, and they wrote and sang in Latin, unlike the troubadors, trouvères, and minnesingers, who used the vernacular. Although many of the poems have survived, very little of the music has. They were possibly influential--even decisively so--on the troubador-trouvère tradition. Most of their poetry is secular, and while some of the songs celebrate religious ideals, others are frankly profane, dealing with drunkenness, debauchery and lechery.


The minnesinger tradition was the Germanic counterpart to the activity of the troubadors and trouvères to the west. Unfortunately, few sources survive from the time; the sources of minnesang are mostly from two or three centuries after the peak of the movement, leading to some controversy over their accuracy.


The geisslerlieder were the songs of wandering bands of flagellants, who sought to appease the wrath of an angry God by penitential music accompanied by mortification of their bodies. There were two separate periods of activity of geisslerlied: one around the middle of the thirteenth century, from which, unfortunately, no music survives (although numerous lyrics do); and another from 1349, for which both words and music survive miraculously intact due to the attention of a single priest who wrote about the movement and recorded its music. This second period corresponds to the spread of the Black Death in Europe, and documents one of the most terrible events in European history. Both periods of geisslerlied activity were mainly in Germany.

Troubadors and trouvères

The music of the troubadors and trouvères was a vernacular tradition of monophonic secular song, probably accompanied by instruments, sung by professional, occasionally itinerant, musicians who were as skilled as poets as they were singers and instrumentalists. The language of the troubadors was Occitan (also known as the langue d'oc, or Provençal); the language of the trouvères was Old French (also known as langue d'oil). The period of the troubadors corresponded to the flowering of cultural life in Provence which lasted through the twelfth century and into the first decade of the thirteenth. Typical subjects of troubador song were war, chivalry and courtly love. The period of the troubadors ended abruptly with the Albigensian Crusade, the fierce campaign by Pope Innocent III to eliminate the Albigensian heresy (and appropriate the wealth of a defenseless people) which effectively exterminated the entire civilization. Surviving troubadors went either to Spain, northern Italy or northern France (where the trouvère tradition lived on), where their skills and techniques contributed to the later developments of secular musical culture in those places.

The music of the trouvères was similar to that of the troubadors, but was able to survive into the thirteenth century unaffected by the war of extermination against the Albigenses. Most of the more than two thousand surviving trouvère songs include music, and show a sophistication as great as that of the poetry it accompanies.

Liturgical drama

Yet another musical tradition of Europe during the middle ages was the liturgical drama. Quite possibly this was the oldest of all, since in its original form it may represent a survival of Roman drama with Christian stories--mainly the Gospel, the Passion, and the lives of the saints--grafted on. Every part of Europe had some sort of tradition of musical or semi-musical drama in the middle ages, involving acting, speaking, singing and instrumental accompaniment in some combination. Probably they were performed by traveling actors and musicians, and the musical elements may be the closest surviving relatives of the lost popular music of the period. Many have been preserved sufficiently complete to allow modern reconstruction and performance (for example the Play of Daniel , which has been recently recorded).

End of the era

Demarcating the end of the medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance, as regards the composition of music, is problematic. While the music of the fourteenth century is fairly obviously medieval in conception, and the musical activity in Italy--the center of acvitity for the early Renaissance--lagged far behind that of France, the music of the fifteenth century is better conceived as a transitional period, retaining some of the ideals of the end of the middle ages (such as a type of polyphonic writing in which the parts differ wildly from each other) but beginning to show some of the characteristic traits of the Renaissance (such as an international style, which developed through the diffusion of Franco-Flemish musicians throughout Europe).

Medieval composers

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Much music from the medieval period is anonymous. The following is a list of important composers whose names are known from the medieval period.


Early polyphony and organum

The tradition of the troubadors, trouvères, and minnesang

The Ars Nova

The mannered and complex style of Ars subtilior

  • Anthonello de Caserta
  • Matteo da Perugia
  • Jacopo da Bologna
  • Lorenzo da Firenze

Transitional period to Renaissance music

See also

External link

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about Medieval music
  • The Schyoen Collection: Music (scans of medieval musical notation)

Last updated: 02-02-2005 09:13:20
Last updated: 02-26-2005 13:18:49