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Music Of The Middle Ages Essay, Research Paper
Music has been a great influence in the lives of many people for many years
and is constantly changing. Music has been divided into six periods: Medieval,
Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Twentieth Century.
The Medieval period was the longest and most distant period of musical
history and consists of almost a millennium?s worth of music. To examine the
music of this period we must first look at the influences or dominating factors
of medieval life.
In a political sense, as well as a spiritual sense, the Roman Catholic Church
was very much the focal point of a Medieval man’s life. Between the collapse of
control of the Roman Empire around 500 A.D. and the Renaissance in the middle
1400s, the Church remained the most continuously powerful organization in
The great gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages help demonstrate how religion
had become the focus of the times. The thousands and thousands of hours of
labour, the tremendous cost involved, the extraordinary and detailed
craftsmanship without the use of cranes or power tools must give us an idea of
the effects of religion and the power of the Church. To worship God through
one’s craft was the highest artistic ideal of the times. While some of the great
secular classic literature of the past was well known to many, it was considered
to be only a teaching tool to assist in the understanding of the Bible.
Music has always been an integral part of religious celebrations throughout
history, and for the Catholic Church of antiquity, it was a vital element.
The music of the Catholic Church absorbed Greek, Jewish, and Syrian
influences among others, through the teachings of :
Pythagoras 6th ? 5th BCE, a Greek mathematician and a musical theorist who
believed that there were perfect intervals in music and introduced the 8ve, 5th,
4th, whole tone. Pythagoras? ideas gave music scientific credibility through
numbers and allowed it to be introduced as one of the sciences.
Plato 427 ? 347 BCE / Aristotle 384-322 BCE, Greek philosopher?s whose
teachings introduced the idea that music is ethical. Plato believed that music
could generate ethical space and could have an effect on the moral fibre of a
person. The power to cleanse, to create an ?ethos?. He believed that the
idea is created by the thinkers (Speclatores) and that it?s interpretation is
a mirror of the idea (Speclum), and that the representation was carried out by
the doers, the musicians, artists etc (Cantores). Plato believed that thinkers
were more important than doers. Music was seen as one of the sciences and
therefore was controlled by the theorists (Speculatores) who decreed that music
should be good to transmit good things lest it should introduce impure thoughts.
Music in it?s most superior form could not be heard. Only by mirroring
(Speculum) could it be heard.
Aristoxenus 375 BCE, student of Xenophilus and Aristotle researched pitch,
intervals, scales, keys, modulation and constructed melodies. He introduced the
Tetrachord (4-note). Aristoxenus wrote books on both listening to and making
music and playing instruments. He examined the nature of rhythm (strong vs weak)
and supported division into 3 as perfect, and into 2 as imperfect using
Pythagoras? ideas on number perfection.
Emperor Constantine 306 ? 337 AD, became the emperor of Rome in 306, and
was the most powerful person in his part of the world. His conversion to
Christianity had far reaching effects on the common practice of the religion and
on all the factions of Christianity that are present today. His conversion
happened during a war with his brother-in-law and co-emperor, Maxentius.
According to the historian Eusebius , Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, before
the crucial battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine was convinced that he needed
divine assistance. While he was praying for such assistance, God sent him a
vision of a cross of light at midday, bearing the inscription "in hoc signo
vinces " ("in this sign you will be victorious"). That night he
had a dream that reaffirmed his earlier vision. God told him to use the sign he
had been given as a safeguard in all of his battles. Thus, Constantine converted
to Christianity and ordered the symbol of his Savior’s name (the intersection of
the Greek letter chi and rho) to represent his army. Constantine was victorious
in the battle of the Milvian Bridge, and he continued to wear the symbol for
Christ against every hostile power he faced.
At around 350 AD, the Schola Cantorum (singing school) was founded. This was
an idea picked up from the Jewish synagogues where the Levittes had special
training and took on the role of temple musicians.
St Augustine of Hippo 354-430 AD, was a very influential and great
philosopher/theologian. Saint Augustine is one of the most important of the
Latin Church Fathers. His works, especially his De Musica, Confessions and City
of God, helped distinguish the Church in Western Europe from the Church as it
developed elsewhere. He decreed that music should not be too tuneful and that
there should be no metre/rhythm, which led to church leaders being beset by
fears of musical pleasures and thus continuing the ideas of the Greek
Philosophers. ?I wept at the beauty of your hymns and the canticles?the
sounds poured into my ears and the truth distilled in my heart?-from
Confessions. This encapsulates the feeling and mood of the church at this time
? that the ?bad? feelings produced by the music had to be distilled.
A preference for sacred vocal music was developed and pagan secular music and
instruments were rejected. Instruments were not appropriate because of the links
with pagan rituals and Roman arenas. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan introduced hymn
singing. The hymn, St. Ambrosia, is a tuneful/ornate link with secular music.
Justinian I was crowned in 527. Up until this time pagan rituals, statues and
temples still existed. Justinian decreed that the studying of all pagan beliefs
should be outlawed. Latin was firmly established as the language of the church.
Also around this time St. Benedict founded the Benedictine Rule at Monte
Casino. Monasteries were established all over Europe and the Benedictines become
very powerful and influential people.
The leaders of the Church decided to organise and codify the thousands of
pieces of music used in worship. Gregory I, Pope from 590 to 604, is usually
given the credit for getting the effort started.
Codified all the church chants (Antiphonar) and set course to make the Roman
Rite pre-eminent across western Europe using Gregorian Chant, the Mass and the
Daily (monastic) Office as it?s base. Legend has it that a Dove from God sat
on Gregory?s shoulder and whispered the chants to him. He founded the Schola
Cantorum in Rome.
He produced sacramentary rubrics (red rules), that brought together all the
ideas and formalised the ?order of services?, Gregory used the first Canon
of Euchology, standardised the chants and started to make use of the Schola
Cantorums. He sent emissaries all over Europe to teach the Roman style and was
responsible (mainly by his promotion by the Franks 300 yrs later through the
reign of Charlemagne 768 ? 814) for standardisation of Masses all over Europe.
768 ? 814
While some sources suggest that he composed many of the melodies, there is
little to authenticate this. Nevertheless, this music grew to be called
"Gregorian Chant" in his honour.
Prior to around the year 1000 AD, virtually all music, Western music
included, consisted of one dominant, unaccompanied melody line. This texture,
called monophonic still dominates much non-western music today, including Far
Eastern, Indian, and Arabic cultures–at least those that haven’t become
corrupted by Western practices yet!
Gregorian chant, sometimes known as "plainchant" consists solely of
a melody, sung unaccompanied in Latin, with very free rhythms. It is one of the
few types of music in Western civilisation without a feeling of meter. Gregorian
chant conveys a disembodied, ethereal, spiritual sound, certainly not focusing
on anything that might inspire physical pleasure. These chants made use of
scales other than the major and minor ones familiar to us. Instead they used the
different "modes" such as Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc.
Starting around the year 1000, the practice of using polyphony began to enter
into Western music. Polyphony is the use of independent lines within a piece of
music. This multi-layered texture gave music a new expressive intensity, almost
literally giving it another dimension. Perhaps not a coincidence, the use of
perspective in painting was evolving at about the same time, expressing a
parallel expansion in the visual medium. The first polyphony (called ‘organum’)
consisted of two voices moving in parallel motion. Later as harmony became a
little more sophisticated, the voices began taking on a little more independence
from each other.
Considering all these factors it is not really surprising that the vast
majority of music that survives from the Middle Ages is sacred music. There are
a couple of reasons for this.
Firstly, the key word in the above statement is survives. In European
civilisation following the collapse of the Roman empire, literacy fell to an all
time low during the Middle Ages. Even though modern scholars are revising their
opinions of culture in the Medieval times upward, the average peasant simply
couldn’t read or write. That special talent was passed along by the church
through its religious orders.
This included the special talents of reading and writing music. And of
course, the monks whose duty it was to notate and copy music would have a
tremendous bias toward the sacred music.
A second reason is that there really was a great deal of sacred music
composed. Again, it was considered the highest form of art to be able to use
one’s talent to praise God. Life had become more and more dangerous and
uncertain for the inhabitant of the Middle Ages. Without science to illuminate
physical laws, without bacteriology to allow the understanding of diseases and
plagues, fear and superstition became the method of explaining the unknown. Our
earthly existence was ultimately looked upon as a dangerous, misery filled
prelude to a blissful afterlife. The Church represented the hopes of the better
world to come.
Sacred music of the Middle Ages centred around two primary areas, the Office
and the Mass. Virtually all sacred music at that time was sung in Latin.
Monks were expected to sing, pray, and read the scripture eight times during
the day from Matins (just after midnight) to Vespers (just before the evening
meal) and Compline (at dusk). These times were known as the Hours of the Divine
The most important musical event in the Roman Catholic Liturgy was the Mass.
Wrapped around the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Mass consisted of two parts
called the Ordinary, and the Proper.
The Proper of the Mass was the part that changed from day to day, as the
readings were geared for specific feast days and occasions. The Ordinary of the
Mass was the text that remained consistent throughout the church year. The five
parts of the Ordinary were the ones most commonly set to music in Medieval and
Below is a list of the parts of the Mass. The parts of the Ordinary are in
Alleluia (or Tract in certain seasons)
Ite Missa Est
In addition to the regular Mass, a Requiem Mass was a common liturgy. Meaning
"rest", the Requiem Mass was the "Mass for the Dead", used
The earliest settings of this music were strictly monophonic. Through the
Middle Ages, polyphony became an important stylistic element in music. Not
surprisingly, the greatest composers of the time put their best energies into
the mass. "Missa Notre Dame" by Guillaume de Machaut represented the
first polyphonic ordinary done by a single composer. Leonin, Perotin, Dufay, and
Machaut were the leading composers of the earliest sacred polyphonic music. Many
other leading composers of the Middle Ages remain anonymous–this was not yet an
age of musical personalities.
Guido D’Arezzo, a monk who lived in the early 11th century devised a version
of the staff that is the precursor of today’s staff. Some of his practices also
contributed to "sight-singing"–the reading of music at sight. He also
started the practice of using the Latin syllables of Do, Re, Mi, Fa, etc. to
Travelling minstrel singers, often known as troubadours, trouveres, and
minnesingers, were the secular musicians. Generally their music was a monophonic
line which they accompanied on the lute or harp, probably using one of the
Church modes. These poet/musicians sang of nature, of love, of knightly legends,
and of the sense of the mystical that pervaded their lives. Mysticism and
superstition were the only tools available to explain the stars, the seasons,
the randomness of weather patterns, diseases, etc.–and these tools played a
great part in the lives of Medieval citizens as they struggled to understand the
world around them.
Common types of secular music were the Rondeau, Virelai, the Frottola (many
of which today we would simply lump under the heading "ballad"), and
the motet. Coming from the French "mot" meaning ‘word’, the motet
often had several lines of music and text, sung in different languages. Often
the different melodies were on completely different subjects, occasionally
pairing a sacred text with a very bawdy one!
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