Saturday, 26 April 2014

"Sing me a song of castles and kings" Music of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages saw an awakening and birth of many new things from the building of the cathedral, introduction to spices and some medicines from eastern trade, to the expansion and travel of music through out the various empires. Music was popular in many households and held various significances in medieval life, as well as the belief system of medieval man.

Popular instruments included the lute, flute, harp, hurdy gurdy, viola (Seen below in one of the scenes from the Starz "The White Queen" were both popular instruments), bagpipes, and other instruments.  Gregorian Chants were and are perhaps most popular in describing early medieval music.  This form of music was primarily, “monophony,” which in its simplest definition is of textures, consisting of melody without accompanying harmony. (Source: Gregorian Chants were highly used and popular in liturgical services and in the church.  But this does not mean that the peasants at home or nobles at court did not have some form of music, it just was not as elaborate as what was being developed in the church during mass and liturgical services. 
A drum and viola as seen in "The White Queen"
Music primarily before 1150 was primarily liturgical or sacred based.

After 1150, Europe saw the birth of the Troubadour, who held his importance and began in the courts of France, telling his tales of chivalry and love with song, in the courts of Aquitaine, with Marie de France and other noble French families.  The Troubadour is discussed below, but its popularity took music and song away from the church liturgy and developed a whole secular side of the art form. Music at this time and until the Renaissance became, “polyphony which is a texture consisting of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to music with just one voice (monophony) or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords (homophony). (source:

The introduction of polyphony perhaps is what launched the music of the Middle Ages to what we know today. It perhaps is one of the largest advances of medieval music itself. Along with this, the discovery and development of pitches, understanding tones and arrangement also help grow the art form. Notably, Notre Dame in 1150-1250 became a center for developing the western idea of rhythmic notation in music notation. From the creative and talented minds at Notre Dame came the motet. The motet, which was developed by Léonin and Pérotin who taught at the school, is a highly varied form of choral musical composition. The motet was one of the pre-eminent forms of later Renaissance music.  There were others who also used this and composed many of this important musical art:
  • Adam de la Halle (1237?–1288? or after 1306)
  • Johannes Ciconia (c. 1370–1412)
  • John Dunstaple (c. 1390–1453)
  • Franco of Cologne (fl. mid-13th century)
  • Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340–1385)
  • Marchetto da Padova (fl. 1305–1319)
  • Petrus de Cruce (fl. second half of the 13th century)
  • Willelmus de Winchecumbe (fl. 1270s)

As time went by, medieval music progressed and grew.  By the 14th and 15th centuries, motets became isorhythmic meaning they employed repeated rhythmic patterns in all voices.  Notably, Philippe de Vitry was one of the earliest composers to use this technique, and his work influenced Guillaume de Machaut, who one of the most famous named composers of late medieval motets. (Source:

In addition to composition and development of medieval music, an important part of the secular music world in the Middle Ages was the “Troubadour,” the traveling court musicians of the 13th century.  It is interesting though to know that this musician was not always named this as well. The earliest mention we hear of the so-called traveling musician is in the tenth century and through the thirteenth century, where musicians called “goliards” or poet-musicians. Their backgrounds mainly came from being scholars or even ecclesiastical, in which many sung their songs in Latin. May of their songs survived with subjects of religious nature, and in contrast some telling tales of debachaury, and other moral disregard.

These musicians or trouvères were well versed in a vernacular and secular song. Most of their music compositions were accompanied by instruments, yet also sung by a professional who was a skilled poet who also was skilled in singing. The Troubadours also had their own language called Occitan, which is the Old French of the trovres. The high of their popularity saw a flowering or booming in cultural life in Provence France, which spread through out the continent. Subjects of their songs included war, chivalry, and courtly love.  After the Albigensian Crusade, which was brought on by Pope Innocent III, the movement died down.  Remaining Troubadours traveled to Portugal, Spain and northern Italy or northern France. There their skills remained and their popularity lived on. Their contributions added developments to secular music and culture in those places. The music that the trouvères introduced seemed to not be as effected by the crusade and also continued to flourish in secular life.

1 comment:

  1. This article is a great starting point for anyone who hasn't yet explored music from before the classical era. Since the 1970's there has been a new enthusiasm for rediscovering music from the medieval to the early baroque eras and there are some exciting performances out there by bands like:
    * The Dufay Collective
    * The Tallis Scholars
    * The New London Consort
    * Asteria Musica
    (among others).