Characteristics of Medieval Music: An Introduction

Characteristics of Medieval Music
Characteristics of Medieval Music

For many people, the use of the word medieval conjures up a time of extreme poverty, war and plague with little in the way of redeeming features. Far from the dark images offered by certain Hollywood films, the Medieval times we rich with invention, discovery and creative insight.

In this article, I will take a brief look at the key features of this fascinating period of musical history and hopefully inspire you to delve further into the treasure trove that is Medieval Music.

Characteristics of Medieval Music

The Medieval period can broadly be thought of as spanning the late twelfth century up until the beginning of the Renaissance in around the mid-fourteen hundreds. It is possible to see the medieval period actually beginning after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, but for musical purposes, we will confine our survey to the former time.

Much of the music from this artistic period emanates from the churches of Europe but there is also the music of a Troubadours to offer us a secular balance. It is from these travelling musicians that we have some of the first evidence of notated music outside the high walls of the churches and monasteries, giving us some clearer idea of how the music may have sounded. We refer to the music of the Troubadours as secular and the music that was composed for religious purposes, sacred.

Sacred music focused on the setting of Latin text to the Mass. The music did not take centre stage and was very much a servant of the sacred text. As such clear conventions governing the use of music placing heavy restrictions on composers of the day. Music of the early Medieval period began as a single line of notes, or monodic, that has come to be defined as plainchant or Gregorian chant.  Here is a short example of Medieval Plainchant.

The music does not distract from the importance of the sacred text and would have been sung unaccompanied and only by men. Accompanying instruments were not encouraged by The Church.

As sacred music developed we begin to hear two lines of music that sound in parallel. This is the sound closely associated with Gregorian Chant and used in many horror films to great effect. The lines were composed with the natural ranges of men’s voices in mind (the bass and the tenor), giving the characteristic sound of a perfect 5th (for example; C – G).

This eventually developed over the coming three hundred years, into Renaissance polyphony that literally translates as many voices.

Medieval music set words simply. The ecclesiastical orders were quite clear about how a composer could work although many more notable pieces contain both syllabic and melismatic word settings.

Composers carefully highlighted important words through the use of melisma, or more than one note per syllable. This subtly drew the attention of both listener and performer to that particular word and allowed for a certain flow to be established in the music. Hildegard von Bingen (1009-1179) is often felt to be one of the composers who wonderfully demonstrates these characteristics without attracting unwanted comment from the Church.

One of her most famous works is the Ordo Virtutum (essentially a morality play, or sacred musical drama), composed around 1115. It is one of her most experimental, melodic and remarkable compositions. Here is a link to the entire work.

Other notable Medieval composers include Leoninus and Perotin, both French composers at the Chruch of Notre Dame; whose works are directly attributed to the textural development of Medieval music. They meticulously based their original works on those of the past as they had to, but composed additional melodies that often ran in parallel, of extreme beauty. Magnus Lieber Organi is a good place to start listening to their music.

Other composers who made a significant contribution to the world of Medieval music include; Guillaume de Machaut and Philippe de Vitry.

Secular Medieval music was dominated by the travelling entertainer, a musician called the Troubadour. These men originated mostly from Southern France, the Trouveres from the northern parts of the country. Both sung songs of heroes from ancient times, the tales of the crusades, love songs and also songs of a religious nature too.

They were immensely popular with nobility and peasantry alike composing intricate, poetic songs and travelling freely in France and Northern Italy. The songs of the Troubadours can be broadly divided into three groups of work as follows: the canso (love songs), sirventes (moral or religious songs) and the tensos (lyrical songs where two opposing singers take it in turn to sing their stanzas).

Often songs were sung unaccompanied but these tenacious musicians also played a variety of portable instruments that are characteristically Medieval. These include harps and lyres, lutes and guitars alongside wind and percussion instruments. Here is a link to some interesting songs composed by middle period Troubadours.

Other instruments were available to musicians even though the human voice dominated this vibrant period of musical history. These instruments can be placed into families as follows; string, woodwind and percussion. One of the most important and commonly used was the viol that later gave rise to the violin.

Early flutes and trumpets were popular but in a much less sophisticated form to the instruments, we know today. Double-reed instruments like the crumhorn, shawm and the early version of the oboe featured in the music of the time alongside the fascinatingly named serpent which was a snake-shaped horn. Percussion was hugely important to the Medieval musician and would have included drums, bells, tambourines to bring rhythmic vitality to the songs of the Troubadours. Another haunting instrument with an interesting name is the hurdy-gurdy that was introduced to England in the 12th Century.

Following on from the violence of the Dark Ages, the Medieval times brought music forward in ways that laid the foundations for all Western Classical music that followed. The work of so many Medieval composers that has survived nearly a millennium still resonates with us today and offers us a window into a world of astonishing variety, invention and joy.

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