History of WesternMusicMost of the early music that we have todaystill in print is primarily sacred music. This music, for the mostpart, is in the form of sections of the Mass, such as the Gloria, Kyrieand Agnus Dei. Most people of the Middle Ages were poor peasantswho worked all day for meager wages and had no idle time lounging the waythe upper classes did. Therefore, there are few extant secular compositionsof music from this era.
The rise of a new middle class, however,gave financial freedom for some people to spend time and money on entertainmentin the form of music and dance. Thus, the rise of the middle classesalso gave way to the rise in composition and performance of secular music,which became the music of choice for composers of that day. Many of the songs we have today of theMiddle Ages were in Latin, and are by anonymous composers. Many werewritten by wandering people, many of them men and churchmen without permanentresidences of their own. Men who could not obtain a position in theChurch and had to drop out were called goliards.Order now
These goliards wanderedaround the land, composing and performing for people. Their musicwas mostly comprised of the “‘eat, drink, and be merry’ type, appropriateto the wanton kind of life the goliards lived” (Stolba, 99). CarlOrff, the composer of the Carmina Burana, used the poems found in the largestsurviving records of Latin secular music that we have today. TheCodex latinus 4660 was held in the Benedictine monastery at Benediktbeurn. Many of the songs speak of love, many of them lascivious. Othersspeak of drinking, satires of the religious life and even liturgical plays.
A few of them are even written in the vernacular of the region in thattime (Stolba, 99). Following the history of the era in literature,many authors were fascinated by the courtly tradition, chivalry and a higherlove. Therefore, we have today musical compositions that speak ofmany of the same ideas. French composers wrote songs in the vernacularcalled chansons de geste . These songs spoke of the heroic acts performedby knights for their ladies in the name of love. The French havea national epic called the Chanson de Roland which related the lifeand death of Charlemagne’s nephew and his endeavor to rid France of theBasques.
Many of these chansons were performed by other wonderingentertainers called jongleurs and menestrals , or minstrels. On one hand society named them outcasts, not worthy to live a productivelife in service of the community, yet on the other hand, they were acceptedas the perfomers of the day. They did not compose the music, butwere one of the main reasons why we still have records of the secular music. By keeping the oral tradition, they kept secular music alive in the heartsand minds of the people (Stolba, 100).
In France there were also other wonderingmusicians and entertainers known as troubadours and trouveres. Many of these musicians were of the upper aristocratic classes (Annenburg). These musicians, unlike most of the minstrels, often composed their ownmusic and performed it as well, writing and singing in the vernacular whichbecame the modern day French language. The troubadours and trouveresalso wrote their own poetry, which later became used in written and oralsongs (Daum).
Although many of the French songbooks contain somecompositions, there are more records of the poetry. Most of the songsin the book are in one of three musical forms: ballades, rondeaus and virelais. Many of these songs were strophic and had refrains or choruses, (Stolba,102). The musical instruments in use bythe performers consisted mainly of stringed and woodwind instruments, augmentedby the use of the early trumpet and several types of drums and cymbals. Medieval art is perhaps the best exampleof illustrating the uses and types of instruments. The cittern andcitole consisted of four or five metal strings and were the primary stringedinstruments.
They are described as “an instrument fit for rustics,such as cobblers and tailors” (Annenburg). The recorder and shawmwere the primary woodwind instruments. The recorder, still in usetoday, didn’t differ much in the production or sound that we know now. The shawm was the predecessor of the modern day oboe, yet unlike the oboe,had the reputation of “a piercing sound that was said to have terrifiedthe crusaders” (Annenburg). By the fourteenth century, productionof secular music far outweighed that of sacred.
The time period becameknown as the Ars Nova or New Art, in response to a treatise written bythe famous composer of the time, Philippe de Vitry. For much of hislifetime, de Vitry worked in service to the French court. Later in1351 he became Bishop of Meaux which he maintained until he died. In his writings, de Vitry codified the new rhythms and notation which werebeing developed. He also used red notes to determine pitch notesand alterations known as colorations.
Together with new rhythms andthese colorations, composers began to write music which had never beenseen before. Composers before this had followed strict rules. De Vitry now utilized the old rules and combined them with new ideas tocreate genuine Ars Nova (Stolba, 116). Another great contributor to secular musicof this time was Guillaume de Machaut. Machaut was also employedmost of his life by the court. At this time, the primary form ofmusic was the motet, often in multiple parts.
The upper voices werenamed motetus and triplum. These were written over the lower voicesof the contatenor and contratenor bassus, which later became the bass. Machaut used the notational practices codified by de Vitry and wrote mostlyin Latin. An interesting rhythmic pattern was also created, calledthe rhythmic palindrome. This pattern created a new sound and drivingforce to the music.
Machaut’s most famous contribution, however,is La Messe de Nostre Dame . This work is the oldest complete setting ofthe Mass Ordinary by a single composer (Daum). The pope renounced the useof hocket, a form of dividing up a melody and giving it to different voices. Machaut wrote many rests and syncopations to attain the feel of hocket,though (Stolba, 120).
As new ideas were constantly being developed,codified and widely used, many of the old forms of music were being changedand started to evolve into the forms we now recognize in the Renaissancestyle. More freedom was granted in writing and performing music. The church could no longer contain composers in what they wrote, becauseof its dwindling power and influence. The church had no hope of containinga growing love and appreciation for new music. Music is a definitionof emotion and certainly these times were full of great deeds, as wellas great suffering. The Black Death decimated the population of mostof Europe, but if one single item from this time period could be calledbeneficial, it would be the song we all know and grew up with as children:Ring around the rosies,Pocket full of posies,Ashes, ashesWe all fall down.
Works CitedAnnenburg/CPB Project Exhibits Collection. http://www. learner. org/exhibits/middleages/artsact. htmlDaum, Gary. http://www.
gprep. pvt. k12. md.
us/~music/musikbok/chap11. htmlStolba, K Marie. The Developmentof Western Music A History. McGraw Hill: Boston 1994.