Medieval Music



WE have done the cathedral injustice. It was not the cold and empty tomb that the visitor enters today. It functioned. Its worshipers found in it not only a work of art but the consoling, strengthening presence of Mary and her Son. It received the monks or canons who many times each day stood in the choir stalls and sang the canonical Hours. It heard the importunate litanies of congregations seeking divine mercy and aid. Its nave and aisles guided the processions that carried before the people the image of the Virgin or the body and blood of their God. Its great spaces echoed solemnly with the music of the Mass. And the music was as vital as the church edifice itself, more deeply stirring than all the glory of glass or stone. Many a stoic soul, doubtful of the creed, was melted by the music, and fell on his knees before the mystery that no words could speak.

The evolution of medieval music concurred remarkably with the development of architectural styles. As the early churches passed in the seventh century from the ancient domed or basilican forms to a simple masculine Romanesque, and in the thirteenth century to Gothic complexity, elevation, and ornament, so Christian music kept till Gregory I (540–604) the ancient monodic airs of Greece and the Near East, passed in the seventh century to Gregorian or plain chant, and flowered in the thirteenth century into polyphonic audacities rivaling the balanced strains of a Gothic cathedral.

The barbarian invasions in the West, and the resurgence of Orientalism in the Near East, combined to break the tradition of Greek musical notation through letters placed above the words; but the four Greek “modes”—Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian—survived, and begot by division the octoechos, or “eight manners” of musical composition—contemplative, restrained, grave, solemn, cheerful, joyful, spirited, or ecstatic. The Greek language persisted for three centuries after Christ in the church music of the West, and still remains in the Kyrie eleison. Byzantine music took form under St. Basil, mated Greek and Syrian chants, reached its height in the hymns of Romanus (c. 495) and Sergius (c. 620), and made its greatest conquest in Russia.

Some early Christians opposed the use of music in religion, but it soon appeared that a religion without music could not survive in competition with creeds that touched man’s sensitivity to song. The priest learned to sing the Mass, and inherited some of the melodies of the Hebrew cantor. Deacons and acolytes were taught to chant responses; some were technically trained in a schola lectorum, which under Pope Celestine I (422–32) became a schola cantorum. Such trained singers formed great choirs; that of St. Sophia’s had 25 cantors and 111 “lectors,” mostly boys.1 Congregational singing spread from East to West; the men alternated with the women in antiphonal song, and joined with them in the Alleluia. The psalms they sang were thought to echo or imitate on earth the hymns of praise sung before God by the angels and saints in paradise. St. Ambrose, despite the apostolic counsel that women should be silent in church, introduced antiphonal singing to his diocese; “psalms are sweet for every age, and becoming to either sex,” said this wise administrator; “they create a great bond of unity when all the people raise their voices in one choir.”2 Augustine wept when he heard the Milan congregation singing Ambrose’s hymns, and verified St. Basil’s dictum that the listener who surrenders to the pleasure of music will be drawn to religious emotion and piety.3 The “Ambrosian chant” is still used in Milan churches today.

A tradition universally accepted in the Middle Ages, and now, after long doubts, generally received,4 ascribes to Gregory the Great and his aides a reform and canonical determination of Roman Catholic music, resulting in the establishment of the “Gregorian chant” as the official music of the Church for six centuries. Hellenistic and Byzantine strains combined with Hebrew melodies of Temple or synagogue to mold this Roman or plain chant. It was monodic—one song—music; no matter how many voices participated, they all sang the same note, though women and boys often sang an octave higher than the men. It was simple music for voices of modest range; now and then it allowed a more complex “melisma”—a melodious wordless embellishment of a note or phrase. It was a free and continuous rhythm, not divided into regular meter or measures of time.

Before the eleventh century the only musical notation used by the Gregorian chant consisted of small signs derived from the Greek accent marks, and placed over the words to be sung. These “neumes” (airs, breaths) indicated a rise or fall of tone, but not the degree of rise or fall, nor the duration of the note; such matters had to be learned by oral transmission and the memorizing of an enormous body of liturgical song. No instrumental accompaniment was allowed. Despite these limitations—perhaps because of them—Gregorian chant became the most impressive feature of the Christian ritual. The modern ear, accustomed to complex harmony, finds these old chants monotonous and thin; they carry on a Greek, Syrian, Hebrew, Arab tradition of monody which only the Oriental ear can appreciate today. Even so, the chants sung in a Roman Catholic cathedral during Holy Week reach to the heart with a directness and weird power withheld from music whose complications divert the ear instead of moving the soul.

Gregorian chant spread through Western Europe like another conversion to Christianity. Milan rejected it, as it likewise resisted papal authority; and southern Spain long preserved its “Mozarabic” chant, formed by Christians under Moslem rule, and still used in a part of Toledo Cathedral. Charlemagne, who loved unity like a ruler, replaced the Gallican with the Gregorian chant in Gaul, and established schools of Roman church music at Metz and Soissons. The Germans, however, with throats formed by climate and needs quite different from the Italian, had trouble with the more delicate strains of the chant. Said John the Deacon: “Their coarse voices, which roar like thunder, cannot execute soft modulations, because their throats are hoarse with too much drinking.”5

Perhaps the Germans deprecated the fioritura that from the eighth century forward embellished the Gregorian chant with “tropes” and “sequences.” The trope or turn began as a composition of words for a melisma, making this easier to remember. Later it became an interpolation of words and music into a Gregorian chant, as when the priest sang not Kyrie eleison but Kyrie (fons pietatis, a quo bona cuncta procedunt) eleison. The Church permitted such embellishments, but never accepted them into the official liturgy. Bored monks amused themselves by composing or singing such interpolations, until there were so many tropes that books known as “tropers” were published to teach or preserve the favored ones. The music of the ecclesiastical drama grew out of such tropes. Sequences were tropes designed to follow the Alleluia of the Mass. The custom had grown of prolonging the final vowel of this word in a long melody known as a iubilus or chant of joy; in the eighth century various texts were written for these inserted melodies. The composition of tropes and sequences became a highly developed art, and gradually changed Gregorian chant into an ornate form uncongenial to its original spirit and “plain” intent.* This evolution ended the purity and dominance of Gregorian chant in that same twelfth century which saw the transition from Romanesque to Gothic in the architecture of the West.

The multiplication of complex compositions demanded for their transmission a better notation than that which plain chant had used. In the tenth century Odo, Abbot of Cluny, and Notker Balbulus, a monk of St. Gall, resurrected the Greek device of naming notes by letters. In the eleventh century an anonymous writer described the use of the first seven capitals of the Latin alphabet for the first octave of a scale, the corresponding lower-case Latin letters for the second octave, and Greek letters for the third.6 About 1040 Guido of Arezzo, a monk of Pomposa (near Ferrara), gave their present strange names to the first six notes of the scale by taking the first syllables of each half-line of a hymn to John the Baptist:

Ut queant laxis resonare floris

Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,

Solve polluti labii reatum.

This “solmization,” or naming of the musical tones by the syllables ut (or do), re, mi, fa, sol, la, became part of the inexorable heritage of Western youth.

More vital was Guido’s development of a musical staff. About 1000 the practice had arisen of using a red line to indicate the note now represented by F; later a second line, yellow or green, was added to represent C. Guido, or someone shortly before him, extended these lines to make a staff of four lines, to which later teachers added a fifth. With this new staff and the ut, re, mi, wrote Guido, his choir boys could learn in a few days what formerly had taken them many weeks. It was a simple but epochal advance, which earned for Guido the title of inventor musicae, and a splendid statue still to be seen in Arezzo’s public square. The results were revolutionary. Singers were free from the task of memorizing the whole musical liturgy; music could be more readily composed, transmitted, and preserved; the performer could now read music at sight and hear it with the eye; and the composer, no longer bound to keep close to traditional melodies lest singers refuse to memorize his work, could venture upon a thousand experiments. Most important of all, he could now write polyphonic music, in which two or more voices could simultaneously sing or play different but harmonizing strains.

We owe to our medieval forebears still another invention that made modern music possible. Tones could now be determined by dots placed on or between the lines of the staff, but these signs gave no hint as to how long a note was to be held. Some system for measuring and denoting the duration of each note was indispensable to the development of contrapuntal music—the simultaneous and harmonious procedure of two or more independent melodies. Perhaps some knowledge had seeped up from Spain of Arab treatises by al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, and other Moslems who had dealt with measured music or mensural notation.7 At some time in the eleventh century8 Franco of Cologne, a priest mathematician, wrote a treatise Ars cantus mensurabilis, in which he gathered up the suggestions of earlier theory and practice, and laid down essentially our present system for indicating the duration of musical notes. A square-headed virga or rod, formerly used as a neume, was chosen to represent a long note; another neume, thepunctum or point, was enlarged into a lozenge to represent a short note; these signs were in time altered; tails were added; by trial and error, through a hundred absurdities, our simple mensural notation was evolved.

These vital developments opened a wide door to polyphonic music. Such music had been written before Franco, but crudely. Toward the close of the ninth century we find a musical practice called “organizing”—the singing of concords by concurring voices. Little is heard of it again till the end of the tenth century, when we find the names organum and symphonia applied to such compositions for two voices. The organum was a liturgical piece, in which an old monodic strain was carried or “held” by the tenor (who was therefore so named), while another voice added a harmonizing melody. A variant of this form, the conductus, gave the tenor a new or popular tune, and conducted another voice in a concurrent air. In the eleventh century the composers took a step as bold in its way as the Gothic balancing of thrusts: they wrote harmonies in which the “conducted” voice did not slavishly accompany the tenor in the rise or fall of the melody, but ventured upon other harmonies through notes not necessarily moving in a parallel line with thecantus firmus of the tenor. This declaration of independence became almost a rebellion when the second voice accompanied the ascending melody of the tenor with a descending movement. This harmony by contrast, and fluent resolution of momentary discords, became a passion with composers, almost a law; so, about 1100, John Cotton wrote: “If the main voice is ascending, the accompanying part shall descend.”9 Finally, in the motet (apparently a diminutive from the French mot, a word or phrase), three, four, five, even six different voices were made to sing in a complex weave of individual melodies whose diverse but concordant strains crossed and merged in a vertical-horizontal web of harmony as subtle and graceful as the converging arches of a Gothic vault. By the thirteenth century this Ars antiqua of polyphony had built the foundations of modern musical composition.

In that exciting century the enthusiasm for music rivaled the interest in architecture and philosophy. The Church looked askance upon polyphony; she distrusted the religious effect of music becoming a lure and end in itself; John of Salisbury, bishop and philosopher, called a halt to complexity of composition; Bishop Guillaume Durand branded the motet as “disorganized music”; Roger Bacon, a rebel in science, deplored the vanishing of the stately Gregorian chant. The Council of Lyons (1274) denounced the new music; and Pope John XXII (1324) issued a papal condemnation of discantus, or polyphony, on the ground that the innovating composers “chop up the melodies … so that these rush around ceaselessly, intoxicating the ear without quieting it, and disturbing devotion instead of evoking it.”10 But the revolution continued. In one citadel of the Church—Notre Dame de Paris—the choirmaster Leoninus, about 1180, composed the finest organa of his time; and his successor Perotinus was guilty of compositions for three or four voices. Polyphony, like Gothic, spread from France to England and Spain. Giraldus Cambrensis (1146?-1220) reported two-part singing in Iceland, and said of his native Wales what one might say of it today:

In their songs they do not utter the tunes uniformly … but manifoldly—in many manners and many notes; so that in a multitude of singers, such as it is the custom of this people to bring together, as many songs are to be heard as there are singers to be seen, and a various diversity of parts, finally coming together in one consonance and organic melody.11

In the end the Church bowed to the infallibility of the Zeitgeist, accepted polyphony, made it a powerful servant of the faith, and prepared it for its Renaissance victories.

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