A thousand years of history span the Medieval period, which dates from 450 A.D. to 1450 A.D . The music during this period was prodominantly vocal with instrumental music being frowned apon by the church.
During this time society was rigidly divided into three social classes : the nobility, consisting of kings, queens, barons etc... ; Peasants (very poor people); and thirdly the clergy (Roman Catholic Church which was very powerful). All segments of society felt the power of the Roman Catholic Church, which had a monopoly of learning and was the centre of musical life. Most musicians were priests and as such Liturgical singing was very important. Although the church frowned upon instruments, we know that instrumental music was produced through 1. paintings 2. literary descriptions
For over 1000, the official music of the Roman Catholic Church was the Gregorian Chant, which was named after Pope Gregory I. He organized and codified the chants in the 6th century used by the church.
With Gregorian Chant, there is no definite sense of rhythm, the timing is very flexible and there is no sense of beat. This creates a floating, improvisational quality to the music. The chant essentially consists of a Melody, set to a sacred Latin text, sung unaccompanied which moves by stepwise motion within a narrow range of pitches. It may be either Syllabic - one note for each syllable - or Melismatic - many notes to one syllable. The composers of the chants were anonymous and were based on church modes (Ionian, Dorian etc...).
Development of Polyphony
Polyphony was deveopled during the period of 700 A.D. to 900 A.D. where the chant melody was duplicated at an interval of a 4th or a 5th. The voices would moved in parallel motion with the actual chant being sung by the bottom voice. Medieval music consisting of Gregorian chant and one or more melodic lines is called Organum.
From 900 A.D. to 1200 A.D Organum became truly polyphonic, with the melodic lines becomming independent and each line had its own rhythm and own melody. Generally, the chant in the bottom voice was sung in very long, drawnout notes, while the added melody on top moved in shorter note values. Early polyphony was still quite rhythmically free.
Then during the period of 1170 A.D. to 1200 A.D. the Notre Dame School of Composers developed rhythmic innovations. The leading composers at the school where Leonin and Perotin, who used measured rhythm with definite time values and a clearly defined meter. The newly developed notation indicated precise rhythms and pitches. However, the beat could only be subdivided into 3’s, which was symbolic of the Trinity. Few triads were used, resulting in Medieval polyphony sounding very hollow, thin and stark to the modern ear. The interval of a 3rd was hardly ever used as it was considered to sound dissonant.
The first large body of decipherable, secular songs that have survived, comes from the 12th and 13th centuries. It was Written by French noblemen Troubadours (comming from Southern France) and the Trauvéres (comming from Northern France). Most of the songs deal with the subject of love. There were also dance and spinning songs (spinning songs come from when the maidens would spin cloth and sing songs to pass the time). Their songs were played mainly by court minstrels. Many of the songs have been preserved because the nobility had clerics to write down the songs.
Secular songs also appear in Italy, Spain, England and Germany. They use a regular beat, unlike the Gregorian Chant. Instruments used included : Harps; Fiddles, Recorders; Lutes; Flutes; Shawms; and Bagpipes.
Ars Nova becan in the 14th century as a result of a conscious effort to write music in a new style. An essay entitled “Ars Nova”, by Phillipe de Vitry (musical theorist), was published describing the new characteristics of style in music.
Significant developments in rhythm that occured during this period was that the beat could now be subdivided into 2’s. Syncopation was introduced and polyphonic compositions became increasingly complex and sophisticated. One important form of music was the Mass, consisting of the PROPER and the ORDINARY. Composers set the ordinary to music which contained 5 sung prayers : Kyrie; Gloria; Credo; Sanctus; Agnus Dei.
Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377)
Guillaume de Machout was arguably one of the most important composers of Medieval Music. He was a poet and musician born in French who wrote in the Ars Nova style. He mainly composed secular music and worked for various royal families. He travelled extensively and his output consists mainly of love songs for 2 voices and instrumental accompaniment. He is most famous for his ‘Missa Notra Dame’ (Notre Dame Mass), which is one of the fines compositions of the 14th century. It was the first polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary and was written for 4 voices – possibly doubled by instruments.
Agnus Dei movement Arranged for four voices – a soprano, 2 altos and a tenor. It made use of triple meter – symbol of the Trinity - and consisted of complex rhythm and syncopation. The two upper parts are rhythmically active while the two lower parts move in longer note values and play a supportive role. The movement includes dissonances and triads which sounds fuller than previous Organum.