Welcome to A History of Western Music - 7th Edition

Gustav Klimt. Die Musik (detail). 1895. Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
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Part I: The Ancient and Medieval Worlds
Chapter 4: Song and Dance Music in the Middle Ages
Chapter Outline Print this page

Gregorian chant was a revered tradition, preserved in notation, taught in church schools, and discussed in treatises. Outside the church, few in the Middle Ages could read music, and except among the aristocratic and educated elites, secular music was seldom written down or written about. For most people, music was purely aural, and most of the secular and nonliturgical music they heard, sang, and played has vanished. What survives are several hundred monophonic songs, many poems sung to melodies now lost, a few dance tunes, descriptions of music-making, pictures of musicians playing various instruments, and a few actual instruments. From these we can learn how music was used and can identify several important repertories, including the songs of the troubadours and trouvères in France and the Minnesinger in Germany; the Italian lauda and Spanish cantiga; and dance music. In these songs and dances we can see reflections of medieval society and discover traits common in European music ever since.

Chapter Outline:

  1. European Society, 800-1300
    1. Secular vs. sacred traditions
      1. Outside the church, few people could read music.
      2. Secular music was rarely written down.
    2. Successors to the Roman Empire
      1. The Byzantine Empire comprised Asia Minor and southeastern Europe.
      2. The Arab world was the strongest.
        1. Began to expand after the founding of Islam (around 610)
        2. Occupied a vast territory, from modern-day Pakistan to North Africa, and Spain.
      3. Western Europe, the weakest of the three, was influenced by the others.
        1. Charlemagne's coronation as emperor marked an assertion of continuity with the Roman past, but after the death of his son, Louis the Pious (r. 814-43), his kingdom was divided, and the only centralized kingdom in western Europe was in England.
        2. Western Europe learned about ancient Greek writing thanks to Byzantine copies.
      4. Arab contributions to western Europe's culture
        1. Transmitted knowledge of Greek philosophy and science, technology, and mathematics
        2. Arab rulers were patrons of the arts and education, inspiring Charlemagne to support intellectual and cultural life.
    3. Society in western Europe
      1. The economy was largely agricultural.
      2. Most people lived in rural areas.
      3. There were three broad classes (see HWM Figure 4.2).
        1. Nobility, including knights, controlled the land and fought wars.
        2. Clergy, including priests, monks, and nuns, were devoted to a religious life.
        3. Peasants, the majority of the population, worked the land and served the nobles.
      4. The growth of cities
        1. By 1300, several cities had populations over 100,000 (small by today's standards).
          • Paris had about 200,000 residents.
          • Venice, Milan, and Florence had about 100,000 each.
          • London had a population of about 70,000.
        2. Artisans in cities organized themselves into groups called guilds to regulate their crafts and protect their interests.
        3. Doctors, lawyers, merchants, and artisans formed the new middle class.
      5. Learning and the arts thrived.
        1. Schools
          • Cathedral schools were established throughout Europe from 1050-1300.
          • After 1200, independent schools for laymen spread as well.
          • Universities were founded in Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and other cities.
        2. Achievements
          • Works of Aristotle and other writers were translated from Greek and Arabic into Latin (the language of scholarship).
          • Developments in science and philosophy
          • Poems in Latin and vernacular languages, many of which were sung, diverged from ancient models.
  2. Latin and Vernacular Song
    1. Songs in Latin
      1. Versus (pl. versus)
        1. Sacred song, sometimes attached to the liturgy
        2. Rhymed poetry, usually with a regular pattern of accents
        3. Monophonic versus appeared in Aquitaine in southwestern France in the eleventh century.
        4. The music was newly composed, not adapted from chant.
      2. Conductus (pl. conductus)
        1. Similar to versus, with original music and rhymed, rhythmical texts in Latin
        2. Originated in the twelfth century
        3. Original function was to "conduct" a celebrant or a liturgical book from one location to another during the liturgy
        4. The term was later used for any serious Latin song with a rhymed, rhythmical text regardless of the subject.
      3. Goliard songs
        1. Composed in the late tenth through thirteenth centuries by wandering students and clerics
        2. Texts are in Latin
        3. Topics include religious themes, satire, and celebration of earthly pleasures such as eating and drinking.
    2. Songs in vernacular languages (i.e., languages other than Latin in Europe)
      1. There are almost no descriptions or examples of the music of the peasants.
      2. Only a few street cries and folk songs have been preserved, through their quotation in music intended for educated audiences.
      3. Epic poems in vernacular languages have been written down, but not the music.
        1. Chanson de geste ("song of deeds")
          • Epics in northern French vernacular
          • Topics celebrated deeds of national heroes
          • The most famous chanson de geste is Song of Roland (ca. 1100), about a battle between Charlemagne's army and Muslims in Spain.
        2. Epics from other countries include England's Beowulf (eighth century), the Norse eddas (ca. 800-1200), and the German Song of the Nibelungs (thirteenth century).
    3. Professional musicians
      1. Few records survive to document the professional musicians of the Middle Ages.
      2. Bards in Celtic lands sang epics at banquets, accompanying themselves on harp or fiddle.
      3. Jongleurs (see HWM Figure 4.3)
        1. Traveling entertainers who told stories and performed tricks in addition to performing music
        2. The word jongleur comes from the same root as the English word "juggler."
      4. Minstrel (from the Latin minister, "servant")
        1. By the thirteenth century, the term meant any specialized musician.
        2. Many were highly paid, unlike the jongleurs.
        3. They were on the payrolls of courts and cities.
        4. They came from many economic backgrounds.
  3. Troubadour and Trouvère Song
    1. French aristocrats cultivated courtly song by poet-composers who composed in two vernacular languages (see HWM Figure 4.4).
      1. In the southern region, the language was Occitan and the poet-composers were called troubadours.
      2. In the northern region, the language was Old French and the poet-composers were called trouvères.
      3. The two languages were also named for their words for "yes."
        1. Occitan was langue d'oc, the language of "oc" for yes.
        2. Old French was langue d'oïl, in which "yes" was oïl (pronounced like present-day oui).
      4. The root words trobar and trover meant "to compose a song," and later "to invent" or "to find."
      5. Female troubadours were called trobairitz
    2. Troubadours and trouvères came from many backgrounds.
      1. Their biographies, called vidas, were written down, and many vidas survive.
      2. Some were members of the nobility, e.g., Guillaume IX, duke of Aquitaine (1071-1126) and the Countess of Dia (fl. late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries).
      3. Some were born to servants at court, e.g., Bernart de Ventadorn (ca. 1130-ca. 1200), shown in HWM Figure 4.5.
      4. Others were accepted into aristocratic circles because of their accomplishments and demeanor, despite their middle-class roots.
      5. Some performed their own music; others entrusted their music to a jongleur or minstrel.
    3. Surviving songs
      1. The songs were preserved in chansonniers (songbooks).
      2. Troubadour songs
        1. About 2,600 survive.
        2. Only one-tenth survive with melodies.
      3. Trouvère songs
        1. About 2,100 survive.
        2. Two-thirds survive with melodies.
      4. When songs were copied into more than one chansonnier, there are differences, indicating oral transmission before the songs were written down.
    4. The central theme was fin' amors (Occitan) or fine amour (French)
      1. Translated as "courtly love" or, more precisely, "refined love"
      2. Idealized love that refined the lover
      3. Love from a distance, with respect and humility
      4. The object was a real woman, usually another man's wife.
      5. The woman was unattainable, making unrewarded yearning a major theme (e.g., NAWM 8, Can vei la lauzeta mover by Bernart de Ventadorn).
      6. When women wrote poetry, they focused on the woman's point of view (e.g., HWM Example 4.1 and NAWM 9, A chantar by the Countess of Dia).
      7. The artistry of the poems demonstrates the poets' refinement and eloquence.
    5. Melodies
      1. Strophic, with every stanza being set to the same melody
      2. Text-setting is syllabic with occasional groups of notes, especially on a line's penultimate syllable.
      3. Range is narrow, within a ninth.
      4. Modal theory was not part of the composers' thinking, yet most melodies fit the theory, with the first and seventh modes being most common.
      5. Melodies move primarily stepwise.
      6. Form
        1. Most troubadour melodies have new music for each phrase.
        2. AAB form is common in trouvère melodies and was used by some troubadours as well (e.g., A chantar).
      7. The form of A chantar incorporates musical rhyme.
        1. Seven-line stanzas
        2. The form is AAB, with each section ending with the same melody (a musical rhyme).
        3. At the level of the phrase, the form is ab ab cdb, with "b" being the musical rhyme.
      8. Rhythm is usually not notated.
        1. Some scholars believe melodies were sung with each syllable receiving the same duration.
        2. Other scholars believe the songs were sung with a meter corresponding to the meter of the poetry.
        3. Dance songs were most likely sung metrically, and elevated love songs may have been sung more freely, but modern editions will vary because of competing views.
    6. Musical plays
      1. Musical plays were built around narrative pastoral songs.
      2. The most famous was Jeu de Robin et de Marion (The Play of Robin and Marion, ca. 1284) by Adam de la Halle (NAWM 10).
      3. Adam de la Halle (ca. 1240-1288)
        1. The last great trouvère
        2. Depicted in HWM Figure 4.6
        3. His complete works were collected into a manuscript, which indicates he was held in high esteem.
      4. Robin m'aime (NAWM 10) is a rondeau.
        1. Dance song with a refrain
        2. Form is AbaabAB.
          • Capital letters indicate the refrain (same music, same text).
          • Lower case letters indicate new text for A or B.
        3. Another setting is polyphonic and notated in precise durations, indicating a metrical rhythm.
      5. Rhythm is usually not notated.
        1. Some scholars believe melodies were sung with each syllable receiving the same duration.
        2. Other scholars believe the songs were sung with a meter corresponding to the meter of the poetry.
        3. Dance songs were most likely sung metrically, and elevated love songs may have been sung more freely, but modern editions will vary because of competing views.
    7. Rise and fall of troubadour tradition
      1. Its origins include three possible genres.
        1. Arabic songs
        2. Versus
        3. Secular Latin songs
      2. Albigensian Crusade, declared by Pope Innocent III in 1208, destroyed the culture and courts of southern France.
      3. dispersed, spreading their influence to neighboring lands.
  4. Song in Other Lands
    1. England
      1. French was the language of kings and nobility in England because of the Norman Conquest of 1066.
      2. The lower classes spoke Middle English.
      3. A few songs in Middle English survive with melodies.
      4. Most surviving poems in Middle English were probably meant to be sung.
    2. Minnesinger
      1. Knightly poet-musicians who wrote in Middle High German
      2. They were modeled on the troubadours.
      3. Flourished between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries
      4. They sang Minnelieder (love songs) emphasizing faithfulness, duty, and service in the knightly tradition.
      5. The songs are strophic, with the bar form (AAB) the most common.
        1. A
          • Called Stollen
          • Each has the same poetic meter, rhyme scheme, and melody.
        2. B
          • Called Abgesang
          • Usually longer than the Stollen
          • The ending may quote part or all of the ending of the Stollen.
      6. Crusade songs were a new genre with the Minnesingers.
        1. Songs about experiences of crusaders who renounced worldly comforts to travel on Crusades.
        2. Example: NAWM 11, by Walther von der Vogelweide (ca. 1170-1230), depicted in HWM Figure 4.7.
    3. Cantigas de Santa Maria
      1. Over four hundred songs in Gallican-Portuguese in honor of the Virgin Mary
      2. King Alfonso el Sabio (The Wise) of Castile and Léon in northwest Spain directed the compilation of these songs in about 1270-1290.
      3. Four beautifully illuminated manuscripts preserve these songs.
      4. Most songs described miracles performed by the Virgin.
        1. Mary had been venerated since the twelfth century
        2. NAWM 12 describes how Mary caused a piece of stolen meat to jump about, revealing where it was hidden.
      5. The songs all have refrains.
        1. In performance, a group singing the refrains could have alternated with a soloist singing the verses.
        2. Songs with refrains were often associated with dancing, as shown in some of the illustrations in the Cantigas manuscripts.
  5. Medieval Instruments
    1. Illustrated manuscripts often depicted instruments, although the notated music's single melodic line did not offer any indication of instrumental participation.
    2. Europeans adapted instruments brought from the Byzantine Empire or from the Arabs in North Africa and Spain.
    3. String instruments as depicted in HWM Figure 4.8 (left to right)
      1. Vielle (fiddle)
        1. The principle medieval bowed instrument
        2. Predecessor of the Renaissance viol and modern violin
        3. Five strings tuned in fourths and fifths, with one or more used as a drone
      2. Hurdy-gurdy
        1. Three-stringed vielle played mechanically with a hand-crank
        2. The player depresses levers to change pitches on the melody string.
        3. The other two strings are drones.
      3. Harp in the English style
      4. Psaltery
        1. The remote ancestor of the harpsichord and piano
        2. Strings are attached to a frame over a wooden sounding board.
        3. The player plucks the strings.
    4. Wind and percussion instruments
      1. Flute (depicted in HWM Figure 4.9)
        1. Transverse flute, similar to the modern flute
        2. Made from wood or ivory
        3. No keys, only holes
      2. Shawm, a double-reed instrument similar to the oboe
      3. Medieval trumpet
        1. Straight
        2. No valves, so it could play only pitches of the harmonic series
      4. Bagpipe
        1. The universal folk instrument
        2. The pipes and chanter are reed instruments.
        3. The player inflates a bag, which forces air through the chanter and drone pipes.
      5. Bells were used in church and as signals.
    5. Organs
      1. Monastic churches had started installing organs by ca. 1100.
      2. Organs were common in cathedrals by 1300.
      3. Portative organ
        1. Small enough to be carried with a strap around the neck
        2. One set of pipes
        3. The right hand played the keys while the left worked the bellows.
      4. Positive organ
        1. Placed (positum) on a table
        2. An assistant pumped the bellows as the musician played.
  6. Dance Music
    1. Songs for dancing
      1. Only about two dozen melodies survive.
      2. The carole (see HWM Source Reading, page 85)
        1. The most popular dance in France from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries
        2. One or more of the dancers sang the song as the others danced in a circle.
        3. Instrumentalists also participated.
    2. Instrumental music for dancing
      1. About fifty dance tunes survive from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
        1. Most are notated as monophonic pieces, but several players could participate.
        2. Some are set in polyphony for performance on a keyboard instrument
        3. These tunes are the earliest surviving notated instrumental music.
        4. Features include steady beat, clear meter, repeated sections, and predictable phrasing.
      2. Estampie
        1. The most common medieval instrumental dance
        2. Several sections, each played twice but with different endings
          • The first ending was open (ouvert), or incomplete
          • The second ending was closed (clos), or complete.
          • The same open and closed endings were usually used for all the sections.
        3. Triple meter
        4. Estampies from Le Manuscrit du roi (The Manuscript of the King)
          • This chansonnier includes eight "royal estampies."
          • The fourth of these is NAWM 13.
      3. Istampita
        1. The fourteenth-century Italian relative of the estampie
        2. The same form, with repeating sections, but the sections are longer
        3. Meter is duple or compound.