Medieval Music and Its Antecedents
Medieval Music refers to music written from approximately 500 to 1400 a.d. Also known as “early music,” medieval music is the first period in European classical music. This doesn't mean, however, that there was no music prior to 500 a.d. On the contrary, the ancient Greeks, influenced by Pythagoras, laid the groundwork for modern harmony through their philosophical musings on a concept they called “the music of the spheres.” Ancient Greeks also codified a system of musical scales, which paved the way for contemporary modality. (You will learn about modes and scales in Chapters 5 and 15.) Moreover, Plato and Aristotle often refer to music—principally its effects on the individual and society—in their writings.
In the Early Middle Ages, several forms of monophonic (unison) plainsong arose (see Chapter 9). Plainsong or cantus planus is a style of religious singing centered on the liturgies of the Catholic Mass. Early plainsong was always sung a cappella or without instruments. Plainsong was also sung in Latin, the official language of the church.
Though music was undoubtedly played during the Roman Republic and Empire periods, little is known about its development and role in society. With the gradual shift toward Christianity and the rise of Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, Europe transitioned into a period known as Late Antiquity, then into the Dark Ages or Early Middle Ages. During the Dark Ages, Roman authority, crippled by the fall of their empire, became increasingly weak and decentralized.
Around 1000, the High Middle Ages (eleventh to thirteenth centuries) brought major developments in art, music, technology, and science. Like the Dark Ages, most of the known music from this period is monastic. Once again, plainsong predominated, especially Gregorian chant. Around 900, Gregorian chant unified the music of the liturgy all over Europe. Its use of neumes (square notation) also foreshadowed modern staff notation.
In the Late Middle Ages (fourteenth to sixteenth centuries), Europe descended into a period of desperation, war, and depopulation. In this period, the Black Death killed 25 to 50 million people in Europe alone. Despite this, several musical advances were made.
For example, in 1322, French composer and theorist Philippe de Vitry authored a musical treatise called Ars Nova. This publication sparked many innovations in notation and rhythm. De Vitry's own motets (choral music) also reflected this concept of “new art.” Marked by prolific use of isorhythms (repeated rhythmic patterns called talea as well as pitch patterns called color), De Vitry's work influenced Guillaume de Machaut, Europe's most distinguished Late Middle Ages composer. Machaut is remembered in part for his secular music of “courtly love.” This includes vocal music of varied poetic forms (ballades, lais, virelais, rondeaux, and others). Machaut's mass setting Messe de Nostre Dame (c. 1365) is also a seminal work from the period.