Music in the Middle Ages 450 – 1450 A.D.
Middle Ages • Around 450 the Roman Empire began to disintegrate. • This was the beginning of the “dark ages”. • Life was hard and full of migrations, upheavals, and wars. • In the later Middle Ages churches and monasteries were constructed, towns grew, universities were founded.
This was a time of three social classes: • NOBILITY • PEASANTRY • CLERGY
NOBILITY • Nobles were sheltered within castles surrounded by moats. • The men were often knights during war time. • In peace time, they amused themselves with hunting, feasting, and tournaments.
Peasants • Peasants – the majority of people – lived miserably in one-room huts. • Many were serfs, bound to the soil and subject to feudal overlords. • Homes were damp and cold. The entire family shared two rooms. • For protection, there were no windows.
Clergy • Monks in monasteries held a monopoly on learning; most people – including the nobility – were illiterate. • The church was the center of musical life. • Musicians were priests and worked for the church. • An important occupation in monasteries was liturgical singing. • Women were not allowed to sing in the church.
Music in the Middle Ages • Most medieval music was vocal. • The church frowned on instruments. • Around 1100, however, instruments were used increasingly in church. • The organ was most prominent. • At first it was primitive and could only be played by hitting it with your fist. • It was so loud that it could be heard for miles around.
Organ Organ from the 900s.
Gregorian Chant • The music of the church was Gregorian chant. • It is a single line (no harmony) sung by many to convey a calm quality. • It represents the church. • It has flexible rhythm, without meter, and little sense of beat. • Exact rhythm is uncertain, because precise time values were not notated. • Free-flowing rhythm gives the chant a floating, improvisational feeling.
The melodies moved by step and were sung in Latin, the language of the church. • At first, the melodies were passed on by tradition, but as the numbers grew to the thousands, they were notated to ensure uniformity. • The earliest manuscripts were from the 800s.
The composers of Gregorian chant remain almost completely unknown.
Secular Music • Besides Gregorian chant in the church, there was much music outside of the church, too. • The first music that has survived in notation was composed during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by French nobles called troubadours. • Many of the songs they sang have been preserved because nobles had clerics write them down. • Some 1,650 melodies have been preserved.
During the Middle Ages, wandering minstrels performed music and acrobatics in castles, and towns. • They had no civil rights and were on the lowest social level. It was a tough life. • Without newspapers, the music of the minstrels was an important source of information.
For centuries music had just a single melodic line. • But sometime around 700 – 900 monks began to add a second melodic line to Gregorian chant. • At the beginning, it was usually improvised. • Listeners at that time must have been surprised!
Churches were getting more elaborate as was the music in the church.
Polyphonic Music • Polyphonic music (music with more than one part) was developed mainly in Paris at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. • Using precise rhythms, this was the first time in music history that notation indicated precise rhythms as well as pitches. • Soon music had more than two voices. Music with three parts began to develop, although the range was still small and hollow sounding.
Fourteenth Century • Secular music became more important in the lives of the people in the 1300s. • This was due to many factors including the Hundred Years’ War, the black plague (which destroyed ¼ of the population of Europe), the weakening of the feudal system, and the fighting of the Popes in the Catholic church. • The changes in musical style were so many that this era was named the time of “new art”.
Guillaume de Machaut • Guillaume de Machaut was a priest, but spent most of his life working with the noble families of France. • Machaut travelled to many courts and presented beautifully decorated copies of his music to the nobles. • Because of this, his music has survived for us to enjoy today. • This piece you are hearing (The Agnus Dei) is possibly the finest composition known from the Middle Ages.
Agnus Dei • This piece is from a Mass, which is a sacred piece of music. • It is written in four voices, some of which are doubled by instruments. • The Agnus Dei is a prayer for mercy and peace and is solemn and elaborate. • It is in triple meter. • This piece is based on Gregorian Chant, but you can hear how much this idea has developed.
Agnus Dei • Like the chant it is based on, it has three sections. • The form for this piece is: A B A • In Machaut’s time, music was meant to appeal to the mind – as well as to the ear! • Although this sounds so different to us today, it is pleasing to our ears.
Music of the Middle Ages Patty Oeste, 2005