Sunday, February 27, 2011

Medieval Music

Medieval music is European music written during the Middle Ages. This era begins with the fall of the Roman Empire, roughly AD 476 to 1473. It is in the Middle Ages that the spread of Christianity and the rise of the Catholic Church occurred. Music was primarily written for the church. The cathedrals were the center of the musical life, and composers proliferated as employees of the church authorities.

Plainsong and the Birth of Church Music
The first church music was called "plainsong" which was a single line of notes that was chanted without any instruments. As music developed, it gradually became complicated. As in any enhancement or progression, other lines were added to the original one-line of notes. The resulting composition was called "organum." Generally, an organum is a plainsong melody with at least one voice added to enhance the harmony. If effect, organum was the first music that exhibited harmony.
An interesting piece of music from the Medieval Period which lasted from around AD 400-1300 is widely known as the "Song of the Ass" since it was used in the play showing the mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, riding into the Cathedral on an ass (donkey). A related account goes that during this period an annual holiday was celebrated to represent the Virgin Mary's flight to Egypt. 

Marking the End of Medieval Period
As often seen at the end of any musical era, the end of the medieval era is marked by a highly manneristic style known as Ars subtilior. In some ways, this was an attempt to meld the French and Italian styles. This music was highly stylized, with a rhythmic complexity that was not matched until the 20th century. In fact, not only was the rhythmic complexity of this repertoire largely unmatched for five and a half centuries, with extreme syncopations, mensural trickery, and even examples of augenmusik (such as a chanson by Baude Cordier written out in manuscript in the shape of a heart), but also its melodic material was quite complex as well, particularly in its interaction with the rhythmic structures.
The chanson Belle, bonne, sage by Baude Cordier, an Ars subtilior piece included in the Chantilly Codex