Lecture Notes From "A Walking Tour Through The Middle Ages"
(A Beginners Guide to Medieval Music)

by Margareta vanden Valde

Go to Part II

Notes from Practicum 1999, Part I

      This is a compilation of the class that I taught at a Practicum in Ealdormere, which was entitled "A Walking Tour Through the Middle Ages". The class was designed as an aural experience for non-musicians, aimed at giving them a brief overview of the progression of music through the centuries. Although the aural part of the class does not translate well into hard copy! the class notes will, and all listening examples are listed carefully if the reader would like to track down the same recordings. All are on CD, and full information is listed for those gentles who are interested in tracking down the copies in stores or libraries. Often the exact date of a composition is unknown, and in these cases I have simply put down the birth and death dates (also sometimes approximate) of the composer. 

      I must at this point insert an important comment: Since the class was designed to be primarily spoken, my lecture notes were never footnoted. This DOES NOT mean that I am the sole source of all of this information. The original research notes are scattered to the high heavens, and to recreate the footnotes would be a truly astounding task. All sources are listed in the bibliography, and readers with questions about specific issues and sources can email me at melaena2@telus.net would be more than happy to assist with any questions. A full bibliography will be supplied at the end. 

Europe, c.800-1150

      Medieval plainchant will be considered the beginning of music in medieval European for the purpose of this discussion. There was certainly other music in existence, both in Europe and all across the world, but of this music we have little in the way of records, and thus it is difficult to discuss with much certainty. In fact, much of medieval Europe's secular music has been lost entirely. 
      Sacred music, such as that used in church services, exists today largely due to the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church not only created copious amounts of music for use in their daily Offices and their Masses, but they created a theoretical system to explain it and a notational system to preserve it. The secular community simply did not have the knowledge or the resources to preserve their music in the same way, although from reports and documents we know that secular music did exist. 

      The primary purpose of chant is to enhance worship; thus, chant would always be found in a sacred setting, such as a monastery or church. The words (always sacred Latin text) should be clear, and the melody uplifting. Plainchant was always sung without accompaniment.
      The music itself has a gentle rise and fall, and is sung completely in unison, broken only by text phrase-endings. There is no set meter; rather, there is a sense of trying to make the music conform as closely as possible to the words as they might be spoken. The melodic motion is primarily by step, and sometimes by thirds, but rarely larger.
      Text-setting is the process of setting the words against the notes. Text-setting in chant could be any of three: Syllabic, which was one note per syllable; Neumatic, which was two to four notes per syllable; or Melismatic, which was more than four notes per syllable. Text-setting of the chants could also be some combination of these three types. 

      Chant as a form existed long before c.800; however, around 800, several musically historical events occurred. First of all, the two distinct chants of the Gallican liturgy and of the Roman liturgy experienced a melding-together to form what is sometimes known as "Roman-Gallican Chant", which had characteristics of both. Secondly, the chants became classified into modes (modes are a bit like modern scales), but since the modes came formally into existence after the chants, there was a certain amount of "creative revision" involved in trying to fit the chants into the modes, which sometimes did not follow the same tonal pattern. It was very much a case of square peg and round hole, with predictable consequences. 
      Also around that time, the whole body of Roman-Gallican chant became erroneously (but very piously) attributed to Pope Gregory (r. 590-604). Although he was in many ways a very influential man, Pope Gregory under no circumstances can claim authorship of the entire body of chant that existed. However, the name "Gregorian Chant" stuck. This body of music is also often referred to as "Plainchant" and, less commonly, "Roman-Gallican Chant". 

      Notated versions of these chants appear from c.900; however, the modal "corrections" continued well into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The notated chants at any rate were meant to be more of an aid for chants already learned by memory than a reliable method of reconstruction, such as we might see today. Pitch was a relative thing at best, and the note-lengths followed very general rules of long and short rather than the precise meters of the present day. Classifying the chants by mode was one of the many steps on the path to solidification of the music. 

What to listen for: The words, always sacred Latin text, should be clear, and the melody uplifting.

• There is a gentle rise and fall to the music, which is sung completely in unison, broken only by text phrase-endings.

• There is no set meter; rather, there is a sense of trying to make the music conform as closely as possible to the words as they might have been spoken 

• Melodic motion is primarily by step, and sometimes by thirds, but rarely larger

• Plainchant is always sung in unison without accompaniment

Anon: Viderunt Omnes, c.900-1250
Performed by the Benedictine Monastery of Santo Domingo, Spain
Released by EMI

Viderunt omnes fines terrae
Salutare Dei nostri;
Jubilate Deo omnis terra.
Notum fecit.
Dominus salutare suum:
Ante conspectum gentium
Revelavit justitiam suam.

Europe, late 9th C to 1250

       Organum was at first an entirely improvised art, with part of the singers merely singing the chant at a different pitch than the original. This new style acquired the name "organum", meaning "organized" or "planned" music. There is some speculation that this style evolved naturally from the normal divisions of range within the human voice; for instance, the distance between a tenor voice and a bass voice is a fifth, and fifths were a common interval used in parallel organum. 
      The chant that was sung at the original pitch was labelled the "vox principalis" and the accompanying voice, sung in parallel motion, became known as the "vox organalis" ("organizing voice"). The modern ear tends to think of pleasing intervals as the third and the sixth, but the medieval ear favoured the fourth, fifth and octave. Today, these three intervals are known as "perfect" intervals. 
      There were several different types of organum. The first was simple organum, where a second line was added in strict parallel motion at a fourth, fifth or octave BELOW the vox principalis. Composite organum was a duplication of one or both of the lines of simple organum. Parallel organum was interestingly often less parallel than the other types, often with modified notes in the vox organalis to avoid certain unpleasant intervals, such as the jarring dissonance found directly between the perfect fourth and perfect fifth intervals. Even today this interval is informally called "The Devil's Tritone" and is not commonly used. 
      The earliest records of parallel organum document its existence from the ninth century, but there is reason to believe it existed as early as the seventh or eighth century. What seems to us to be an obvious step towards polyphony must be considered from the point of view of the average churchgoer, who had never heard chant sung in anything other than unison. The difference between monophony (for example, chant sung in unison) and polyphony (for example, parallel organum, sung in harmony) is tremendous, even to the uneducated ear. 

      The largest collection of parallel organum exists in two books, titled collectively The Winchester Troper. 

Listening Example:

(sadly, although Sonda heard many of these in university, she was not able to find any recordings for her Practicum class. If anyone has a recording of parallel organum, Sonda would love to talk to that person). 

If you have/find a recording, this is what to listen for:

• Find the chant line, and then listen for the harmony, at a distance of a fourth, fifth or octave away

• Because organum required coordination of two separate lines, it was more difficult than plainchant, and so was usually sung by soloists who would alternate sections with the choral plainchant

 • The added voices are doing nothing except following the rise and fall of the chant line, starting on a different pitch. 

3. ORGANUM DUPLUM and the Notre Dame Cathedral
Paris, 1163-1250

      Organum duplum was often found as a composite of three forms of music. The first was the pre-existing form of plainchant, which was monophonic. In spite of all the new musical developments, plainchant remained the staple of services for hundred and hundreds of years. The second and third forms, which contrasted with the monophonic plainchant, were polyphonic (ie. Independent melodic lines; what we now think of as having harmony). 
      The second form was a new style called "discant style", which was very similar to parallel organum in that the chant line (the tenor) moved in approximately parallel motion at approximately the same rate. 
      The third form was the new "sustained-note style" in which the tenor would sing the chant line in extremely long notes, producing a sound that was almost a drone, against which the duplum (the second voice, sung in harmony by a soloist) would move freely and rapidly. One very interesting new development is that the original chant line, originally in the upper voice, was moved to the lower voice to sing this drone that was really more symbolic than recognisable. The new style greatly lengthened the entire work, since the whole chant (now in the lower voice, moving extremely slowly) still had to be sung in its entirety before any section would be complete. This was one reason that the new, slower-moving style of florid organum was alternated with the more brisk pace of discant style. The end result produced a balance between monophony and polyphony which was the hallmark of the Notre Dame Cathedral. 
      Two of the most significant innovations that occurred with the new "florid" organum were in actuality linked together: for the first time, we have evidence of a regular rhythmic pattern in the florid organa. This pattern roughly corresponds to what we now think of as 6/8 metre, with variations on the rhythm quarter note/ eighth note/ quarter note/ eighth note. Secondly, from this period we have evidence of some sort of percussion instrument, such as bells, which almost certainly would have been in use at this point. Some musicologists even feel that it is reasonable to assume that there might have been organs to double the chant (tenor) line. 

      A significant development around this time was the concept of writing down music as it was being written. Although this does not sound revolutionary, previous centuries of sacred music were written down (and only very vaguely at best) after the music had already been around for a while; it was very much a case of recording what was already in existence. It is perhaps an obvious point to make that the chant learned by rote and sent across the country in people's heads was much more likely (and did) change much more than music which was notated from the very beginning and then sent out in books. 
      Along with the concept of "composed" music rather than "inherited" music, so to speak, there begins to be a marked "ownership" of sacred compositions. Much of the earlier church music cannot be traced to specific composers. Indeed, ownership would have been a very tenuous affair at best, if possible at all. However, the rise of literacy also led to literate musicians, and we have for the first time a more static music that was not changed easily. Both Leonin and Perotin notated their music, and thus it survives today to be identified by the composer, rather than the simple "anon" we find with so many chants. 
      This written notation made the organization of polyphonic music much easier. Leonin and Perotin advanced the notion of six classified modes, all variations on the same rhythm. The rhythmic modes were used only in the newly-composed parts; the original chant line was left untouched. Thus there was a constant alternation between the free rhythmic movement of chant, and the regimented rhythm, possibly marked with bells, of organum duplum. 

Listening Example:
Leonin:Viderunt Omnes, c.1160-1170.
Performed by the The Early Music Consort of London, under David Munrow,
Released by Archiv Produktion.

Viderunt omnes fines terrae
Salutares Dei nostri.
Cantate Domino, canticum novum;
Quia miribilia fecit.
Viderunt omnes…
Salvavit sibi dextera ejus,
Et brachium sanctum ejus.
Viderunt omnes….

Trivia: Our word for the tenor line of a vocal ensemble comes from the tenor's original purpose, which was to sing the chant line, which, in the sustained-note style of organum duplum, would be in very long (ie. sustained) notes. Thus the word "tenor" is derived from the Latin verb "tenere", meaning "to hold". The tenor line was the most important of all, because it contained the original chant. It should be noted that at the time in history when the tenor line was actually performing this function, it was at the bottom of all the voices. 

3. ORGANUM QUADRUPLUM and the Notre Dame Cathedral
Paris, 1163-1250
Perotin: Viderunt Omnes

      Perotin expands on the idea of using multiple voice parts in a composition. He adds a third voice ("triplum") and a fourth voice ("quadruplum") to his music. As Leonin's talents lay in the virtuoso treatment of the solo voice, Perotin's strength was in the skillful manipulation of small choral forces. Organum quadruplum was much like organum duplum, except that it used harmony in four parts instead of two. (The four-part harmony was written all for male voices, and thus did not divide into the SATB four-part harmony that we recognize today). The original chant line was still present in the tenor voice, and because this line was deemed to be the most important, the other three voices were written to be consonant (pleasing to the ear) to the tenor line only. Little thought was given as to how the other three voices would sound together, which again is rather different from modern harmony, where the effect as a whole is generally the prime consideration. 
      The later organa could be quite lengthy, so composers used structural devices and melodic motives to organize the music into a less bewildering array for the listener. The use of melodic motives and unifying elements has remained throughout the ages and can be heard in symphonies today. 
      Organum was sung in different regions of France, and also in England, Spain, and Italy, but less extensively and in less highly developed forms than in Paris. However, in spite of all years of different musical innovations, most of the music for both Mass and the Offices was still monophonic chant. 

Listening Example:
Perotin: Viderunt Omnes, c.1198.
Performed by the Early Music Consort of London, under David Munrow,
Released by Archiv Produktion.

• Listen to the chant in the tenor line on the bottom- each syllable is so long that the chant resembles a drone

• Find the sections that have a regular metre; note the similarities to organum duplum

• The harmonies, now in four parts, are much more complex than anything previously heard. There may be occasional dissonances within the top three voices. 

Viderunt omnes fines terrae salutare Dei nostri:
(All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God):

Iubilate Deo omnis terra.
(All the earth shall rejoice in God).

Notum fecit Dominus salutare suum:
(The Lord has made known his salvation);

Ante compectum gentium revelavit iustitiam suam.
(Before the face of all the peoples He has revealed His righteousness).

      Music over the centuries tends to grow organically, with each new development springing from the still-beating heart of its predecessor. From one innovation springs another, and another, and eventually the original form becomes the "past" rather than "present", with the dates of existence blurry at best, and often assigned retroactively. 
Although plainchant was the springboard for many new forms, it managed to co-exist with all of them and to remain one of the most stoically enduring forms of music in the history of European civilisation. The four forms of music discussed in this chapter walk from monophonic chant to polyphonic, formally composed and rhythmically organised music. Although the new forms were interesting and musically beautiful, the church hung onto plainchant, and merely watched as the other forms enjoyed a transient popularity and then were replaced by the next innovation. For over a thousand years, in fact up until 1963 with a decision by the Vatican Council to promote only vernacular music, it was still possible to hear chant in the Roman Catholic Church in the original Latin. Few forms of music have remained so enduring and widespread in the face of constant growth. 

Go to Part II

Grout and Palisca, A History of western Music, 4th ed. W.W.Norton, New York, 1988. 
Joseph Machlis, The Enjoyment of Music, 5th ed. W.W.Norton, New York, 1984.
Gustave Reese, Music in the Middle Ages, W.W.Norton, New York, 1940.
K. Marie Stolba, The Development of Western Music, Wm.C.Brown Publishers, 
Dubuque, 1990.
David Wilson, Music of the Middle Ages, Schirmer Books, New York, 1990.