Early Music - Medieval or Middle Ages
Early Music is a generic term
for any music written before 1400-1450, in other words, during the "Middle
Ages". One notable architectural style belonging to the middle Ages
is Gothic, and the photo on the left is of Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England.
Building of this Gothic masterpiece commenced in 1174. The middle ages are sometimes described as the 'dark ages', because
the western world was embroiled in wars, mass migrations of peoples from one
land to another, and a lack of stability. Most people were peasants, with no
education, unable to read or write. A few were kings and nobles, feudally ruling
their subject serfs, although many in this ruling class were equally illiterate.
And lastly, there was a very substantial number of clerics, belonging to the
Roman Catholic Church. These people were fairly well-off compared to the
peasants, and they were the only people who could read and write. It is not
surprising that they were also the only people who wrote down any music.
Of course there were minstrels who roamed the country singing at village
fairs, or who were employed at the courts of the nobility. But their traditional
music was passed on from generation to generation without ever being written
down, so we have very little knowledge of the secular popular music of this
period. From paintings we know that lutes, pipes and drums were used by
minstrels to accompany their singing.
Some church music from the Middle Ages has survived in notated form from this period.
One such example is the plainsong Alleluia from the Catholic mass
for Epiphany. You may click on the row below to hear this. Most church music
from this period is vocal, but the organ was
increasingly employed in churches as the period progressed. The church frowned
on other instruments being used in religious services, because they had
been used in pre-Christian pagan ceremonies.
Most written music from this period is monophonic chant, called plainsong,
or Gregorian chant.
It consisted of parts of the Catholic Mass sung in Latin, by voices all in
unison, with very little defined rhythm, and the melody moving up and down over
a narrow range of pitches, a step at a time. Around 800 AD some monks added a
second melodic line at a fixed interval of a fifth
above the original chant. This was called organum. Later around
1100 this upper part started to be performed with variations in the interval
above the bass chant, and at a faster tempo. The lower part was called the cantus
firmus. The intervals above this still tended to be perfect fourths
and fifths, which to today's ears have a hollow sound, but they were an exciting
innovation in their day. Thirds
were banned by the church, because they had a luscious sound, condemned by the
church authorities as "lascivious".