Music in Private and Public

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Music in Private and Public

Music for the Lower Classes.

Singing and playing musical instruments was one of the main forms of private entertainment, and the usual time for music making was in the evening, following dinner. Everyone sang, and from the literary accounts, it would seem that a large number also played musical instruments. For the lower levels of society—the peasants, small merchants, and artisans—most of this type of entertainment was home grown, meaning that they entertained one another. Professional instrumentalists would be hired only for special occasions such as weddings where, as images from manuscript illuminations and tapestries affirm, they played dance music.

Music in Wealthy Households.

The nobles and wealthier merchants also sang and played instruments, and it is clear that they too often performed for one another in a family setting after dinner. In addition, in contrast to the less affluent people, they often hired professional singers and instrumentalists who would entertain their dinner guests with songs and instrumental music during and after dinner. The distinction as to who performed on any given occasion, however, was not so finely drawn as in the modern world. The troubadour tradition that flourished between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries included noblemen as well as people of lower social levels, meaning that this highly demanding repertory of song was performed by both professionals and amateurs. Many of the wealthier aristocrats had a permanent staff of household musicians, but an evening's entertainment could just as easily include one of the nobles singing his own poetry while accompanying himself on a lute or harp. The duties of the palace and court musicians usually included teaching music to the children and, often, singing for daily Mass in the nobleman's private chapel, in addition to the performances of secular music at dinnertime.

Singing in the Cloisters.

Music within the monastery consisted of the daily celebration of the Mass and eight services spaced throughout each day known as the Office or the Hours. Most of these included the singing of chant, meaning that on ordinary days all of the monks sang for a total of several hours. On special days—Sundays, or special holy days (e.g. Easter)—the chants were particularly elaborate, and everyone processed through the halls of the monastery while singing. The earliest written music was the sacred plainchant of the church, which is found in a few manuscripts that date from the middle of the ninth century (see Notation, below). This body of works, as well as the bulk of all recorded compositions throughout the entire period, consists of sacred music intended for the various services of the Christian church.

Music in the Streets.

Music heard in the city streets took many forms. Songs and chants of the many daily sacred services wafted out of the churches that were located every few blocks. Many of the municipalities employed instrumental ensembles that provided music for the frequent civic ceremonial occasions that happened in public, and for public dancing as well as church celebrations. Wedding receptions included singing and dancing and often took place in a public square; minstrels played and sang in the plazas everywhere; and amateur and itinerant "vagabond" musicians were a common presence—and often a common nuisance—on the streets and in the taverns and barber shops of cities and villages in all regions. Laws imposing a curfew that limited the hours music could be made in public were established in most large communities. The frequency with which these prohibitions were reiterated, as well as the numerous judicial records of people fined for playing instruments such as a bagpipe or singing in the streets after curfew, suggests that the curfews were not always observed.

The Ceremonial Trumpet.

One of the most frequently heard instruments in public places all during the late medieval period was the trumpet. Because of its volume it performed a number of different functions, accompanying ceremonial occasions, celebrations, and military advances in the field. Trumpets, usually in sets of two, were the symbol of power and authority, a tradition inherited from ancient times. In every locale the political leaders and other powerful, wealthy men employed trumpet players as heralds to precede them whenever they went out in public, announcing their presence. These trumpets would often be made of silver with banners suspended from them emblazoned with the coat of arms of the lord or of the community, and the trumpeters wore livery, colorful costumes identifying them as the retainers of civic entities or wealthy lords. Public events, such as jousts, horse races, mock naval battles, and athletic contests, also employed trumpets to heighten the excitement and to signal the beginning and end of various activities. Trumpets were also used by the town criers, who often played from horseback, traveling from one neighborhood to the next where they would sound their trumpets to call the citizens together to hear the latest pronouncements, banishments, or sentences of deaths. In many cities there were watchmen on the towers looking for signs of fire, curfew violations, or an advancing enemy, who signaled their messages with trumpet calls. Both trumpets and drums were a staple of the military where they served to frighten the foe with their loud noise and also to sound attacks and retreats because they could be heard over the din of battle.


Howard Mayer Brown and Stanley Sadie, eds., Performance Practice; Music before 1600. The Norton/Grove Handbooks in Music (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).

Keith Polk, German Instrumental Music of the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992).