Musical Performance

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Musical Performance

Music Everywhere.

During the Carolingian era—that is, the age of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne and his dynasty (eighth to tenth century)—and continuing through the late Middle Ages, the sound of music was, quite literally, everywhere. Music was so much a basic part of everyday life that it would be difficult to discuss many significant daily events or activities without noting its presence. From the nobles at the highest level of society to the simple peasants who worked the land and the monks who lived in the isolation of monasteries, music, in its various forms, served as one of the stable elements in their lives. It rang in the banquet halls and private chambers of the palaces of the wealthy nobles, resounded through the monastic cloisters and in the churches, and echoed in the streets and taverns of the cities and villages. Music served to mark the presence of nobles in public, it accompanied the tasks of the workers in the field, and it was an inseparable part of the many hours each monk spent daily in the worship of God. And for everyone, the sound of songs and music for dance filled the leisure hours.

Lost Evidence.

What has survived over the centuries is only a pale reflection of the quantity and variety of music that flourished during the early centuries, and, unfortunately, this material represents only certain parts of the repertory—that is, the entire body of works available for performance. Almost completely lost is the music of the lower classes—the songs they sang in the fields, around the hearth, and in the village inns, as well as the dance tunes they sang and played. All of their repertory was learned by ear and passed on in the same manner; nothing was written down. Music of the upper classes—the nobles, and, later, the merchants, teachers, doctors, and lawyers in the developing middle class—fares a bit better since that level of society could read and write and could afford to have written copies made of their favorite repertory, although what remains is rather fragmentary and quite incomplete. Largest by far is the surviving music of the Christian church that comes down to us in thousands of manuscripts that preserve the music that accompanied the weekly Mass in the larger churches and the daily ceremonies in the many monasteries that dotted the landscape all over Europe. The Latin Church was highly organized and had a more or less uniform body of works that was written down and distributed throughout Europe and preserved in church archives through the centuries. For secular society there is a far smaller body of preserved evidence.

The Written Record.

The beginning of the Carolingian Era almost exactly coincides with the earliest written music, and therefore it is possible to obtain an actual sound image of some of the repertory that dates back to the very beginning of the period. But the earliest manuscripts are all from churches and monasteries, meaning that they record only sacred music; manuscripts containing secular music did not appear until the twelfth century. By supplementing the surviving music with information gained from literary accounts, archival documents, personal letters, diaries, and iconography, some of the missing pieces can be filled in, providing a general impression of how music functioned in late medieval society.

Musical Terms

Cyclic: A composition of several movements that are related by the use of some of the same material.

Harmony: The result of two or more notes sounding at the same time.

Isorhythm: A rhythmic pattern that is imposed on a melody and repeated exactly throughout the length of the composition.

Mensural signs: Symbols that indicate tempo and rhythmic subdivisions.

Monophony (mono = one; phony = sound): Music of one part, either a solo song or a single melody performed by more than one person or instrument.

Motet: A polyphonic composition with more than one text.

Motiv: A short passage of music (as short as three notes) that is repeated.

Organum: An early, fairly simple type of polyphony. There are several different types, including one in which the voices sing the same melody at different pitches (known as "parallel organum"). Other varieties include the addition of an upper part over an already-existing melody (that is, a tenor). The upper part usually moves faster than the tenor.

Polyphony (poly = several): Music of more than one part, each musical line having a separate rhythmic and melodic profile.

Substitute clausula: A new section of polyphonic music intended to replace an old one.

Tempo: The speed of the composition.

Tenor: A melody borrowed from another composition and used as a guide for the structure of new polyphonic lines. Sometimes these notes are held as long notes (tenere = to hold).

A Culture of Singing.

A great variety of musical instruments—plucked, hammered, and blown—populated the medieval world, adding their sounds to most formal and informal occasions. There is little doubt, however, that the vast majority of music heard and performed during this period was vocal. Everyone sang, and most of the occasions for music involved singing, including music for dance. The daily activities of monks in the monasteries revolved around the chanting of prayers every few hours, and for those who lived outside of monasteries, singing was the most common form of entertainment and relaxation. The professional musicians also were mainly singers; the minstrels who entertained in the village squares, the inns, and the courts had vast repertories of songs of all types. Even the narrator of heroic poetry, the teller of tales, often performed his verses by improvising a melody while accompanying himself with an instrument. In the later centuries of the Middle Ages the wealthier courts employed resident musicians who sang both the traditional chant and the new polyphonic music in the chapels, as well as entertaining their noble patrons with songs and instrumental music at dinnertime and on all festive occasions.

Voices and Instruments.

In striking contrast to modern practices, the combination of musical instruments with voices was found in only certain circumstances. Solo singers often accompanied themselves, usually with a lute or a harp, and on extremely festive occasions, massed instruments and singers would march in procession through the city streets. Chant, however, was performed only vocally, and the common practice for the performance of polyphonic music—that is, music with multiple parts—was totally by instruments or totally by voices, but rarely a combination of the two. In church an organ would be used to play processions or devotional music, but it performed in alternation with the choir, never at the same time. Further, the choir as a whole usually was restricted to singing monophonic chant. Polyphonic music, no matter what the repertory, sacred or secular, was usually sung by an ensemble of soloists. Choir performance of polyphonic music, meaning several voices on each musical part, was not part of the performance tradition during this period. A mixture of voices and instruments in a polyphonic performance did not become standard practice until the sixteenth century.


Christopher Page, Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages (London: J. M. Dent, 1987).