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Music History - Medieval Music
(1600-1750)

The Middle Ages in music is an immense period stretching from the first years of the Christian era to the early years of the 15th century. The most highly developed theoretical discussions from ancient times were those of the Greeks. Scholars such as Boethius passed these on to the Middle Ages in the 6th century. In the practical sphere, however, only a few pieces of Greek music have survived, and none by the Romans. The earliest plainsong in notated form dates only from the 9th to 10th centuries. Ancient Jewish music undoubtedly formed the basis of the recitation tones used for the psalms, and hymnody dates back to the time of St. Ambrose in the 4th century. But many of the antiphons and responds, as well as the ornate melodies of the Mass ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus), were products of the later Middle Ages, from the 11th century on.

At first there were many differing but related repertories of plainsong: the most important were the Old Roman, the Ambrosian in Milan, the Gallican in France, and the Mozarabic in Spain. Their unification and crystallization in Gregorian chant took place through the efforts of the Frankish kings and the Papal court in Rome, apparently starting in the 8th century. Few traces of the Gallican chant exist today, whereas the Ambrosian repertory is still used in Milan. Mozarabic chant was superceded in the 11th century.

The impact of the church on all other music of the Middle Ages cannot be overestimated. Manuscripts were usually written by clerics, and therefore little secular music was preserved apart from a few songs in Latin. The first important secular music in the vernacular was the troubadour song in the Provencial language. From its beginnings in the 11th century, troubadour song influenced many other countries for some 200 years, especially northern France, where trouveres contributed a large repertory of music. Only about 300 pieces are preserved with music by the troubadours, but about 1,700 by the trouveres. The height of troubadour skill was reached about 1200 with Bernart de Ventadorn, Guirat de Bornelh, and Folquet de Marseille. Bernart is famous for his texts dealing with unrequited love. Some of the verse forms anticipate the 14th century ballade with its 3 stanzas of 7 or 8 lines. Others have texts dealing with the Crusades, or with a dispute about some amorous trifle. The pastourelle, found in both troubadour and trouvere literature, tells a conventional story in several stanzas about a knight and shepherdess. Dance songs like the rondeau and virelai are also found in these repertories. All this monophonic music may have been accompanied at times by a fiddle or a wind instrument. It was not until the 14th century that secular song became regularly polyphonic.

Sacred music is found written in two to four parts from the 9th century; at first it consisted mainly of doubling a melody (usually plainsong) at the fourth, fifth or octave. The first important collection of this so-called "organum" was the Winchester Troper of the early 11th century, containing nearly 200 two-part settings of solo chants. In the St. Martial repertoire of the 12th century can be seen the origins of the classic Notre Dame style. Two-part writing is still the rule, but in the more expansive Notre Dame style, three (and even four) parts are not uncommon. The leading composer were Leonin and Perotin, who wrote the big four-part organa, as well as some in three parts. In the composition of motets, St. Martial composers led the way, followed by those of Notre Dame. Motets in both Latin and French became the most important polyphonic form of the 13th century.

In other countries, French models were imitated, In Spain, manuscripts from Burgos and Toledo testify to the importance of the Notre Dame repertory. The monophonic cantigas reveal a more individual trend in 13th-century songcraft - although, like the Italian laude, they are addressed to the Virgin Mary. English composers followed the lead of the French in important centers like the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds and the cathedral of St. Paul in London. The technique of canon was used in the famous four-part canon, "Sumer is icumen" in over two harmonically organized bass parts.

In the 14th century, often called the period of Ars Nova (in contrast to the 13th-century Ars Antigua), polyphony flourished in vernacular song. The leading composer was the Frenchman Guillaume e Machaut, who produced a large body of mainly three-part ballades and rondeaux, occasionally venturing into two and four parts. This virelais and lais are mainly monophonic. A major achievement of the Ars Nova was a move from primarily triple time to the modern variety of measures, mainly 3/4, 6/8 , 2/4 and 9/8. In Italy, the 14th century began with the cultivation of the two-part madrigal. Instruments such as the fiddle, portative organ, shawm and small harp were widely used. French influence became stronger as the century progressed, and virelai-like ballata was predominant in the work of Francesco Landini, the most prolific Italian composer of the Ars Nova. In both France and Italy, the music at the end of the century was marked by increased rhythmic complexity, helped by the development of notation and the use of syncopation.

In England, polyphony continued to be mainly sacred, borrowing from France the technique of the isorhythmic motet and the chanson. During the first half of the 15th century, however, French domination was challenged for the first time by the novel harmonies and smooth melodic lines of John Dunstable and his contemporaries. Their influence on the continent and the great works of Guillaume Dufay led to a new art culminating in the classic choral polyophony of Josquin des Prez.

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