Music History 102:

The Middle Ages

The traditions of Western music can be traced back to the social and religious developments that took place in Europe during the Middle Ages, the years roughly spanning from about 500 to 1400 A.D. Because of the domination of the early Catholic Church during this period, sacred music was the most prevalent. Beginning with Gregorian Chant, sacred music slowly developed into a polyphonic music called organum performed at Notre Dame in Paris by the twelfth century. Secular music flourished, too, in the hands of the French trouvères and troubadours, until the period culminated with the sacred and secular compositions of the first true genius of Western music, Guillaume de Machaut.




Music had been a part of the world's civilizations for hundreds of years before the Middle Ages. Primitive cave drawings, stories from the Bible, and Egyptian heiroglyphs all attest to the fact that people had created instruments and had been making music for centuries.

medieval art image of Greek Muse The word music derives from the ancient Greek muses, the nine goddesses of art and science. The first study of music as an art form dates from around 500 B.C., when Pythagoras experimented with acoustics and the mathematical relationships of tones. In so doing, Pythagoras and others established the Greek modes: scales comprised of whole tones and half steps.

With the slow emergence of European society from the dark ages between the fall of the Roman empire and the predominance of the Catholic Church, dozens of "mini-kingdoms" were established all over Europe, each presided over by a lord who had fought for and won the land. Mostly through superstitious fear, early Catholic leaders were able to claim absolute power over these feudal lords. The Church was able to dictate the progress of arts and letters according to its own strictures and employed all the scribes, musicians and artists. At this time, western music was almost the sole property of the Catholic Church.




sheet music of Gregorian chant

Gregorian Chant

The early Christian church derived their music from existing Jewish and Byzantine religious chant. Like all music in the Western world up to this time, plainchant was monophonic: that is, it comprised a single melody without any harmonic support or accompaniment. The many hundreds of melodies are defined by one of the eight Greek modes, some of which sound very different from the major/minor scales our ears are used to today. The melodies are free in tempo and seem to wander melodically, dictated by the Latin liturgical texts to which they are set. As these chants spread throughout Europe , they were embellished and developed along many different lines in various regions and according to various sects. It was believed that Pope Gregory I (reigned 590-604) codified them during the sixth-century, establishing uniform usage throughout the Western Catholic Church. Although his actual contribution to this enormous body of music remains unknown, his name has been applied to this music, and it is known as Gregorian Chant.

Gregorian chant remains among the most spiritually moving and profound music in Western culture. An idea of its pure, floating melody can be heard in the Easter hymn Victimae paschali laudes.

Many years later, composers of Renaissance polyphony very often used plainchant melodies as the basis for their sacred works.




Notre Dame and the Ars Antiqua

Sometime during the ninth century, music theorists in the Church began experimenting with the idea of singing two melodic lines simultaneously at parallel intervals, usually at the fourth, fifth, or octave. The resulting hollow-sounding music was called organum and very slowly developed over the next hundred years. By the eleventh century, one, two (and much later, even three) added melodic lines were no longer moving in parallel motion, but contrary to each other, sometimes even crossing. The original chant melody was then sung very slowly on long held notes called the tenor (from the Latin tenere, meaning to hold) and the added melodies wove about and embellished the resulting drone.

This music thrived at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and much later became known as the Ars Antiqua, or the "old art." The two composers at Notre Dame especially known for composing in this style are Léonin (fl. ca. 1163-1190), who composed organa for two voices, and his successor Pérotin (fl. early13th century), whose organa included three and even four voices. Pérotin's music is an excellent example of this very early form of polyphony (music for two or more simultaneously sounding voices), as can be heard in his setting of Sederunt principes.

This music was slowly supplanted by the smoother contours of the polyphonic music of the fourteenth century, which became known as the Ars Nova.




medieval painting of troubadours around a fountain

The Trouvères and the Troubadours

Popular music, usually in the form of secular songs, existed during the Middle Ages. This music was not bound by the traditions of the Church, nor was it even written down for the first time until sometime after the tenth century. Hundreds of these songs were created and performed (and later notated) by bands of musicians flourishing across Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, the most famous of which were the French trouvères and troubadours. The monophonic melodies of these itinerant musicians, to which may have been added improvised accompaniments, were often rhythmically lively. The subject of the overwhelming majority of these songs is love, in all its permutations of joy and pain. One of the most famous of these trouvères known to us (the great bulk of these melodies are by the ubiquitous "Anonymous") is Adam de la Halle (ca. 1237-ca. 1286). Adam is the composer of one of the oldest secular music theater pieces known in the West, Le Jeu de Robin et Marion. He has also been identified as the writer of a good many songs and verses, some of which take the form of the motet, a piece in which two or more different verses (usually of greatly contrasted content and meter) are fit together simultaneously, without regard to what we now consider conventional harmonies. Such a piece is De ma dame vient! by this famous trouvère.

Although secular music was undoubtedly played on instruments during the Middle Ages, instrumental dance music didn't come into its own until the later Renaissance.




medieval art image

Guillaume de Machaut and the Ars Nova

Born: Champagne region of France, ca. 1300
Died: Rheims, 1377

Having had a clerical education and taken Holy orders, Machaut's career as a poet and composer took flight when he joined the court of John, Duke of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia around 1323, serving as the king's secretary until that monarch's death in battle at Crécy in 1346. Sometime before this, Machaut had settled in Rheims where he remained until his death, serving as canon in the cathedral there. His services as a composer were sought out by important patrons, including the future Charles V of France. His poetry was known throughout Europe and his admirers included Geoffrey Chaucer. Machaut is probably best remembered for being the first composer to create a polyphonic setting of the Ordinary of the Catholic Mass (the Ordinary being those parts of the liturgy that do not change, including the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei). The new style of the fourteenth century, dubbed the Ars Nova by composers of the period, can be heard in the "Gloria" from Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame. This new polyphonic style caught on with composers and paved the way for the flowering of choral music in the Renaissance.

Although today the Mass is probably his best-known work, Machaut also composed dozens of secular love songs, also in the style of the polyphonic "new art." These songs epitomize the courtly love found in the previous century's vocal art, and capture all the joy, hope, pain and heartbreak of courtly romance. The secular motets of the Middle Ages eventually evolved into the great outpouring of lovesick lyricism embodied in the music of the great Renaissance Madrigalists.

Guillaume de Machaut is the first composer in Western music history who seemed to be conscious of his artistic achievements and of his place in history. To assure that place, Machaut saw to it that his work was painstakingly copied and artfully illustrated, the first known example of a composer thus preserving his own work for posterity.




Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane