Chapter 2: Chant and Secular Song in the Middle Ages
Prelude. (CHWM 28–29)
Two large bodies of song survive from the Middle Ages: sacred plainchant (or chant), used in communal liturgy, and secular monophony. Both repertories are mostly monophonic and were first passed down from memory, before the development of musical notation. The repertory of chant was changed, expanded, and varied over time. While there were many types and forms of medieval song, the most artful songs outside of the Church were by troubadours and trouvères, poet-composers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
I. Western Christian Chant and Liturgy (CHWM 29–34, NAWM 3)
Chant was created for religious services and served as a source and inspiration for later music in the Western art tradition. The shape of each chant is determined by its role in the service.
There were two main types of liturgies in the early Christian church, the Office and the Mass. The texts of the liturgy are prescribed according to the church calendar.
- The Office
The Office consists of eight services celebrated at specified times each day. Offices feature the singing of psalms, each with an associated chant called an antiphon.
- The Mass
The Mass, the most important service of the Catholic Church, opens with introductory prayers and chants, continues with the Liturgy of the Word, and culminates in the Liturgy of the Eucharist (a reenactment of the Last Supper). The texts for the Proper of the Mass change from day to day. The texts of the Ordinary of the Mass are always the same, although the melodies may vary. Music: NAWM 3
- Oral transmission
At first, chant melodies were learned by oral transmission and were subject to change and variation.
A Closer Look: The Experience of the Mass
The Mass was instructional and inspirational for medieval believers, many of whom were illiterate. Music, sung by a priest, choir, and soloists, was used to evoke awe and to carry words through large, resonant worship spaces. The Mass begins with an introductory section (which includes the Introit, the Kyrie, and the Gloria). This is followed by the Liturgy of the Word (which includes the Gradual, the Alleluia or Tract, sometimes a sequence, and the Credo) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (which includes the Offertory, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, and the Communion).
- Notation of chant
Notation helped to standardize chant melodies and promote uniformity. From the ninth century until the close of the Middle Ages, all important developments in European music took place north of the Alps.
II. Genres and Forms of Chant (CHWM 34–42, NAWM 3 and 4)
Chants can be classified in several ways:
- By the type of text (biblical or nonbiblical, prose or poetry)
- By the manner of performance (antiphonal, responsorial, or direct)
- By musical style (syllabic, mainly one note per syllable; neumatic, one to seven notes per syllable; or melismatic, with many notes per syllable).
Most parts of the Mass and the Office are chanted to recitation formulas, and some are sung to fully formed melodies.
- Text setting
Chant melodies often reflect the inflection and rhythm of their words as well as their function in the liturgy.
- Melodic structure
Each melody divides into phrases and periods, following punctuation in the text. Phrases tend to be archlike, rising, sustaining, and then falling.
In Context: In the Monastic Scriptorium
Monasteries preserved music in manuscripts. A group of monks or nuns engaged in producing manuscripts was called a scriptorium. Scriptoria copied text and music, decorated and illustrated pages, and bound books. The entire process was laborious and very expensive.
- Chant forms
Chants have three main forms: two balanced phrases, as in a psalm verse; strophic form, as in hymns (NAWM 4b); and free form. Music: NAWM 4b
Chants of the Office
- Psalm tones
Psalm tones are formulas for chanting psalms. A psalm tone consists of an intonation, a recitation on the reciting tone or tenor, a median to mark the middle of the psalm verse, a continuation of the reciting tone, and a termination.
The Lesser Doxology, an expression of praise to the Trinity, is sung at the end of each psalm. Music: NAWM 4a
- Antiphonal psalmody
In antiphonal psalm singing, one choir sings the first half of each psalm verse, and another choir sings the second half.
Each psalm is paired with an antiphon, which is sung before and after the psalm. Office responsories begin with a choral respond, proceed with a soloist singing the psalm verse, and close with the respond.
Chants of the Mass Proper
- Introit and Communion
In the Mass, the Introit and Communion are antiphonal chants.
Music: NAWM 3a and 3j
- Gradual and Alleluia
The Gradual and Alleluia are responsorial chants, and are highly melismatic, with a single verse introduced or framed by a respond. Many Alleluias include matching phrases at the ends of sections. Music: NAWM 3d and 3e
- Responsorial performance
A soloist and choir alternate in responsorial performance.
Offertories are melismatic, like Graduals, but include only the respond. Music: NAWM 3g
Later Developments of the Chant
- Chants of the Ordinary
The Gloria and Credo have long texts and are mostly syllabic. The Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei have three-part sectional arrangements.
The Kyrie is usually performed antiphonally. New antiphons were introduced between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Music: NAWM 3b
Tropes expanded existing chants in three ways: adding new words and music; adding new music only; or adding new words only. Tropes flourished in the tenth and eleventh centuries; later they were banned by the Council of Trent (1545–1563). Music: NAWM 6
Sequences began as tropes in the ninth century, but quickly became independent compositions. All but a few sequences were eliminated from the liturgy by the Council of Trent. Music: NAWM 5
- Liturgical drama
Liturgical dramas also originated from troping. Music: NAWM 6
- Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) wrote both words and music for the sacred music drama Ordo virtutum (The Virtues, ca. 1151). Her life in a convent allowed her creative outlets and positions of leadership not afforded to women outside its walls. Music: NAWM 7
Biography: Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen entered a convent at the age of fourteen and in 1150 founded her own convent. She corresponded with many powerful men who were interested in her prophecies, and she set her own religious poetry to music. Her Ordo virtutum is the earliest surviving music drama not attached to the liturgy.
III. Medieval Music Theory and Practice (CHWM 42–44)
Treatises in the later Middle Ages addressed practical problems that Boethius did not, such as how to sing intervals, memorize chants, and read notes at sight.
- Church modes
Medieval theorists recognized eight modes, each defined by the arrangement of whole tones and semitones in relation to a final (Latin, finalis, usually the last note in a melody) and a range. Authentic modes have a range that runs up an octave from the final; plagal modes run from a fourth below the final to a fifth above it. Each mode also has a tenor, or reciting tone.
Guido of Arezzo (ca. 991–after 1033) devised solmization syllables to help singers recall where whole tones and semitones occur.
- The Guidonian hand
The Guidonian hand assigned a note to each joint of the left hand as a tool to teach notes and intervals.
- The staff
The musical staff allowed precise notation of pitch.
IV. Medieval Song (CHWM 44–50, NAWM 8, 9, 11, and 12)
- Goliard songs
Early forms of secular music (from the eleventh and twelfth centuries) include goliard songs, songs with Latin texts celebrating the vagabond lives of students and wandering clerics called goliards.
Jongleurs, or minstrels, made a living as traveling musicians and performers, on the margins of society. In the eleventh century, they organized brotherhoods, which later became guilds.
- Troubadours and trouvères
Troubadours (feminine: trobairitz) were poet-composers active in southern France in the twelfth century who spoke Provençal (or langue d’oc or Occitan). Their counterparts in northern France, called trouvères, spoke langue d’o•l, the ancestor of modern French, and remained active through the thirteenth century. Troubadours and trouvères flourished in castles and courts but came from a variety of social classes.
- Types of songs
The songs of both troubadours and trouvères have varied structures and topics. Many trouvère songs include a refrain, a segment of text that returns in each stanza with the same melody.
- Old Occitan lyric
Many Old Occitan lyrics have the topic of fine amour, a love in which a discreet, unattainable woman was adored from a distance.
- Bernart de Ventadorn
Bernart de Ventadorn (ca. 1150–ca. 1180), one of the most popular poets of his day, rose from a low status to consort with aristocrats. His song Can vei la lauzeta mover typifies fine amour. Music: NAWM 8
- Typical song structure
Troubadour and trouvère poems are strophic, and melodies are mostly syllabic with a range of an octave or less. Because of their notation, the rhythm of troubadour melodies is uncertain. Each line of a canso (love song) receives its own melodic phrase, and some phrases use repetition to create formal patterns.
- Beatriz de Día
Comtessa Beatriz de Día (d. ca. 1212) was a countess and a trobairitz, and her song A chantar shows a woman’s perspective of courtly love. Music: NAWM 9
The Minnesinger were knightly poet-composers in German lands of the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries. They often sang of idealized love (Minne) and utilized bar form: AAB. (A is called the Stollen, and B is called the Abgesang.) Minnesinger also wrote Crusade songs. Music: NAWM 11
In Context: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Her Courts of Love (CHWM 48)
Eleanor of Aquitaine (ca. 1122–1204) was a member of an aristocratic family, granddaughter of a troubadour, wife and mother of kings, and a patron of troubadours and trouvères.
Cantigas were Spanish monophonic songs with refrains. The most famous collection, Cantigas de Santa María, includes over four hundred cantigas in honor of the Virgin Mary. Music: NAWM 12