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AO Music Term Two 2004-2005

AmblesideOnline Music Term Two 2004-2005

Medieval Era Music

Some Diverse and Sundry Music Study Notes
by Lynn Bruce and Wendi Capehart

First, before we dive into our comments on the new Term 2 music selections, we'd like to offer a glimpse of the rationale behind the decision to revise this term's music study. The Advisory determined that we simply cannot do justice to Medieval and Renaissance music by squeezing them both into a single term, as was previously suggested in our tentative 12-year rotation. Therefore, Term 2's focus is Medieval music. We are designing a later term dedicated to Renaissance music. The "Early Music Festival" CD previously listed as a possible choice will not be used this term. (If you purchased it already, you will still find it useful when you're ready to explore Renaissance music, and we would encourage you to go ahead and enjoy it now regardless!)

More importantly, we felt the originally suggested term study, which was almost entirely devoted to secular music, did not reflect the profound and far-reaching cultural influence the Medieval church had on musical creative output throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and well beyond. All that to say, we feel this era is too important musically to simply gloss over. So we went back to the drawing board and started all over... and honestly, we can't recall a music term that we've labored over more carefully nor for more hours than this one!

This term's study of Medieval music covers both sacred and secular selections, but with a predominate focus on music of the church. We highly recommend all three of the following CDs for a well-rounded and representative study of Medieval music, as we feel these particular recordings offer a musically excellent, historically authentic, delightful experience with music of this era (and we waded through mountains of mediocre recordings to get to these). If your budget won't allow for all three at once, please consider purchasing one each month of the term. Of the enormous selection of medieval era recordings we previewed, we feel these are superior quality CDs which you are most likely to enjoy having in your family music library long after this term is over. We offer further comments about these selections below. All are available for sampling at .


Best Option: Three CDs, one per month

1. "A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen" featuring Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices; Hyperion label.

2. "Salve Regina -- Gregorian Chant" by Benedictine Monks of Saint-Maurice and Saint Maur of Clervaux; Philips label, Silver Line Classics series.

3. "A Dance In the Garden of Mirth: Medieval Instrumental Music" by the Dufay Collective; Chandos label.


Alternate Option: We searched high and low for a one-cd option, but it's well nigh impossible to locate a single disk with even marginally adequate coverage of both sacred and secular medieval music. However, after many days of research, we did find one lovely, rich disc:

"Miri It Is" by the Dufay Collective; Chandos label. This CD's 20 tracks cover a variety of medieval music. This disc also includes Summer Is Come (also known as "Sumer is icumen in"), a must for medieval folk music. In a perfect world, we'd list this CD *in addition to* the three main CD suggestions above rather than *instead of*, but we'll leave it to you to decide where to stop. <G> If you choose to purchase only this CD, we do urge you to check your library for Gregorian chant and Hildegard of Bingen selections to supplement your study.

A Little Disclaimer Just In Case:

Secular Medieval lyrics were often earthy if not bawdy, and we rejected several CDs on that criteria alone. [We thoroughly sampled "Miri It Is" at Amazon and heard nothing worrisome, but we have not yet heard all the lyrics nor read the liner notes in the CD booklet in their entirety.] In our search, we discovered a number of recordings that were not obviously bawdy when heard in a foreign language, but the English translations of the lyrics in the CD liner notes contained objectionable material. Please preview liner notes and lyrics of any secular Medieval recordings you use BEFORE your children hear and/or read them.


Now then, a word about the main three CD selections and why they're essential and exemplary, followed by some websites for further study about early music . . .

1. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen was one of the most important musicians of the age, writing over 70 songs and many musical spiritual plays. She was head of an abbey, an accomplished healer, pursued a lifelong interest in science and physiology, and wrote many theological works -- clearly an unusually accomplished woman for her era or any other. Any worthy study of Medieval music simply must include her. A nice biographical sketch is here: . The CD recommended features the remarkable soprano Emma Kirkby, who specializes in authentic performance of historical music. Her interpretation of Hildegard's hymns and plainchant is ethereal and transporting. (We will be recommending her recordings again for Renaissance and possibly the Baroque era as well.) She is joined on this CD by Gothic Voices, who are also brilliant performers of sacred medieval music. Be aware that there are scores of recordings of Hildegard of Bingen of late, and while there are a few other good ones out there, her name has unfortunately become a marketing tool for New Age musicians whose recordings are very loosely based on her work and not historical. The Kirkby CD, however, is completely authentic and very beautiful, and thought by many to be the best Hildegard recording available.

2. Gregorian chant is also essential for any study of medieval music. As we searched for the best chant CD among the immense selection available, we began to clearly hear how important the recording location is for this form of music. Chant is peculiarly site-specific, and peculiarly experiential; in other words, it was meant to be sung in a sanctuary as a corporate act of worship. A recording studio will simply never capture the lofty atmospherics of a monastery. Therefore, we particularly wanted a live recording of monks chanting in worship on location -- actually praying, not performing. "Salve Regina" is just that, and this makes it stand out miles ahead of the other recordings we previewed. Another plus: it was recorded in the 1960's, long before the chant craze of the 1990's came along and turned chant into yet another New Age marketer's boondoggle. We are very, very pleased with this disc! You can actually hear the belfry bells calling the monks into the sanctuary, and on one track you can hear a bird singing outside. Can't get more authentic than that. Plus, the singing is just beautiful. We anticipate enjoying this CD for years to come.

3. We found the Medieval dance CD just when we had almost despaired of finding a worthy, usable suggestion for secular music. It's fun and delightful. The Dufay Collective specializes in period instruments, and they are known for doing solid historical research. These lively instrumental tunes provide just the right contrast and balance for the more somber and meditative sacred selections, which are all vocal. We think you'll have fun with this one!


We agree with many music historians that the church was leading the culture in terms of musical output and progress in the Medieval age (as opposed to merely imitating or following the culture musically), and therefore sacred music is our primary focus for the term. The one category lacking in these three disks is secular vocal music -- plain old folk songs (however, there are some on the alternate "Miri It Is" CD). We eliminated so many secular vocal CDs due to bits of bawdiness here and there that we finally chose to focus on instrumental dance tunes instead. You may of course choose to explore the secular vocal genre on your own.

We encourage users to check local libraries for Medieval music selections. Many libraries have Gregorian Chant recordings (however, please beware of modern recordings that blend chant with synthesizers and modern instrumental arrangements, as these have very little to do with authentic medieval chant). There are also quite a number of used copies of the selected recordings available through Amazon at discounted prices.


We encourage you to learn how music developed during this pivotal era. Just a little digging, and soon you'll be tossing off words like plainchant, monophony, polyphony and organum with ease and authority, and identifying these styles as you listen to your recordings. <G> Truly, it is fascinating to see how musical styles progressed from the single, simple melody line to the use of complicated harmonic styles over the course of the Medieval age.
A collection of links for: General Early Music Sites -- Texts, Scores, Audio Files, etc. Music Theory in the Middle Ages and Renaissance Catalogs and Indices of Manuscripts, Bibliographies Gregorian Chant Instruments and Instrumental Music
Scholarly read, very useful link, recommended.
Information on local early music festivals and performances. Be sure to check your local area!


We hope you enjoy this term as much as we've enjoyed researching it!

Lynn Bruce and Wendi Capehart on behalf of the Advisory