Medieval Era Music

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

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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.

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.

Best Option: Three CDs, one per month

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.

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

2. "Secret Voices: Chant and Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex, c. 1300" by Anonymous 4 ($amzn)

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

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. ($amzn) 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. :-) If you choose to purchase only this CD, we do urge you to check your library and YouTube for Gregorian chant 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. Gregorian chant (or plainchant for solo voice; 1000-1100) is 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.

2. Secret Voices: Chant and Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex, c. 1300 by Anonymous 4 covers later medieval sacred music. This is a beautiful CD sung by the ladies who make up "Anonymous 4."

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.

Further Medieval Music Study Helps

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. :-) 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.

Medieval Life and Times includes a music page that explains the different types of music and instruments in the medieval era.

Sharon Spanogle's Medieval Web Site - 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.

Early Music Concerts & Festivals - 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

Updated for 2016 with the help of Megan Hoyt

Video Links

This is just a sample of composers from the medieval era, or Middle Ages, which spanned hundreds of years (400-1400 AD). Note the progression of musical style, starting with one voice and one tune being heard at a time, and getting more complex with time. YouTube links are marked with an asterisk *

      Otfrid von Weissenburg 800-870 AD * *
      Guido da Arezzo 991-1030's? *
      Hermann of Reichenau (Hermannus Contractus) 1013-1054 * *
      Adam of Saint Victor 1068-1146 * *
      Arnaut de Mareuil 1140-1200 *
      Gautier de Coincy 1177-1236 * *
      Konrad von Wurzburg 1230-1287 * *
      Adam de la Halle 1237-1288 * *
      Guillaume de Machaut 1300-1377 * * *
      Andrea da Firenze 13??-1415 *
      Arnold de Lantins 1420's * *
      Guillaume Dufay 1397-1474 * *

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