Medieval music encompasses the sacred and secular music of Western Europe during the Middle Ages, from approximately the 6th to 15th centuries. It is the first and longest major era of Western classical music and followed by Renaissance music; the two eras comprise what musicologists generally refer to as early music, preceding the common-practice period. Following the traditional division of the Middle Ages, medieval music can be divided into Early (500–1150), High (1000–1300), and Late (1300–1400) medieval music.

Medieval music includes vocal music, such as Gregorian chant (sung by monks during Catholic Mass), and choral music (music for a group of singers), instrumental music and music that uses both voices and instruments (typically with the instruments accompanying the voices). Rooted in the patronage of churches and royal courts in Western Europe, surviving early medieval music is chiefly religious, monophonic and vocal, with the music of ancient Greece and Rome influencing its thought and theory.

During the medieval period the foundation was laid for the music notation and music theory practices that would shape Western music into the norms that developed during the common-practice period of shared music writing practices which encompassed the Baroque era (1600–1750), Classical era (1750–1820) and Romantic era (1800–1910). The most significant of these is the development of a comprehensive music notational system which enabled composers to write out their song melodies and instrumental pieces on parchment or paper. Prior to the development of musical notation, songs and pieces had to be learned “by ear”, from one person who knew a song to another person. This greatly limited how many people could be taught new music and how far music could spread to other regions or countries. The development of music notation made it easier to disseminate songs and musical pieces to a larger number of people and to a wider geographic area. However the theoretical advances, particularly in regard to rhythm—the timing of notes—and polyphony—using multiple, interweaving melodies at the same time—are equally important to the development of Western music.

Early Medieval Music (500-1150)

Chant (or plainsong) is a monophonic sacred form which represents the earliest known music of the Christian church. Chant developed separately in several European centers. Although the most important were Rome, Hispania, Gaul, Milan, and Ireland, there were others as well. These styles were all developed to support the regional liturgies used when celebrating the Mass. Each area developed its own chant and rules for celebration.

Around the end of the 9th century, singers in monasteries such as St. Gall in Switzerland began experimenting with adding another part to the chant, generally a voice in parallel motion, singing mostly in perfect fourths or fifths above the original tune. This development is called organum and represents the beginnings of counterpoint and, ultimately, harmony. Over the next several centuries, organum developed in several ways.

Another musical tradition of Europe originating during the early Middle Ages was the liturgical drama (forms of dramatic performance that use stories from the Bible and other Christian literature), which developed, possibly in the 10th century, from the tropes—poetic embellishments of the liturgical texts.

Composers of the Early Medieval Ages

medieval music
Notker in an 11th century manuscript, probably from Saint Gall.

Notker the Stammerer (c. 840 – 6 April 912), Notker Balbulus, or simply Notker, was a Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Saint Gall in modern-day Switzerland. Described as “a significant figure in the Western Church”, Notker made substantial contributions to both the music and literature of his time. The anonymous pieces 4-6 included in the playlist originate from the St. Gall manuscripts held in the Abbey library of Saint Gall and were composed around the same time as Notker’s. Audi, benigne conditor is a Lenten hymn formerly attributed to Pope Gregory the Great, but now dated as late as the early ninth century. It was composed either in Italy or in Gaul and appears in many tenth century manuscripts from those areas, as well as in numerous German and English manuscripts of the following century.

1. Natus ante saecula
2. Ex numero frequentium – Quasi quid incredibile – Qui vobis terrigenis
3. Occidentana

4. Dies Sanctificatus
5. Romana
6. Mater
7. Audi, benigne conditor

Fulbert de Chartres (952–970–10 April 1028) French or Italian, Bishop of Chartres in France from 1006 to 1028 and a teacher at the Cathedral school there.

8.    De luscinia

9.    O lylium convallium (Italy – 10th Century)
10.  In omnem terram (St. Gall c. 922-926)
11.  Alleluja,v Cantabant sancti (France – 2nd half of 11th century)

Peter Abelard (c. 1079 – 21 April 1142) was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, leading logician, theologian, poet, composer and musician.

12. O quanta qualia (composed after 1130)

Hildegard von Bingen (c. 1098 – 17 September 1179) was a German Benedictine abbess active as a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, and medical writer and practitioner during the High Middle Ages. She is one of the best-known composers of sacred monophony, as well as the most recorded in modern history.

Attention in recent decades to women of the medieval Catholic Church has led to a great deal of popular interest in Hildegard’s music. In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, sixty-nine musical compositions, each with its own original poetic text, survive, and at least four other texts are known, though their musical notation has been lost. This is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers.

One of her better-known works, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), is a morality play. It is uncertain when some of Hildegard’s compositions were composed, though the Ordo Virtutum is thought to have been composed as early as 1151. It is an independent Latin morality play with music (82 songs); it does not supplement or pay homage to the Mass or the Office of a certain feast. It is, in fact, the earliest known surviving musical drama that is not attached to a liturgy.

In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, Hildegard composed many liturgical songs that were collected into a cycle called the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum. The songs from the Symphonia are set to Hildegard’s own text and range from antiphons, hymns, and sequences, to responsories. Her music is monophonic and its style has been said to be characterized by soaring melodies that can push the boundaries of traditional Gregorian chant and to stand outside the normal practices of monophonic monastic chant. Another feature of Hildegard’s music that both reflects the twelfth-century evolution of chant, and pushes that evolution further, is that it is highly melismatic, often with recurrent melodic units.

13. Ordo Virtutum: Prologue
14. Ordo Virtutum: Epilogue
15. Laus Trinitati
16. Ave generosa
17. O quam magnum miraculum est
18. O Frondens Virga
19. O ignis Spiritus Paraclitus
20. Sequentia O, Jerusalem, aurea civitas
21. Antiphona O, tu illistrata
22. Antiphon O, quam mirabilis est
23. Antiphona, O coruscan lux 68 (IV). Psalmus 10: In Domino confido
24. Conductus flos in monte cernitu


High Medieval Music (1000–1300)

The flowering of the Notre Dame school of polyphony from around 1150 to 1250 corresponded to the equally impressive achievements in Gothic architecture: indeed the centre of activity was at the cathedral of Notre Dame itself. Sometimes the music of this period is called the Parisian school, or Parisian organum, and represents the beginning of what is conventionally known as Ars antiqua. This was the period in which rhythmic notation first appeared in western music, mainly a context-based method of rhythmic notation known as the rhythmic modes.

This was also the period in which concepts of formal structure developed which were attentive to proportion, texture, and architectural effect. Composers of the period alternated florid and discant organum (more note-against-note, as opposed to the succession of many-note melismas against long-held notes found in the florid type), and created several new musical forms: clausulae, which were melismatic sections of organa extracted and fitted with new words and further musical elaboration; conductus, which were songs for one or more voices to be sung rhythmically, most likely in a procession of some sort; and tropes, which were additions of new words and sometimes new music to sections of older chant. All of these genres save one were based upon chant; that is, one of the voices, (usually three, though sometimes four) nearly always the lowest (the tenor at this point) sang a chant melody, though with freely composed note-lengths, over which the other voices sang organum. The exception to this method was the conductus, a two-voice composition that was freely composed in its entirety. The motet, one of the most important musical forms of the high Middle Ages and Renaissance, developed initially during the Notre Dame period out of the clausula, especially the form using multiple voices as elaborated by Pérotin.

Composers of the High Medieval Ages

Pérotin  (fl.c. 1200) was a composer associated with the Notre Dame school of polyphony in Paris and the broader ars antiqua musical style of high medieval music. He is credited with developing the polyphonic practices of his predecessor Léonin, with the introduction of three and four-part harmonies.

25. Mors a primi patris/Mors, que stimulo/Mors morsu nata/Mors
26. Feast of St. Stephen: Sederunt principes – Adiuva me, Domine (à 4) (Gradual)
27. Chose Tassin (Tassinus – 13th century – France – arr. Doron D. Sherwin)

28. Nobilis humilis Magne martir (12th century – Orkney)
29. En mort d’En Joan de Cucanh (1272 – Italy)
30. Aucuns vont/ Amor qui cor/Kyrie (13th century – France)
31. Edi beo thu, hevene quene (13th century – England)
32. Iam nubes dissolvitur/Iam novum sydus oritur/Solem (13th century – France)
33. Porta preminentie/Porta penitentie/Portas (13th century – France)
34. Procurans odium (13th century – France)
35. Rosa fragrans (13th century – England)
36. S’on me regarde/Prenés i garde/Hé mi enfant (13th century – France)
37. Ysaias cecinit/Tytire tu patule (13th century – France)
38. Laude novella sia cantata (late 13th century – Italy)
39. Plange, Castella (late 13th century – Spain – found in Las Huelgas Codex)
40. O monialis (late 13th century – Spain – found in Las Huelgas Codex)
41. Quis dabit (late 13th century – Spain – found in Las Huelgas Codex)
42. Rex obiit (late 13th century – Spain – found in Las Huelgas Codex)

Late Medieval Music (1300–1400)

The beginning of the Ars nova is one of the few clear chronological divisions in medieval music, since it corresponds to the publication of the Roman de Fauvel, a huge compilation of poetry and music, in 1310 and 1314. The Roman de Fauvel is a satire on abuses in the medieval church, and is filled with medieval motets, laisrondeaux and other new secular forms. While most of the music is anonymous, it contains several pieces by Philippe de Vitry, one of the first composers of the isorhythmic motet, a development which distinguishes the fourteenth century. The isorhythmic motet was perfected by Guillaume de Machaut, the finest composer of the time.

During the Ars nova era, secular music acquired a polyphonic sophistication formerly found only in sacred music, a development not surprising considering the secular character of the early Renaissance (while this music is typically considered “medieval”, the social forces that produced it were responsible for the beginning of the literary and artistic Renaissance in Italy—the distinction between Middle Ages and Renaissance is a blurry one, especially considering arts as different as music and painting). The term “Ars nova” (new art, or new technique) was coined by Philippe de Vitry in his treatise of that name (probably written in 1322), in order to distinguish the practice from the music of the immediately preceding age.

The dominant secular genre of the Ars Nova was the chanson, as it would continue to be in France for another two centuries. These chansons were composed in musical forms corresponding to the poetry they set, which were in the so-called formes fixes of rondeau, ballade, and virelai. These forms significantly affected the development of musical structure in ways that are felt even today; for example, the ouvert-clos rhyme-scheme shared by all three demanded a musical realization which contributed directly to the modern notion of antecedent and consequent phrases. It was in this period, too, in which began the long tradition of setting the Ordinary of the Mass. This tradition started around mid-century with isolated or paired settings of Kyries, Glorias, etc., but Machaut composed what is thought to be the first complete mass conceived as one composition. The sound world of Ars Nova music is very much one of linear primacy and rhythmic complexity. “Resting” intervals are the fifth and octave, with thirds and sixths considered dissonances. Leaps of more than a sixth in individual voices are not uncommon, leading to speculation of instrumental participation at least in secular performance.

Composers of the Late Medieval Ages

Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 – April 1377) was a French composer and poet who was the central figure of the ars nova style in late medieval music. His dominance of the genre is such that modern musicologists use his death to separate the ars nova from the subsequent ars subtilior movement. Regarded as the most significant French composer and poet of the 14th century, he is often seen as the century’s leading European composer.

Machaut, one of the earliest European composers on whom considerable biographical information is available, has an unprecedented amount of surviving music, in part due to his own involvement in his manuscripts’ creation and preservation. Machaut embodies the culmination of the poet-composer tradition stretching back to the traditions of troubadour and trouvère. Machaut composed in a wide range of styles and forms and was crucial in developing the motet and secular song forms (particularly the lai and the formes fixes: rondeau, virelai and ballade). Among his only surviving sacred works, Messe de Nostre Dame, is the earliest known complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer.

43. Plourez, dames, plourez vostre servant (Ballade from “Le Voir dit”)
44. Puisqu’en oubli suis de vous, dous amis (Three-voice rondeau)
45. Motet no. 16: Por coi me bait
46. Motet no. 5: Fias volontas tua
47. Motet no. 7: Ego moriar pro te
48. De Fortune me doi pleindre et loer (Three-voice ballade)

Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340 – c. 1386) was an Italian composer of the Trecento, the period sometimes known as the Italian ars nova. He was one of the first composers of this group, making him a contemporary of Gherardello da Firenze and Giovanni da Cascia. He concentrated mainly on madrigals, including both canonic (caccia-madrigal) and non-canonic types, but also composed a single example each of a caccia, laudaballata, and motet. Jacopo’s ideal was “suave dolce melodia” (sweet, gentle melody). His style is marked by fully texted voice parts that never cross. The untexted passages which connect the textual lines in many of his madrigals are also noteworthy.

49. Lux purpurata radiis; Diligite iustitiam (Three-voice motet)
50. Nel bel giardino che l’Adige (Madrigal)

51. Lamento di Tristano, Rotta (14th century – Italy)

Giovanni da Cascia (fl. mid 14th century). His madrigals are of importance in the development of the style of the 14th-century madrigal. He tends to use extended melismas on the first and penultimate syllables of a poetic line, and sometimes introduces hockets at these points. The middles of the lines are generally syllabic. Many of his works are very similar in style to the anonymous works preserved in the Rossi Codex. Several of his works survive in quite different versions; this is evidence that improvisation was still an important aspect of musical performance up to this time. Giovanni’s works tend not to be tonally unified; they begin and end on different notes, and in some cases, such as Nascoso el viso, each poetic line begins and ends on different notes. Occasional imitation is found in his work.

52. O tu chara sciença

Lorenzo da Firenze (died December 1372 or January 1373), was another Italian composer and music teacher of the Trecento and was one of the composers of the period known as the Italian ars nova. His style is progressive, sometimes experimental, but curiously conservative in other ways. While he used imitation, a relatively new musical technique, and heterophonic texture, one of the rarest textures in European music, he also still used parallel perfect intervals. Voice crossings are common, when he wrote for more than one voice (most of his music is monophonic). In addition he used chromaticism to a degree rare in the 14th century, at least prior to the activity of the composers of the ars subtilior.

53. A poste messe (Three-voice canon)
54. Alma polis religio/Axe poli cum artica (Egidius de Aurelia/Johannes de Porta [?] – late 14th century – France)

55. Patrie pacis/Patria gaudentium (late 14th century – England)

John Forest (c. 1365 – 25 March 1446), was an English composer. There are two motets of Forest’s in the Old Hall Manuscript, but much more survives in Continental sources such as the Trent Codices. His music contrasts declamatory and melismatic passages; the conflict of rhythms between the various voices gives his music a restless quality.

56. Qualis est dilectus tuus

Transitioning to the Renaissance

Demarcating the end of the medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance era, with regard to the composition of music, is difficult. While the music of the fourteenth century is fairly obviously medieval in conception, the music of the early fifteenth century is often conceived as belonging to a transitional period, not only retaining some of the ideals of the end of the Middle Ages (such as a type of polyphonic writing in which the parts differ widely from each other in character, as each has its specific textural function), but also showing some of the characteristic traits of the Renaissance (such as the increasingly international style developing through the diffusion of Franco-Flemish musicians throughout Europe, and in terms of texture an increasing equality of parts). Music historians do not agree on when the Renaissance era began, but most historians agree that England was still a medieval society in the early fifteenth century. While there is no consensus, 1400 is a useful marker, because it was around that time that the Renaissance came into full swing in Italy.

The increasing reliance on the interval of the third as a consonance is one of the most pronounced features of transition into the Renaissance. Polyphony, in use since the 12th century, became increasingly elaborate with highly independent voices throughout the 14th century. With John Dunstaple and other English composers, partly through the local technique of faburden (an improvisatory process in which a chant melody and a written part predominantly in parallel sixths above it are ornamented by one sung in perfect fourths below the latter, and which later took hold on the continent as “fauxbordon”), the interval of the third emerges as an important musical development; because of this Contenance Angloise English composers’ music is often regarded as the first to sound less truly bizarre to 2000s-era audiences who are not trained in music history.

English stylistic tendencies in this regard had come to fruition and began to influence continental composers as early as the 1420s, as can be seen in works of the young Guillaume Dufay, among others. While the Hundred Years’ War continued, English nobles, armies, their chapels and retinues, and therefore some of their composers, travelled in France and performed their music there; it must also of course be remembered that the English controlled portions of northern France at this time.

Composers of the Transitional Period

Pycard, also spelled Picard and Picart (late 14th century – early 15th century) was an English or French Medieval and Renaissance transitional composer. The name “Picard” suggests a French origin, but his music is regarded as being in an English tradition. He is one of the most prolific composers represented in the Old Hall Manuscript with nine works from it attributed to him. His music is in the ars nova style, and is unusual in its virtuosity.

57. Gloria II

Leonel Power (1370 to 1385 – 5 June 1445) was an English composer of the late Medieval and early Renaissance music. Along with John Dunstaple, he was a dominant figure of 15th century English music. Primarily a composer of sacred music, Power is the best represented contributor in the Old Hall Manuscript. Power was one of the first composers to set separate movements of the Ordinary of the Mass which were thematically unified and intended for contiguous performance.

58. Beata progenies
59. Ave regina celorum

Oswald von Wolkenstein (c. 1376 – 2 August, 1445) is one of the most important German composers of the Middle Ages. There are three main topics of his work: travel, God and sex.

60. Ich spür ain tier

John Dunstaple (or Dunstable; c. 1390 – 24 December 1453) was an English composer whose music helped inaugurate the transition from the medieval to the Renaissance periods. The central proponent of the Contenance angloise style, Dunstaple was the leading English composer of his time, and is often coupled with William Byrd and Henry Purcell as England’s most important early music composers. His style would have an immense influence on the subsequent music of continental Europe, inspiring composers such as Du Fay, Binchois, Ockeghem and Busnois.

61. Sanctus, JD 6
62. Sanctus (Da gaudiorum premia), JD 18

63. Eya martyr Stephane (Mid 15th century – England)

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