A History of Classical Music: The Medieval Secular Tradition

A History of Classical Music: The Medieval Secular Tradition

Medieval Secular Music

Though it may be easy to focus all of our attention on the sacred music of the Medieval Era, we must not forget that not all music was sacred during this time. There was a rich secular tradition of music as well. Unfortunately, again, because of the lack of resources with which to notate and preserve non-sacred works, there is far less record of secular music from the Medieval period.

Many of the middle- to late-Medieval sacred composers that we recognize also wrote secular music. The great Ars Nova composer Guillaume de Machaut, for example, wrote not only sacred Masses and motets, but also wrote works in the newer polyphonic secular vocal genres that began to be developed during the late Medieval era. These new genres came about as secular music grew to attain the same level of polyphonic sophistication that sacred music did. These genres included the polyphonic chanson, ballade, rondeau and virelai; these different names indicate the different poetic forms its text held.

Yes, Instruments Did Exist During the Medieval Era

Just because the church did not allow use of instruments for sacred service, it does not mean they were not in wide use during the time. It merely means they were relegated to non-sacred music. While we, in the modern age, organize instruments into all sorts of different categories – woodwinds, brass, strings, pitched percussion, non-pitched percussion, chordophones, aerophones, membranophones, etc. – Medieval instruments are generally categorized into one of two types: bas and haut.

Bas (pronounced “bah,” meaning “low” or “soft”) instruments were typically relegated to indoor performance because of their softer volume. These included the recorder, pipe, lute, dulcimer, psaltery and rebec.

Haut (pronounced “oh,” meaning “high” or “loud”) instruments were used for outdoor performance because of their loud volume. These included the shawm (an early ancestor of the oboe), sackbut (an early ancestor of the trombone) and the cornetto. There were also a number of percussion instruments.

Some instruments, such as the pipe or organ, because they varied in size and type, could be categorized into either or both of these types.

Fun note: The French word “hautbois” is actually a compound term (haut + bois) meaning “high wood” or “loud wood.” It is pronounced “oh-bwah” and is also the French term for the instrument we know as the oboe.

A wonderful resource showing many of these Medieval instruments can be found here.

The Medieval Singer-Songwriter

The performers of secular music during this time were not trained musicians or schooled writers. Rather, they were traveling entertainers. Their tradition flourishing from about the eleventh century and on throughout the rest of the Medieval and into the Renaissance period. Not just singers, these performers often were also poets, storytellers and instrumentalists. The strongest and earliest tradition of these traveling minstrels were found in the region of southern France sometimes known as Provence where they were known as troubadours. In northern France, they were called trouveres ( pronounced “troo-VERZ”). Female troubadours were called trobairitz. There was also a rich tradition of these secular performers in Germany, where they were known as Minnesingers.

In stark contrast to the music of the sacred tradition, these traveling performers sung in the vernacular language, not in Latin. Their music was essentially an entirely improvised tradition and the subject matter of their songs were anything but sacred: usually war, chivalry and courtly love. Instruments, as previously mentioned, were also a major part of the secular tradition. Troubadours typically not only sang but also played instruments such as the lyre, lute, fiddle and drums, often accompanying him or herself on a string or percussion instrument while singing. These entertainers would travel from town to town, performing for the wealthy in each village.

Read On

A History of Classical Music: Basic Terms

Perhaps the most famous troubadour work from the Medieval Era, and one of the relatively few that has survived through to the modern age, is Adam de la Halle’s Jeu de Robin et Marion, a French secular play with music that tells the story of a knight named Robin and a shepherdess named Marion. Although no exact determination has been made as to the connection of this ancient folktale and the legend of Robin Hood, the similarities are worth noting.

Example: Le Jeu de Robin et Marion

Note in the example above that even secular music still very much followed the rules of typical Medieval music tradition: largely monophonic melody or polyphony that stayed within the constraints of open fourth and fifth interval harmonies.

Two other well known secular entertainers were the troubadour Raimbaut de Vaqueiras (example: Kalenda Maya meaning “The first of May”) and the minnesinger Walther von der Vogelweide (example: Unter der linden meaning “Under the linden trees”), who is as widely mentioned in music history textbooks for his music as much as his fun-to-pronounce name.

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