A History of Classical Music: The Early Middle Ages

A History of Classical Music: The Early Middle Ages :During the first several hundred years of the Medieval Era, the creation and performance of music was under the strict control of one very powerful entity. A History of Classical Music

For many hundreds of years after the age of Pythagoras and the ancients, Europe was fully enmeshed in the Age of Antiquity. This time period saw the emergence of Christianity and the eventual fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD. This then ushered in the Medieval Era, which is where we will begin our in-depth study of Western classical music history. Onward, ho! A History of Classical Music

Let’s Make Things A Little More Confusing: Some Sub-Time Periods

As mentioned in the previous article, the Medieval Era lasted for a long time. Technology (what technology?) was several hundred years away from being advanced enough to foster true cultural progression and the Roman Catholic Church – a great proponent of rule and tradition – was fond of keeping all manner of science and the arts under their careful and, let’s say, protective watch. This meant that Europe, though still producing incredible and beautiful works of art during this time, found itself in something of a holding pattern for nine centuries. A History of Classical Music

Knowledge breeds progression and the Medieval Era was an age when revolutionary ideas were not necessarily highly valued and information was not easily shared. This is not to say that music made no developments during this time. It just happened very slowly.

Because of the long span of the Medieval Era and to better understand how music developed during this time, historians break up this era into three distinct smaller time periods:

I. The Early Middle Ages or the Dark Ages (500 – 1150)

II. Ars Antiqua (1150 – 1300)

III. Ars Nova (1300 – 1400)

Let’s take a closer look at the each individually.

The Early Middle Ages (500 – 1150)

This relationship between the church and the arts during the Medieval period was a Catch-22.

On the one hand, the church had money. Therefore, they had the ability to provide the funding and resources that made sacred music and its notation possible. Remember, the printing press had not been invented yet, so all extant music manuscripts from this time were done individually by hand. By whose hand? Monks. Monks working in special scriptoriums or writing rooms in the monastery. A History of Classical Music

And these manuscripts are glorious works of art indeed. Pages of parchment or vellum, enlivened with rich jewel tones, intricately designed embellishments and gold leaf illuminations, these manuscripts remain treasured pieces for collectors today.

In the same vein, knowing how to compose music and perform it required some education. And during this time, the entity that had the money to provide an education to composers was? Correct: The Catholic Church. This explains why now, the vast majority of extant Medieval music manuscripts are sacred in nature – music that was composed and performed to glorify, or at least be inspired by, the Bible and God.

Secular music, on the other hand – music that was not religious in nature – was performed largely by uneducated traveling musicians who improvised their music and did not notate it. Therefore, very little record of secular Medieval music exists today.

Without the resources provided by the church, all Medieval music would have had to be passed down from generation to generation orally and we would have almost no record of its existence.

On The Other Hand

In addition to money, the church also had one other thing that often goes hand in hand with wealth: power. With this power came the authority to control everything about the music that was being composed: how it sounded, what words were being sung and even what language it was sung in.

During the age of ancient Greece, music was an extension of philosophy and science. In fact, music was one of the four subjects that formed the ancient Greek quadrivium, the core liberal arts that, along with the trivium, formed the backbone of Greek education. The other three subjects in the quadrivium were arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. The trivium was grammar, logic and rhetoric.

In contrast, to the Medieval Catholic Church, music had one and only one purpose: to glorify God.

This meant that a very strict set of rules for sacred music during the Early Middle Ages was set in place:

1. Only sacred texts could be set to music supported by the church.

2. The texts that were set to music had to be set in Latin, the language of the church.

3. Music had to be monophonic. Polyphony, or the presence of harmony, even in the simplest form was deemed to be too extravagant. Nothing could distract from the message of God.

4. Instruments were not allowed in church music. Again, the sound and presence of instruments would distract from the Word. Music had to be pure and had to clearly convey the word of God, so only vocal music was allowed.

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