Medieval Chant: A History of Classical Music

Medieval Chant: A History of Classical Music

Chant was the primary form of sacred music during the Medieval Era (500 – 1400), especially during the sub-time period known as the Early Middle Ages or the Dark Ages (500 – 1150). Chant, also known as plainchant or plainsong, was the central form of music through which the powerful Catholic Church glorified and spread the word of God. Because the purpose of sacred music was to convey the message of God and not to distract from it, the use of harmony (too pleasing) and instruments (too distracting) was not allowed. Chant is purely monophonic and sung in Latin, the language of the church.

As we will see in the subsequent two articles in this series, chant underwent dramatic development and transformation throughout the course of the Medieval period, eventually evolving into other musical forms.

Not All Chant is Gregorian-medieval chant

Though it is commonly referred to in popular culture as Gregorian chant, there were actually several different types and traditions of Medieval plainchant, such as Mozarabic (associated with the region now known as Spain) and Gallican (associated with the region of Gaul, now France and Belgium).

However, Gregorian chant, the liturgical tradition of music that accompanied the celebration of Mass and other religious rituals in the Western Christian tradition of the sixth century was the most central and prevalent. Hence, most non-scholars will refer to all chant as “Gregorian chant.” It was named after Pope Gregory I, the Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604.

So Close And Yet So Far: Chant Notation-medieval chant

Looking at examples of Medieval chant manuscripts will show that the music notation employed during that time resembles the modern music notation that we are familiar with today. However, closer examination will make it clear that there are some significant differences. One can see these differences by taking a look at this comparison of Medieval and modern music notation. What to observe:

1. The modern (bottom) example has the five lines in a musical staff. The Medieval (top) example has only 4 lines in its “staff.”

2. Modern musical notes have specific shapes that indicate the rhythmic value of that note within the piece. For example, a black note with a simple “stem” or line drawn from it specifies that that note is to be played for precisely one beat. No more, no less. The same black note with a stem, but with a “flag” or tail extending from the tip of the stem indicates that that note is now to be played for exactly half the duration of one beat. A single white note with no stem attached to it (not shown) is to be played for the duration of four beats. There are so many different looking types of notes in music because of all the widely varied rhythmic divisions of time.

3. Medieval musical notes are not actually called “notes.” Rather, they are called “neumes” (pronounced “noomz”) and were square shaped. These neumes do not as clearly indicate an amount of time for which each neume is to be sung. Time and rhythm was not nearly as specific in sacred music during this time.

4. Most modern music depends on the structural organization of time, indicated by segments called measures. These measures are segmented by dividing the staff with vertical lines. Each segmented measure has a very specific length of time assigned to it, which is indicated by the time signature, specifically the top number. In this example, the time signature indicates that all of these measures contain 3 beats each.

5. Medieval chant music contains no measures, no specific segments and divisions of time. This explains why, when listening to chant music, it sounds markedly non-rhythmic and free with time. There is only a vague notion of how long each neume should be sung.

6. More important than rhythmic structure in Medieval chant, is the pitch contour. In modern notation, the placement of every note in relation to the lines and spaces in the staff indicate a very specific note/pitch. In Medieval notation, however, the placement of these neumes on the “staff” do not indicate specificity in pitch but, rather, a general idea of the contour of the melody.

Whether the neumes are drawn rising are falling, indicate whether the melody should go up or down. For example, the three individual square-note neumes in the middle do indicate that there should be a repetition of the same pitch three times. However, the four-neume ligature in the middle of the bottom line in which the neumes are stacked on top of each other indicate that the melody should ascend in four notes at that point.

7. Tonality did not exist yet. Hence, again, the neumes in Medieval chant did not indicate specific pitch. However, each chant was sung in a specific mode. In addition, the placement of a clef symbol – you can see it in the example, it looks like a small calligraphy “c” at the left edge of each top line – gives the singer or singers an idea of where the first or fundamental note in the mode is located and, hence, where to sing a half step or whole step in the melody.

One can see how, especially with the look of the “staff” and the incorporation of the clef symbol, Medieval music notation was a clear predecessor to the standard modern music notation we use today.

Size Does Matter-medieval chant

Remember that all Medieval chant manuscripts were notated by hand in monastery scriptoriums and the size of these manuscripts would be large enough that a small group of clergy could stand around the book of chants and sing. Therefore, one can imagine that it would be fairly challenging to reach the end of one line of music on the far right and have to quickly draw your eye back to the other edge of the manuscript to see the continuation of the melody in the beginning of the next line of music.

Chant scribes attended to this issue by drawing a small, skinny neume called a custos at the end of each line that indicated the location of the first neume on the subsequent line. You can see the custos at the end of each incomplete verse in this example.

Categorizing is Fun: Three Types of Chant

Medieval chant is further classified into one of three different categories, depending on the number of neumes or pitches designated for each syllable of text.

1. Syllabic: Chant in which there is dominantly only one single square-note neume assigned for each syllable of text. Example here.

Listen to an example of syllabic chant here. See if you can follow along the contour of the notated neumes with the music that is being sung.

2. Neumatic: More embellished than syllabic chant, neumatic chant contains commonly anywhere from 2 – 8 pitches for each syllable of text. Example here.

Listen to an example of neumatic chant here.

3. Melismatic: Chant in which there are individual syllables of text that are sung with an extended amount of neumes and pitches. Example here. In the example, note especially how many pitches are sung through the final syllable “-am.”

Listen to an example of melismatic chant here.

Fun note: The popular style of singing prevalent today, especially with current female pop vocalists, contains many vocal “runs” that can at times push the boundaries of musical taste. These are actually musical melismas and, when overdone, are a common inside joke among fellow snooty classical music types. Who would have guessed that Christina Aguilera was continuing a Medieval sacred music tradition? (Kidding.)

For some examples of melisma in pop music, see here.

Like A Virgin: Hildegard of Bingen

Because these chants were created, notated and sung largely by Medieval monks, not for pleasure or art, but to sing praises to God, these pieces of music are rarely credited to one person. The vast majority of these chants are now attributed to the most prolific Medieval composer in history, the world-renowned “Anon.”, also known as “Anonymous.”

Arguably the most famous singular name in early chant composition is, notably not a male figure, but a Benedictine nun: Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179).

Hildegard is widely discussed in music history, not only because she is female and wrote a great number of chants, primarily in the form of liturgical dramas and morality plays, but because she is recorded as having intense visions that she – and many – believed to be instructions from God.

She began having these visions from the age of three and continued all throughout her life. She claimed to experience the light of God through all five senses. At times, these visions became so strong that she would become ill, experiencing great physical pain. Skeptical scholars now believe that Hildegard was not experiencing holy visions, but what we now know as migraine headaches.

As she herself recounted;

medieval chant

For being a nun all her life, Hildegard wrote a surprising amount on the subject of sexuality. Though unsurprisingly condemning masturbation and homosexuality, some of her writing alludes to the importance of female orgasm as well as the equality of men and women in God’s eyes.

Hildegard composed a great number of plays, dramas, poems and books. Of her music, about 70 or 80 compositions survive, by far the most of any early Medieval composer. Her most famous work is the Ordo Virtutum , a morality play in which the human soul interacts with the Devil and the Sixteen Virtues.

Though the four-step canonization process to become a saint was begun, through many centuries the process was never completed and Hildegard remains at the penultimate step of beatification today. However, she has been listed in the official Roman Martyrology since the sixteenth century and many refer to Hildegard of Bingen as a saint, including the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Her feast day is September 17.

Ex. Hildegard von Bingen, O aeterne Deus

Hildegard is a fascinating figure in music history and Catholic history. For further reading, see here and here.

In Perfect Harmony: Evolving Out Of Chant

The dominance of monophonic music, being just a simple single-melodic line by definition, could not stay in place for very long. Just kidding. Monophonic chant dominated for roughly four hundred years in the Dark Ages. Fortunately, at about the turn of the ninth century, the concept of harmony began to develop and music would begin a process of progression that would eventually introduce a new genre of sacred music called organum.

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