Category Archives: Middle Ages

Pope Saint Gregory I, organist?


In a letter from Pope Saint Gregory I to Leander, Bishop of Seville, the former waxes metaphorically, liberally using the image of a choirmaster conducting from the organ while accompanying the choir. The detail of the description suggests first-hand experience.

“For what is the office of the body other than the organ of the heart?” he wrote. “And however skilled an expert in singing might be, he cannot do justice to his music unless external services are also in harmony with it, because, of course, an organ that is broken does not spring back properly for a song, even when it is conducted by an experienced hand; nor does its wind produce an artistic effect if a pipe is split with cracks and is too shrill.”

“And so, how much more heavily is the quality of my exposition depressed, in which damage to the organ dissipates the charm of my expression, so that no skill gained from experience can compose it?”

This passage seems to reveal Gregory himself as an experienced choirmaster, even conducting solo singers, while using an organ to accompany them. While he may not have been responsible for all the musical achievements legend has attributed to him, his life was filled with opportunities to cultivate musical skills, especially on the organ.

This according to “Gregory the Great: On organ lessons and on equipping monasteries” by John Martyn (Medievalia et humanistica XXX [2004] pp. 107–113).

Gregory the Great’s Papacy began on this day in 590 C.E. Above, a depiction by Jusepe de Ribera; below, the Gregorian chant Salve regina.

Leave a comment

Filed under Middle Ages

Inventing medieval music

Early Music Consort of London

Medieval music has been made and remade repeatedly over the past two hundred years.

For the nineteenth century it was vocal, without instrumental accompaniment, but with barbarous harmony that no one could have wished to hear. For most of the twentieth century it was instrumentally accompanied, increasingly colorful, and widely enjoyed. At the height of its popularity it sustained an industry of players and instrument-makers, all engaged in re-creating an apparently medieval performance practice.

During the 1980s medieval music became vocal once more, exchanging color and contrast for cleanliness and beauty. Radical changes in perspective such as these may have less to do with the evidence of how medieval music sounded and more to do with the personalities of scholars and performers, their ideologies, and musical tastes.

This according to The modern invention of medieval music: Scholarship, ideology, performance by Daniel J. Leech-Wilkinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Above, the Early Music Consort of London in the 1960s. Below, a recording by the group from 1976.

Leave a comment

Filed under Curiosities, Middle Ages, Reception

Medieval music and memory


Although writing allowed medieval composers to work out pieces in their minds, it did not make memorization redundant—rather, it allowed for new ways to commit music to memory. But since some of the polyphonic music from the 12th century and later was written down, scholars have long assumed that it was all composed and transmitted in written form.

Our understanding of medieval music has been profoundly shaped by German philologists from the beginning of the twentieth century, who approached medieval music as if it were no different from music of the nineteenth century. The fact that a piece was written down does not necessarily mean that it was conceived and transmitted in writing. A new model emphasizes the interplay of literate and oral composition and transmission.

This according to “Medieval music and the art of memory” by Anna Maria Busse Berger (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

Above, Pérotin, who is widely considered to be the first to compose at his desk rather than in the church; below, his Viderunt omnes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Middle Ages, Performance practice

Iberian early music studies


Iberian Early Music Studies

In 2015 Reichenberger launched the series Iberian early music studies with New perspectives on early music in Spain, edited by Tess Knighton and Emilio Ros-Fábregas.

The volume brings together research by scholars—both well established and of younger generations, both Spanish and from all over the world—that offers new perspectives on many aspects of early musical culture on the Peninsula, whether regarding the Ars Nova or the Counter-Reformation, music historiography or analysis, early improvisation techniques or imitatio in Renaissance polyphony, or questions of performance practice or ambassadorial musical networks, making an important contribution to establishing and sustaining a valuable discourse with the broader European context.

Below, a selection from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, the subject of one of the articles in the inaugural issue.


Leave a comment

Filed under Middle Ages, New series, Renaissance

Search the Liber usualis

Liber usualis

The Liber usualis is a valuable resource for musical scholars; as a compendium of the most common chants used by the Catholic Church, it is particularly useful for identifying the origins of chants used in polyphonic compositions.

Using Optical Music Recognition and Optical Text Recognition, Search the Liber usualis presents a scanned, searchable version of this important resource. Published by the Distributed Digital Music Archives & Libraries Lab and sponsored by the Single Interface for Music Score Searching and Analysis  (SIMSSA), this is a proof-of-concept demonstration for the larger task of providing search capabilities for all digitized musical works.

Below, a Palm Sunday antiphon with scrolling notation.


Filed under Middle Ages, Resources

Slovak Early Music Database – Cantus Planus in Slovacia

slovak ms

Slovak Early Music Database – Cantus Planus in Slovacia was established in 2012 at the Ústav hudobnej vedy Slovenskej akadémie vied in collaboration with Hudobný fond/Music Fund Slovakia as a full-text English-language database of the notated manuscripts and fragmentary notated sources from the area of Slovakia dating from the late 11th to the early 16th century.

Directed by Eva Veselovská, the database allows free and universal access to a large number of music manuscripts kept at libraries and archives in Slovakia. It provides a number of search possibilities, including the archive (with RISM sigla), source, text incipit of a chant, feast, and genre searches. Manuscript fragments and selected codices with monophonic or polyphonic music are fully indexed.

To view digital images in high resolution, a free Slovak Early Music Database – Cantus Planus in Slovacia account must be established.

Below, an example from a Slovakian manuscript.

Leave a comment

Filed under Middle Ages, Resources

Hildegard of Bingen

Museum - Hildegard von Bingen

In Hildegard of Bingen (Oxford bibliographies, 2013) Honey Meconi presents an annotated bibliography of over 130 of the most important publications for the study of the 12th-century composer’s works.

This resource is divided into separate sections for editions, essay collections, Ordo virtutum, performance practice, and so on. Significant publications of Hildegard’s nonmusical works are included as well.

Above, a detail from a stained glass piece that was once part of Rochuskapelle, just southeast of Bingen. below, the Oxford Camerata performs Hildegard’s Ave generosa.

1 Comment

Filed under Middle Ages, Resources

Monumenta liturgiae et cantus

castel tirolo

Libreria Musicale Italiana launched the series Monumenta liturgiae et cantus in 2013 with I codici liturgici di Castel Tirolo by Marco Gozzi.

The volume presents facsimiles of sources used in Castel Tirolo, which was the historical seat of the counts of Tirolo and gave the region its name. Discussions of historical and musicological issues are also included.

Leave a comment

Filed under Middle Ages, New series

The first musical comedy

The earliest known secular stage play with music, Adam de la Halle’s Le jeu de Robin et de Marion, has been touted as the first musical comedy.

Of the two extant sources, the Paris version is by far the rowdier one—three characters that do not appear in the Aix version engage in mooning the audience, playing with sheep dung, and speaking in unimaginable metaphors worthy of Hungarians.

Common to both versions, Robin, Marion, and the seducing knight are more stock characters, but their lines are pithy and suggestive—e.g., from the scene depicted above:

Knight: You surely won’t put up a fight—you’re just a peasant, I’m a knight!

Marion: Money can’t buy love, you know.

Knight: It can buy something like it, though.

This according to “The hows and whys of Adam de la Halle’s Robin & Marion” by Lucy E. Cross (Early music America XVII/1 [Spring 2011] pp. 38–42). Below, a complete family-friendly performance of the work.

Leave a comment

Filed under Dramatic arts, Humor, Middle Ages

Musicalia Medii Aevi

A series launched by Brepols in 2011, Musicalia Medii Aevi is a collection of international studies that welcomes writings and reflections on the most innovative aspects of medieval musicology.

As one of the essential liberal arts in the Middle Ages, music was at the center of the era’s thought and culture. That is why the collection addresses the field of music as part of a wide and varied cultural history, often in interdisciplinary terms, offering a fresh look at the role of music in medieval society. The first volume in the series is The calligraphy of medieval music by John Haines.

Related article: Codici online

Leave a comment

Filed under Middle Ages, New series, Notation