Angelic concerts were an extremely popular motive in late medieval European painting. Music-making, singing, or dancing angels co-created an aura of beauty, happiness, and harmony that artistic tradition associated primarily with the figure of Mary. The nascent tradition was taken up by Gentile da Fabriano (ca. 1370–1427), who created an original vision of the Heavens filled with sweet unearthly music, reigned over by the Mother of God.
The most interesting is Gentile’s first work, painted around 1395 (Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie), which depicts Mary with her Child on a throne. There are two lilies, one on each side, and in the background are two trees hiding pink angels who hold musical instruments gleaming with gold light. The bird-like angels in the foliage are a visual reference for the poetic metaphor of birdsong as an earthly manifestation of Heaven’s angelic songs in eternal praise of Mary.
This according to “Bird-like angels making music in Mary’s garden: Gentile da Fabriano’s Madonna and child with saints” by Sławomira Żerańska-Kominek (Music in art XXXVI/1–2  pp. 177–190).
Above, the painting in question (click to enlarge); below, music by Francesco Landini accompanies a sequence of Fabriano’s paintings, including this one.
In 2017 Brill launched Brill’s companions to the musical culture of medieval and early modern Europe, a peer-reviewed series of volumes providing high-level and up-to-date surveys of research into all aspects of medieval and early modern musical culture in Europe—composers, schools, genres, instruments, education, dance, musical manuscripts and printing, and the musical cultures of given cities, chapels, religious orders, and courts.
Written by the foremost specialists, the books offer balanced accounts along with overviews of the state of scholarship and debates, pointing the way for future research. The books are normally multi-author volumes, thoroughly planned out at an editorial level to ensure comprehensiveness and cohesion and maximizing their value to the student and scholar.
The inaugural volume, Companion to music in the age of the Catholic monarchs, offers a major new study that deepens and enriches understanding of the forms and functions of music that flourished in late medieval Spanish society. The fifteen essays present a synthesis based on recently discovered material that throws new light on different aspects of musical life during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabel (1474–1516): sacred and secular music-making in royal and aristocratic circles; the cathedral music environment; liturgy and power; musical connections with Rome, Portugal, and the New World; theoretical and unwritten musical practices; women as patrons and performers; and the legacy of Jewish musical traditions.
Tablatures of ancient Chinese vocal music usually provide very little concrete information on rhythm, and few ancient Chinese writings on rhythms and time values in musical performance survive. One fortunate exception is the perceptive scholarly work of the 11th-century Buddhist monk Master Yihai, who was the only known person from early China ever to explain musical rhythm using a concrete example from guqin music.
Yihai analyzed a famous musical setting of Su Dongpo’s poem Zui weng yin (醉翁吟, Drunken dotard refrain). The earliest surviving musical notation of Zui weng yin dates from several centuries later; whether a tablature of 1539 actually preserves the music discussed by Yihai cannot be determined with full certainty, but there is indirect evidence to support an early date for the music.
This according to “The Drunken dotard refrain” by Marnix Wells (CHIME: Journal of the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research XX  pp. 85–105). Above, an 18th-century manuscript; below, a 21st-century performance.
Using an early 14th-century Franciscan antiphoner from the collections of Boston College’s John J. Burns Library, this digital research platform presents and contextualizes a medieval liturgical manuscript for both scholarly and general audiences. Employing open source technologies to create structured data and encode over 1500 incipits and notation, the site enables users to query and view music notation, metadata, performances, and textual incipits through a searchable interface.
The website also includes scholarly essays about the manuscript written by Graeme Skinner and videos of performances from short sections of the antiphoner by Schola Antiqua.
Above, a page from the manuscript; below, one of the performances included on the website.
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  pp. 107–113).
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).
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, Notre Dame Cathedral, an early center of polyphony, around 1450; below, Viderunt omnes. by Pérotin, who is widely considered to be the first to compose at his desk rather than in the church.
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.
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.
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.
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