Tag Archives: Medieval music

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.

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Filed under Middle Ages

Inventing medieval music


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).

Below, the Early Music Consort of London in 1976.

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Filed under Curiosities, Middle Ages, Reception

In Extremo and Walther

Recent interchanges between medieval music and heavy metal open new perspectives on historically informed practice. A comparison of recordings of Walther von der Vogelweide’s Palästinalied by Thomas Binkley, Paul Hillier, and In Extremo illuminates how historic orientation and its inherent sense influence performance aesthetics.

This according to “Gothic und HIP: Sinn und Präsenz in populären und in historisch informierten Realisierungen des Palästinalieds” by Konstantin Voigt (Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis XXXII [2008] pp. 221–234). Above, a portrait of the great Minnesinger; below, In Extremo’s historically informed rendition of Walther’s celebrated work about the Crusades.

Related article: Advanced musicology

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Filed under Curiosities, Middle Ages, Performance practice, Popular music, Reception