The music of this time included both music for the Christian church (liturgical music) and non-religious (secular) music composed for entertainment purposes. The Medieval Period is typically considered to begin following the end of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century and transitions into the Renaissance Period beginning in the early fifteenth century.
We begin with the most famous of all Gregorian Chants. This melody is an old one dating from at least the 13th Century as a plainchant. Dies Irae translates as “Day of Wrath” but is sometimes more loosely translated as the “Wrath of God.” The Latin verses describe the Day of Judgement. This piece is often associated with death and was formerly included as part of the Requiem Mass.
The melody has been frequently used by other composers in their own compositions especially when their music has a macabre theme, e.g. Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Franz Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of the Dead) or Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead and other works. Several film/TV composers have also adapted the theme (including Miklos Rozsa in “Young Bess” and “El Cid”, Ennio Morricone in “The Mission”, Basil Poledouris in “Conan the Barbarian” and Bernard Herrmann in “The Jar”, an episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour”), but most notably Wendy Carlos for the opening of the movie “The Shining.”
Dies irae, dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Day of wrath and doom impending.
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Hildegard is the earliest composer that we know by name. She was a German nun who was known for her visions and prophecies. First written as poems, Hildegard later set her visions and prophecies to music.
She is known for writing songs that were uncharacteristically melodic for this time period. At a time when the church had very strict rules about music, she was able to creatively integrate and extend musical techniques to compose music that was intriguing, yet still fit the church’s guidelines.
Hildegard’s standout work is a musical play called “Ordo virtutum” (The Virtues). Written in 1151, “Ordo Virtutum” is her most extended musical work. This sacred musical drama is a morality play with allegorical and human characters, including the happy, unhappy, and repentant souls, prophets, virtues, and even the devil, though he was only allowed to have a spoken part.
Leonin (1135-1201) and Perotin (1160-1230)
In the 1200s, French composers Leonin and Perotin of the Notre Dame cathedral drastically changed music. Leonin and his student, Perotin, are generally credited with composing the first significant polyphonic, or multi-part, church music. This is significant because it hadn’t been done in church music before, and in medieval thought, anything new had to be founded on something old. This meant that any new compositions had to be based on a preexisting composition, such as church chants.
In order to achieve new music while adhering to the rules, both composers added vocal parts to chants. Often, the added part was sung at the same rhythm as the original chant, creating a parallel harmony. Other times, the original chant was sung at an extremely slow pace, while a new, faster melody was added at a higher pitch. Leonin used these techniques to write music with two vocal parts. This new type of multi-part chant was called organum. Perotin also used these techniques, but went a step further and composed for three and sometimes four vocal parts.
In fact, Leonin and Perotin were so good at writing organum that they wrote the first complete annual cycle of chants for the mass in two parts. The music was compiled as a book called the “Magnus Liber Organi” (Great Book of Organum). Leonin wrote the original version, with Perotin editing and adding new ideas afterward.
Here are a couple of examples of instrumental music from the Medieval Period. As is common with music from this time, the composers’ names are unknown.
The Robertsbridge Codex is a music manuscript from the 14th century containing some of the earliest surviving music written specifically for keyboard. This version is played on a medieval table organ operated with two bellows.
This piece features the crumhorn a popular reed instrument from the period (which sounds something like a cross between an oboe and a kazoo).
Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377)
Finally, we end with Guillaume de Machaut, a French poet and musician, who generally regarded as the greatest and most important composer and poet of the 14th century. “Douce Dame Julie” is a secular song about the pangs of unrequited love.
Sweet, beautiful lady
For God’s sake, do not think
That anyone rules over me
But you alone
And without falsehood
I have cherished you
All the days of my life
I have served you
With no unworthy thought.
Alas! and I beg
For hope and aid
For my joy is ended
If you do not take pity
But your sweet mastery
Masters my heart so harshly
That it torments and binds it
So much in love
That it desires nothing
But to be in your service
And yet your heart
Grants it no relief
And since my sickness
Will never be healed
Without you, sweet enemy
Who is glad
At my torment I join my hands and pray
To your heart, since it forgets me
That it should kill me quickly
For I languish too long.