Styles & Forms | Medieval Era | Classical Music

The Middle Ages is the first period in the history of classical music whose composers can be identified by name. For centuries, following the Roman Empire’s collapse, the main centres of learning in Western Europe had been the monasteries.

The monks’ vast repertory of Gregorian chant, or plainsong – highly ornate, unaccompanied melodies set to sacred Latin texts – emerged from the Dark Ages as the single resource upon which much of the most important music of the medieval period would be based.

The Notre Dame School

At the same time, the Middle Ages were a time of social upheaval, set against the backdrop of a divided Church. For instance, the Pope lived in exile from Rome, at Avignon in southern France, for much of the fourteenth century, and there were numerous rival contenders to the papal throne. In this atmosphere, composers – particularly French composers, whose music shows the greatest technical and artistic development during the medieval period – were at liberty to write serious secular music. Equally, their sacred works often mixed in secular elements, even extending to being accompanied by instruments, which the Church had previously forbidden. It regarded the human voice as the only instrument pure enough to praise God.

Perhaps the most significant musical advance of this period was the development of a style of writing known as polyphony. This technique entails the simultaneous coordination of two or more distinct parts, or voices, in a harmonically unified composition. First elaborated in a style known as organum, it has been a cornerstone of classical music ever since. By the end of the twelfth century, composers affiliated with the newly built cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris had developed a sophisticated style of polyphonic composition. Three, sometimes even four voices would be combined in extended works that would have sumptuously exploited the building’s generous acoustics.

Composed by a man we know only as Perotin, Viderunt Omnes offers a mesmerizing example of the Notre Dame style. Like many works of the period, its upper voices are composed around a given plainsong melody in the tenor part. The tenor melody itself has been slowed so that it functions as a shifting drone, around which the other parts play out faster, dancing patterns. The effect is like an impression of eternity, whose jarring harmonies sound surprisingly modern.

Machaut’s Secular Music

If Perotin and his contemporaries had a different concept of what later musicians would come to define as dissonance, composers of the fourteenth century expanded the idea of what constituted a serious composition beyond the practice of the previous generation. Defined as the Ars Nova, in contrast to the so-called Ars Antiqua of the Notre Dame School, the music of the fourteenth century added a wide variety of new forms to the inventory of notated, or written-down, music. Many of them, such as the rondeau, the virelai and the ballade, were types of secular song that were...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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