Styles & Forms | Music in Medieval Drama | Roots of Opera

In the Middle Ages, two distinct forms of music drama existed: the liturgical dramas that took place in churches as a part of the service – and were therefore in Latin; and the ‘mystery’ or ‘miracle’ plays that were performed outside churches in the everyday language of the people.

Liturgical Dramas

Liturgical dramas were performed only by members of the clergy, and formed part of the church service on particular occasions. The earliest known drama dates from the ninth century and recreates the scene from the Gospels when the Marys visited the tomb of Christ and spoke with an angel. It was often performed as part of the Mass on Easter Day. Later plays also took place on other major Christian festivals, particularly Christmas. There is some evidence that basic scenery and costumes were occasionally used, especially for the more elaborate plays.

In the Middle Ages, all the words of the Mass and other church services were chanted or sung, with each set of words having its own melody. The music for the liturgical dramas was no different, with the texts and verses of the plays set in the same traditional plainchant style. Sometimes chants were drawn directly from the liturgical services, but melodies were also often written especially for the plays.

‘Mystery’ Plays

‘Mystery’ plays were performed throughout Europe from the fourteenth century to the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Their subject matter was religious and they were generally enacted out in the open air as part of the celebrations of a holy day (or ‘holiday’). Many of the plays tell of the whole history of the world, from the Creation to the Last Judgement, taking in all the major stories from the Bible. These plays were performed by craftsmen, with each guild being responsible for a particular scene. The choice of guild was often closely connected to the subject matter of the scene – for example, the carpenters might be in charge of the story of Noah’s Ark, and the butchers of the telling of the Crucifixion. While some plays were designed for performance on a fixed wooden stage, others took place on a succession of wagons as part of a procession through the town’s streets.

Although these plays were largely spoken, they also included many musical items – songs, instrumental music and dances. Unfortunately, very few of these pieces were written down in notation, because they were usually already well known to both the performers and audience. The melodies were generally taken from popular songs of the time, liturgical plainchant and dance tunes. Almost no music was specially written for the mystery plays.

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