During the Medieval Era, there were many forms of vocal music. They were very simplistic in nature.
Plainsong One of the most common vocal forms of the time was called plainchant, the Gregorian chant, or plainsong. It is known that this form of vocal music was the main root of
polyphony during both the Medieval era and in the Renaissance era.
Secular Song While little secular song had been preserved to date, it was still a very important musical form during the Medieval era. It was very similar to
plainsong in that it had single note notation, had no accompaniment, and was written in the
monophonic style. The difference between secular song and plainsong was its meter. It was mostly written in triple meter. Additionally, it also dealt with a wider range of subjects than the very religious plainsong. Furthermore, secular song had clear phrase and sectional structure , was written in most vernacular languages instead of the Latin-only plainsong, and used shorter and more regular rhythms.
Polyphony One of the greatest musical achievements in the history of music occurred during the Medieval era. This was the coming of polyphony. Polyphony is two or more vocal parts, each with its own individual melodic importance within a work. The earliest known polyphony occurred in
secular music of the 8th century. However, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, polyphony grew in style and popularity and evolved into church music, which was based on plainsong.
Ars Antiqua is the time period between the mid 1100s to the end of the 1200s. This phrase means "The Old Art." This was a time during the Medieval Era when polyphony developed even further.
Notre Dame Organum The Notre Dame organum developed shortly after the year 1150. In this form of polyphony, there were two parts sung by solo voices, alternating with sections of plainsong sung by a choir. Appearing for the first time was dicant style. This style had sections in which the tenor part contained shorter and measured notes.
Polyphonic Conductus The polyphonic conductus was in wide usage during the beginning half of the 13th century. The tenor part of this musical form was composed, instead of borrowed from plainsong, as it was in organum. Additionally, the parts moved together rhythmically, and the piece was written for two to four parts. The polyphonic conductus was composed in non-liturgical or secular form.
Motet Around the year 1250, the
motet became the main polyphonic form. It started to replace organum and conductus. A motet consisted of specific musical guidelines. A plainsong was sung by the tenor voice, and above it, two other parts were sung in faster moving notes. It was written in either sacred or secular style (in Latin or in vernacular) and usually was played in triple meter with clashes of
Hocket Hocket was a form of polyphony that was often found in the music of the late 1200s to the 1300s. It was a technique that interrupted the melody line by frequently placing rests (which alternated between two voice parts) into the piece.
Rota Although not many works had this form during the Ars Antiqua stage of the Medieval Era, the rota still was present. It was a round or cannon in which two or more parts carried the same melody at different times.
Rondellus The rondellus was a three part, secular form, in which exchange occured between the three different melodies. This polyphonic work involved all the parts starting together rather than starting consecutively. Each part then rotated the melody.
The Ars Nova, or "The New Art," took place during the end of the Medieval era while foreshadowing some of the Renaissance trends that were to ome.
Madrigal Written in two vocal parts, this musical form was the first polyphonic form to appear in Italy. The
madrigal had each stanza written in duple time and ended with a ritornello section in triple meter.
Caccia The caccia was at its musical height from 1345 to 1370. It was the primary musical form that employed the canon within it. The canon was based on a continuous imitation of two or more parts. The two upper parts were sung in strict imitation with long intervals between the two parts while the third lowest part was composed in slow moving notes and was probably played on an instrument.
Ballata This form came about after the madrigal and the caccia and originated as a dance song. The ballata had a sectional structure with refrains, called ripresa sung at the beginning and end of each stanza.
Although very little instrumental music has been left intact from the composers of the time period, it is a well known fact that instruments were used throughout the Medieval era.
Bowed Instruments The most important of the bowed instruments were the vielles. They were the precursors of the Renaissance viol family. Another bowed instrument used during the medieval times was the rebec, which was a pear shaped instrument. Later in the time period the tromba marina appeared. It was long in shape and usually had one string. Sometimes it had two strings that were tuned in unison.
Plucked Strings The most important plucked string instrument was the lute. It had an angled neck and a pear shaped body. The psaltery, a flat sounding board was another instrument similar to that of the zither.
Wind Instruments During this time period recorders, various kinds of trumpets, and horns were in use. The shawm, which was a double reed instrument, was also used.
Organs In the Medieval era, portative organs or organetto were used. They were small and were able to be moved around. The positive organ was a very important instrument of the time period. It was the first organ for which
polyphonic music was composed. It was of medium size and could not be moved. During the 1300s larger organs started to appear usually in the churches of Europe. Some of them had up to 2,500 or more pipes.
Percussion Instruments Drums came in many different shapes and sizes and were used mainly for military and dance purposes. Kettledrums, also called nakers, were used in pairs during this time period. In addition, a cylidrical drum, known as the tabor, was used. Many kinds of bells and cymbals were also used during the Medieval era.
During the Middle Ages, composers were not all that concerned with how their written music was performed. They gave little notice to what instrument(s) would play a piece and never indicated particular instruments within their scores. It is believed that there were basically five ways in which instruments were employed during this period in music history. According to Hugh M. Miller:
1. Vocal polyphony was occassionally played entirely by instruments2. Instruments were used to double one or more vocal parts3. Textless parts in polyphonic music were probably intended to be played by instruments as, for example, in 13th century
motets and 14th century
ballate .4. Music clearly intended for instrumental performance was mainly dance music and a few instrumental motets and
conductus .5. They may have been substituted for voices in one or more parts with texts
Almost every single one of the preserved dance forms were written in
monophonic style. Folk or court dance music was made up on the spot or played from memory. The principal dance form of the 1400s was the estampie. This dance form had many repeated sections and was almost always played triple time. Some other famous dances were the danse royale and the Italian saltarello and istanpitta from the 1500s. The ductia was also a popular dance that was written in three or four sections. The finale of a dance work was named a rotta, rotte, or rota, and involved a change of meter involved.
Dufay, Guillaume (1400-1474)
Guillaume Dufay composed music from the late Medieval era into the early Renaissance. He was born in the Duchy of Burgundy, which is today known as Cambrai, located in France. His birthplace was one of the major musical centers of the world. This area influenced many of the composers who lived during the Renaissance. Throughout his life, Dufay resided in many different Italian cities, which brought a high degree of worldliness to his music.
The music of Dufay was very calm, soothing, and had direction and clear distinctions. This was in opposition to the typical music of the late Medieval era, which was often harsh and rhythmically complex. As time progressed, and musical norms started changing, so did the music of Guillaume Dufay. He began to explore the music of four voice vocal texture, which became a distinct Renaissance musical characteristic. He was one of the catalysts who helped Medieval music to move forward and transition into the Renaissance age.
de Vitry, Phillipe (1291-1361)
Phillipe de Vitry was one of the most important composers involved with Medieval music. He was the author of a prominent music theory text, called the Ars Nova. In this work, he showed how he would like to expand the rhythmic resources offered to composers, introduced new rhythmic schemes and a new mensural notation system. This new system remained an important notational device for over a century after his death. He made the first use of binary rhythm and is thus considered to be a mathematical and philosophical genius of his time period. Additionally, he is credited with being one of the main developers of the motet. He is one of the first composers to discover and use isorhythm; a single rhythmic figure continually repeated by a voice.
The only surviving works of Phillipe de Vitry were his motets. They are mostly secular, although some took on religious tones. Most of his motets were on political, as opposed to romantic, topics. He wrote his secular pieces in Latin, instead of French. He was seen as a prodigy, as he wrote about the issues of his time period and put them into musical form. Vitry is hailed today for his music theory that spurned the whole Ars Nova era of the Medieval era and for his own emotional motets. He used new modes of musical idiom that would not be refined until years after his death. He left a lasting impression on the musical world.
de Machaut, Guillaume (1300-1377)
Born around the year 1300 in France, Guillaume de Machaut was one of the most famous composer of the Medieval era. His most well known work is the Mass of Notre Dame. Written in four voice form, this piece showed his mastery of composition, and served as a textbook example of Medieval counterpoint. He was also well known for his French poetry, songs, and manuscripts prepared for French royalty.
Guillaume de Machaut travelled Europe during his lifetime. In addition to composing, he also was involved with the political events of the time. He surrounded himself with royalty and honorary people.
Guillame de Machaut is considered to be an avant garde composer. His style dominated the Ars Nova period of the Medieval Era. He made little changes to rhythm and meter in his music but added his own interpretation and emotional depth to his pieces. He was also famous for his poetry, which was often set to music and conveyed messages of love.