(c. 700BC-1700)




General Background ON EARLY MUSIC



Like so many aspects of Western culture, the history of Western music begins in Ancient Greece, at least seven centuries before the birth of Christ. Greek traditions were adapted and passed on with very little change by their Roman conquerors, who built a massive Empire that crumbled by the mid-400s. Over the next 1,000 years during the so-called "Middle Ages," the Roman Empire was superseded by the establishment of the Western Christian Church centered in Rome, and the development of several separate kingdoms that later became the basis for the major countries of modern Europe. Thus, the "Early Music" era includes:


- Ancient Greek/Roman music (700BC-450AD),

- Medieval music ["The Middle Ages"] (c450-1450),

- Renaissance music (c1450-1600),

- early-Baroque music (c1600-1700).





Much of what defines today's Western culture in philosophy, science, and the arts had its origins in ancient Greek culture. The word "music" comes from the muses, the daughters of Zeus and patron goddesses of creative and intellectual endeavors. Archaeological remains of ancient Greek ceramics often have depictions of music being performed. There are also many literary references to ancient Greek music, as well as a few significant fragments of actual Greek musical notation.  From these, we can reasonably surmise what ancient Greek music sounded like, the general role of music in society, the economics of music, the importance of a professional caste of musicians, etc.  It is certain that music played an integral role in the lives of ancient Greeks and was almost universally used in society, from marriages and funerals to religious ceremonies, public Olympic events, accompaniment to staged Greek dramas, folk music, and ballad-like reciting of epic poetry.

Many musical aspects and traditions still in use today can be traced back to the ancient Greeks:


Ancient Greek Musical Concepts Passed on to Western Culture

- Tuning system developed by Pythagoras using mathematically-precise octaves, fourths and fifths, which lasted until the late 15th century.

- System of consonance and dissonance (8ve, 5th, 4ths) that lasted well into the 1300s.

- Octave modal scale systems of seven pitches in whole-step and half-step increments.

- Musical terms such as scale, diatonic, chromatic, enharmonic, which are still used today.


Music as Science, Mathematics and Philosophy

- Musical of the Spheres: It is important to note that the Greeks perceived music as a quantitative science—not an art.  The entire study of music by the Greeks was less a formula for the production of playable music than it was a mathematical and philosophical description of how the universe was perceived to be constructed—the stars, the sun, the planets, all vibrating and moving in proportional harmony.  If mankind is to be at one with the universe, we too must employ an ethical, proportional music system.


- Music and Mathematics: The famous mathematician Pythagoras (and his followers) laid the foundations of our knowledge of tuning and the study of harmonics—how strings and columns of air vibrate, how they produce intervals and overtones, how the overtones are related arithmetically to one another, etc.


- Ethical Power of Music: Greek philosophers believed that music was not only a pleasant amusement, but it could also elicit specific human behavior.  They developed a complex system of modes relating to particular emotional and spiritual characteristics. The names for the various modes derived from the names of Greek tribes and peoples, the temperament and emotions of which were said to be characterized by the unique sound of each mode. The most esteemed mode was Dorian (D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D), which was associated with Apollo.


- The Philosophy of Music: The philosopher Plato talks about the proper use of various modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc.), and later wrote this complaint about the modern music of his time: "Our music was once divided into its proper forms...There were no whistles, unmusical mob-noises, or clapping for applause. The rule was to listen silently and learn; boys, teachers, and the crowd were kept in order by threat of the stick. . . . But later, an unmusical anarchy was led by poets who had natural talent, but were ignorant of the laws of music...Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong way in music, that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave."


Ancient Greek Instruments and Musical Notation

- Musical instruments: Both Plato and Aristotle perceived instrumental music as inferior to music by the human voice. Still, the Greeks used a variety of percussion instruments (similar to timpani, snare drum, tambourine and cymbals), wind instruments (such as the reeded aulos and a the Pan pipes), and a variety of plucked stringed instruments (such as the psaltery, the harp, the lyre, and the kithara—though fretted/stopped string instruments were rare).  Instruments were often associated with a particular ethos (Lyre= Apollo/enlightenment; Aulos=Dionysus/raucousness).


- Musical notation: most Greek music was monophonic and transmitted by oral tradition, but some 50 fragmentary examples still survive today.  Greek notation is very different from our modern notation of clefs, staves, notes, etc.  At first, the Greeks divided the octave into many more than 12 pitches, and gave a different symbol to each possible pitch (no repeats at the octave; vocal and instrumental pitches had different symbols).  Later, they developed a system of consonance and dissonance focusing on octaves, fifths and fourths derived by dividing the octave into seven-pitch scales of whole-steps and half-steps.





General Background on the Middle Ages


During the "Middle Ages" (the "Medieval" era between the fall of Rome and the start of the Renaissance), the Western Christian ["Catholic"] Church evolved into Europe's strongest institution. Medieval times also included the "Age of Chivalry," the Crusades, the "Black Plague," and the establishment of the first universities.  Feudalism separated society into a multi-leveled structure, ranging from wealthy royalty to poor serfs.


Important Musical Considerations in the Middle Ages


Music in the Middle Ages began as monophonic chant, then around 1000 A.D., new types of polyphony developed and gradually expanded in rhythm, harmony and texture until reaching an extremely complex style in the late 1300s. A full assessment of Medieval music is difficult because the amount of musical source material that has survived from this era is limited by several factors:


A process for printing music had not yet been invented.


A standardized music notation system was slow to evolve.


Copying music by hand was a tedious task— few people had the skill or the time to do so.  Until the widespread use of paper in the Renaissance, music had to be copied on to large pieces of animal hide (expensive and difficult).


The church was one of the few institutions to educate music copyists. Some monks lived in solitary confinement and copied music in service to God.


Many precious manuscripts that had survived into the 20th century were destroyed by bombs during World War II.



Representative Composers of the Middle Ages


Early Medieval composers were rarely identified by name; however, as polyphony developed, some composers were credited by others for their innovations:


Anonymous Monks (c 300-1450)
A large repertoire of monophonic chant was written by unidentified musicians in various European monasteries.


PEROTIN (1180-c.1207—France)
He worked at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and is hailed for developing an early type of polyphony called organum.


Guillaume de MACHAUT (c. 1300-1377; France)
The most important composer of the Middle Ages;
He brought Medieval music to its height of rhythmic
and harmonic complexity.








The Roman Mass and Other Religious Services

For hundreds of years, Christians were persecuted by Roman authorities; however, during the 5th century in a miraculous turnabout, the once-underground Christian Church became not only tolerated—but formally established as the official church of Rome. Gradually, its most sacred ritual—Holy Communion (the taking of bread and wine to commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus and His Disciples as recounted in the New Testament)—became the foundation for the daily Mass. By c.1000, the Roman Catholic Mass had expanded to approximately 20 prayers, divided into two categories:


-            The Mass "Ordinary": the five standard prayers of the Mass that are used every day—the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei


-            The Mass "Proper": 15 prayers that change daily and are interspersed between the prayers of the Mass Ordinary to focus on the specific occasion being celebrated in the church calendar—the most important church festivals in order of magnitude are Easter and Christmas.



Of these, the five prayers of the Mass Ordinary were among the most important musical texts of the Middle Ages, so they eventually formed the basis for the musical Mass, which is easily identified by the opening words of each Latin prayer:


Kyrie (this full prayer is just 6 words long) : 
Kyrie eleison . . . Christe eleison . . . Kyrie eleison
(Translation): Lord have mercy . . . Christ have mercy . . . Lord have mercy.


Gloria (this full prayer is 85 words long) : 
Gloria in excelsis Deo, Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. . . .
(Translation): Glory to God in the highest . . . And on earth peace to men of good will . . .


Credo (this full prayer is 163 words long!) : 
Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem caeli et terrae . . .
(Translation): I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. . .


Sanctus (this full prayer is just 25 words long) : 
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth . . .
(Translation): Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty . . .


Agnus Dei (this full prayer is just 25 words long) : 
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: miserere nobis . . .

(Translation): Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world: have mercy on us. . .


The Mass was not the only sacred service in the Roman liturgy: a series of eight shorter daily prayer services known as the Divine Office (or "The Canonical Hours") was also developed during the Middle Ages. The Office includes services celebrated (usually in private) by clergy at dawn, 6AM, 9AM, noon, 3PM, sunset, before bedtime, and at midnight.  Some of the most expressive Catholic texts come from the Office— especially from the sunset service called "Vespers."





The largest body of western art music that has survived from the Middle Ages is Catholic church music.  For many centuries, the prayers of the Catholic Mass and other religious services were sung as monophonic chant (music sung to a single unaccompanied melody in a free rhythm). Catholic chant (sometimes called "Gregorian Chant"—named after Pope Gregory I) was prominent until the development of polyphony around c. 1000, and it is still used today.  The Catholic monks who wrote chant rarely put their names on manuscripts because they wanted to glorify God—not to themselves (so they remained "anonymous").

Short prayers such as the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei were sung with expressive melismas (many notes sung to each syllable of the text), but longer prayers such as the Gloria and Credo had to be sung in recitational style (one note sung per syllable of text). One of the most famous chants is the haec dies from the Easter Mass "proper":


EXAMPLE of a Gregorian CHANT

ANONYMOUS: haec dies (chant; c.800)
(Click to see the Music Guide for this work)

Click here to watch a YouTube video of this work


Short prayers, such as the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were sung with expressive melismas (many notes sung to each syllable of the text), but longer prayers such as the Gloria and Credo had to be sung in a recitational style (one note sung per syllable of text). One of the most famous chants is the haec dies from the Easter Mass Proper:


Organum—Early Sacred Polyphony (c. 1200)


Around the year 1000, composers in Europe began to experiment with polyphony (music based on several simultaneous sounds). This bold step is perhaps the single most important occurrence in the history of Western music. Around the year 1200, a simple type of polyphony called organum developed in France. This technique features long-held notes in the lower part (actually a chant melody moving very slowly), with choppy, faster-moving voices in the upper parts (based on secular dance rhythms.  In organum, the voices often sing extended melismas (many notes sung on one syllable of text—a technique that expressively emphasizes the most important words of a prayer).



PEROTIN: haec dies (organa; c.1200)
(Click to see the Music Guide for this work)


Click here to watch/hear an interactive guide of this work


The Polyphonic MASS of the Late Middle Ages: (c. 1300-1400)

By the early 1300s, sacred and secular music had become very complex, especially in regards to rhythm and harmonic dissonance.  A very important work from the late Middle Ages is the Missa Notre Dame ("Mass to Our Lady") composed in homage to the Virgin Mary by Guillaume de MACHAUT. This was a major innovation in Western music—the first time the five prayers of the Mass Ordinary were musically set into a reuseable POLYPHONIC composition.



MACHAUT: "Agnus Dei" from Missa Notre Dame (c.1350)
(Click to see the Music Guide for this work)


Click here to watch a YouTube video of this work






Dance Music

Throughout the Middle Ages, instrumental dance music was a very popular form of entertainment for all social classes. As mentioned above, the repetitive meter of secular dance music—especially when blended with innovations in harmony during the 12th to 15th centuries—eventually led to bold new types of Catholic church music such as organum and motet.



ANONYMOUS: Estampie (before 1000)
(Click to see the Music Guide for this work)


Click here to watch a YouTube video of this work



In addition, much of what we know about society in the Middle Ages comes to us through contemporaneous popular songs written about political, religious and love-related topics.  Some of the most important musical innovations of the Middle Ages came through this medium. One of the more remarkable examples is the secular "round" Sumer is icumen in ("Summer is a-coming in") written around 1300 by an anonymous English composer.


EXAMPLE of Medieval English SONG

ANONYMOUS: Sumer is icumen in (c.1260)


Click here to watch a YouTube video of this work
(To see the complete text and modern English equivalent, click on "Show more")   



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General Background on the Renaissance


The Renaissance was a revitalization of learning, commerce, exploration (Columbus, Drake, Magellan, Balboa), scientific discovery (Galileo, da Vinci, Copernicus), and spectacular artistic achievement (da Vinci, Erasmus, Cervantes, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Ronsard). Although Renaissance artists and philosophers were no less religious than those of the Middle Ages, they did seek to reconcile theological practice with the new spirit of scientific inquiry (a philosophy called Humanism that pervaded this era). The Protestant Reformation (initiated in 1517 by Martin Luther's inquiries against the teachings of the Catholic church, and the resultant founding of the Lutheran denomination) also had a tremendous impact on Renaissance music.  This religious rebellion was further solidified in 1534 when King Henry VIII of England established his own church (Anglican) because the Pope refused to allow Henry to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon (who could not bear him a son/future heir to the English throne).  In the process of reform, new churches gave rise to new types of sacred music, and with so much turmoil in the church scene, secular music began to rival its sacred counterpart.


Important Musical Considerations in the Renaissance



Polyphonic Imitation (a musical idea that is immediately echoed by another voice part or instrument)


Word-painting (using musical symbolism to represent the meaning of the text; most common in the madrigal)


The Invention of Music Printing (by the Italian printer, Petrucci, in 1501)


The Rise of Secular Music


The Renaissance was reflected musically through increased expression and more individual compositional styles.  As a result, Renaissance music sounds sweeter and fuller than Medieval music. Renaissance works usually have at least five independent vocal parts, with expanded ranges (higher soprano parts, lower bass parts). Renaissance composers began to write in a new way called simultaneous composition, in which all the voice parts were constructed together phrase-by-phrase (as opposed to the Medieval manner of successive composition, in which the chant line was pre-determined, an upper melody was constructed next, and the inner voices were filled in last). Phrase-by-phrase writing allowed for the development of polyphonic imitation (conversational echoing of music from voice to voice), word-painting (writing music to illustrate the meaning of each phrase of text), and the implementation of musical cadences (conclusive phrase/section endings analogous to punctuation/inflection in written/spoken language).  By the end of the Renaissance, the ancient-sounding modal style of the Middle Ages was starting to be superseded by tonality [key-centered music].  Musical sections gradually became longer, primarily because of pervasive imitation.  During this era, secular music came to rival sacred music as composers opted for greater expressive freedom, and as religious turmoil made it increasingly dangerous to be associated with a particular denomination.



Representative Composers of the Renaissance


The most prominent composers of the first half of the Renaissance came from the French-Italian region known as Flanders. By the end of the era, leading composers were primarily Italian and English:



JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c. 1440-1521; Flanders)
Josquin, the most famous composer
of the mid-Renaissance, established
a new, beautifully-expressive sound
based on constantly-changing textures
in his Masses, motets and songs.




Giovanni da PALESTRINA (c. 1524-94; Italy)
ACD Systems Digital ImagingWhile working at the Vatican in Rome,
Palestrina became the most esteemed master
of late-Renaissance sacred music, noted for
his rich and lyrical Masses and motets.





Thomas WEELKES (c. 1575-1623; England)
One of several important composers
at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
He is noted for his secular madrigals
and Anglican church music.










A motet is a polyphonic choral work based on a sacred Latin text.  Motets first developed in the late Middle Ages but flourished primarily in the Renaissance.  Unlike Medieval motets, Renaissance motets are smooth-sounding and imitative in texture.  Although a motet can sound like a Mass, a Mass is based on one of the five prayers of the "Ordinary" (see previous chapter), while a motet has some other type of religious text.  A motet is usually sung a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment), although instruments may "double" the voices.


EXAMPLE of a Renaissance MOTET

JOSQUIN DESPREZ: Ave Maria...virgo serena (c1510)
(Click to see the Music Guide for this work)


Click here to watch a YouTube video of this work




Despite the popularity of the motet, the polyphonic Mass was still the most significant sacred genre in the Renaissance.  Imitation (echoed entrances) was an essential feature of these Masses, which also are expanded in length and vocal range.  The style becomes more smooth, controlled, and expressive than that heard in Machaut's Mass from the late Middle Ages.  The high point of the late Renaissance sacred music is represented by Giovanni da PALESTRINA.


EXAMPLE of a Renaissance MASS

PALESTRINA: "Agnus Dei" from Pope Marcellus Mass (1567)
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The most artistic genre of secular vocal music was the madrigal, a polyphonic work for a small group of unaccompanied singers.  Madrigals are usually based on love-related poetry, and they are noted for their use of imitation  (successive voice parts that echo each other) and word-painting (illustrating the meaning of specific words through musical sound). Madrigals are sung in Italian or English (usually depending on the native tongue of the composer). Italian madrigals tend to be more serious in nature and experimental in style than English models.



EXAMPLE of a Renaissance English MADRIGAL

WEELKES: As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending (1601)
(Click to see the Music Guide for this work)

Click here to watch a YouTube video of this work




Renaissance Songs

During the Renaissance, songs about courtly love or socio-religious issues were written in many languages.  Lute-songs for voice with lute accompaniment (such as the well-known tune "Greensleeves") were widely popular. (A French song is called a chanson, an Italian song is called a canzona, and a German song is called a Lied.)


EXAMPLE of a Renaissance English SONG

DOWLAND: Flow My Tears (1600)

Click here to watch a YouTube video of this movement



Instrumental Music IN THE RENAISSANCE


Instrumental dance music continued to flourish in the Renaissance, as performed by viols, lutes, recorders, shawms, crumhorns, harpsichords, cornettos, sackbuts, etc. Collective groups of early instruments (called consorts) also played arrangements and transcriptions of songs, as well as various types of sacred music (such as the instrumental canzonas of Giovanni GABRIELI). 



DOWLAND: Lacrymae Pavan (1596; for viols and lute)
(the piece his song "Flow My Tears" was based on)

Click here to watch a YouTube video of this movement



Click here to watch a YouTube video with several short international examples of different Renaissance consorts:

[0'00"] - [French] Susato: Allemande (for cornettos, sackbuts and drum)
[0'58"] - [Italian] Pacaloni: Salterello (lutes)
[2'34"] - [French] De Sermisy: Amour me poingt (wooden flute consort)
[3'43"] - [Italian] Manerio: Caro Ortolano (racket consort)

[5'09"] - [French] De Sermisy: J'ai le Desir Content (recorder consort)

[6'22"] - [French] Attaignant (publ.): Basse danse (rebec consort)
[8'09"] - [Spanish] Milan:  Fantasia (vihuela)



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General Background on the early Baroque


In the 1580s and '90s, an interdisciplinary group of Italian scholars in Florence known as the Camerata began to study and discuss ancient Greek documents and artifacts. This led to a new-found fascination about how the ancient Greeks used music and drama to control the emotional state of their audiences. 


New Vocal Approaches in the Early Baroque

Shortly after 1600, in an effort to recapture this dramatic power, Italian composers such as such as Carlo GESULADO and Claudio MONTEVERDI began to experiment with the madrigal in intensely-expressive ways that became a transition to the new "early-Baroque" style, and led to the development of the most dramatically-expressive of all vocal genres: opera.


EXAMPLE of an early-Baroque Italian MADRIGAL

GESUALDO: Moro, lasso (1611)
(Click to see the Music Guide for this work)

Click here to watch a YouTube video of this movement


EXAMPLE of an early-Baroque Italian OPERA scene

MONTEVERDI: "Tu sei morta" from L'Orfeo (1607)
(Click to see the Music Guide for this work)

Click here to watch a YouTube video of this movement



By the end of the 1600s, opera had established two distinct manners of singing:

recitative (a rhythmically free, speech-like style of singing, where the ACTION of the opera takes place)


aria (a tuneful style of singing with a steady beat, in which the singer offers a REACTION to what has transpired)


"Dido's Lament," the final scene from Dido and Aeneas by Henry PURCELL, is a fine example of Baroque opera that shows the distinction between recitative and aria.


EXAMPLE of a mid-Baroque English OPERA scene

PURCELL: "Dido's Lament" from Dido and Aeneas (1689)
(Click to see the Music Guide for this work)

Click here to watch a YouTube video of the "recitative," "aria" and "final chorus" from this opera



Instruments Begin To Rival Voices

In the period from c1650-1700, European composers began to write instrumental music that attempted to emulate or exceed the expressive power of vocal music, leading to the intensely-expressive Baroque instrumental works of Corelli, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel in the later Baroque (see the chapter on "Late-Baroque Music."