The Early Characteristic Developments in Western Music During the Middle Ages

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  • Topic: Gregorian chant, Medieval music, Organum
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The early characteristic developments in Western music during The Middle Ages

In the early ages of western music, plain chant (cantus planus) later to be known as Gregorian Chant (codified by the Pope, St Gregory the great) was found in Roman Catholic Churches around Europe. It is from here that western music started to develop, becoming a spectacle for commoners and royalty alike. This essay will look at the musical characteristics of the chants and how they developed into Ars Nova’s period of music. Ars Nova literally means “New Art” defined by the Dark Middle Ages before the Renaisance continuing from the period around 1300.

The early Gregorian chant was sung in Latin by men’s voices in unison unaccompanied by any musical instruments. This meant that the chant was monophonic aided by only the Church’s architectural resonance to which carried the voices.

(Sanctus - Various Artists. Grégorien 2012)

There is no rhythm to the chant and it is sung in unison at certain sections. Having no rhythm means that a syllable can be sung for an uncounted amount of time and a pattern cannot be determined.

“Cadence is never made by approaching the final from the semitone below: a whole tone must invariably be used in such a case.” (Mocquereau 2004)

The use of diatonic intervals (maximum even sounding spaces between two sounds) is apparent staying far away from anything chromatic (minimal spaces). And once the groupings of these notes were arranged into scales they became modes of which there are eight variances. Universi qui te expectant is another example of monophony this time sung melismatic. Melisma is several varied pitches sung on one syllable. This was used extensively throughout the Middle Ages to show expression, usually of joy. This could be possible indication of influence from Spanish Islamic Mozarabic chant as they share similar melisma in their chants.

“Chant words were sacred and could not be altered. But chant notes were more fluid. Even in the earliest chants, there could be more than one note per syllable, and in some cases this took on heroic proportions. An example of this was called a jubilus” (Lord 2008)

Most pieces of the sacred chants were composed around the scripture of Christian Psalms, and although codified they were not notated until the late ninth and tenth century in the form of Neumes (early notation). To learn these

earlier chants monks had to listen and learn aurally by ear, meaning the pitches of the syllables are likely to be inexact to the original compositions.

Sequences are the early signs of the birth of harmony that came from the hardships of learning the plain chant. A monk named Notker Balbulus of St. Gall found the melisma parts too hard to remember, so he had the idea of giving them words of his own. These were recognised by the church and sometimes added into the end of a mass. Tropes were also found at this time under the same church. They differed from sequences as they were used as introductions to the main chants. Both sequences and tropes are similar by the fact they both are melodic texts or sections added to preexisting chants.

Organum was the next development to arise from the book Musica enchiriadis. This book was a manual for the Christian singers and describes that adding a second voice to the chant at an octave, fourth or fifth interval of the original can heighten a plainsong (aka plain chant).

“At this point, the two voices move in parallel until the cadence (or occursus, as it was called, meaning the coming-together), which restores the unison. In the second phrase, the augmented fourth against B is avoided first by sustaining the “organal” G, and then by leaping to E. Once again unison is restored at the end.” (Taruksin 2010)

This however was not quite polyphonic; it was more of a harmonized chant known as parallel organum or the later term counterpoint. There were other types of organum namely oblique organum and contrary...
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