Medieval Perspectives: Relaxing music

Medieval music has found increased popularity of late partly because of its ability to relax or soothe the listener. This idea has been a factor in the explosive sales of the Chant CD as well as of other classical best sellers of more modest proportion.

Among these discs have been:

Hildegard von Bingen: 11,000 Virgins
Anonymous 4
Harmonia Mundi USA 907200
Hilliard Ensemble
ECM "New Series" 1385

In fact, medieval albums from such groups as Anonymous 4 and Sequentia routinely lead general "classical" sales figures, making medieval music one of the few growth areas in the record industry.

Record labels and various marketing initiatives have been quick to seize upon the "tranquil" impression of medieval repertory, such as in the following reissue collection:

Chill to the Chant
The Magic of Gregorian Chant
Sequentia / Schola Cantorum Basiliensis
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 62666

However, the more inquisitive listener can find a wealth of details and subtlety behind this surface appreciation. One thing to understand is the nature of "chant" and how it relates to some of this other repertory, as mis-labeled in the above collection.

Chant, or what is sometimes called Gregorian chant or simply "plainchant" by scholars is an unaccompanied melody with sacred Latin lyrics made for Church services during the medieval era. Although it is not uncommon for more than one singer to sing the same melody in plainchant, once they begin singing a different melody or accompaniment, it is no longer properly chant, but rather polyphony of some kind. So, for instance, most of the tracks on "Chill to the Chant" and some other collections are actually polyphony.

France was the center of many of these developments, and polyphony was frequently written down there from the 1100s onward. During that time, there was also a new emphasis on Latin melody outside the bounds of the liturgy itself. Latin songs of this sort might be called "chant" when they are not polyphonic, but they do differ somewhat in genre from the core service music. This is the style into which Hildegard von Bingen (c.1098-1179) fits.

Hildegard's music has become central not only to the explosion in the popularity of medieval music, but also to the idea of relaxing & healing music in general. Although it can become too easy to chide the general public and the record companies for flocking to the "chant phenomenon" and the idea of medieval music as tranquil, it is also clearly true that music can have a beneficial effect on the listener. Hildegard explored this idea rather thoroughly for the time, and produced an abundant output of uplifting melodies. Some other recordings:

A Feather on the Breath of God
Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen
Gothic Voices - Christopher Page
Hyperion 66039
Hildegard: Voice of the Blood
Sequentia - Barbara Thornton
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77346
Unfurling Love's Creation
Chants by Hildegard von Bingen
Norma Gentile
Lyrichord 8027

Although one frequently reads rather misleading articles today suggesting that there were not many other important composers writing in similar styles during Hildegard's lifetime, or that she was particularly well-known or influential among them, the idea of the medieval abbess has proven to be a powerfully compelling one. In many ways, it has helped to offset the opposite misconceptions of the medieval era as a mindlessly violent time.

Viewing a span of time inhabited by real people as either uniformly violent or uniformly tranquil is certainly a narrow view, but it is also the case that medieval composers did cultivate an exaltation of spiritual matters in much of their surviving music. The era of Hildegard is now called the "Ars Antiqua" and from a historical perspective, the most significant music of that time was that of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, as illustrated by the Hilliard Ensemble recording above.

The Notre Dame school of polyphony comes to something of a climax with Perotin (c.1160-1240), but it developed finely nuanced organum throughout this period. Organum is one of the simplest ways to create polyphony out of plainchant, by singing another melody above the chant, in a slightly faster pace to decorate it. One might consider such a construction inherently less "tranquil" although the results can prove otherwise. Healing through music is fundamentally a matter of affecting the mind, and consequently it is necessary to engage the mind at the appropriate level. Just as a single held tone would generally be less effective than a chant melody for most people, polyphony can become more compelling than plainchant in some circumstances. As one's sophistication builds, it becomes quite conceivable that even more complicated music would be more effective. What medieval music provides throughout this era is a basis in plainchant by which one can be grounded.

Some other interpretations of the Notre Dame repertory:

Magister Leoninus
Sacred Music from 12th century Paris
Red Byrd / Cappella Amsterdam - John Potter & Richard Wistreich
Hyperion 66944
Paris 1200
Perotin & Leonin - Chant and polyphony from 12th century France
Nimbus 5547

If one is to take relaxation seriously, the significant point here is that one must be engaged at the correct level. This is one reason that more sophisticated listeners might bristle at the suggestions put forward in some circles, even if they might be perfectly effective for someone otherwise unfamiliar with the music. Each of the citations above primarily illustrates music which is somewhat simpler than the original Perotin citation, the first with more nuance in the vocal interpretation, the second with less.

By the 1300s, European music moved into what is called the "Ars Nova" era and out of the Ars Antiqua. The most striking feature of the Ars Nova music is a more angular rhythmic structure with more activity. This is the beginning of a sequence of events which would produce some of the most technically complicated polyphony in Western musical history during the 1400s. However, one area which had been a stronghold of the Ars Antiqua was England, and there the more chant-based styles continued to develop into the 1500s within the relatively isolated monasteries. A recording illustrating some of the soaring lines which became a trademark of this music:

The Rose & the Ostrich Feather
Music from the Eton Choirbook, Volume I
The Sixteen - Harry Christophers
Collins Classics 1314

Of course, although it can be easier to hear the difference between styles of polyphony, the vast majority of music surviving from the medieval era is plainchant. A variety of individual chant styles were developed, and a wide range of repertory exists. One area which continues to spark controversy among experts is the precise way in which different chant styles were phrased, and so different interpreters can bring remarkably different sounds to otherwise similar music. Recordings of chant from the Cluniac and Dominican monastic orders by respectively French and Italian ensembles can help illustrate this variety:

Cluny: La Vierge
Chants de Pierre le Vénérable
Ensemble Venance Fortunat - Anne-Marie Deschamps
L'Empreinte digitale 13109
O spem miram
Ufficio e Messa per S.Domenico secondo il canto dell'Ordine dei Predicatori - secolo XIII
Ensemble Cantilena Antiqua - Stefano Albarello
Symphonia 96145

From this perspective, one unifying thread for the medieval era is "variety within unity" and indeed a survey of some of these styles, even the more relaxing styles, can lead one to appreciate the different nuances of what was not a monolithic culture.

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Todd M. McComb