A Selection of Medieval Music

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Although the Medieval era stretches back centuries, and indeed plainchant repertories go back much farther, the starting point for this survey will be the early polyphonic music and contemporaneous monophonic songs of the 12th century. This is the time at which the medieval repertory can really be said to begin.

The earliest stages of polyphony in France, first in a basic notation lacking precise pitch designation, actually flowered in the 11th century with some interesting examples. This has recently been reconstructed, and is presented in a compelling recording:

Les premieres polyphonies françaises
Organa et tropes du XIe siècle
Ensemble Gilles Binchois - Dominique Vellard
Virgin Veritas 45135

It was during the 12th century that polyphony developed into elaborate forms in two centers: Paris and St. Martial de Limoges, with the latter preceding the former. In this repertory, not only is pitch notation more explicit, but the music presents an identifiably mature technique with a rich command of sonority. It has become relatively popular and is available in several recordings. A few good introductions:

Polyphonie Aquitaine du XIIe siècle - St-Martial de Limoges
Extraits des matines de Noël
Ensemble Organum - Marcel Pérès
Harmonia Mundi 901134
Pérotin & L'École de Notre Dame, 1160-1245
Ensemble Gilles Binchois - Dominique Vellard
Ambroisie 9947
Hilliard Ensemble - Paul Hillier
ECM New Series 1385

While the first recording above presents this music in its liturgical context, the latter two present highlights of the repertory. The crowning liturgical composer of the period is indisputably Perotin (c.1160-1240) of the Notre Dame school.

There are also some fine surviving sources from England during the high gothic period. A quality survey:

Sumer is Icumen in
Medieval English Songs
Hilliard Ensemble - Paul Hillier
Harmonia Mundi 901154

At this point, we leave early Latin polyphony to survey other developments. Polyphonic music based on liturgical usage will once again become the driving force in musical developments in the late 15th century.

Hildegard von Bingen (c.1098-1179) was a more provincial figure (from Germany), and one of the most distinctive musical voices of the age. Her music is monophonic and in Latin, well-represented on recording. A fine introduction:

Hildegard: Canticles of Ecstasy
Sequentia - Barbara Thornton
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77320

In addition to Hildegard's large & secluded output, a great variety of lyrical songs were devoted to biblical themes during this era. A valuable survey:

Visions from the Book
Sequentia - Benjamin Bagby
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77347

Alongside these new developments in polyphony & Latin song, monophonic songs written in the vernacular languages Occitan (by the troubadours of Provence) and French (by the trouvères of the North) also developed and flourished. Again, the South preceded the North. A few notable examples among the dozens of top rank recordings:

Dante and the Troubadours
Sequentia - Benjamin Bagby & Barbara Thornton
DHM "Splendeurs" 60163
Lo Gai Saber: Troubadour and Minstrel Music 1100-1300
Camerata Mediterranea - Joel Cohen
Erato 45647
Richard Coeur de Lion
Troubadours et trouvères
Alla Francesca
Opus 111 30-170
The Spirits of England and France - II
Songs of the Trouvères
Gothic Voices - Christopher Page
Hyperion 66773
Cansós de Trobairitz
Hespèrion XX - Jordi Savall
Virgin Veritas Edition 61310

There are several different performance styles which make convincing cases in this music. The repertory also includes some Spanish (Catalán, Galician) songs in a similar style.

There are several large manuscripts of Spanish music from this era, and they have become rather popular today. Especially notable are the Cantigas de Santa Maria and the sources associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Spanish music of the period often provides an interesting mix of sacred and secular elements within the same piece. A few recordings among a large number of possibilities:

The Life of Mary
Cantigas for the Feasts of Holy Mary
Grupo de Música Antigua - Eduardo Paniagua
Sony Hispánica 62284 (2 CDs)
The Pilgrimage to Santiago
New London Consort - Philip Pickett
L'Oiseau Lyre 433 148 (2 CDs)
Llibre Vermell de Montserrat
Hespèrion XX - Jordi Savall
Virgin Veritas Edition 61174

In 13th century Italy, the French polyphonic style had not yet taken hold, although some troubadours had worked there. The most important native genre was the laud, a sort of folksy-sacred chant with improvised harmony. A fine recording:

Laude di Sancta Maria
Veillée de chants de dévotion dans l'Italie des Communes
La Reverdie
Arcana 34

One can also find some "profane" music of the period in the famous Carmina Burana manuscript, a large German source which illustrates a wide stylistic range:

Carmina Burana
Clemencic Consort - René Clemencic
Harmonia Mundi 90335

Besides seeing the height of the troubadour and trouvère repertories, 13th century France also witnessed a plethora of new formal developments. In particular, the new polyphonic genre of motet flourished in both French and Latin. A couple of fine surveys which highlight the emerging motet:

Les Escholiers de Paris
Motets, Chansons et Estampies du XIIIe siècle
Ensemble Gilles Binchois - Dominique Vellard
Harmonic 9245
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Motets and Songs from Thirteenth Century France
Gothic Voices - Christopher Page
Hyperion 66423

The motet actually developed by elaborating the closing flourishes of the Notre Dame polyphony into independent works with new lyrics. By the end of the 13th century, this polyphony was increasingly sophisticated.

A new rhythmic notation called Ars Nova was expounded in the early 14th century by the scholar-composer Philippe de Vitry (c.1291-1361) or his associates. One of the first places this more complex style made a compelling impact was in the famous Roman de Fauvel:

Le Roman de Fauvel
The Boston Camerata / Ensemble P.A.N. - Joel Cohen
Erato 96392

A classic recording which summarizes the various genres of this era and beyond:

Music of the Gothic Era
Early Music Consort of London - David Munrow
DG Archiv Codex 453 185 (2 CDs)

Following in the wake of the more sophisticated notation of the Ars Nova, the first great syntheses of the various threads of medieval music began to occur in the hands of well-known masters. The first such composer to personally dominate decades of music history is Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377). His Mass of Notre Dame is one of the most famous works of the Medieval era, if not the most famous. Some important recordings:

Guillaume de Machaut: Messe de Nostre Dame
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
Alpha 132
Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame
Taverner Consort and Choir - Andrew Parrott
EMI Reflexe 47949
Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame
w/ Le Lai de la Fonteinne & Ma fin est mon commencement
Hilliard Ensemble - Paul Hillier
Hyperion 66358

The first two recordings above are "service" settings, while the latter includes only those sections set by Machaut.

Other unified polyphonic settings of the Mass appeared at this time, representing a new era in the composition of liturgical music. The anonymous Mass of Tournai is the earliest surviving cycle:

Messe de Tournai
Ensemble Organum - Marcel Pérès
Harmonia Mundi 901353

Machaut, also the greatest poet of his age, took French secular music to new heights of inspiration and refinement. He was able to combine the classically inspired forms of the monophonic repertory of the trouvères with the flowing counterpoint of sacred music. The result is unprecedented for its grace and emotive strength. A few recordings:

Machaut: Ballades, Rondeaux, Virelais, Motets
Ensemble Gilles Binchois - Dominique Vellard
Harmonic 8825
The Mirror of Narcissus
Songs by Machaut
Gothic Voices - Christopher Page
Hyperion 66087
Remède de Fortune
Ensemble Project Ars Nova
New Albion 068
L'art musical et poétique de Guillaume de Machaut
Motets / Ballades / Virelays - Le Remède de Fortune - Le Veoir Dit
Jean Belliard / Ensemble Guillaume de Machaut de Paris - Guy Robert
Adès 203712

Although Machaut did have many French contemporaries writing in similar styles, his reputation easily dwarfs all others.

The later 14th century was a period during which the French style dominated secular composition throughout Europe. It was modified to reflect local tastes in Italy and England, but remained largely French in inspiration for some decades. However, Italian composers continued to develop a more native idiom, combining French Ars Nova ideas with indigenous genres. Francesco Landini (c.1325-1397) was the major figure to have consolidated the idiom centered on Florence. A pair of fine recordings:

D'Amor cantando
Ballate e madrigali veneti: Codice Rossi XIV secolo
Opus 111 30-141
Landini: Fior di Dolceça
L'Ars nova di Magister Franciscus Cecus Orghanista de Florentia
Zig-Zag Territories 050603

The court in England had come from France, and styles there were consequently something of a continuation of those in France. However, in England it was sacred music which dominated compositional innovation. A recording illustrating this music:

Masters of the Rolls
Music by English Composers of the Fourteenth Century
Gothic Voices - Christopher Page
Hyperion 67098

French secular music at the end of the 14th century became unusually intricate, both in terms of rhythm and harmony. This is called the Ars Subtilior style, and it was soon adopted enthusiastically in Italy where it was extended in scope & detail. Practical performance considerations for this music are still evolving rapidly, but two recordings to recommend from an expanding discography are:

Ars Magis Subtiliter
Secular Music of the Chantilly Codex
Ensemble Project Ars Nova
New Albion 021
Ars Subtilis Ytalica
Polyphonie pseudo-Française en Italie
Mala Punica
Arcana 21

The stylistic bridge between the extremely complicated Ars Subtilior and the smoother harmonic idiom of the early Renaissance is being increasingly explored. The most highly regarded composer of this intermediate generation is Johannes Ciconia (c.1370-1412). A fine survey, representing all the genres of c.1400:

Ciconia: Motets, Virelais, Ballate, Madrigals
Alla Francesca & Alta
Opus 111 30-101

By the beginning of the 15th century, English composers were not only writing music with simpler harmonizations based on thirds, but cyclic cantus firmus masses as well. This was the historical era in which English composition was most influential in Europe, and the most important composers in the style were John Dunstable (c.1390-1453) and Leonel Power (c.1380-1445). Quality recordings:

John Dunstaple
Orlando Consort
Metronome 1009
Power: Missa Alma redemptoris mater / Motets
Hilliard Ensemble - Paul Hillier
Virgin Edition 61345

German music does not fit the present chronology very well, since it carried what might be called the troubadour style well into the 15th century. A good recording of this music, which must be called medieval in idiom:

Wolkenstein: Songs
Sequentia - Benjamin Bagby & Barbara Thornton
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77302

Except in England, the main musical developments of this entire era were in French (and sometimes Italian) secular music. This leads to the incredible stylistic synthesis and perfection of the courtly songs of the next generation.

Todd M. McComb