The medieval mind

After stating matter-of-factly that Machaut was the first "individual" composer, it is time to state further that historical sociologists date the very idea of being "individual" to the beginning of the fourteenth century. Explorations of prior times show people turning to conventional or mythological norms for definition & validation, a process which served to blunt expression of their own traits, even when writing nominally in the first person. While such an assessment is surely debatable, it is a happy coincidence for explorations of musical style, not so much because it is necessary, but because it serves to underscore the timeliness of musical development. If I take the Franco-Flemish age as the first definitive exploration of individuality in musical style, such an assessment is also underscored by the beginning of widespread expressions of individuality among ordinary people in the fifteenth century. If conclusions such as those presented in A History of Private Life (Georges Duby, editor) are to be accepted — and the authors pay essentially no attention to music — then musical survival and subsequent appraisal of personality go very much hand-in-hand with that for the more general culture. While this is unsurprising, it is still notable to see musical assessments paralleled in completely separate work.

Descriptions of medieval attitudes can only be undertaken with caution, of course, as the danger of substituting our own is always high. This is true of performance practice as well. Indeed, it is a general truth of human interaction, whether mediated by history or some other barrier. After so many years, I can perhaps hazard to identify with medieval expressions, and I do find my own attitudes to be frequently closer to past expressions than I do those of many of my contemporaries. One intriguing, or perhaps critical, question arising from such an identification (assuming it is not pure fantasy) is: Does my tendency to take medieval-like attitudes make me more receptive to medieval music, or does frequent exposure to medieval music condition my thoughts such that I take such attitudes? If the latter, we find a very clear implication for the purpose of music. To follow that thought in cyclical fashion, medieval men certainly believed that the ideas & circumstances to which one exposed oneself could have a profound effect on one's thoughts & deeds. That such a notion would apply to music cannot be surprising, as moral influences of any type were increasingly scrutinized. As the later middle ages gave rise to individualism, a person's ideas were dissected as never before. Regular confession was instituted, and the idea of sin was extended to thought — and music.

Unsurprisingly, the various social movements of Western Europe can be seen to parallel musical developments. The nadir of public power and the proliferation of private wars in the eleventh century precipitated the development of polyphony (or its notation), the resulting upheaval providing a crucible for change. The idea of lasting composition, of specific combinations of sounds, can be connected to an increased reliance on property, even if composers such as Perotin were still portrayed in mythological (rather than individual) terms. The scholastic movement and the tendency toward disputation is easily connected with the polyphonic devices of the thirteenth century motet. The subsequent development of ideas on individuality was even more critical, as noted, and the increased stability & prosperity in the wake of the Black Death in the fifteenth century accommodated more extravagant musical endeavors as well. The characteristic medieval contempt for the material world also began to fall away in this period, yielding an urge to standardize expression: Inward devotion was more thoroughly scrutinized. Technical divisions in musical parts began to reflect a more rigidly defined social hierarchy. Specific musical connections to ceremonial occasions are more easily appraised. Everything had its place, whether the bass line or the festal mass.

The most straightforward defining feature of the medieval mindset, at least as it differed from our own, was the greater contrast of everyday life. Death often happened suddenly. Poor sanitation meant that unpleasant odors were common, making pleasant odors all the more appealing. The weather was noisy, not a backdrop to persistent industrial noise. The wild of nature was genuinely wild, frightening. The senses encountered all extremes. Sight was something of an exception, as people's natural vision is apparently not as good as modern technology allows; yet, without the homogeneity of production, unusual objects seemed that much more unusual. Variety in food was largely absent, making a difference in taste seem that much more remarkable. More significant was the underlying variety of emotion, as medieval people felt a greater immediacy of joy & suffering. They were not inundated & saturated with images & ideas as we are today; there was no "Generation X." There was certainly no sense that everything which one could experience had already been experienced, and no sense of personal invulnerability. The increasingly jaded quality of modern civilization — the blunting of emotional sincerity — can easily be observed in film. The "over-acting" of early films seemed more natural to people only a hundred years ago, and the medieval era would have been even more demonstrative. Films from developing countries likewise show what we might call an "innocence" in emotional expression, something no longer accepted here. There is nothing to diminish genuine emotion like feeling invulnerable, unless it is the constant stream of fake emotion on television. There cannot be the same emotional kaleidoscope when there are barely emotions left at all.

Beyond what I can only describe as the dehumanizing process of emotional dilution, and its effect on music together with everything else, the increased communication of the modern age already began to blunt the distinctiveness of regional traditions by the sixteenth century. That voices would have sounded very different in neighboring countries is an idea we can only partially grasp today. While it might be comforting to paint a "medieval mentality" in broad terms, the sameness & continuity we project was largely absent. The implications for musical interpretation are vast. At the very least, the greater emotional contrast of the medieval era is completely at odds with the frequent modern view of medieval music as smoothed-over "elevator music." Moreover, the tendency to be condescending toward earlier times and people has never been higher. We have a tendency to believe that we know better now, not least of which in the field of aesthetics. Ideas on "enlightenment" and consequent realignment are never far from such a discussion, erecting a barrier between ourselves and all but the recent past. In that sense, any description of "the medieval mind" is already a patronizing act, yet an act necessary for humanizing the past. Rather than worshiping the past, as people had for centuries, we worship the future, a future in which we want to put a little frame around everything else, at least in part to show our modern superiority. Medieval man was still grappling with the idea of individuality, of exceeding the past, and that thread of respectful sincerity is easily discerned in his music.

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Todd M. McComb