The future of Medieval Music

Since medieval music is ontologically a thing of the past, one should rightly ask whether it can have a future at all. In the simplest sense, someone will be performing something called "medieval music" tomorrow, and so it clearly does have a future. Indeed, it is booming. For instance, there is little doubt that (even by percentage) far more people have heard of Hildegard today than when she was alive. Medieval music is serving to resurrect the art tradition among a larger segment of the population. I think it also leads naturally to an interest in the continuation of that tradition in later stylistic eras. When it comes to the future, and this is an issue in the back of my mind whenever I write here, the real question is how the resurrection of medieval styles will influence subsequent composition and original music-making. In short, will composers incorporate medieval stylistic traits, and if so how? The former answer must be affirmative, while the latter is more intriguing. It cannot be circumscribed here, at least hopefully not, but some idle thoughts may prove stimulating at this point.

While it is still popular to posit simpler or even naïve ideas and styles to medieval composers, acquaintance with the music shows otherwise. In many ways, this is the West's most abstract music prior to the twentieth century. The distinction is that the intricacies are in directions other than those of the more familiar core classical repertory. For many listeners, anything outside of triadic harmony will sound unsophisticated, and music prior to its development will be viewed as a primitive precursor. That is their loss, certainly, and of course many will have no more interest in new music than they have in old. There is also a rather bizarre argument over the "character" of this music which pops up here & there, from one week to the next. Namely, whether this music was ever "popular" is apparently of great concern to some people. I have implied in the past that it was elite in the sense that e.g. polytextual interplay would not be dumbed down in Ars Nova motets. However, it is also significant to add that "dumbing down" is a more recent phenomenon, and that there is no indication that earlier groups of people insisted that they were superior in their ignorance (as so many do today). In short, there was little to prevent someone from another class taking an interest and becoming a professional musician, etc. In that sense, the culture was an icon, whether it was fully understood or not. Well, this is how I view it.

If we allow that medieval music can be as sophisticated and inherently intriguing as that in another style, it becomes evident that composers will incorporate some of its traits as they are exposed to them. In fact, there are already many examples. One of the first groups to look to medieval music was the minimalists, who found some of the static quality they wanted in the lack of key changes. Of course, the models usually have far more activity than the minimalist compositions inspired by them. Much of this is due to the fact the medieval works are generally quite compact, even densely packed with activity, while the minimalists will stretch a similar procedure over a much larger span of time. The latter is not an approach I enjoy, as I look for a density of ideas in music. Perhaps ironically, that's much of what I enjoy about medieval music, as so much of the Baroque & Classical music seems similarly stretched and consequently empty. I don't listen to music for background or diversion, and those were purposes which became more important in the Baroque & Classical eras. The other major example is serialism going back to Webern, in which the very dense abbreviation of style was likewise motivated by medieval (or Renaissance) traits. That juxtaposition, between say Pärt & Webern, is probably enough to exhibit the depth of ramification which medieval music can have on contemporary composition. There are innumerable prospective directions in which various traditional ideas could yet be developed, and simply coming to terms with that fact can prove quite disorienting. What is perhaps most difficult is to provide the listener an orientation for expectations, given that there are nine centuries of stylistic influences from which to choose.

There are basically two poles to an endeavor of this sort: write something specifically based on one style, or use anything & everything. The latter is certainly more natural, given the huge variety of auditory influences the inquisitive musician will have today, but it presents some difficulties. For one, there is the matter of the listeners' expectations, and that is an issue which contemporary composers in many styles have faced. Without a set of concrete expectations against which to play, such as major-minor tonality or fifths at cadences, each piece must build its own context. While in some sense this is the ultimate in abstract art, it is also prohibitively difficult to be successful, and at the very least requires a large investment from the listener. It isn't so much the specific system which is significant here, only that the listener have some set of appropriate expectations. When it comes to staying within a particular style, and I believe there are some merits to this idea in the case of relatively "new" directions such as medieval techniques, there is always a tendency toward artistic growth and that growth will almost necessarily be influenced by other styles. So one cannot feign ignorance of the intervening centuries, at least not for long. Of course the natural result is that composers typically pick a subset of stylistic traits & methods and work on developing those, perhaps slowly adding some other ideas. For now, medieval music is one of those other ideas, as its application in contemporary composition has not been very thorough thus far. It is a level of thoroughness which I seek, rather than a sense of dabbling.

Although I certainly mean no disrespect to those practicing them, the use of specifically medieval idioms in new music has found little success with me. In some ways, the inevitable comparisons are unfair, since who is to measure up to Machaut? We have more or less the choice of centuries, against which modern composers will be judged. It is definitely intimidating, so I still feel good about those who try, even if I haven't enjoyed their music. And I can't claim to have met with any success myself. An optimistic note is that there is surely composition going on about which I am blissfully unaware, so perhaps the situation is better than I imagine. On that note, I'd like to invite anyone reading this to make suggestions for composers writing in medieval idioms today. I'd like to write some more specific discussion of individual pieces, but have been equivocating because I don't feel like I have much nice to say. Perhaps what is really needed is a deeper synthesis in which the individual stylistic traits are not so easily distinguished. While this is surely true, more modest objectives are important too. As stated early in the life of this column, I still see the primary task as hard work, because barring an early immersion which can be at most partial, only study can make the music seem real rather than a curiosity.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb