Music Composition Assignments for 10.6.2017

Music Composition Assignments for 10.6.2017

This week we discussed the period known as Medieval, which for our purposes is around 700-1400 AD. The beginning date is admittedly arbitrary, and many other scholars would have several different answers as so when the musical Medieval period starts. History has many, many grey areas! I will also mention that this is a mile wide and an inch deep. There is so much more to the music of this period that we just don’t have time to get into.

Music, as with other art forms, is largely a reflection of what is going on in the world through the composer’s eyes. The Medieval period saw a great deal of population expansion through Europe through migration and conquest. Groups like the Huns, the Vikings, and various German tribes pushed their borders outward and mixed their cultures with other peoples. Art found in burial sites shows how different cultures borrowed from others. It is largely through the Medieval period that nation-states begin to form as transportation and communication advances, making it possible for single rulers or ruling families to manage larger and larger territories. For example, Charlemagne’s conquests led to the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, a large empire that largely held together until the 1800s. Kingdoms in Germany, England, France, and Italy start to coalesce into forms that would be somewhat recognizable even today.

Musically, ideas and techniques also traveled with the invading peoples. Music of the ancient civilizations gave way to Western European styles characterized by the plainsong of the Catholic church. As we discussed, education and money made the writing of music difficult. Things could only be copied by hand, which took a great deal of time. Most churches, if they were wealthy enough, would have only one copy of the liturgy available. Trained singers, often clergy like priests, monks, and nuns, would stand around the book and sing from it. Guido d’Arezzo, an Italian monk, is credited with developing a system of teaching music to other monks by pointing to different joints on his hand that corresponded to different notes of the scale, called the Guidonian Hand. (Current scholarship I found this weekend suggests maybe Guido didn’t come up with this system, however.) Fun fact! To “run the gamut” means to use the whole range of something. The word “gamut” is from the Guidonian scale.

We focused in on a few highlights of the music theory from this era. First are the church modes, which are different from today’s major and minor tonalities because of equal temperament. Even the modes as we would play them on modern instruments would sound slightly different because half steps did not always have the same distance between them in the Medieval period. Still, it’s the best approximation we have. Different music theorists have different names for the modes, but they are largely interchangeable. The names we will use, with their corresponding tonic are:

A: Aeolian

B: Locrian

C: Ionian

D: Dorian

E: Phrygian

F: Lydian

G: Mixolydian

Because the Lydian and the Locrian would contain a tritone, a practice known as “musica ficta” would lower the B of that scale by a half step, to B-flat, thus eliminating the tritone. Very often, this would not be written in a score, but would be understood.

Much of the music we have from this period is church music, because the church was the only entity with enough money and education to write it down. In the early part of this era most music was “monophonic,” meaning one unison voice. And example is this Dies Irae sung by a men’s and boys’ choir. You will notice several of the same melodic motifs repeated throughout, and a mostly syllabic construction (one note per syllable). Most music is also anonymously written, so we don’t know who the composers are, but likely they were clergy.

Later in the period composers started to get more creative and would add parallel lines that would keep essentially the same interval throughout, as in this example of a Deum verum. This led later to the development of “organum,” which included multiple lines of melody, sometimes in different languages, all occurring at the same time.

Leonin, a French monk working at Notre Dame in Paris, is considered the father of organum. Indeed, France is a major center in the development of Medieval organum, and many of the finest examples came from Paris. An example of “organum duplum” is this Alleluia. One voice stays mostly fixed, as a drone tone, while the melody floats melismatically (many notes per syllable) above. Perotin, a student and later colleague of Leonin, wrote this four-part organum with one drone voice and three melody lines: Virudent omnes. For an example that is essentially three different songs happening all at the same time, start this video at 4:50: Trop sovent. There are numerous other examples on YouTube, and well worth the listen to get a sense of the style and sound of music from this era.

As I also mentioned, some modern music, mostly in eastern European or Asian countries, still employ a form of organum in their compositions and folk songs, such as Psalm 50in Aramaic by an Assyrian priest, Father Serafim, and his singers.

Your assignment this week is to choose a church mode and either write a monophonic chant or a multiple-voice organum for voices or instruments. It should be at least 16 measures long. If you would like a traditional text, the text of the Ordinary of the Latin Catholic mass and it’s English translation can be found here. Other faith traditions, including Jewish worship, has chant as a part of their liturgy.

My musical happy moment this week is a favorite comedy song from the BBC Proms 2011: Tim Minchin F#


Heather R. Nelson, PhD

Singing Voice Specialist

Voice Teacher