Music of the Middle Ages
Foundation of European Music Culture
Music has been around since the most ancient of human cultures. Yet the way it sounded can only be adequately characterized with the introduction of written witnesses that describe the music or that present it through notation.
Two instrumentalists of the prehistoric Cycladic culture: so-called Cycladic idols with a dual wind instrument and a harp-like string instrument respectively (Museum Athens, 3rd Millenium BC); Wikimedia Commons
Even given witnesses of these kinds, certain skills are nevertheless required to decode and understand them.
So while relatively few notated pieces of actual music are extant, very detailed descriptions of the notational systems they used have been handed down to us.
The Gregorian Chant
Gregorian chant stands at the beginning of our European music culture. The monodic chant of this repertoire served as musical adornment of Christian liturgy. During the 8th century the chant of Rome was adopted by the Carolingians and transmitted as a unifying force throughout the entire realm of the Franks. For centuries chant remained the principal form of liturgical song.
The mythic origin of the Gregorian Chant: Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) dictates his liturgical chants to a scribe (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 390, p. 13 (so-called Hartker-Antiphonar, around 990-1000; e-codices)
Organum and New Organum
The earliest witnesses to polyphonic singing appear in the 9th century. These are not compositions in the modern sense of the word, but they are found in an anonymous Latin theoretical treatise: the so called Musica enchiriadis (manual of music).
This text describes a form of polyphony called "Organum". If – and for how long – some polyphonic vocal practice existed before Musica enchiriadis remains impossible to determine.
The form of organum seems to have remained unchanged for the next century and a half; for only around 1100 can a further developed form of polyphonic singing be documented, namely that called ‘new organum’.
Notre-Dame-School and Late Middle Ages
Nevertheless, the notation used to record the new organum was unable to capture the temporal dimension of the music, namely its rhythm.
Not until the 13th century did a form of notation emerge that indicated temporal durations, and this took place in the scholastic environment associated with the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris. Musical notation now became the basis of a subsequent musical performance. Thus music theory assumed a new orientation following the 13th century; now the theory of composition – based on the actual sound of polyphonic structure – and the theory of notation shaped the development of musical literature.
Dictionary of Latin Musical Terminology
Since traditions of performance have been irrevocably interrupted, direct access to medieval music has been lost to us. In order to re-establish some access to that tradition two kinds of sources are available: on the one hand there are manuscripts with neumes and other forms of notation, and, on the other, there are manuscripts containing music-theoretical texts.
The project of the Lexicon musicum Latinum medii aevi (LmL) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences is dedicated to the scholarly inventory of Latin musical terminology of the Middle Ages. Research on the project began in 1960 and was successfully completed in 2016. The Lexicon Musicum Latinum is now available in printed and digital format.