Classical Month The History of Classical Music Part I: Early Music (Medieval and Renaissance)

April 16, 2015

Early music is an umbrella term that focuses on any classical music from before 1600. This includes periods you may have heard referred to as medieval and renaissance as well as other terms you may recognise like ‘Gregorian chant’, which is named after Pope St. Gregory the Great who is supposed to have invented the style. You may think that he also invented the calendar but you would be wrong. That was invented by Pope Gregory XIII in February 1582, who was presumably tapping along to his favourite renaissance tune at the time. But what do all these terms mean?

A good place to start is 1030, which is when Guido D’Arezzo invented the stave, the lines upon which sheet music is written. You may have noticed before that there are five lines; this is because Guido used his hand to remember the exact position of notes. In terms of instruments, recorders were arguably never more popular (unless you count the numbers of them tunelessly being whistled in primary schools to this day), whilst viols of various forms – precursor to the modern violin – were the most popular string instruments to be used. Even so, it was the voice that was most often utilised.

From this era came the first female composer, a nun called Hildegard who was born in Bingen. As a result she now goes by the rather original name of ‘Hildegard of Bingen’ so top marks for that. One of her works, Ordo Virtutum (or ‘Ecstatic’ in English), is arguably the oldest surviving morality play.  The next hundred years pass by in a haze of crusades and by 1200, the medieval period begins! Various impressive venues with incredible acoustics begin popping up, with Notre Dame being chief among them. The groundbreaking commenced in 1163 and by 1345, it was finally complete! There isn’t too much information on whether it arrived on budget and on time. A few years later the black death arrived which presumably dampened the excitement of this new building somewhat.

Anyway, needing to fill these spaces with even more impressive music, more of everything was the order of the day with more creation, more rhythms and substantially more ambition. The ars nova movement (a style with greater independence of rhythm) began to flourish around 1310-1377 fronted by Guillaume de Machaut, but by 1450 the people wanted something different, thus ushering in the renaissance.

The church are the driving force behind this movement with an emphasis on simpler tunes; Pope John XXII had loathed ars nova whilst Pope Clement VI had loved it. By plumping on a universally accepted approach, such disagreements would therefore be a thing of the past. In the classical music world, anyway. Single line chants remain very popular but the music sloooooows down and masses become hugely popular all over Britain. Taverner emerges as a fan’s favourite whilst Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were granted the monopoly on printed music. Tallis’ Spem in Alium is perhaps one of the finest examples of music from this period requiring eight choirs of five voices each to pull it off.

Moving on a couple of decades and John Dowland was the most popular composer of the Elizabethan era of the renaissance – in between some intriguing bouts of espionage (no, really) - before Claudio Monteverdi moved in with Italian grace and kickstarted baroque. But you’ll have to wait until the next blog for that particular slice of classical music history.

Article photo: Les Bougies Baroque.


Part II - Baroque and Classical - can be read here

Part III - Romantic and Modern - can be read here




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By Henry Fosdike