Last post I looked at music’s ‘prehistory’, a term I used not because there was no writing in ancient Greece, but because it preceded a time when music could be represented accurately on paper. When it comes to the sound of music prior to AD 1000, the most we have is speculation. Here I hope to outline how some of music’s most important developments occurred around AD 1000, during a period famously maligned as the dark ages. I hope also that this will acquaint you with the simple beauty of plainchant, which is the undisputable foundation of all European classical music.
Like listening whilst you read? Go to the bottom of the page to find today’s listening.
Medieval musical life centred around the church and court. In the church, communities of monks would sing praise, whereas in the court, travelling composer-poets known as troubadours (see above) would move the nobility with amorous and chivalric songs. Sadly, we have no record of the troubadors’ music, though their legend lives on through the infamous Beverly Hills nightclub (something of a Cathedral for rock and roll).
The same can’t be said of the music of the medieval church, whose flowing, devotional melodies, known as plainchant (or plainsong), became the foundation of all subsequent classical music. These melodies developed out of a long oral tradition, which, much like the myths of pre-literate people, were passed down the generations through teachers. It seems likely that the genealogy of these melodies is rooted in the very earliest Christian practices, which themselves probably developed from the Jewish practice of psalm singing (which itself shades into prehistory). So why did medieval church music survive? Two factors were responsible: Charlamagne’s consolidation of Gregorian chant, and the invention of musical notation.
Before the reign of Charlamagne as Holy Roman Emperor (800-814, painting below), Chrstian communities varied tremendously in terms of the melodies they sung for the religious rites. Charlamagne countered this by enforcing the use of a central set of chants known as the Gregorian Chants throughout the Holy Roman Empire.
Around the year 1000, an Italian music theorist named Guido of Arezzo, found a way of standardising musical notes (by something approximating solfege, which you may know as ‘do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti, do’), relating them to the human hand. In a second stroke of genius, he identified the rhythmic structure of the chants and found a way of representing this in written sheet music (see below).
It is difficult to overstate the brilliance of Guido’s innovations. To go from music being chaotic and inexpressible to making it technically comprehensible was to music what mapping uncharted territory was to geography, what taming a wild animal was to agriculture, or what the printing press was to scholarship. Guido not only represented music, he had to develop a comprehensive understanding of what music is (both in pitch and rhythm) before it became possible to represent it.
The consequences of this were extraordinary: music stepped out of the pre-historic shadows of aural tradition and became technically amenable to musicians. No longer would the chants be subject to continuous distortions over time à la Chinese whispers. All future musicians would be able to experience a piece of music exactly as it sounded. Most importantly, musicians could now perform pieces without having to memorise them entirely. This opened the door for performers to learn more complex and many more pieces, and it made it possible for composers to represent ever more complex ideas. Imagine the difference in what can be communicated between a memorised a speech (without written notes) versus a written essay. Music’s first dawn had broken.
So, thanks to Charlamagne and Guido, subsequent composers could use and build on plainchant in a way that was simply impossible earlier. Thanks to them, these beautiful chants survive exactly as they sounded a millennium ago to still be enjoyed by music lovers and in Christian worship to this day. So let’s have a listen.
Gregorian chant was central to Christian religious practice in the middle ages. Various rituals and parts of the liturgical year called for various texts and melodies to suit their different devotional functions. Imagine a brotherhood of monks coming together to sing beautiful unaccompanied melodies in unison, their voices resonating through the arched vaults of a medieval abbey, enveloping them in the sound of their collective coming to terms with the human condition through song.
St. Thomas Aquinas captured the importance of singing to Christian spirituality by saying ‘he who sings, prays twice’; as if the words themselves are a prayer, and simultaneously the spirit of the prayer is abstracted and expressed in the melody of the chant as a second prayer. When you listen to these chants, pay attention to how the emotional character of the texts is reflected in the melody, especially the decorative Alleluias and plaintive Amens.
One of the best-known chants is the Dies Irae (or Day of Wrath) from the Requiem Mass (a communion for the dead). Its melody is morbid and imposing, setting a text which recounts the apocalyptic judgement of the book of Revelation:
Day of wrath and doom impending.
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending...
The melody has been quoted by many subsequent classical composers and even in blockbuster film scores such as The Shining and during Mufasa’s death in The Lion King.
A favourite chant of mine is the devotional hymn to the Virgin Mary: Salve Regina (Hail, holy Queen). Listen out for how, just like Dies Irae, the melody is so audibly punctuated by tension and resolution – there is simply nothing meandering or inessential: the words, the patterns, the emotions all converge and enhance one another in serene balance.
Despite their simplicity, or perhaps because of it, the chants of medieval Europe still express a meditative timlessness that is such a fresh contrast with our modern preoccupation with gimmick, fad and cliché. I hope you, regardless of your religious disposition, may partake in the solace of their simple beauty as others have for over a millenium.