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Early European Music -Part One


Lewis E. Peterman Jr., Ph.D.

The html code, hyperlinks, and linked knowledge webs associated with this chapter are not part of the original chapter cited above, and are authored by Jack Logan, Ph.D.

Music is the skill of modulation occurring in tone and chant. It is called music through derivation from the Muses. The Muses were named after the term for "searching," because through them, as the ancients proposed, investigation was made into the influence of songs and the modulation of the voice. Their sonority, since it pertains to a sense, vanishes as it flows through time, leaving an impression on the memory. Therefore the poets made up the story that the Muses were the daughters of Jove and Memory. For unless the sounds are retained in man's memory, they disappear, because they cannot be written down.

--Isidore of Seville (c. A.D. 560-636)

Early Music and the World of Arab Music

Early music of the Middle Ages owes its very existence to the music of the Arab world.

What is Early Music?

So-called "Early Music," sometimes confusingly referred to as "old" or "ancient" music, has come to mean European art music prior to the "Common Practice" period of the 18th and 19th centuries. Somewhat more specifically, the term often encompasses music from the beginning of the Medieval period through the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750. The Ancient period, for the purposes of this material, refers to that period of time prior to the Middle Ages and encompasses the time of the Greeks and Romans.

Seated Harp Player
Cycladic, 3rd millennium B.C.
Marble, h. 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1947

Medieval music, or music from the Middle Ages, includes the music from the 7th through the 14th centuries; music of the Renaissance includes the music from the 15th and 16th centuries; and music of the Baroque Era includes the music from the 17th and first half of the 18th century. The Baroque Era, especially the early Baroque, was in some ways a period of transition, but because the many new styles of vocal music (opera, oratorio, et al) and instrumental solo and ensemble music (the basis for development of the symphony orchestra) emerged rather quickly after about A. D. 1600, it already contains the foundations of 18th-century and 19th-century practice. Therefore, it has become increasingly common to include the 17th century within the period of common practice. Accordingly, in this essay the term "early music" shall be used for composed and notated European art music from the thousand years between the beginning of the 7th century until the beginning of the 17th century, that is, both the European Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

If you have grown up in mainstream American culture, music composed prior to A. D. 1600 may indeed sound "ancient" to you. Music after A. D. 1600, on the other hand, is more likely to have a kind of familiarity that makes it seem more easily comprehensible and pleasant. The reason for this is that most of the music one hears on radio, television, and in the films today (folk, pop, jazz, classical, et al) is based upon musical principles that emerged during the Baroque Era--a period that made a conscious and dramatic break with the Renaissance past.

Comparison of Early Music and Modern Music

The general modern attitude toward music making--one that is subliminal in most listeners today--can best be summarized by the following observations:

1. Music is cosmopolitan, universal, even international, 2. Music is a prosaic product (simple, balanced, clear, and rational), 3. Music is newly created for a secular, middle class audience, 4. Music has immediate appeal and is loudly and dramatically presented in large public gatherings, 5. Music making is a specialized activity requiring the paid services and technical talents of highly trained professionals, 6. Musicians should be gifted with artistic genius, and have unusual experience with, and wisdom of, the human condition, in order to create art for art's sake in private moments of inspiration.

However, the "old" European attitude, and the attitude that attracts many modern performers to early music, is exactly the opposite of the modern attitude:

1. Music is a strictly local expression, rich in variety since each culture expresses affective differences through art, 2. Music is a poetic process--complex, vague, and irrational--based upon borrowed traditional musical materials (melodies, rhythms, forms, etc.), 3. Music is for a religious, elitist-class performer who can understand and appreciate its mysterious nature and power, 4. Music is played softly in intimate gatherings, 5. Music making is the activity of Everyman, exacting the talents of variously trained amateurs who, with industry and practice, decorate their recreation and leisure in moments of social intercourse.

In terms of the technical differences between the art music of early times and that of the modern period (i.e., after 1600) we can identify five specific features that make post-1600 styles in music sound more or less "familiar."

1. Wide-ranging, dynamically expressive tonal melodies are played in equal temperament and generated from logical tonal harmonic progressions. 2. A simple, isometric, and restricted rhythmic range is used. 3. The texture is homophonic, that is, a principal melody line with accompaniment. 4. Clear periodic formal structure is favored. 5. The instrumentarium is restricted and standardized.

On the other hand, the pre-1600 styles in European art music are based upon the following features:

1. Narrow-ranging, dynamically restrained modal melodies are played in a variety of tuning temperaments that generate an "illogical" modal harmonic succession. 2. An unrestricted range of multimeters, polymeters, and complex rhythms are used. 3. A texture of two or more independent and equally important melodies accompany one another (i.e., polyphony). 4. The formal construction is often vague and unclear. 5. The instrumentarium is unrestricted and nonstandardized.

Early music is chamber music par excellence. Superstar conductors, dramatic symphonic music, and large-scale virtuosic genres such as the concerto, opera, oratorio, and ballet belong to a later period and a different aesthetic. Early music involves a decidedly intimate approach to music making: the performers are equal partners who understand the science of composition and do much more than merely interpret the music of others--they recompose it during rehearsals and performances. In this regard, early music may be considered performer oriented (similar to jazz or Indian classical music). The performer thinks of himself or herself as a "student" (a Liebhaber, i.e., "lover") of music, and must be able to play several different instruments as well as sing. The performer should be able to create, ad libitum (i.e., with improvisatory "liberty") and by ear, improvised ornamentation for composed music, and should be able to read old systems of musical notation (either mensural or tablature) in several different clefs (i.e., registers).

Early Music Instruments

Click Medieval and Renaissance Musical Instruments to see a knowledge map of some early musical instruments that are available on the world wide web. There are associated sounds, pictures, and explanations of these early instruments.

Perhaps one of the most enticing aspects of early music, both for performers as well as listeners, is the large variety of instruments that were played during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

His Majesty's Sackbuts and Cornetts

Indeed, nearly every known instrument from early times--those described in written theoretical treaties and practice instructional manuals, as well as those depicted in woodcuts and paintings--are again being constructed by modern instrument builders all over the globe, in Asia, Europe, and the United States. In fact, some instruments--those that were rare or experimental in early times--are even more common today than they were during the period of their initial invention. While some early instruments eventually died out over the centuries, others continued to develop into modern times. The Renaissance crumhorn, for example--probably because it was so soft in volume and distinctive in tone color--was completely forgotten by the 18th century, while the guitar continued to develop from as early as the Middle Ages and is still played in the 20th century.

The most common musical instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were the stringed instruments and the wind instruments. Stringed instruments were strummed, plucked, and bowed, while wind instruments, of course, were played by blowing one’s breath into a tube which normally had a row of six to eight fingerholes for changing the pitch in order to play melodies. The two most popular types--the bowed viol and the blown recorder--have retained their popularity into the 20th century, especially among amateur musicians. In fact, special early-music societies, along with their specialized journals, cater specifically to such an amateur clientele. There is, for example, an American Recorder Society in this country that publishes a journal several times each year and sponsors week-end or week-long workshops all across the the United States during the summer months each year. Such interest also exists in Europe and even countries in Asia, especially Japan. The reasons there is such wide amateur support for early music in the 20th century are several: (1) most early music is relatively easy to play, (2) the instruments themselves are easily learned and inexpensive to purchase, and (3) little continued practice is required to maintain satisfactory technique--three features that are certainly not typical of modern orchestral music and instruments, where the music is very difficult to execute, the instruments very difficult to learn and sometimes prohibitively expensive to purchase, and much continued--or more specifically, daily--practice is absolutely necessary to maintain an acceptable fluency of technique.

Renaissance woodcut of a lute and lute player
(the most important instrument of the Middle Ages and Renaissance)

Medieval Musical Instruments

The most important instruments of the Middle Ages (nearly all of which were originally borrowed from the traditional instrumentarium of the Islamic Middle East), and those that can be heard on modern recordings of Medieval music performed by modern professional groups, are the following: fiddle, dulcimer, shawm, psaltery, flute, guitar (and lute), trumpet, and harp. All these instruments have modern descendants in the 20th century: the fiddle (and its diminutive relative the rebec) is a Medieval violin; the wooden flute is related to the metal cross-blown flute of the symphony orchestra; the shawm is an early oboe; the psaltery is a Medieval autoharp; the dulcimer is an early piano; while the guitar, the harp, and the trumpet, too, are all related to their modern descendants. It is important to realize, however, that Medieval instruments were not highly standardized with regard to tuning, size, or even shape, as is the normal practice in the 20th century with orchestral musical instruments. In the Middle Ages, therefore, a "fiddle" was simply any bowed stringed instrument, since it could have had nearly any shape and could have been held on the player’s lap, against the player's chest, or simply in any reasonable position that was comfortable to the player, depending upon whether he was sitting, standing, walking, or dancing. In contrast, all modern violins tend to be surprisingly similar in construction and size and are always held under the player's chin.

Renaissance Musical Instruments

The most important musical instruments of the Renaissance were the same as those used during the Middle Ages, but in each case there were subtle changes in construction, tone, and playing techniques. The guitar, for example, was normally strummed with a plectrum during the Middle Ages, while its ancestor in the Renaissance was characteristically played with the player's fingers, similar to the playing technique used for a modern classical acoustic guitar. (Interestingly, in modern popular music genres such as jazz and rock, a plectrum is nearly always used, similar to guitar playing technique in the Middle Ages). In addition to changes in the construction and playing techniques of instruments that had been passed down from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, instrument builders during the 16th century customarily made instruments in a family (a so-called consort) of different sizes, from very small to very large. For example, the flute came in three sizes, the fiddle in four, and the shawm in four. One reason for this practice, of course, was the interest on the part of 16th-century musicians to explore the complete tonal spectrum of music, creating new and different tone colors. But another reason was that musical instruments were often used to render vocal music, that is, sung music with words--the instrumentalists simply omitted the words and ornamented the music in order to sustain musical interest in the absence of the text. Thus, since vocal music was composed in accordance with the natural ranges of the human voice and since instruments were used to substitute for (or double) vocal melodies, most instruments were constructed in a family of different sizes in imitation of the different ranges of the human voice. Accordingly, just as a high female voice is identified by the term soprano, a lower female voice by alto, a high male voice by tenor, and a low male voice by bass, a consort of shawms was designated according to range: that is, soprano shawm, alto shawm, tenor shawm, and bass shawm. Ideally each instrument type, during the Renaissance, consisted of all four ranges.

Three Renaissance instruments are especially popular today, both among professional "early-music" performers who can be heard on records, tapes, and CDs as well as the thousands of amateur "early-music" aficionados actively attending workshops and lectures during the summer months in Asia, Europe, and across the United States. They are the lute, the recorder, and the viol (or the viola da gamba). All three are relatively easy to learn, gentle and intimate in tone, and have a large repertoire of original music (i.e., independent solo and ensemble instrumental music, as opposed to transcriptions or arrangements of vocal music) that survives in modern performing editions of Renaissance music published by professional musicologists and performers.

Air for Lute Solo, My Lady Hunsdon's Puffe

Made from maple, sycamore, plum, cherry, or ebony, the half-pear-shaped lute was the most popular instrument of the Renaissance, since it could play music by itself, rendering the melody on one or two strings while supplying the harmonic accompaniment on the remaining strings. It was ideal for providing accompaniment for singing (similar to the keyboard instruments and guitars of today's pop groups), it was relatively easy to play, and it had a special easy kind of music notation, called tablature, that required less expertise to read and understand than standard staff notation (i.e., the notation that has often provided an insurmountable barrier to music making for millions of people throughout the ages).

The charming end-blown recorder (which sounds like a flute, but is much easier to play), too, is as popular today as it was during the Renaissance. In the 16th century, King Henry VIII of England owned seventy-six recorders of different shapes and sizes, and the 17th-century Germany composer and theorist Michael Praetorius (in his treatise Syntagmum Musicum, 1620) provides woodcut drawings of some nine different sizes, from barely a few inches in length to over six feet in length.

The Renaissance viola da gamba is an easy-to-play hybrid string instrument, a cross between a guitar and a violin: like the guitar it is fretted, and like the violin it is bowed. A Renaissance viol consort normally consists of two soprano (or "treble") viols, a tenor viol, and a bass viol. The term da gamba simply means "of the leg" in Italian, thus the name of the instrument also describes its playing position: the viol (i.e., viola da gamba) is held, like a modern orchestral violoncello (the bass member of the modern violin family), between the seated player's legs.

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