Music Styles: Pre-1600

The Greeks

In Western music, we are first guided by Pythagoras (fl 582-500 BC) and his writings on the physics, scales, modes, and acoustics of music.

Plato (427-347) wrote at length, especially in the Republic and theTimaeus, about the ethical place and force of music. The Greeks had notation and used instruments and singers in their plays and at numerous ceremonial functions, but today their notation is largely lost and indecipherable. Aristotle (384-322) also wrote about music in hisPolitics, and stressed its importance in the moral education of the young and in the governance of society. (Aristotle was, of course, tutor to Alexander the Great.) Aristoxenus (354-? BC) left the most complete of Greek treatises on music: Harmonic Elements and Elements of Rhythmics. These works define and predict much of the earliest workings of Western music.

Early Middle Ages: 500 - 1100 AD

In this era we find the earliest forms of plainchant, their widespread use in what would become the codified Mass of the Church, a continuing reliance on vocal music in both spiritual and secular functions, and the incorporation into religious music of that which originated in Byzantine and Jewish societies. As a general rule, instrumental music (except for the organ in certain communities) was banned in the Church.

Secular music, in the form of dance, folk melody, and a kind of roving sung journalism, spread widely across Europe. We find the rise of the Goliards, Jongleurs, and Minstrels. Carl Orff's famous twentieth century work, Carmina Burana, is taken from Goliard songs of this time. However, Church music was supreme at all levels. This music was monophonic (one-voiced), had a narrow range rarely greater than a fifth, was built on two Church modes (Authentic and Plagal), and employed little harmony in the modern sense. Rhythms derived from text. The practice of singing organum (parallel fourths and fifths) arose in the ninth century, and would form the basis for later richness in our harmony. Sacred plainsong (popularly known as chant) became compiled and codified, and arose from five vital traditions: the Byzantine, Ambrosian, Gallic, Mozarabic and -- by order of Pope Gregory (540-604) -- what came to be known as Gregorian.

The writers Boethius (480-524), Odo of Cluny (d 942) and, most importantly, Guido d'Arezzo (990-1050) are the leading sources for our knowledge of this period. Guido is the first to enunciate a system for notation and its teaching, and for practical instruction in singing. The Winchester Tropes of 1073 AD is the only complete collection of original manuscripts from this period.

Late Middle Ages: 1100 - 1400 AD

In this period we now begin to hear music that is almost wholly recognizable to modern ears. Music is written by named composers (with very few exceptions it was previously anonymous), and because of this alone sound begins to assert individual, regional, and proto-national identity. Such composers as Perotin (fl 1170), Leonin (fl 1175) and Machaut (1300-1377) lead the way in the increasing assertion of the composer's imagination. This was also the time of St Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Petrarch, Boccacio, and Chaucer, and an increasing reliance on non-liturgical text. In 1200, the peak of what was later termed the Ars Antiqua was scaled; a century later, this compositional style was replaced by the Ars Nova. In this whole period, often described in the architectural term Gothic, we find an increasing interest in the forms and architecture of music, in sheer monumentalism of conception, and the onset of struggles between the imperatives of Church and State.

In the Ars Antiqua, we find polyphony -- many-voiced music. In Ars Nova comes the acceptance of duple rhythms, and of thirds and sixths as consonances. Text was now open to poetic and syllabic consideration, canon (precursor to fugue) became a popular organizing principle, and melodies now take on a larger ambit. Modes have expanded to include rhythm itself, and in all of this a greater musical vocabulary is established. Chromaticism first arose in a practice called musica ficta. No less importantly, early string, reed, and brass instruments became widely accepted within and without the Church. Lutes, viols, and harps were especially popular. Alas, tuning systems were numerous, often regional, and clumsy.

Finally, and with greatest promise for the music of our own time, the first printed forms of notation arose. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, this mensural notation was the first pan-Euro system that actually worked. It led to the widespread success of the motet, a vocal form supremely suited to both secular and religious music. The first madrigals also appear in Italy, and would dominate the Renaissance. Numerous treatises of the era have survived, most notably those of Franco of Cologne (fl 1250-1280) and Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361).

The Renaissance: 1400 - 1600

It goes without saying that these two centuries saw an explosion of energy, invention, creation and experiment in every field of music. The time of the Medici, Botticelli, Leonardo, Gutenberg, Copernicus, Michelangelo, Martin Luther, Columbus, and Shakespeare was matched in music by the astonishing creativity of such composers as Dufay (1400-1474), Ockeghem (1420-1496), des Prez (1450-1521), Gabrieli (1520-1586), Palestrina (1525-1594), di Lasso (1532-1590), Byrd (1543-1623), and Gesualdo (1560-1613). These musicians comprise a startling galaxy of supernovas, and laid the foundation for everything in the common practice of music itself.

Lutheranism led to congregation chorale singing, and the mass-distribution of musical materials. Dance, folk-song, and popular theatre led to extraordinary innovation in sound, instruments, and the capacities of the human voice. The use of the cantus firmus and of canonic imitation was everywhere, leading to richer and higher textures in multiple forms. Specific techniques such as retrograde, inversion, augmentation, and diminution and more added to this richness. Most audibly, melody itself became the prime organizing criterion. All of this lived in a growing field of polyphony, employed vocally and instrumentally. The lute family was vastly influential, occupying a place in this era as has the piano in our own.

Leading writers on music are too many to name here, but those of Tinctoris (1436-1511), Agricola (1486-1556), Zarlino (1517-1590), and Morley (1557-1602) will suffice.

From the Greek era to the end of the Renaissance saw the steady progress of a Western music ready for the appearance of its first incontestable geniuses: Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel, and J.S. Bach.

Recommended Listening

Gregorian Chant: Haec dies Machaut Messe de Nostre Dame Dufay Ave maris stella Gesualdo Questa crudele e pia and Moro Lasso a mio duolo