History of Western Music

History of Western


Most of the early music that we have today
still in print is primarily sacred music. This music, for the most
part, is in the form of sections of the Mass, such as the Gloria, Kyrie
and Agnus Dei. Most people of the Middle Ages were poor peasants
who worked all day for meager wages and had no idle time lounging the way
the upper classes did. Therefore, there are few extant secular compositions
of music from this era. The rise of a new middle class, however,
gave financial freedom for some people to spend time and money on entertainment
in the form of music and dance. Thus, the rise of the middle classes
also gave way to the rise in composition and performance of secular music,
which became the music of choice for composers of that day.

Many of the songs we have today of the

Middle Ages were in Latin, and are by anonymous composers. Many were
written by wandering people, many of them men and churchmen without permanent
residences of their own. Men who could not obtain a position in the

Church and had to drop out were called goliards. These goliards wandered
around the land, composing and performing for people. Their music
was mostly comprised of the "’eat, drink, and be merry’ type, appropriate
to the wanton kind of life the goliards lived" (Stolba, 99). Carl

Orff, the composer of the Carmina Burana, used the poems found in the largest
surviving records of Latin secular music that we have today. The

Codex latinus 4660 was held in the Benedictine monastery at Benediktbeurn.

Many of the songs speak of love, many of them lascivious. Others
speak of drinking, satires of the religious life and even liturgical plays.

A few of them are even written in the vernacular of the region in that
time (Stolba, 99).

Following the history of the era in literature,
many authors were fascinated by the courtly tradition, chivalry and a higher
love. Therefore, we have today musical compositions that speak of
many of the same ideas. French composers wrote songs in the vernacular
called chansons de geste . These songs spoke of the heroic acts performed
by knights for their ladies in the name of love. The French have
a national epic called the Chanson de Roland which related the life
and death of Charlemagne’s nephew and his endeavor to rid France of the

Basques. Many of these chansons were performed by other wondering
entertainers called jongleurs and ménestrals , or minstrels.

On one hand society named them outcasts, not worthy to live a productive
life in service of the community, yet on the other hand, they were accepted
as the perfomers of the day. They did not compose the music, but
were one of the main reasons why we still have records of the secular music.

By keeping the oral tradition, they kept secular music alive in the hearts
and minds of the people (Stolba, 100).

In France there were also other wondering
musicians and entertainers known as troubadours and trouvères.

Many of these musicians were of the upper aristocratic classes (Annenburg).

These musicians, unlike most of the minstrels, often composed their own
music and performed it as well, writing and singing in the vernacular which
became the modern day French language. The troubadours and trouvères
also wrote their own poetry, which later became used in written and oral
songs (Daum). Although many of the French songbooks contain some
compositions, there are more records of the poetry. Most of the songs
in the book are in one of three musical forms: ballades, rondeaus and virelais.

Many of these songs were strophic and had refrains or choruses, (Stolba,


The musical instruments in use by
the performers consisted mainly of stringed and woodwind instruments, augmented
by the use of the early trumpet and several types of drums and cymbals.

Medieval art is perhaps the best example
of illustrating the uses and types of instruments. The cittern and
citole consisted of four or five metal strings and were the primary stringed
instruments. They are described as "an instrument fit for rustics,
such as cobblers and tailors" (Annenburg). The recorder and shawm
were the primary woodwind instruments. The recorder, still in use
today, didn’t differ much in the production or sound that we know now.

The shawm was the predecessor of the modern day oboe, yet unlike the oboe,
had the reputation of "a piercing sound that was said to have terrified
the crusaders" (Annenburg).

By the fourteenth century, production
of secular music far outweighed that of sacred. The time period became
known as the Ars Nova or New Art, in response