Friday, 22 October 2010

1300-1400 Machaut's Mass and Motets

Anyway, swiftly moving on, into a new century we find that Organum has now been succeeded by the ‘Motet’. This is recognised as part of a new style in music by Philip De Vitry who gave it the name Ars Nova in 1322. He labelled the old pre 1300 style Ars Antica. The main thing that distinguished Ars Nova from Ars Antiqua was that it was written using new notation developed by De Vitry who gave the notes different lengths, resembling what we today know as semibreves, minims, crotchets  and quavers and this enabled the composers to focus more on rhythm and tunefulness.

Ars Nova is the style for a new age of secular culture which emerges as corruption begins to weaken the church. The perception of the church is further changed by its impotence in the face of the black death in 1347 and later by two popes who both claim to have been chosen by God causing the great schism 1378-1417. As we have seen the rise in standing of secular music in the previous century had begun to have an influence in the music of the church too. It meant that churchmen would now not limit themselves to writing religious music but also wrote secular music too.

The greatest surviving compositions of this century come from Guillame de Machaut (1300-77) composing in the Ars Nova style in Rheims Cathedral in Northern France. Although a priest most of his music was secular, composing mainly motets. He also composed one rare bit of very important religious church music. The Messe de Nostre Dame was the first mass ever composed. This new musical form would endure through centuries to come in the works of countless other composers. Of even more significance was Machaut’s recognition of his own importance as a composer. The idea of the composer being of cultural importance was unprecedented and Machaut is the first to see himself in this way.

Listen though to Helas! Ou sera pris confors or any other of Machaut's motets and you will hear how the rhythm is now more detailed. The words are now sung much closer to the speed at which they would have been spoken. It is quite fascinating how around the time of the emergence of mechanical clocks that were being installed into the cathedral towers a new focus on rhythm, meter and timing is brought into music. It is also curious how the shift from long slow chanting to more intricate rhythm, wording and notation would match the recent shift in architectural style from the broad sweeping arches to refined sculpted detail.

And what about everything else in this century? In many respects these were difficult times with social unrest across much of Europe, economic decline and the church losing power. There were famines and worst of all the black death which wiped out a third of Europe’s population in two years from 1347. The crusades had now finished and the chivalrous knight had had his day.  Padua fought against Venice and Verona, the hundred years war began in 1337 between England and France and canons were invented to bring more death and destruction. That warm period in European climate I mentioned a few posts back had now come to an end so even the weather took a turn for the worse.

King Philip IV of France heavily taxed those highly succesful trade fairs in Champagne to fund the hundred years war. The fairs at Champagne in the previous century had customarily been welcome to all merchants around Europe but now Philip banned the Flemish and taxed and confiscated items from the jewish and Italian merchants and effectively brought these fairs to an end as well as the trade routes leading to them. The Italian merchants in desperation now sailed round Gibralter to Bruges whose economy benefited as a result.

Philip then taxed the church to fund the war. Up until that time taxes were only ever levied as an emergency to launch a crusade or to combat an invasion. Under the feudal system the king's revenue was  supposed to derive from the rents of his land. To fund the hundred years war Philip now made what were initially conceived as emergency taxes regular. Instead of being relaxed the taxes were just added to or increased. Philip even went as far as taking control of the papacy and placing it in Avignon where he would appoint the pope. This split between France and the church greatly weakened the church.

On the plus side, despite the economic decline, relative to earlier centuries cities were now bustling centres of commerce and wealth was no longer confined to the church and nobility with the new class of bourgeoisie. Modern day banking and accounting really got going and the first insurance contracts were signed. Gothic architecture was now transferred to secular city buildings like town halls - a sign of wealth being spread more evenly between the church and the bourgoisie.

In Technology? Stone bridge building spanned unprecedented distances (40m) in France, Spain and Italy during this century  and the architects had learned how to combine aesthetics with sound engineering in these new constructions which varied from having semi-circular, pointed or segmented arches. During this century firstly the hourglass emerged and then mechanical clocks were installed in clock towers. I love how this parallels with the way time and rhythm becomes much more evident in music. The invention in this century of canons, cross bows and metal armour were useful for the French and English and their continuing battles.

In architecture? The focus went from the grand to the refined, with the emphasis more on the detail than making buildings more spacious and lighter and taller. Curiously this too parallels the new detail found in the Ars Nova music with the motet’s new found intricacy of rhythm and wording.

In Art? In the previous century the Gothic Cathedrals had taken giant leaps for architecture but Art was to take one giant leap in about 1306 with the work of Giotto di Bondone 1266-1337. He tried to mimic the great work of the sculptures that had been seen in the cathedrals and in doing so he created the illusion of depth in his painting (see below)and succeeded in making them appear three dimensional – a revolution.
Literature? - As with the developments in art with Giotto, this is an exciting century when literature really takes off with Petrarch (1304-1374) and Dante (1265-1321) and Boccaccio (1313-1375) in Italy.  Petrarch took the view that God wanted humans to use their intellectual capability to the fullest. He also thought there was great value in studying human thought of the ancient Greece and Rome and was the first person to call the dark ages the dark ages. He started the humanist movement which called for better writing and speaking. For these things he is known as the father of the rennaissance. He also invented the sonnet. Petrarch’s friend Boccaccio was a skilful narrative writer and influenced Chaucer. Dante’s achievement was to write one of the greatest works in all literature with his Divine Comedy c.1308. The father of English literature Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) wrote about courtly love and ordinary people. Writers such as Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer wrote in the local vernacular rather than Latin so ordinary people could read their work which was a great contributory factor to the flowering of literature in this period.

Philosophy? The church had its problems and they were not helped by William of Occam (1288-1347) who had to defend his views in front of a papal commission in 1324. Although a Christian he believed that nothing depends on anything else for its existence and humans have freewill and have to take their own moral responsibility. The church preferred the idea that God directed everything. Occam died in 1347, very probably a black death victim.

My selection from this century is bound to be Guillame de Machaut
and as suggested above try Helas! Ou sera pris confors from The Hilliard Ensemble - (Guillame de Machaut: motets)  which you can hear on spotify or itunes.

Although I am not overly thrilled about his music just yet, who knows I might one day find I like it a bit more than I do now. At the moment I know there is too much good music in the years to come to dwell on this for too long, but I will probably come back to it. I am not sure he really gets in to my greatest hitstory but he was the best there was at this time. Perhaps his music was made in a bit too much of a depressing century (depressing save for massive excitement in art and literature which kick started the renaissance). Machaut's music misses one ingredient that will be added to the mix with our next composer, but that is for the next century.

Monday, 18 October 2010

1200-1300 Trashy Troubadours

With Leonin the religious chanting had become rhythmic but that is not to say that rhythm was a completely foreign element to music at this time. It already existed outside the church but to put it bluntly music outside the church was not really up to scratch. Unlike the church, secular music used instruments but the instrument (earlier versions of the violin (fiddle) or guitar (lyre) or recorder) would just play the same notes as those sung by the singer and it sounds pretty horrible. Some drums and bells would have bashed about a bit crudely matching the rhythm of the song  - no back beat to this music. Unlike the enchanting sound coming from the church, this is really a bit of a racket to most modern day ears. The songs were often quite satirical and of a rude nature. The musicians would also perform tricks which suggests a little bit that no great worth was attached to this music by the musicians or their listeners.

The troubadours who emerged in Southern France were noblemen and much more of their music survives (as opposed to the travelling minstrels before them). The troubadours songs were of chivalry and unrequited love. This longing for a beloved was something they had in common with the church music. Perhaps the reason the music of the troubadours has survived is that it was not so frowned upon by the church. It may be too that being noblemen they had the resources and literacy to record it in writing (paper was not cheap).

The troubadours are at their most popular in this century. As with church music, polyphony is heard in their music. Much like Leonin’s chant had an upper voice moving freely and a lower voice holding more steady notes, you can hear how the Lyre strums a single string while the recorder holds the tune in ‘instrumental sur Merchi Amours’ by Adam De La Halle (c1237-88) who was the most famous of all the troubadours.  This is the best of this type of music that I can find – I’m not keen on the singing of any secular music at this time but I do quite like this instrumental piece. In many ways the secular music was more advanced than the church chanting because its rhythm and melody were more intricate.

The more lyrical and rhythmic secular music would merge with the church chant and create a new form of music called the motet. The motet is less chanting and more singing. The poetry of the troubadours is brought in to the church and indeed as we will see in the next century the churchmen themselves begin to write their own secular motets.

With plainchant and organum the lyrical content basically consisted of things like ‘Lord have Mercy, Christ have mercy’ sung in latin over again very slowly. The new thing about the ‘motet’ was that much greater lyrical content was brought into the music and it was not only sung in latin but in the local vernacular.

And everything else in this century? The Mongols all the way from the far east were attacking Hungary and Poland. England and France continued to make war upon each other as usual. The crusades continued. Following the fall of Constantinople (modern day Instanbul) in 1204 many scholars came to Europe with a flood of new ideas such as arab numerical figures, algebra, waterwheels, chemistry and irrigation. Universities that had been established in Bologna, Paris and  Oxford were now joined by universities in Palencia 1208, Cambridge 1209, Salamanca (Spain) 1218, Padua 1222 Naples 1224 Montpellier 1220 and Toulouse 1229.The university of Paris  was now the intellectual centre of the Western World.

It was Venice that benefited the most from the fall of Constantinople as this city now dominated trade and became the most prosperous city in Europe. Palaces and squares were built in the city which rivalled ancient Greece in their grandeur. Venice was the main  gateway for Western Europe to the East. Decorative silk and decorative glass, skills learnt from the arabs became hugely successful manufacturing industries for the city. The first bank had been established in Venice in 1171 which helped lay the foundation for it to become the centre of European trade and commerce. In fact through out the towns of mainland Europe this was a period of commercial revolution. France became the wealthiest country with the trade fairs in the Champagne region becoming the centre of local and international commerce, providing the center for land-based trade over the Alps from northern Italy, bearing goods from afar.

Across Europe a change in political structure gradually took place as this new merchant class, the bourgoisie, drew power away from the aristocratic class who had benefited from the feudal system whereby rural and small urban communities would owe personal duties to the nearest castle owning baron or landlord. Instead of the personal duties of the tenants to the baron landlord it was money that came to represent the economic value in land. Kings began to find the towns far more reliable allies than the fickle aristocracy.

Technology?  In 1200 we have the first glass mirrors in Venice. Towards the end of this century evidence suggests the mechanical clock must have been invented though none have survived. They were installed in the churches. Between 1280 and 1300 spectacles were invented in Europe.

Architecture? This was the century of building the magnificent gothic (pointed arches, airy and bright, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, large stained glass windows, ornaments and pinnacles) cathedrals in France reaching new heights that we know today. Cathedrals had been started in Notre Damme 1163 Chartres 1194-1224 Rheims 1212 (see picture below), Amiens 1220 Beavais 1225 and St Chappelle(Paris) 1243 among many other places. The previous Romanesque style by comparison looked heavy and grim. This architecture reflects Frances’s new standing as the wealthiest country in Europe in this century.

Art? – Art was mainly focused on the giant cathedrals. Sculpture was the new thing which began to be included more and more in the cathedrals, doing a great job of bringing the stone to life. The painters were illuminating the church manuscripts but they still never painted from life and just rearranged pictures and drew the figures in the same old way. I know I sound disparaging but when you compare the painting in this period with the later renaissance it seems very primitive.

Philosophy? St Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274 used Aristotle’s logical ideas to prove the existence of God in his ‘five ways’ as follows: 1 change cannot exist without a cause and as change exists, so a cause must exist and that cause must be God. 2 causes always operate in a series but there must be a first cause which must be God (similar to 1!) 3 there cannot be a time when nothing existed because something (i.e. the world) cannot come from nothing. 4 just as you get some things that are more or less hot  or  cold for example, so you have things that are more or less good. There is the hottest thing and there is the most good thing, if there is a most good thing, well that has to be God. 5 All things in nature aim towards some goal or have some purpose. To have a purpose means you must have something directing you to try to achieve it and so what else can that something be but God. These arguments were a great improvement on St Anselm and very much helped the church. This must have made a lot of sense to lots of people at the time and though these ideas have held strong for many they were later rejected by modern philosophers.

In literature? St Francis of Assisi wrote the first works of Italian literature but other than that not a great deal to note.

The church needed the majesty of cathedrals and the help of the brainy Italian St. Thomas Aquinas because the power of the Holy Roman Empire would start to weaken due to the pope falling out with the increasingly powerful Italian city states such as Venice and its new wealthy merchant class.

The best piece of music I can find for my greatest hitstory in this century out of not very much good to choose from is...... 

Adam De La Halle instrumental sur Merchi Amours’ from De la Halle: D'Amoureus Cuer Voel Chanter -  itunes  

Friday, 15 October 2010

1100-1200 Leonin and Perotin and Recording Technology

In about 1100 a new form of Organum emerged known as Florid Organum whereby the second voice that before had run in parallel with the first now departed on a course of it’s own. The easiest way to achieve this was for the lower voice, a drone, to maintain a single note changing less frequently while the higher voice was given more range to wander about. The upper voice had now become more prominent while the lower voice would provide the bass foundation and this is a characteristic that has remained with Western music to the present day.

So the Gregorian Chant developed to Organum and then Florid Organum but before we leave Plainchant altogether, there is one great proponent of the form whose light shines brightly to us down through the ages. She is the most famous woman of her time. She is the Abbess Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179). From her convent near Bingen in Germany Hildegard composed mostly Plainchant from the 1140s through to the early 1170s, characterized by the wide range of notes they covered. This was a time when the downward curves of the Romanesque architecture would very soon give way to the new Gothic style with its upward pointing arches in great cathedrals scaling new heights and basically trying to reach the heavens. Listen to Hodie Aperuit and you will here her chant ranging between 12 notes (from D through the octave to A). She was doing the same as those cathedrals would do a little later. She was trying to reach as high as she could with her melody, reaching for God.

The Gregorian chant has a mystical association to it. The question of whether the Gregorian Chant came directly from God must have been quite real at the time. Nowhere is this mystical association more evident than with Hildegard who was said to have begun composing her chants after experiencing a series of religious visions in 1141.

Aside from her contribution to plainchant Hildegard also wrote a morality play with words and music more than 100 years before anything else like it was known to have been written. Her ability as a composer and also poet, can be added to her contributions to theology, natural history and medicine – she was one clever cookie.

Right, back to Organum. It was the cathedral at Notre Dame in Paris, begun in 1163 that was to facilitate the next steps for organum with the music of two composers, Leonin (c.1135-c.1201) and his pupil Perotin (c.1155-c.1210) composing from the 1150s to the early 1200s. With Leonin we hear the perfection of the style known as Florid Organum and born out of necessity to synchronise the two voices rhythm is introduced to the chant. A nice example of this is heard in Viderunt Omnes (I) (track 3). With the introduction of rhythm, the timeless nature that plainchant had, the way it wandered without meter,  is now replaced with a new notion that time must be recognised and mastered  in this music.

Perotin improved and developed the chanting to include three and then four voices. Have a listen to the uplifting and quite lively sound of Alleluja Nativitas. It was as if this music was inspired by the construction work going on at Notre Dame and needed to expand to fill the space as the cathedral took shape around it. This must have sounded completely amazing at the time and if you want to get an idea of that I suggest listening to plainchant for a bit and then put on Perotin and that should help recreate a bit of the impact it must have had on the 12th Century congregation. If you happen to be strolling around Notre Dame with headphones on, all the better!

Perotin was pushing the boundaries of recording technology to the maximum, just like the Beatles did. The height of recording technology at that time being a feathered quill pen and paper, the latter being the new thing following the introduction of paper mills in France and Italy during the second half of this century. For Abbey Road think Notre Dame, an amazing new Gothic Cathedral recording studio with vastly new improved sound quality to inspire its recording artists. Quite seriously though, I know my linking to 1960s pop music might be a little tenuous here but music like this had not been possible before the emergence of notation because of how it helped Leonin and Perotin to compose. In the previous century the notation had been used really to record what had already been created whereas now notation would start to be used as a tool to create music. With Leonin and Perotin we have the beginning of the idea of the composer 'writing' music.

The music of Leonin and Perotin left such a lasting mark and was sung over again in the decades following the death of those composers before disappearing until being rediscovered in the 19th Century. As far as we know nothing as ambitious was written for over hundred more years.

And what else was happening……?

The crusades continued but apart from that it was relatively peaceful in Europe. The notion of chivalry and knighthood was very exciting and inspiring to Europeans who felt quite righteous about travelling east to protect the pilgrims also making the journey to the holy lands. These noble intentions were then forgotten when they  tried unsuccessfully to create crusador states in the east. The crusades were good for one thing though and that is that the crusaders were accompanied by merchants on their travels and trade flourished and the economy prospered. Lemons, dates, sugar, coffee, diamonds, cotton, gunpowder, writing paper, carpets and best of all, ideas, were all brought in to Europe for the first time from the East. As Italian merchants gained control of the mediterranean they became middlemen for trade with the East and got very wealthy. Venice, built above the water on stilts, eventually dominated trade. Again England was the least stable place with the Normans having to fight to retain power and various battles occurring in Northern France and England. Hildegard, Leonin and Perotin were all composing far from the war zone.

In Technology? The use of the compass for seafaring and astronomy began in Europe in about 1190. This had been invented in China about 50 years before and probably got to Europe via the increased contact the crusaders were making with the east. The compass was a significant boost to sea trade allowing ships to sail beyond sight of land which without it they would seldom do. The main development was the windmills that could rotate to face the wind direction that were developed in North-Western Europe and these were used only for grinding corn. Again it is arguable that this idea was brought in from the East. As with the many new churches these new windmills with their large sails would have been quite spectacular at the time, changing the face of the landscape. Also bought up through Africa and into Spain as a result of the crusades was paper now replacing parchment which had been made from animal skin. The earliest paper mills got the paper industry going in Spain, France and Italy.

And in Architecture? The construction of Romanesque churches continued to flourish providing the centre piece for villages and towns across Europe. Architects were still trying to rediscover the way the Romans had managed to build roofs of stone, which had been forgotten during the dark ages so they had to make do with timber. The buildings began to include more sculptures to convey and promote the message of God. In the 1140s the Abbot Suger created the first Gothic Cathedral at St Denis just north of Paris with his combining of the new pointed arch with other gothic features. This new development in architecture allowed the buildings to let in more light and to be taller with roofs of stone.

And in Art? The artists were more concerned with their work conveying a message from the bible than replicating what we see or feel in nature. Though this art has aesthetic value of course, paintings were to be read like words on a page. These works may have conveyed a more intricate message than the Gregorian Chant ever could but unlike the chant which had developed musically with Leonin and Perotin, in general the art of painting had not really got off the ground yet.

And Philosophy? - Not much of significant note happened in philosophy during this century but this was an era of great intellectual excitement  with the Crusadors bringing back ideas from the east  and the first university having been founded in 1088 in Bologna followed by universities in Paris in about 1150 and Oxford in 1167 and the discovery of classical texts from Ancient Greece that would later help spark the rennaisance.

And Literature? Germanic literature had focused on the heroism of the warrior but there begin to appear the romantic themes of courtly love, loyalty and honour in, for example, the stories of King Arthur. Due to the continuing rule of the French speaking Normans there is little English literature that survived from this century.

Songs to check from this century that make my greatest hitstory are.......cue the x factor countdown........
Leonin - Viderunt Omnes(I) (track 3) from Leonin & Perotin: Sacred music from Notre Dame  - itunes
and then
Perotin - Alleluja Nativitas from Perotin - itunes 

but warm up first with some standard gregorian plain chant like Mass for the Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Sanctus: 'Benedictus Mariae filius' (mode VIII) (men of king's college choir/stephen Cleobury) - itunes.... as mentioned in my pre-1000 post)

and then hear how it changes with Leonin and then Perotin.

Monday, 11 October 2010

1000-1100 Light, Sound and Rock

So this notation gives us a strong idea of the Gregorian Chant but really the notation needed some tweeking for music to get going a bit. The guiding light to take us out of the Dark Ages is sparked by Guido of Arezzi. The pre- 1000 example in my last posting lacked  the lines on which the notes sit. In about 1026, with his ‘Micrologus’ Guido created the stave so that the notes had a clear relation from one to another which could be recognisable across the regions and through the ages to the present day.

Here's what it looked like:-

‘Let there be light, sound, drums, guitar, let there be rock’. (AC/DC)

With these immortal and quite spiritual words from the greatest composers of classical rock of all time we can give thanks to Guido, for it is down to him that we have some of these gifts back in the day.

We’ve got the light in a sense and with it came the sound. Guido’s form of notation luminates what would otherwise have been left, forgotten in the darkness – and that is the sound of music. The drums were not up to scratch yet, nor was the guitar but the rock...... well the best rock of this time would be found in the foundations and walls of the Romanesque churches and later it was carved into the great Gothic cathedrals which were to provide a magnificently affective stimulus to the chanting of the church men.

So where did the chanting come from? The anonymity of its authors adds to the sense that it might originate from God or some suprapersonal entity. The effect of the unaccompanied human voice, with so few phonetics, wandering freely and with fluidity, echoing against the stone is powerfully sensuous even to our modern day ears. Its lack of complication and disassociation with instrumentation and lack of rhythm renders it timeless in more than one sense, and more so than any other period of music.

With these chants becoming properly notated they could then be passed from one church more easily and from one generation to the next. It also greatly helped the churchmen develop the plain chant. Firstly they introduced a second voice (or set of voices) singing exactly the same thing a fourth or a fifth note or an octave (eight note) above the main voice.

This is the birth of polyphony, that is more than one note being sung or played at the same time. Most music since then is polyphonic. An exception might be a solo unaccompanied violin (unless two strings were played at the same time) or more probably say a flute piece which of course is monophonic or monodic because that instrument, like the voice, cannot play more than one note at a time. This second (the first being the plain chant) polyphonic type of Gregorian Chant is known as Organum.

And so where are we with everything else in this century?

Society generally? Life was becoming more peaceful in Europe but this was perhaps because the crusades began and the fighting was elsewhere. In 1066 William the Conqueror crossed the channel from Normandy to defeat king Harry at the battle of Hastings but no major wars to get in the way of the churchmen chanting in their churches on the continent. This is a good time in Western Europe at least– a time of less fighting than there had been in the preceding centuries and church reform. Things are improving from the Dark Ages – social stability meant more mobility meant urban centres began to emerge meant populations begin to increase again. Even the climate becomes warmer during the period 1000 to 1250 which helped (excuse another pun) agriculture to grow.

And in technology? The new iron plough helped agriculture spread across Europe into vast areas that had been wilderness. The improved climate was an added bonus.

And in art? As with music most of the art from the period which has survived is religious. The Barons and feudal lords had not been bothered about destroying art in each other’s castle’s but they treated religious art with far more respect. The Bayeaux Tapestry is an exception but that is because it was kept in a church. The art’s primary purpose was to convey the content and message of a biblical story. Like the music it was very simplistic compared to later times and its main concern was to convey the message of God.

And in literature? Again there was more religious literature than anything else at this time but a theme of courtly love began to emerge in secular literature. Like music most surviving work is by an anonymous author. Also not unlike the passing down of chants, much of the literature consisted of stories that were being retold and simply embellished by new generations. With the French speaking Norman aristocracy in charge having come to the throne with William the Conqueror there is very little literature in the English language from this time.

And in architecture? An unprecedented number of churches are beginning to be built during this century and they are all in the Romanesque style whose most characteristic feature is the semi-circular arch (see example below). There are very few churches still around in Europe that were built before this time.

And in philosophy? St Anselm helps the church reform by coming up with, albeit a slightly fishy argument for the existence of God. He reasoned that, if "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" existed only in the intellect(i.e. God), it would not be "that than which nothing greater can be conceived", since it can be thought to exist in reality, which is greater. It follows, according to Anselm, that "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" must exist in reality....hmmmm.

Philosophy, music, art and architecture – they are all on the same page resonating with the presence of God.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Dawn of Time to 1000AD

Before I get going I forgot to mention that this is really going to be a Hitstory of 'Western' music. The subject matter is broad enough as it is, much as I would love to find out what was going on in the East.  Having said that, if I do find parallels and links between the East, Far East and Western civilisations I will include them.

(Oh and one other thing.... If I am in breach of anyone's copyright or I make an error of fact (or grammar) please let me know so that I can correct or remove the offending material).

Well that is enough of the preliminaries and let's get started.

First we have the big bang (a good percussive start), then planet earth is formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Only about 150,000 years ago the earliest humans evolve and it takes about 140,000 years, say to broadly about 10,000BC  for the earliest signs of human civilisation. 

Well we can skip on through about 10,000 years, past the various Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations which takes us to about the year 500 AD around the end of the time of the Roman Empire and when we land up at the start of the Dark Ages which were to last until about 1000AD. We can do this because through various depictions, writings and archeological findings we know music was made but we have no real idea of what it would have sounded like. This is because there was no form of writing or recording music from this time that has survived. So that was easy.

The Dark Ages were dark because relatively little is known about the period basically due to a lack of records. They were also viewed as dark because there seems to have been little development in such things as the arts, literature, technology, architecture and philosophy.  There was also a pause in the growth of the human population which perhaps reflects the lack of development in human culture. Stuck in a rut one might say - and so it was with music. This will begin to change, however, following the coronation by the Pope of King Charlemagne of Germany as the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. The formulation of a Holy Roman Empire was the first step back towards a more unified civilisation across Western Europe and an attempt to get back to the good old days of the Romans.

At this stage there is virtually nothing we know about the sound of music outside the church. Inside the Christian church there had been various different chants sung that varied according to region that had passed down the ages. Charlemagne banned regional styles of chant and imposed the Roman style on the churches across the Holy Roman Empire which is now Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Eastern France, Northern Italy. It came to be labelled by the church as the Gregorian Chant after Pope Gregory, a highly popular historical figure from 550. The church allowed the myth to grow that God had whispered these chants into Pope Gregory’s ear as the music became virtually universal across the region.

We know about the Gregorian chant because in about the year 850, the first of four great advances to aid the development of music making is made. Number two is the printing press in c.1441. Three is the phonograph making the recording of sound possible in 1877. Four is our very own internet, which I think, due to the ease of which music can be accessed now, is going to be looked on as an advance comparable to the advance made by the printing press which had such an impact on the spread of written music.

The first great advance though is the creation of musical notation. This notation has evolved since then (c.850) as you can see from the dots and dashes above but it gives us an idea for the first time in history of what we need to know – and that is what the music sounded like at this time.


For an example of this, the earliest music known to man have a listen to Mass for the Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Sanctus: 'Benedictus Mariae filius' (mode VIII) (men of king's college choir/stephen Cleobury) found on itunes or try introitus laudate deum which can be found on an album called 'Discover the Classics' on Spotify.

This earliest type of chant is known as plainsong or plainchant. The chant consists of a single note following a melody that rarely ranges further than five notes away from where it begins or jumps more than two notes apart. There is no rythym and no harmony, no instruments, just one note from one (or more than one voice but chanting the same thing) unified voice which is known as monody, but this was to provide the foundation of everything that was to follow – a good place to start.......

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Let me introduce to you

There has always been this huge gap between what we today broadly label as classical music and pop music. They are two completely different worlds. I write this very much from a pop music fan's perspective. I've always known that there must be huge amounts of non-contemporary music that  I could like if I understood it a bit more. I heard a Viola piece by Schubert yesterday and I imagined it was something John Lennon had written. When I did this it made much more sense. It was a simple tune and could have been written by either and I loved it.  The Viola had a similar melancholic quality to Lennon's voice in some of his early solo work. Schubert is more accessable than most but anyway, I bridged that gap. I did not catch the name of Schubert's piece but I'll probably come across it again when I get to about the 1820s - a long way ahead.

There is a point to checking out the work of  the 'classical' composers in chronological order. That is that you are more likely to hear the exciting new developments they made in music. It is surprising how fresh and new something that is a few hundred years old can sound if you start from the beginning of time and follow music's evolution. Your perception of that music will change, it will not sound so old and it will become easier to get into.

To begin with I will fast forward through to the year 1000A.D. for a simple reason which will be explained. I then intend to break my hitstory into centuries and later into decades when the best music begins to shift from vocal church music to instrumental secular music at the start of the 1600s or may be a little before - we'll see when I get there. If I make it as far as the 1950s I will separate each year probably to the present day. To try to create a picture of the different times I'll put down what was happening in other areas such as philosophy, literature, art, architecture and technology. Occasionally I know that there can be interesting parallels to be drawn. These other areas should be good to write about in their own right so I will probably digress a bit but it will always be the music and how it changes that is the central theme. 

If you want to join me in finding out about all this then do not be daunted and come back when I have written some more because the year 1000 is only about 13 life spans ago, so it’s of a time closer than you might imagine.

Music is more easily accessible online these days (spotify is what has got me started with all this) than ever before and as we go through the ages I am going to tell you which specific pieces of music I think are really worth hearing. I hope that this blog can provide a helpful pointer for anybody who wants to delve a bit and find out what music from the past they are missing (or not - it’s all subjective after all). So until next time......

Monday, 4 October 2010

welcome to my blog

Welcome to my blog. I am new to the concept of blogging but I have been writing stuff recently and it was suggested to me that I try this. My aim with this blog is to give a basic introduction to the history of music, from the dawn of time to the present day with an emphasis on the best, a kind of greatest hitstory of music – for the novice. This is a work in progress and I am right at the start but hopefully I will see it through to the present day. I may lose momentum at times but I am sure I will always come back to it as I love the subject. If you're reading this and it has not been up dated for a while do check back to see what stage I am at. My journey is going to take me some time but I will be enjoying it.