The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the second of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.
The first article focussed on historical instrument combinations, using the illustrations of two 13th century manuscripts as representative examples. This second article distinguishes the difference between modern and medieval harmony, and the main body of the article looks at styles of medieval accompaniment by referencing historical models. For simplicity and clarity, the same passage of music is used as the basis for exploring a variety of accompaniments. Arrangements of the first section of Cantiga de Santa Maria 10 illustrate heterophony, parallel harmonies, fifthing, the gymel, the importance of medieval modes, drones and drone-like accompaniments, the type of organum derided by a cleric as “minstrelish little notes”, the rota and ground bass, and the motet.
For each method, there is a sound clip of a short musical performance, composed in historically informed style by Ian Pittaway, performed by Kathryn Wheeler on recorder and vielle, and by Ian Pittaway on harp, gittern and oud. There are also links to 16 illustrative videos, beginning with participants at Ian Pittaway’s workshop, Turning monophony into polyphony, putting the techniques in this article into practice. Finally, the question of what to do if there isn’t a tune is addressed.
The key message of this article is: once informed, be creative.
How to read this article
There are two ways to read this article. If you’d like to know the background and evidence for each technique of medieval harmonisation, simply start at the beginning and end at the end. If, however, you’d like to get straight to the practicalities of how to turn medieval monophonic music into polyphony, head for each soundfile, read the written piece of music above it (where there is one) and read the paragraph above that to explain it.
Modern and medieval harmony
For all the examples below showing methods for adding a second polyphonic voice to monophony, I use the refrain melody for CSM (Cantiga de Santa Maria) 10 in modern notation, as follows:
The first step to medieval harmony is to understand its fundamental difference from modern music. Modern harmony can be thought of as vertical, meaning that there is a chief melody line implying a harmonic structure, based generally on major and minor triads or chords. If, for example, the melody note is a C, the supporting harmony will be related to it, most likely C major, C minor, F major, F minor, or A minor.
Here is CSM 10 harmonised in just such a modern way (by Ian Pittaway in a keyboard programme).
It has a distinctive modern sound, built around chord structures with some passing notes between chords. Vertical chords, the modern triad, did not arise until the mid 15th century. To achieve medieval harmony, we need to think differently, in terms of separate, single vocal or instrumental lines, related by consonance and dissonance: polyphony.
As we will see, there were vertical aspects to medieval harmony: parallel harmonies, fifthing and the gymel rely upon it, built on almost constant vertical consonance. Otherwise, in medieval music the beginning of a phrase and the end of a significant resolving phrase had to be harmonised with a consonant note which, in medieval terms, meant harmonies of an octave, a fifth or a unison (or a third, but only in England and Scotland). In between the beginning and the resolving end, any intervals between notes were possible within the mode, including dissonant seconds and sevenths. The reason for this was that medieval musicians did not think in terms of chords, but in terms of a musical shift from consonance to dissonance and resolving back to consonance, with the second voice often being musically independent of the first except at points of consonant resolution. Non-ending cadences (phrase endings) may rest on a dissonant interval, not yet resolving, emphasising the relationship between dissonant tension and consonant resolution in the musical movement of resolution–tension–resolution. This is the basic principle of much polyphony: voices joining together with a certain degree of independence, beginning and ending with resolution. For this reason, much medieval harmony is often better thought of as horizontal, with vertical elements.
Let’s look at some practical examples. There are two foundations for the examples that follow. The first is written accounts of musicians in medieval manuscripts, describing how music was accompanied. Their testimonies will be given below. The second foundation is existing polyphonic models. We know from the simple fact that extemporisation was an expected skill of medieval musicians, and that music written monophonically was played on polyphonic instruments, that musicians sang and played more than was written down as a single line melody. Rather than rely on modern suppositions, existing polyphonic music provides a rich resource from which the principles of secular polyphony can be deduced.
The fact that medieval musicians extemporised both accompaniments and additional elements of the melody, playing much more than was written down or memorised, shows a fundamental difference between medieval and modern expectations of musicians. To take the most obvious comparison, modern western European classical musicians are trained to think of written music as sacrosanct, so deviation from the composer’s notes and extemporisation is neither taught nor considered a worthwhile skill, and thus there is a divide between composer and musician, giver and receiver, creator and enactor. Medieval secular musicians knew nothing of this divide, being constant improvisers, musical co-creators and co-composers.
Each suggested method of accompaniment below will have an explanation and an example, written in modern notation and played in a short recording to illustrate the principle. In each case, the melody of CSM 10 is on the bottom line, and the accompaniment on the top line, as was standard practice in the period under discussion. In all cases except the rota, CSM 10 is in the left channel of the recording and the polyphonic accompaniment on the right, thus they are heard to best effect with the listener equidistant between speakers for balanced stereo and audible separation of parts. All examples of polyphonic accompaniment to CSM 10 have been composed by Ian Pittaway, the author of this article, and played by Kathryn Wheeler (recorder, vielle) and Ian Pittaway (harp, gittern and oud).
Though all the techniques are formed from medieval evidence, and in each case I will show my sources, you’ll notice that sometimes there are suppositions, leaps of faith and ‘what ifs?’ This is unavoidable. There is more written material from the 15th century than all previous centuries added together. Throughout the middle ages, those with the pens, the literate few, are the sources for our information, and of course they had their biases and their special interests, usually ecclesiastical. The great mass of musicians, mostly without access to pens and without the skills of literacy, are filtered through the writings of clerical musicologists. Fortunately, as we will see, ecclesiastical writers did sometimes show us secular practice, whether it be a positive description or a negative castigation, and such comments are invaluable for reconstructing musical practice beyond the church.
Jerome of Moravia, Dominican friar and music theorist, wrote Tractatus de Musica in Paris in c. 1280, for “the friars of our orders or of another”, to help them understand and perform ecclesiastical chant. In the short final chapter he moved his attention to bowed strings and, for this reason, Jerome’s writing is very special for early music researchers, being the earliest surviving record of the construction and tuning of medieval instruments. He devotes significant pages to the “viella” or vielle, the medieval fiddle. Jerome gives instruction on the religious and secular use of the vielle, showing that in his day it was considered a suitable instrument for accompanying both church music and secular music, as we see in the illustration from the Venice Psalter, c. 1270, on the right.
Jerome described the vielle as an instrument for singers to self-accompany using heterophony or biphony. Heterophony is the simultaneous playing of different versions of a melody so that, for example, at one point in the tune the voice may fall but the fiddle rise, creating a brief harmony, perhaps particularly at a point where that note is not available on the fiddle due to its tuning. (For details, see this article dedicated to the vielle. Biphonic music is, as we will later see, a melody over a drone, which the vielle is specifically designed for.)
Heterophony can mean playing fewer notes than the melody by holding a note rather than playing the phrase, or extra notes, or variant notes, or changing the rhythm, all of which are seen and heard in the example below. (In this example, and in all that follow except the rota, the original CSM 10 melody shown on the bottom line is in the left audio channel, and the additional polyphony shown on the top line is in the right audio channel.)
In the 1270s, French cleric Elias Salomon (or Elias of Salomon, or Salomo) wrote Scienta artis musicae, in which he described singing in parallel fifths, octaves and twelves (fifths taken up an octave).
There is further evidence of instrumental parallel fifths from a surprisingly late source. In his Harmonie universelle, 1635, French Jesuit priest and music theorist Marin Mersenne wrote about the psalterion, a name for the hammer dulcimer: “this figure [see right] represents that which is used now, on which are put thirteen sets of strings, of which each has two strings at the unison or at the Octave, to which one could add others at the fifth, and at the fifteenth to augment the harmony.” Could the unison, octave and double-octave psalterion stringing be a continuance of earlier medieval practice on the psaltery, from which the dulcimer was descended? There are three pieces of circumstantial evidence which suggest so.
The first is that Mersenne states that some psalterion courses were strung “two strings … at the fifth … to augment the harmony.” He doesn’t mention which courses, but this does suggest a very different world of sound to that we’d expect in 1635 when he was writing. A number of courses together tuned in fifths would produce parallel fifths. An instrument that produces unisons, parallel octaves, parallel double octaves and parallel fifths is a medieval sound quite unlike anything we are used to now – nor was it the common sound of the renaissance or Mersenne’s baroque period, since this was a medieval practice long since considered unmusical. Secondly, referring to his illustration, Mersenne states, “Now this [lowest] string acts as a bourdon”. This is a low string tuned a fourth below the adjacent string rather than a diatonic step down as with the rest of the psalterion. Having such a bourdon or drone string was a feature of the medieval harp and vielle (fiddle), so this harks back to earlier practice. Thirdly, there is another hark back: “the strings may also be played with the quill or the fingers, like the Harpe, Mandore & Cistre [cittern]”, in other words, as well as with hammers, the psalterion may still be played like a psaltery which, by 1635, had fallen into disuse for more than a century.
This is the sound of parallel fifths …
… and parallel octaves.
A step away from parallel fifths or octaves is fifthing, described in four Parisian music treatises of the 13th and 14th century. The rules are as follows: each note of the second voice is an octave or a fifth above the first, with no more than two adjacent notes in parallel octaves or fifths. Each interval must be a pure octave or fifth, not augmented or diminished, and the second voice may have occasional passing notes. My result for the fifthing of CSM 10 is as follows – other results are possible, of course:
A very different kind of parallelism occurred only in England and Scotland: the gymel. I have described above the notion of consonant and dissonant intervals that, in medieval music, unisons, fifths and octaves are consonant, and all other intervals dissonant. There is an exception to this rule, that in England and Scotland the interval of a third was also considered consonant.
A gymel, from the Latin, cantus gemellus, is twin song, two part polyphony in which the second voice harmonises almost entirely in thirds or sixths, often moving in parallel. This definition of a gymel as parallel thirds and sixths is from the 15th century music theorist Guilielmus Monachus (about whom nothing is known, not even his nationality – English or Italian?), though the practice is evident in England from the beginning of the 13th century.
Two examples are close in time. Edi beo þu heuene quene, a song in praise of the Virgin Mary written in Middle English between 1265 and the late 13th century, ends cadences with unisons but otherwise employs harmonising thirds almost exclusively. It is shown above in modern notation and can be heard on vielle by clicking on the soundfile below. (For a full article about this song, click here.)
A well-known gymel from Scotland is contemporaneous with Edi beo þu. Nobilis humilis in the Codex Upsalensis, c. 1280, is a hymn to Saint Magnus, written out by the monks of Saint Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney. The melodic movement will sound unfamiliar to modern ears, since it is in the lydian mode, beginning and ending on F, with a tenor or reciting note of C. The harmony, however, is very modern-sounding, avoiding the crunchy dissonance so typical of medieval harmony, relying instead on the continual sweetness of the harmonised third.
Gymel technique of harmonisation in thirds is presented here as an option when turning English or Scottish medieval monophony into polyphony. Being a purely English and Scottish phenomenon, CSM 10 would not be harmonised in this way but, for the sake of completion and to illustrate the point, here is CSM 10 as a gymel:
For a host of reasons, one of which will become apparent in the next section, it is as well to know the basics of medieval modes.
The medieval church specified 8 modes in which its music was to be written and sung, each employing a natural scale with a note on which to begin and end, and a tenor, a reciting or dominant note with a returning and prominent place in the melody. The authentic modes are odd-numbered below. They begin and end on the same note, and the tenor is a fifth above the starting note, except when that note is B, in which case it is raised to C. Each authentic mode has a related plagal mode with the same name but beginning hypo-, and they are even-numbered below. The plagal modes end on the same note as their authentic counterparts, but begin a forth lower, and thus their starting note and finalis are different. The plagal tenor is a sixth above the starting note, except when that note is B, in which case it is raised to C.
Giving the starting note, tenor and finalis in that order, the 8 modes are:
- dorian (D A D)
- hypodorian (A F D)
- phrgian (E C E)
- hypophrygian (B A E)
- lydian (F C F)
- hypolydian (C A F)
- mixolydian (G D G)
- hypomyxolydian (D C G)
Guido of Arezzo, an 11th century Italian Benedictine monk, mapped all available notes in medieval music theory, known as ‘the whole gamut’, from the Latin gamma ut, being the Greek letter gamma, Γ, used for the lowest note, bass G, and the syllable ut, being the lowest note of a hexachord (a pattern or scale of 6 rising notes with the names ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la).
You will notice that the gamut, on which the modes are based, is entirely diatonic, with no sharps or flats, with the one exception of Bb, for an audible reason. When the notes B and F are played or sung against each other they produce a tritone, three whole tones, an augmented fourth, named diabolus in musica, the devil in music, or the devil’s interval. Since Bb is part of the diatonic gamut, when B and F appear against each other, the B can be flattened to avoid a tritone, as follows:
As with all tenets, we should be wary of over-claiming, suggesting that a rule was applied universally. The augmented fourth or devil’s interval, for example, was used by the Notre Dame school of polyphony, composers at or around the Parisian cathedral of that name from 1160 to around 1250 (more about whom below).
The gamut notes in this system were known as musica recta or musica vera, meaning right or true music. This implies that any changed notes – flattened or sharpened from the gamut notes – were wrong, and this is just what the church taught: each mode had a particular sound and was associated with a particular mood, so changing notes would sully the nature of the mode or mood.
We know that singers and musicians did change notes in performance (rather than in writing) because the church frowned upon it and called those altered notes musica ficta or musica falsa, meaning feigned or false music, a term used in several 13th and 14th century treatises by writers such as Johannes de Garlandia (De mensurabili musica, France, c. 1240), Johannes de Grocheio (Ars musicae, Paris, c. 1300) and Walter Odington (De Speculatione Musices, Evesham, England, before 1316). However, the church itself did not always follow the modes strictly: some ecclesiastical music slides between modes, beginning in one and finishing in another; and greater use of musica ficta was made as time passed.
Secular music was heavily influenced by this modal system of musica recta, being part of the cultural air all musicians breathed. While they sometimes wrote music conforming to the modes, secular composers did not always use the modes and did not always follow the rules when they did. Johannes de Grocheio stated that secular music was not restricted by the modes and Jerome of Moravia, describing three vielle tunings in his Tractatus de Musica, c. 1280, described the second vielle tuning as “necessary for secular and all other kinds of songs, especially irregular ones”. By “irregular” he seems to have meant songs that do not follow the ecclesiatical modal system, songs employing musica ficta, the adding of flats or sharps. By the early to mid 14th century, F#, C#, G#, Bb and Eb were in regular use in secular music and rules of thumb had developed, such as the flattening of a B when it comes between two A notes for melodic smoothness and, for the same reason, the sharpening of an F between two Gs, a G between two As and a C between two Ds.
Modal music was undergoing a fundamental change. Not only was the increased use of accidentals blurring the distinctive characters of the modes in the 14th century, in the 13th century the 8 modes had been radically curtailed in practice in both religious and secular music to the use of only the dorian and mixolydian modes, and an authentic mode that would not be named until the 16th century, starting and ending on C. These 3 modes – dorian, mixolydian and ionian – are used exclusively, for example, in the melodies of the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria.
It was such changes that led Swiss music theorist, Heinrich Glarean (also Glareanus), to update modal theory, extending the 8 modes to 12 in his Dodecachordon, 1547. To the original 8, he added:
- aeolian (A E A)
- hypoaeolian (E C A)
- ionian (C G C)
- hypoionian (G E C)
Glarean wasn’t creating new modes, but revising the system in the light of common practice. A glance back to Edi beo þu will show that its putative lydian mode, altered by a permanent Bb, is no longer truly lydian: at the time of its composition in the late 13th century, Edi beo þu was in a mode that was common in secular music but had no name, named by Glarean in 1547 as ionian. Since all the evidence suggests that this mode arose from secular music, it is probably for this reason that it took so long to gain a theoretical label. In the case of Edi beo þu, the ionian mode was raised a fourth so its usual starting note and finalis of C and reciting note of G were transposed to F and C, with a permanent Bb maintaining the ionian pitch relationships, as seen in the modern transcription above.
Drones and drone-like accompaniments
In music, a drone is a continuous unchanging note played above or below the melody, the drone and melody together called biphony. Drones were a significant part of medieval instrumentation. It was built into the function of the vielle, the medieval fiddle, which had two bridge types: flat, so that strings were bowed as one drone block, or with a slight arc so that one would naturally play two adjacent courses. It often had a bourdon, a string off the fingerboard that could only be bowed open or plucked open. The word bourdon or bordon was used generally to mean a drone function, regardless of how it was created on the harp, psaltery, bagpipe, vielle, crwth, or organ. In 13th century Anglo-Norman, bourdon referred to the lowest strings of the harp, with the implication that they were used for drone playing. An unpublished 13th century English psalm commentary (MS Hatton 37, Bodleian Library) states that “two hands are used in playing the cithara [harp]; one hand continually plucks the lower strings; the other hand plucks the higher strings, not continually, but at intervals and in turn” (f. 49r), which reads very much like the utilisation of a continuous drone underneath a melody. As we have seen above, Marin Mersenne’s description of the bourdon string on the psalterion, the hammer dulcimer, in his Harmonie universelle, 1635, reads in context like a late hangover of medieval practice on the psaltery, and the regularly seen hand positions of psaltery players, one hand on top, the other hand from behind plucking a low string, is heavily suggestive of bourdon drone playing.
By its very nature, a drone creates dissonance, clashing seconds and sevenths, and this raises an important point about the difference between medieval and modern harmony. So far, we have seen vertical aspects of medieval harmony: parallel harmonies, fifthing and the gymel rely upon on constant vertical consonance. Now we begin to see methods of semi-horizontal medieval harmony which move from consonance (harmonies of an octave, a fifth or a unison – or a third in England and Scotland) to dissonance and back to consonance. The single note drone, by its very nature, creates this movement.
Jerome of Moravia, in his Tractatus de Musica, c. 1280, wrote a mysterious passage about the use of the bourdon on the vielle: “that which is most difficult, serious and excellent in this art: to know how to reply with the bourdon in the first harmonies to any note from which any melody is woven”. Reply with the bourdon? First harmonies? The meaning is not clear. Pierre de Limoges, who owned the only complete copy of the Tractatus, felt this needed an explanation, and added a note before 1306: “The d bourdon must not be touched with the thumb or the bow save when the other strings, touched by the bow, produce notes with which the bourdon will make any of the aforesaid consonances, that is to say: fifth, fourth, octave, and so on.” “And so on” seems to mean unisons and the octaves above the intervals he mentions. Pierre takes Jerome’s “reply with the bourdon” to mean the bourdon is not sounded continuously as a drone or arbitrarily, but is only ever sounded in consonance with the bowed strings. Though the bourdon can only sound one note, this description suggests that on the vielle the bourdon was not considered a drone string, but a harmonic string, and it therefore has no application to drone technique, even on the vielle, which is a humming drone instrument. The description perhaps suggests that the vielle bourdon was only bowed or plucked as emphasis at resolving consonant cadences, though this is not stated explicitly.
I doubt that vielle practice, as described by Jerome, has an application for bourdons as drones generally, but is more likely to be an outworking of the sonic contrast between bowed stopped strings and a pluckable bourdon. The 13th century English psalm commentary mentioned above says of the harp that “one hand continually plucks the lower strings”, suggesting a uninterrupted drone, while “the other hand plucks the higher strings, not continually, but at intervals and in turn” providing the melody, and this is likely to be the model for droning on other plucked strings, such as the psaltery.
From the 10th century we have evidence of the organistrum, a large instrument played by two people, one to turn the crank for the rosined wheel which acted like a continuous bow against the drone strings and melody string, and one to move the sliders, requiring two hands, which produced notes by shortening the vibrating string length of the melody string over the drones. By the 13th century, a smaller, one person version had been developed, the simfony (simphonie, symphonia, etc.), with tangents instead of sliders, usually underneath the instrument; and by c. 1500 this had evolved further into the vielle à roue, literally the wheel fiddle, with its rhythmically buzzing bridge, which became known in later times as the hurdy gurdy (from 1749, according to the Oxford English Dictionary). At all stages of this instrument’s evolution, the drone is fundamental to its sound.
It wasn’t only stringed instruments that had bourdon drones. The portative organ, which emerged in the 13th century, used for both secular and sacred music, employed a bourdon drone pipe. In the second half of the 13th century, bagpipes with a separate drone stock appeared, lowering the pitch of the drone which previously was available through a double-bore chanter, one bore for the melody, one for the drone. (For the sake of clarity, I should mention that droneless bagpipes are also evidenced before and after the 13th century).
Drones were also part of the vocal repertoire. In his Micrologus de Musica, 1026, Guido d’Arezzo wrote that vocal drones were common in Rome, and he thought of it as a type of organum, an accompaniment to plainsong sung above or below the melody. The author of the anonymous Summa Musice, c. 1200, also describes one type of organum as a drone, calling it “diaphona basilica” – basilica usually refers to the Roman ecclesiastical tradition. Despite these references, there are few recorded instances of drone singing, and the reason why can only be speculative. It may have been so much a part of common practice that it wasn’t worth mentioning. Singers were expected to be able to extemporise polyphony, and if this was one very easy but effective option then it would hardly need to have been written into the music or described in terms of technique. It may, on the other hand, have been a localised practice: Guido d’Arezzo, while mentioning drones and other types of organum, comments that practices vary very much from region to region. In medieval music there are many questions without an answer, among them whether or not vocal drones were used in secular music. As we have seen, instrument drones certainly were, and were built into the function of some instruments.
The rule for the drone note is that it should be either the finalis or the tenor of the mode. As you will hear, this choice is tonally significant in its musical effect. Since CSM 10 is dorian, the drone should be either the finalis D …
… or the tenor A.
There is another way of playing drones, and what follows is my own conjecture based on strong circumstantial evidence.
The tuning of the vielle, combined with its flat or nearly flat bridge requiring that several or all strings be bowed continuously (single strings can be played with a great deal of effort on the slightly arced bridge, as Kathryn does on most of these recordings), means that whichever course plays the melody, other courses play a drone, so when the melody changes course, the available courses for the drone change, and the drone with it. In CSM 10, it sounds as follows on the vielle …
The Berkeley theory manuscript, written before 1361, gives 14th century tunings for many instruments, including the gittern, tuned in fourths, either A-d-g-c’ or a-d’-g’-c’’, depending on how large we think the instrument is. (This is not what is stated on the illustration from Berkeley below, which is confused, but the accompanying text in the manuscript clarifies.) With a gittern tuned in fourths, a moving drone similar to that on the vielle can be created by constantly sounding the adjacent open course to the melody, either higher or lower. This functions in the same way as the vielle: when the melody changes course, the available courses for the drone change, and the drone with it. Used in CSM 10, it sounds as follows …
The Berkeley theory manuscript also gives an illustration and tuning for an instrument Christopher Page names as a vielle, but which I am convinced is a citole. It is in the general shape that means it could be either, but a bow is not drawn or mentioned, and the implication of the comparative gittern below it and the closeness of tunings convinces me of its plucked identity. The name given to the instrument in the text is “citharam”, which is where the problem arises, for two reasons. Firstly, music theorists of the medieval and renaissance periods gave instruments antique names to link them to ancient practice, thus the Greek kithára, the Assyrian chetarah and the Latin cithara is the name of a lyre for which there is evidence dating back to 1700 BC, the word borrowed indiscriminately by many medieval writers for lyres, harps, psalteries and, indeed, it sometimes seems, for almost any instrument, open-stringed or fretted. Secondly, as Kevin Solez (2002) has shown, with reference to primary sources such as Homer’s Odyssey in the 8th century BC, the linguistic association was not simply to a specific object but also with a function: kithára was any musical stringed instrument played by a bard, or the playing of such an instrument. The “citharam” in Berkeley illustrates the continuace of this usage, the word meaning any number of musical instruments, and by the 14th century more associated with the citole than the vielle.
The citole tuning is intriguing, c’-d’-g’-c” (or c-d-g-c’, depending on how large we think the instrument is), with only a tone between the bottom 2 courses. This is identical to gittern tuning, except that the bottom course of the gittern is a fourth below the third course instead of a second. Both tunings make sense of and confirm the comment about the tuning of fingerboard instruments in the anonymous Summa Musice, c. 1200, that they “are tuned in the consonances of octave, fourth and fifth, and by putting down their fingers the players of these make tones and semitones for themselves”: the gittern is tuned entirely in fourths, and the intervals between various courses of the citole make an octave, fourths and a fifth. If other fingerboard instruments of the period were tuned similarly, essentially in fourths with some modifications, then they too would have been capable of droning by constantly sounding the adjacent open course to the melody, as above.
Organum: contrary motion and discantus
Organum referred originally to methods of accompanying monophonic plainchant, i.e. the creation of polyphony, different parts moving at the same time. The term referred to instrumental as well as vocal music, so writings of the 8th or 9th century on organum may refer to either. We cannot know the social origin of the musical ideas encapsulated in organum: one school of thought is that it began with secular music then moved into the church, as certainly seems to be the case for a later development of organum, as we shall see.
In the late 9th century and for 150 years, organum was not written down, but added to monophony in the act of singing. Organum, then, was not a written piece of music but a style of performance, known as free organum. The first surviving document for the principles of free organum is the anonymous 9th century Musica enchiriadis and its companion volume Schola enchiriadis. They describe note against note polyphony in parallel octaves and double octaves, parallel fifths below and parallel fourths below and above, with some variation at places where organum moves to a unison or octave at a cadence. Parallelism is also described by Guido d’Arezzo in his Micrologus de Musica of 1026, with the comment that it sounded too harsh. Nevertheless, as we have seen, in the 1270s, Elias Salomon was still giving testament to parallel fifths, octaves and twelves in his Scienta artis musicae, types of organum which, with the addition of fifthing, we have seen above.
The writing down of organum began at the end of the 10th century and beginning of the 11th century with the advent of tropers, books of tropes (from the Greek, τρόπος, tropos, a turn or a change), additions of new music to pre-existing chants in which organum was written down but the plainsong it was written to supplement was not included. In the late 11th or early 12th century there were stylistic shifts: in Ad Organum Faciendum, c. 1100 (now in the Ambrosian Library, Milan), the organum voice is above plainsong rather than below (a practice I have followed in my examples of CSM 10); and an increasing emphasis on contrary motion of voices resulted in voice crossings. This is also seen in secular polyphonic music, such as the untitled piece below on folio 8v-9 of English manuscript Harley 978, now in the British Library, c. 1250–1275.
Of course, the church created rules for contrary motion. For example, the writer known as Anonymous 1, who penned De Musica Antiqua et Nova, mid 14th century, England: “If the chant ascends one step and the organum begins at the fifth, let it descend four steps and be with the chant. Conversely, if [the chant] descends one step, let the organum ascend four and be at the fifth.” Such ecclesiastical regulations can be followed or discarded in secular music, as we see in the Harley 978 piece in the video above, from which several important points can be gleaned: all beginnings of phrases and cadences are consonant, either fifths, octaves or unisons; within each phrase there can be consonant intervals (largely fifths and octaves here) and dissonant intervals (largely sixths and thirds, in this example) as well as groups of parallel octaves and parallel fifths; the rhythm of the two parts can have note for note equivalence or be independent; and both parts share a small number of basic rhythmic sequences.
If we take note of Anonymous 1’s rules and the typical 13th century polyphonic patterns we see in the Harley 978 piece, and apply that to CSM 10, we may arrive at a second polyphonic voice like this:
Since our knowledge of medieval music is reliant on an incomplete picture from scattered surviving sources, one new discovery can significantly alter the picture. This happened in 2014, when Giovanni Varelli, a PhD student from St John’s College, University of Cambridge, found previously unknown music by chance in MS Harley 3019. Dated to c. 900, the two-voice polyphony in praise of Saint Boniface, Sancte Bonifati martyr, is added to a space on a page at the end of a manuscript telling the Life of Bishop Maternianus of Reims, written in northwest Germany in the early 10th century. The music is written in a form of notation that predates the musical stave and yet, unlike other staveless systems such as that used by the monastery of Saint Gall (Sankt Gallen), Switzerland, in the middle of the 12th century, it gives clear and precise pitch.
What is particularly interesting for our question of musical practice is that it shows that, at the beginning of the 10th century, polyphonic music was more complex than the 9th century parallelisms of Musica enchiriadis and Schola enchiriadis. Since Guido d’Arezzo complained of the hardness of sound of parallels in 1026, there must presumably have been an alternative, and Sancte Bonifati martyr gives us the earliest written piece of non-parallel organum. The Sancte Bonifati martyr organum voice typically starts a third below – a consonant interval in England and Scotland, as we have seen – and moves in the same general direction as the principle voice, close in pitch, but moves through the intervals more slowly and, almost exclusively, step-wise, creating thirds, fourths and seconds, with some parallel fourths and one parallel unison, resolving with unisons. The rhythm of the two voices is almost exactly parallel. There is much we don’t know, but Sancte Bonifati martyr shows us that there are more potential options than strict parallelisms for even the earliest surviving medieval music.
In the 12th century, organum gained a more specific meaning and became a distinct genre of music. The Notre Dame school of polyphony, composers at or around the Parisian cathedral of that name from 1160 to around 1250, produced the Magnus Liber Organi, the Great Book of Organum. There is a new distinction made in the Magnus Liber Organi between discant (previously a type of organum) and organum:
- discantus/discant: the practice of accompanying chant with the same or a similar number of notes, always consonant.
- organum: florid counterpoint consisting of elaborate melismata – several notes sung for one syllable – over a slower moving tenor.
A tenor, from the Latin for course, continuity or tone, equivalent to tenēre, to hold, is in this context the original or holding melody of the chant, which now had to be sung more slowly in order to give the singer of organum time to fit in the fast elaborations. (The same idea was later used for the slow written tenor of the basse dance in the 15th and early 16th centuries, over which a musician would play an elaborate, fast-moving, improvised melody.)
The fact that not everyone in the church was a fan of this new complex organum gives us invaluable information. English cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, Robert of Courçon or Robert Curzon complained in his Summa, c. 1208, of “masters of organum who set minstrelish and effeminate things before young and ignorant persons, in order to weaken their minds … If, however, some sing any organa on a feast-day according to the liturgical customs of the region, they may be tolerated if they avoid minstrelish little notes.” Robert’s account tells us that this type of organum was new, and that some in the church objected to it because they heard in it a derivation of secular music, fast virtuoso passages played by minstrels: “minstrelish little notes.”
Applied to CSM 10, this new “minstrelish” organum may look and sound as follows. In this example, I have recreated the secular feature Robert of Courçon objected to – fast running passages over the tenor. The tenor, CSM 10, has been slowed down, as was done in church music for the voice to be able to sing the elaborate organum; and I have used a limited number of rhythmic patterns, as is typical of this genre.
Magnus Liber Organi also shows this type of organum over a two voice discant. For CSM 10, the discant in contrary motion may look like this.
First, this is how the discant alone sounds …
… and the discant with organum.
Elias Salomon, writing in the 1270s, was as scornful as Robert Curzon of fast-running organum, and his disgust may again tell us something about the distinction between religious and secular practice: “they scarcely deign at times to perform plainchant at its proper pace when they sing by anticipating, accelerating, retarding, and improperly phrasing the notes.” Since Salomon is so keen to distinguish between what is godly and ungodly in music, this may suggest that church singing was characterised by singing at an even pace with every note in its predictable place, whereas secular singers felt free to make tempo shifts for effect within a piece, and not necessarily sing every note in it’s allotted place on the page but, in modern terms, before or after the beat, like a modern blues, pop or jazz singer.
Rota and ground bass
Sumer is icumen in, in the English manuscript, Harley 978, now in the British Library, c. 1250–1275 (also the source for the untitled two-part polyphonic piece played by The Night Watch in the video above) calls itself a rota. There is no surviving medieval commentary on or definition of a rota. The word is Latin for wheel, evocative of its musical meaning in Sumer: each voice sings the same melody but starts at different times, beginning partway through another singer’s phrase. The early 14th century fragment, Rota versatilis (in BL Add. MSS 40011B), also calls itself a rota, but in this case it is a motet, a vocal composition in which two or three songs are sung simultaneously. We are stumped here by lack of evidence: Sumer is very early in terms of surviving secular songs, so we have little notion of what may have gone before and been lost. It is not clear, then, that rota had one specific meaning in medieval music but, for the sake of clarity, let’s give it one here: a song in which several singers sing the same part with staggered entries.
In this sense, there are other rotas. The Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, the Red Book of Montserrat from Catalonia, c. 1399, includes some striking examples, such as Laudemus Virginem, sung beautifully in the video below by Liturgica, with mesmerising effect.
For the rota to be successful, the music has to be chosen carefully, since not all music is suited. It does work for CSM 10. Here is the first section of CSM 10 as three staggered entries in a rota, played on gittern, recorder and vielle.
A ground bass or ground is a short phrase that repeats throughout a piece, acting as a musical foundation or base. The ground bass continued to be popular in the renaissance and baroque periods, when it gained this term. Sumer is icumen in employs both the rota and the ground, calling the latter “pes”, meaning foot. This is the only surviving piece of music to use both. It would be rash to suggest this combination is unique historically, but it is unique among surviving and known songs. Sumer (about which there is an article here) is performed in the video below by The Night Watch and their audience.
If a ground bass is to be used, the first task is to create one that that fits the melody. My ground bass for CSM 10 is as follows, based around the tenor, the note A, of CSM 10‘s dorian mode …
Together, the ground and CSM 10 sound like this:
For this genre to work in the way Sumer does, the ground bass should be capable of a staggered entry, the second entry halfway through the first. With the melody, it sounds like this:
In addition, the melody should also work with multiple voices starting at regular staggered entries above the ground bass. Here is the ground bass, staggered as above, and the melody with two staggered entries:
More voices can be added to taste. This is the ground bass with two staggered entries and the melody with three staggered entries:
This method is particularly effective for short pieces such as Laudemus Virginem but, as we see with Sumer is icumen in, it can also work well with extended melodies.
The meaning and content of the musical form, the motet, changed over time. Originally, it comes from the French for word, mot, in the form of a verb, moté. In the original early 13th century spelling, this was motet. The reason word was a verb is associated with those “minstrelish little notes” we’ve heard above, a new polyphonic line added to existing chant, known as a clausula. In the early 13th century, the Notre Dame school of polyphony, working from 1160 to around 1250, did something new to these clausulae full of melismata, single syllables sung over many notes: they added text to those additional little notes, they gave them words, they motet. This had the effect of sounding like a new song with its own new text added as a layer on top of the original song with its text. Thus the motet was born, the last letter t pronounced as if it was an English word. From this there arose a secular tradition of motets, with a Latin sacred melody as a tenor, a cantus firmus or fixed song, over which either one other melody would be sung, or that melody harmonised with a third voice over a cantus firmus, or two melodies with different texts would be sung over a cantus firmus, sometimes in different vernacular languages, giving the effect of three different songs sung at once. Over time, the motet form inspired composers to increasing complexity, the zenith of which is Spem in alium, composed in c. 1570 by Thomas Tallis for 8 choirs of 5 voices each, 40 parts in all.
As an example of a medieval motet, the video below is of Ensemble Musica Nova singing Felix virgo / Inviolata genitrix / Ad te suspiramus by Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–1377). To hear it, click on the illustration below of Machaut receiving Nature and three of her children, from an illuminated Parisian manuscript of the 1350s.
Like the mesmerising sound of the rota, the melodic and rhythmic complexity of the motet and its clash of words is not something the modern ear is used to. It is possible to create a new motet out of two or three existing medieval pieces. As my cantus firmus, I have chosen the first part of a Gregorian chant, a Gloria from the 13th century, with the words, “Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax homini bas bonae voluntatis. Laudamus te.” (Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace among men has good will. We praise you.) Usually, the cantus firmus in a motet is sung very slowly, with elongated notes, in just the same manner as was necessary to give time for the elaborate melismata of organum’s florid counterpoint. In other examples, such as the anonymous 13th century Dou way Robyn / Sancta Mater, a short cantus firmus is sung at the same pace as the principle voice(s) and repeated many times.
This is the Gloria:
CSM10 and the Gloria, together as a two part motet, sound like this:
For my third voice, I have chosen the first section of CSM 344:
CSM 344 and the CSM 10 together:
CSM 344 and the Gloria together:
And with all three together, here is an experimental three part Cantiga motet:
Of course, the original motets were not created in quite this manner, but if one has medieval fragments of melodies from the same period that work together, this provides another performance option. As with the rota and the rota with ground bass, pieces of music have to be chosen carefully if they are to work as a two or three part motet. The starting point is the mode: the different pieces should either be in the same mode, say, dorian, or in related or compatible modes, and, of course, the length of the music should be the same. Even then, pieces may not necessarily sound well together, and there will be trial and error. As in so much of music, the key is to know the rules and then experiment.
What if there isn’t a tune?
There are many medieval songs for which the scribe wrote the verses but either didn’t need to write the melody or didn’t know how to. This is not necessarily a problem for the modern performer, since the practice of contrafactum (singular) or contrafacta (plural), the substitution of one text for another without substantial change to the music, was common in medieval music, as was taking a melody from one function, such as dance, and using it for another, song. For example, 12th century troubadour, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, heard an estampie being played at the Italian court in which he was serving and used it for his song, Kalenda maya. We have the option, then, of choosing another melody from within a credible timeframe, as long as the words and music are a good fit without doing damage to either. An article about the practice of contrafactum, One song to the tune of another: early music common practice, 800 years before Humph, can be accessed by clicking here.
There is also the option of writing a new melody. An awareness of the modes and medieval harmonies, both discussed above, is a good start.
Mixing it up
As we have seen and heard with the untitled two-part polyphony from Harley 978, secular music in practice mixed these different methods, using parallelisms, contrary motion and voice crossings, and repetition of rhythmic patterns, all within a single piece. One particular method does not have to be used exclusively when arranging monophonic medieval music, though it can be, if one chooses.
While having all methods in mind, I find personally that bringing any particular focus to the fore yields different results.
For example, taking all the principles above into account, here is an added line for CSM 10 with my primary focus on rhythm and contrary motion:
Here is another result focussing primarily on rhythmic groupings in the second voice:
In the following example, I incorporated two of the typical intonation figures of psalmody in the dorian mode – in bars 1 and 3 – and the rule about flattening a B when it appears between two As, to see what this inspired in the rest of the melodic line:
My arrangement of songs from the Cantigas de Santa Maria for the series of 6 articles on the topic have all followed the above principles, as follows (the blue text is a link to a performance):
CSM 260: Tell me, O you troubadours: consonance – dissonance – consonance (harp)
CSM 363: The troubadour in chains: contrary motion, drone (harp)
CSM 173: The kidney stone Cantiga: a mixture of parallel octaves, heterophony and contrary motion (harp), with heterophony, fifthing, contrary motion and “minstrelish” organum (fiddle by Kathryn Wheeler)
CSM 159: The pilgrims and the stolen chop: contrary motion, 2 note drone (harp)
CSM 344: The miraculous night of peace: Like most of the Cantigas, the melody is in virelai form: A (refrain) BA (verse). In the pattern of ABA, ABA, etc., the A refrain is a moving drone, with the changing BA verses being consecutively harmonised through octave heterophony, fifthing, contrary motion, and “minstrelish” organum (harp). Each form of polyphony is flagged in the video as the performance progresses.
CSM 40: The jilted statue Cantiga: fiddle drones under the melody and improvising around the tune (fiddle by Kathryn Wheeler)
Final thoughts: be creative
The reading of medieval music notation is a subject there is not the space to cover here, but I heartily commend it for insights into the nuances of medieval music. The books in the bibliography by Thomas Forrest Kelly and Carl Parrish are highly recommended for understanding not only Franconian square notation, the most useful system for reading the type of music discussed above, but also for understanding other written musical systems of the medieval era. Some holding institutions have photographed their medieval music manuscripts and put them online, often in their entirety, and the chance to study this music from (a facsimile of) the original page brings many rewards.
Put simplistically, there are two ways to play medieval music: play it like any other music, using modern conventions; or be historically informed, using what we know of medieval principles to inform our playing. This article has been an attempt to look at the evidence for the performance of medieval secular song, particularly of the 12th and 13th centuries, focusing on how to perform a piece with instruments capable of polyphony where the original music has only a single line. Though we cannot fully know the variety of what medieval music sounded like, there is certainly enough evidence to give us ideas and from them make musically viable choices. My experience is that being historically aware is a springboard to greater and more fully-informed creativity. That is why I have chosen one piece of music, Cantiga de Santa Maria 10, to show the variety of treatments a single short section of music can be given, in the hope that my examples, created to explain principles, may be helpful to other players of medieval music to show what is creatively possible by working to historically attested principles.
This article has been about content. The third of these three articles discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) notation of the troubadours; the medieval voice; ornamentation; rhetoric and the importance of intelligible language; preludes and postludes; and musical function.
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