Thursday, 23 April 2015

Sacred and Secular - Aspects of Medieval Music

Just in passing, Happy Birthday, Youtube! Please enjoy the musical links embedded in the text below.

When I was examining copies of the 12th Century Codex Callixtinus, as part of the research for my novel, Omphalos, one of the things that struck me was the amount of music it includes. Much of it is devotional in character (settings of the Mass, hymns to Saint James), but there are also pieces which, though sacred in their subject matter, are not formally liturgical: marching songs, for example, which pilgrims must have sung along the way.

Music from the Codex Calixtinus: Frank Cooper Museum, Facsimile Collection (image is in the Public Domain).

Here are some of the words from the "Little Song of Saint James," which I adapted for the novel, and which, incidentally, I suspect was sung to a tune better known as a drinking song (the Latin words are a perfect fit).

"First of the Apostolate,
Blessed Santiagu,
Martyr of Jerusalem,
Holy Santiagu,
Many are the miracles
He has worked amongst us,
Those in peril call to him,
He has never failed us!
Jacobi propicio,
Veniam speramus,
Et, quos ex obsequio,
Meriti debemus."

In fact, the manuscript is of considerable interest to the historian of both sacred and secular music, which were very much interwoven throughout the Middle Ages.

The music of the early Catholic Church, from the 6th Century AD, took, for the most part, the form that later became known as Gregorian Chant. Its simplicity (everyone sings the same words to the same tune at the same time) was considered appropriate to the liturgical context.

Gregorian Chant, from a manuscript of c950 AD (image is in the Public Domain).

From the 10th Century, however, musically-minded clerics began experimenting with polyphony (two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody). Among the earliest examples of two-part polyphony are the Musica Enchiriadis and Scolica Enchiriadis, both dating to around 900 AD.

The Codex Callixtinus itself includes the earliest known example of three-part polyphony, Congaudeant Catholici.

Congaudant Catholici, from the Codex Callixtinus (image is in the Public Domain.

Where sacred music led, secular music followed, and sometimes the two genres were combined, as in Sumer Is Icumen In, one of the earliest examples of six-part polyphony. This overlays a sacred text, Perspice Christicola, dealing with the passion of Christ, with a secular one, referring to the physical manifestations of Springtime, including the song of the cuckoo and the flowering of meadows, but also the farting of billy-goats.

Sumer Is Icumen In, British Library, Harley Manuscript 978, Folio IIV, a manuscript copied at Reading Abbey, c1240 (image is in the Public Domain).

All of this was rather too secular for some churchmen, notably Pope John XXII (R. 1316-1334), who attempted to ban polyphony altogether within the church. This, however, was an impossible demand. Avignon, where Pope John was based, was a flourishing centre of both sacred and secular music which, within a few decades of his decree, was to produce the first full polyphonic setting of the Mass, Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame, in which, I think, we hear the first clear expression of the sacred musical tradition that united the Catholic countries of the late Middle Ages.

The Palace of the Popes at Avignon. Photo: Jean-Marc Rosier (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

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