This was an exciting period in European history. The great unifying power was still the Christian Church; and never more so than when Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade to recapture the Holy Land from the Turks in 1096. By a happy chance, the benefits of crusading turned out to be economic as well as spiritual. Wealth from the east began to flow back along the routes the crusaders took: first into the new commercial cities of Italy, and then on into northern Europe. It is no accident that the great architectural expression of the age the Gothic cathedral is not a church in a monastery, but a church in a city.
Gothic architecture, with its pointed arches and its capacity to soar to great heights (reaching out as it were to God in His Heaven) is the first flower of a distinctly Western style of building. The earlier, Romanesque, architecture owed much to the past. Its curved arches and heavy grandeur, and the very shape of its buildings were derived from ancient Rome and cannot express the new spirit. But the soaring, vertical lines of the Gothic cathedral are the work of a new kind of man, confident and proudly aware of himself.
Church music shares something of this new-found freedom. Though it remains closely involved with its heritage of plainchant, it is no longer rigidly shackled to it. And, for the first time, we begin to be aware of composers as individuals. During this period France became the cultural leader of Europe, and Paris the focal point of all activity. A University was founded there in 1140, and in 1163 the first stones of Notre Dame were laid. It is with this great cathedral that the first important composers in the history of Western music are associated. They are: Léonin, and his successor Pérotin. The actual dates of these two composers are not known, but they should be thought of as flourishing between about 1150 and 1230. Both were concerned with writing in the various styles of free organum.
Léonin’s organa are two-part music. He used two main styles of composition. In the first, the plainsong melody is spun out in long notes, with the added part dancing above in a free and often complex manner. In the second, both voices keep the same rhythmic pattern. Both styles can be found in the same work – the one at moments when the plainsong is simple, and the other when it becomes florid.
Pérotin also composed organa – not only in two parts, but in three and four as well. The added parts are held together by being in the same rhythm. On occasion, they even exchange actual melodic shapes. Thus, three phrases that occur in one voice in the order a b c, might appear at the same time in another voice as b c a, and in a third as cab. This kind of interchange lies at the root of contrapuntal imitation: a device that was to play a very large part in the development of music.
Contemporary accounts refer to Léonin as ‘the best composer of organum’, but Pérotin is called ‘the best composer of discant’. By this they meant that Pérotin excelled in the composition of the CLAUSULA: a short section of lively, almost dance-like music which is inserted in the statelier progress of organum and was very probably played by instruments only. Pérotin is even thought to have added sections of this kind to the organa that Léonin composed.
Besides organa and clausulae, Pérotin wrote music in the style of the CONDUCTUS and the MOTET, both of which are the invention of this period. In the conductus none of the parts are borrowed from plainchant. The entire piece is the work of the composer. All the parts, whether there are two, three, or four, move in more or less the same rhythm, and all use the same words. As the conductus was used to accompany the priest’s progress about the church, this march-like uniformity was essential.
The motet, on the other hand, was a more complicated affair. It seems to have come into existence as a result of giving words the instrumental clausulae that had been added to the organa, and then treating them as compositions in their own right.
The result was a piece of music that employed several sets of words. Thus, the lowest part (the TENOR, or ‘holding part’) used the words of the original organum. But the added parts introduced new texts: one, two, or three, according to the number of voices involved.
By the end of the thirteenth century, it was even possible to find two languages being used in the same composition: Latin, for the original plainchant: and the everyday language of the country for the added voices. In practice, however, the muddle may not have been quite so bad as it may seem, for the long notes of the plainchant were often played on an instrument.
Unlike the organa and clausulae, which were exclusively concerned with the liturgy, both the conductus and motet are to be found as secular works during this period. The musical style is the same, and only the words, praising worldly delights far removed from the joys of heaven, point the difference.
From the middle of the thirteenth century the motet was the style of composition most favoured by composers. It is therefore not surprising to find that this is the one form to be taken over wholeheartedly by the composers of the following century.
Besides the actual music they produced, which by any standards represents a high-water mark in creative invention, the composers of Notre Dame must be credited with new developments in musical notation. While it was perfectly possible to show the relative heights of the notes, no one had yet hit upon a method of showing their different lengths and thus their rhythmic relationships. As music became more complicated, the need for this further information became more and more essential. To cope with the situation the Notre Dame composers began to make use of a system which we now call MODAL RHYTHM.
This involved arranging rhythms into a set of six basic patterns, which were probably derived from the poetic metres of ancient Greece. By writing his notes in conventional groups, called LIGATUREs, the composer was able to show which rhythmic mode the music belonged to. The singers could then slip into the appropriate rhythm.
The system had its limitations, however. It allowed triple rhythms, and indeed was entirely based on them, but left no room for duple patterns. In other words: ¾ was possible, but not 4/4.
The reasoning behind this is to be found in the general philosophical beliefs of the age, which held that the universe was governed by a kind of Divine arithmetic. The number 3 was regarded as an unassailable symbol of perfection – The Trinity, in fact. Armed with this belief, medieval man was forever trying to fit his thoughts into logical schemes that would mirror the greater logic of the universe. As might be expected, composers did not follow their theories very closely when it came actually to composing music. They devised ways of avoiding what would otherwise have been a rather monotonous rum-ti-tum lilt. But, with all its faults, the new theory embodied a step worth taking.
It would be quite wrong to suppose that the only worthwhile music composed during the 13th century was intended for church use. The music of popular entertainment must have played an equal if not more important part in daily life, and it too had it glories.