A Look Into The Centuries After The Middle Ages

With monumental television and film series like Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings at the forefront of popular culture over the past two decades, it is worth questioning precisely what about the medieval world – and particularly medieval music – appeals to such a wide audience today. It may be tempting to assume to that this trend is a new phenomenon, but a look into the centuries following the Middle Ages (which came to a close around the year 1500) will reveal that Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings are only a speck on the timeline of medieval music’s dynamic journey to the present day.

From the Renaissance to the Romantic period, through the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, up until the early twenty-first century, medieval music has been shaped and molded into countless iterations which each conform to particular contemporary tastes, values, and worldviews. With the rise in efforts toward historical accuracy among musicologists and medieval music performance practitioners beginning around the 1980s, a dichotomy between “real” and “fake” medieval music has come to light, but perhaps the distinction isn’t always so clear as it may first appear to be.

To place music from the hybrid “medieval rock” genre in the same sentence (let alone the same paper) with medieval performance practice may seem heretical to medieval music purists. But this paper will set out to explain that due to the lack of substantial instructions left behind by medieval musicians and composers, any compositions or interpretations that are sourced from extant medieval lyrics and notation or utilize medieval instrumentation should be celebrated as yet another chapter of the story.

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Professor of Music and Medieval Studies John Haines writes in “Living troubadours and other recent uses for medieval music” that “[t]hough in the last century academic medievalism has distanced itself from popular culture, it is historically connected to it from the sixteenth century on ” Musicians from the Renaissance onward have found ways to stereotype, rebrand, and reinterpret medieval music; it has never been static. Exploring key examples from the period immediately following the Middle Ages up until the Game of Thrones-crazed present day, this paper will explore how medieval music, both in the performance practice realm and in popular culture, both echoes back to its distant origins and appeals to contemporary tastes, issues, and worldviews.

Before we delve into our journey of medieval music through the ages, we should perhaps first familiarize ourselves with a few foundational concepts. By the end of our journey, the evolution of medieval music we will have explored will have culminated in Daniel Leech-Wilkinson’s notions that “to recover and experience the past as it was is not more worthy than the interpretation or adaptation of medieval music to suit the present” (DLW 7) and that “[w]ork on medieval music therefore can be done from an infinite range of viewpoints and with a great many worthwhile aims.” (DLW 8) Leech-Wilkinson asserts that the gaping holes in evidence for what medieval music performance originally sounded and looked like are rich soil for new, relevant, and creative interpretations. He emphasizes that “if we confined ourselves strictly to the hard evidence we should never be able to present a coherent picture (…) and medieval music would never be heard.” (DLW 3) In other words, music is meant to be shared, enjoyed, and passed along – and in the case of medieval music, a willingness to stray from the way it’s always been (which, as we will find out soon, probably isn’t really the way it’s always been) should be encouraged. This creativity is what has allowed the medieval music tradition to endure for so long; its malleability is what ultimately has provided it with the hardiness to dig its roots in deeper with each passing century, leaving a slightly different mark upon every generation that encounters it.

Leech-Wilkinson points out that these unique marks have irreversibly influenced our modern perception of what medieval music “ought to” sound like. Constructed over the generations from layer upon layer of tradition inevitably biased by contemporary worldview, values, or trends, even the elements we may consider to be quintessentially medieval have been, to an extent, shaped by the ideas that generations before us took for granted as fact – not necessarily by any material proof dating back to the Middle Ages. “Performance practice’s claims for historical accuracy are largely groundless, though the practices arrived at are not necessarily wrong (whether or not they are remains to be seen),” he writes. (DLW 261). Our preconceived notions are a lens through which we cannot help but filter in our own idea of what medieval music must have, and therefore should in reproduction, sound like. One prime example of this phenomenon leads us to our first stop along the evolutionary timeline: post-Reformation England.

In seventeenth-century post-Reformation England, Haines writes, the Catholic Church claimed medieval chant as its own. Popular opinion within the church held that the “medieval ‘barbarisms’ of chant” from the late later Middle Ages needed to be destroyed in order for the tradition to be returned to its original glory. Catholic counter-reformers such as Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers latched onto the idea that Pope Gregory the Great’s medieval chants were medieval chant “in its purest form.” In seeking this “purest form,” Nivers set out to adapt the pronunciation of the Latin chant lyrics to reflect what he believed was closer to “the Gregorian way.” In this way, Nivers and his contemporaries played an active role in adapting a medieval tradition to suit the tastes and values of its new audience. As a result of Nivers’ largely successful efforts, the “Gregorian Chants” we now enjoy remain heavily influenced by these Reformation-era edits.

Skipping ahead a century or two, the overlapping Romantic and Victorian periods saw an explosion of “medieval” trends bursting into the mainstream – from architecture to literature to art to music. For some, this was about a stereotypical glamourized medieval image; Queen Victoria herself played a part in perpetuating this stereotype. In 1842, she and Prince Albert threw a famously elaborate medieval-themed costume ball (Roberts 27-32) – with all the trappings of the nineteenth century versions of splendid medieval clothing, and, likely, of medieval music. For much of the American and English population, though, it is little wonder that, in the wake of widespread industrialism, the stereotypical concept of the medieval world (a world imagined to be closer to nature, faith, and community) presented itself as a respite from the rapidly changing present day.

In accordance with this “simpler times” stereotype of the Middle Ages, Haines points out a notable cultural phenomenon originating in the Romantic period that seems to have carried through to the present day: “the notion that many songs of the Middle Ages had been orally transmitted for centuries by the common people, and that certain modern folksongs were in fact medieval songs that had never been written down.” (Haines Revival 573) As a result, many composers in the period “lent to their music a quintessentially medieval ‘naïveté’ by imitating folk and popular song.” (Haines troubadors 139). Simon Nugent in “Celtic music and Hollywood cinema: Representation, stereotype, and affect” claims that [Johann Gottfried] Herder played an instrumental role in the foundation of this myth in 1778, when he included two trouvère songs in the collection of German folk songs he published. (Simon Nugent, “Celtic music and Hollywood cinema: Representation, stereotype, and affect” in Recomposing the past: representations of early music on stage and screen, p. 113). Haines also lays the blame on the Comte de Tressan who, in the late eighteenth century, “claimed that ancient odes had been preserved ‘from generation to generation by oral tradition,’ and could still be heard in the songs of peasants in the Pyrénées Mountains.”

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A Look Into The Centuries After The Middle Ages. (2022, Dec 12). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/a-look-into-the-centuries-after-the-middle-ages/

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