1902 Encyclopedia > Music > History of Music: Early Christian Era; Middle Ages

(Part 3)


History of Music: Early Christian Era; Middle Ages

How or when the musical system of the Greeks fell into disuse is still untraced; certainly it prevailed and engaged the attention of philosophers for some centuries of the Christian era. The first notices of music in the Western Church refer to the manner but not to the matter of the performance. The name of St Ambrose (384 A. D.) is familiarly associated with the music of his metropolitan church in Milan ; but al that is proved of his connexion with the art is that, advised by Flavian of Antioch, he adopted for the first time in the West practice of dividing the verses of the Psalms between responsive choirs, an usage which has a natural connexion with the so-called "parallelism" of hebrew poetry, indicated in the English version of the Psalter by the colon that divides each verse. This practice has come to be falsely called antiphonal singing—falsely, because, according to the etymology of the word and to Aristotle’s definition, the Greeks used it for singing together, whereas the church uses if for singing in alternation. St Ambrose regulated the order of the prayers, the ritual, and other matters in the service besides the music ; his ordinances prevailed in Milan, and were distinguished by his name ; so the term Ambrosian denotes the "use of Milan" in all things in which that differs from the practice of other churches. No proof is given that the melodies so defined belong to the date of St Ambrose.

Boetius (475 A.D.) was the most copious of the Roman writers on music, but his volumninous treatise De Institutione Musica proves that the Greek principles of the art had in his time become matter of antiquarianism ; nay, it proves further that he did not understand the technical terms he professed to translate. For instance, he mistook the word for the shortest of the lyre (Nete), which naturally gave the acutest sound, to signify the gravest note ; and he mistook the word for the longest string (Hypate) to signify the acutest note. It is not necessary here to catalogue this author’s many verbal errors ;1

but it is important to mention that he ignored the advance nade by Didymus and completed by Ptolemy in the turning of the scale with the major and minor tones, and the modern semitone of 16/15, counting upward, and returned to the Pythagorean division of two major tones, inducing a discordant 3d,and the leimma 2 5 6/2 4 3·_ The very eminence of Boetius makes it matter of regret that he ever wrote upon music. His Latin book being accessible when those of Greek authors were not, it was established as a text-book on the art in the English univesities, and musical degrees were granted for knowledge of the principles it set forth musical progress was thus seriously retarded, and the 18th century was far advanced before search theory dispelled reverence for his scholastic dogma.

As St Ambrose ordained a ritual for Milan which bore his name, so also St Gregory the Great (590 A.D.) ordinained one for which was called Gregorian. The terms Ambrosian and Gregorian are now erroneously applied to a system of music that came first into use centuries after the dates of the two bishops, and they are applied even to melodies constructed upon that system. This sentence of St Isidore, the friend and survivor of Gregory, distinctly proves that no music of the time of the Roman pontiff was or could be preserved : "Unless sounds are retained in the memory, they perish, because they cannot be written in the memory, they perish because they cannto be written." Whatever the age of the oldest church melodies, belief cannot associate them with the days of St Gregory.

The system of notation by letters of the Greek alphabet had fallen into disuse. A system by neumes (GREEK) or pneumata, or latter date than St Gregory, employed signs over or under the syllables to indicate the rising or falling of the voice but not to define its extent, and, in the manner of modern punctuation, to show where breath should be taken. This was followed by, though for a time, practised coincidently with, one in which the Roman letters stood for notes. Afterwards, something like our staff was employed, of which the spaces only and not the lines were used, the syllables being placed in the higher or lower of them to denote to what extent the melody should rise or fall. Of earlier date than anything that has been found of like advance in other countries is a service-book which belonged to Winchester cathedral, and contains music written on the lines as well as in the spaces of a staff of four lines ; and this comprises a prayers for Ethelred II., who died in 1016. It has been stated and constantly repeated that staff notation was invented by Guido, a monk of Arezzo, who was alive in 1067, and whose book, Micrologus, refers only to writing in spaces, and who throughout his works professes no more than to describe established principles, and these far less advanced than what then prevailed in England. To him is falsely ascribed the first use of a red line for the note F, and a saffron for the note C, and to him, as unduly, the appropriation of the initial syllables—nonsense without the completion of the words—of six lines of a hymn to St John the Baptist as names of the notes—Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La.

Hucbald (930 A. D.) invented a system, not of notation, but of scales, wherein the semitone was always between the 2d and 3d of a tetrachord, as G, GREEK, C, so the GREEK and F of the second octave were in false relation to the GREEK and GREEK of the first two tetrachords. To this scale of four notes, G GREEK , C, were subsequently added a note below and a note above, which made the hexachord with the semitone between the 3d and 4th both up and down, as F, G, GREEK, C, D. It was at a much later date that the 7th, our leading note, was admitted into a key, and for this the first two letters of the last line of the above-named hymn. "Sanctus Johannes," would have been used, save for the notion that as the note Mi was at a semitone below Fa, the same vowel should be heard at a semitone below the upper Ut, and the syllable Si was substituted for Sa. Long afterwards the syllable Ut was replaced by Do in Italy, but it is still retained in France; and in these two countries, with whatever others employ their nomenclature, the original Ut and the subsitituted Do stand for the sound defined by the latter C in English and German terminology. The literal musical alphabet thus accords with the sylallbic: A B C D E F G

La, Si Ut or Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, In Germany, however, a remnant of Greek use prevails in having the note above A at the internal of a semitone, namely GREEKB, as was the classical Paramese above Mese,a nd the Teutons employ the 8th letter H to denote the sound we call GREEKB, and the Italians and French Si. The gamut, which, whenever instituted, did not pass out of use until the present century, regarded the hexachord and not the octachord, employed both letters and syllables, made the former invariable while changing the latter according to key invariable while changing the latter according to key relationship, and acknowledged only the three keys of G, C, and F; it took its name from having the Greek letter gamma with Ut for its lowest keynote, though the Latin letters with the corresponding syllables were applied to all the other notes.

A system of modes had already been established for ecclesiastical music which differed essentially from the Greek modal system in having no notes inflected by sharps or flats, and consequently a different distribution of tones and semitones in each mode from that in all the others. The sole exception from this was the permissible GREEKB in the second octave, the toleration of which was for the sake of avoiding the interval of the augmented 4th between GREEKB and F below it, but the inflected note was admitted in the fifth mode only. Here the numbers of the modes must be explained and the later misapplication to them of the Greek names. The two classic forms of authentic and plagal were employed in the structure of melody, that having its dominant above the tonic or final, this having its dominant below it. The four authentic modes bore the uneven numbers—first beginning its scale from D, third from E, fifth from F, wherein the GREEKB might be used, and seventh from G. The four plagal modes bore the even numbers, which showed their parallelism or relation to their respective authentic modes—second beginning from A, fourth from B, sixth from C, and eighth from D. In the latter half of the 9th century, Notker, abbot of St Gall, applied the Greek names to these, regardless of the distinction that by use of inflected notes the classic modes had all the same disposition of tones and semitones, whereas by the ommission of sharps and of flats the church modes varied from each other in the arrangement of intervals. The confusion of F for the church Lydian with #F for the Greek Lydian is obvious, and the reader, may easily trace the discrepancies between the systems if he consider the diverse principles on which the two are based. Some centuries later, the ninth and tenth modes, Aeolian and Hypo-Aeolian, beginning respectively on A and E, were added, and later still, the eleveth and twelfth, Ionian and Hypo-Ionian, beginning respectively on C and G. The mode or scale that comprised GREEKB was called mollis, and those which had GREEKB were each called dura, and hence the sign "b" to indicate a flat, the word bémol to define the same in French, the word be or its first letter to name a flat, and the terms molla and dur to express minor and major in German. Lastly, as bearing on the aversion from the augmented 4th between F and B, and on the omission of the 4th and 7th in several characteristic national scales, it must be added that, whenever the 5th above or 4th below a tonic or final B, C instead of this note was dominant of the mode.

Coincidently with the church practice of constructing unrhythmical melody in one or other of these unnatural and arbitrarily devised modes, and of singing the same without accompanying harmony, the people of Northern nations had the habit, as has been proved in many districts, of singing tunes with the accompaniment of different parts performed by other voices. Among what tradition has preserved of these tunes, some indeed are in one or other of the church modes, as was inevitable in the productions of people who had experience of this system in the music of the daily service; but many approximate far nearer to the scale of present use, and are thus susceptible of just harmonic treatment, which is incompatible with the modal system. SO devoted to their song-tunes were the English people in the later Saxon times that churchmen, as is well attested, would often sing these to attract the public to divine worship, and after the Norman settlement it was a frequent custom to write words of hymns to fit secular tunes, which tunes and their titles are preserved this appropriation only, with the Latin words written undr the notes.

The appropriation of popular tunes to church use was followed by the adoption of the harmonic practice or part-singing of the people in many English districts, and probably in other Northern lands. At the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th century, a part added to another received the name of descant (dis-cantus, something apart from or extra to the song), and rules were gradually framed for its extemporaneous invention. It was preceded by faburden (the singing of a single note or drone throughout a given melody), and this latter term was retained with a wider contrapuntal signification, whence difficulty has arisen as to its primary meaning. To "bear the burden" was to sing the bass below either a single part or fuller harmony; when the bass was a single note, which was of course the tonic, this being generally F, or Fa, it constituted the faburden or drone ; that the term is translated fauxbourdon and falsobordone in French and Italian may have referred at first to its being a single note of drone, and not a part changing with the changeful harmony.

The assertion that previously to the period now being considered there prevailed a church custom of accompanying melodies with a transposition of the same at the interval of the 5th or 8th above or below is disproved Aristotle’s injunction that the antiphon might be at the 8th below, but not at any other of the perfect intervals ; and the blundering of Boetius could not eradicate the fact, though it might obscure the rule. It is also disproved by the habit of the peoples of the North to sing in harmony, showing unschooled perception of the principles of combining sounds, and making it impossible that either they or their priest (who must casually have heard their natural performances) could have tolerated the cacophonous progression of parts of perfect intervals from each other. It is diproved by the identity of human perceptions to-day with those of a thousand years ago, and by the certaintly that men of old positively could not have sung with satisfaction, or heard with respect, things that are in the highest degree offensive to us all. AN explanation may be speculatively ventured, that the manuscripts wherein two parts appear to be written in 5ths or 4ths with each other are not scores showing what was to be sung in combination, but the parts separate choirs, showing what was to be sung in response; thus, when


{A } stand as the initials of three melodies, the top or the bottom may have


been intended to be sung alone, the middle to follow, and the other to succeed. In this is to be seen the germ of the fugue, if we may suppose that the part which first held the cantus was continued in descant, when the cantus was sung a 5th higher by another part. Music written as here described is defined as diaphony, —a term at least as appropriate to the successive as to the simultaneous singing of a melody at the interval of a 5th above or below.

One of the most inscrutable things to the modern student is the lateness at which notation was devised for defining the relative length of musical sounds. The rhythmical sense is the earliest of the musical faculties to be developed, and is often the strongest in its development among individuals and nations. Still, the ancients have left no record the t they had signs of indication for the length of notes, and centuries rolled over Christendom before there was any chronicled attempt to find a principle for supplying this musical necessity. Here again conjecture will insist that the practice of singing longer and shorter notes with stronger and weaker accent must have prevailed before a system was framed for its regulation ; and in this supposition offers that the instincts of the people must have given example for the canons of the schoolmen. Franco of Cologne, in the 12th century, is the first writer who codified the uses of "measures music," and all he enunciates is expanded in the treatise of Walter Odington, a monk of Evesham who was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 1228. At this period and after wards, bar-lines were drawn across the whole or a portion of the staff to show the end of a musical phrase in accordance with that of the line or verse which was to be sung to it, and the number of notes between these bar-lines was more or less, according to the number of syllables in the verse. It was not, however, till more than three hundred years later that music was first divided into bars of equal length, and not until a later date that these were applied to their most valuable purpose of showing the points of strongest emphasis. Prior to this invention the distribution of accent was styled perfect or imperfect time, according to whether the strongest note was to be the first of three or the first or two, or according to whether three or two should follow during the continuance of one, corresponding with present division into triple or duple time. Our compound times were denoted by such directions as "imperfect of the first and perfect of the second," which may be translated by or sign 6/6 or 6/6, meaning that a bar is divisible into two equal notes (dotted minims or dotted crotches or quavers). It is not only that early music is, on account of this vague notation, different to interpret, but writers seem to have had undefined notions of where their accent should lie; and hence we have varying versions of melodies, partly because the transcribers may have doubted how to express them, and partly because composers, when choosing, them as themes against which to construct other parts, lengthened or shortened any of the notes at the prompting of their own fancy. It was not until the 18th century that the plan was fully accepted of having the strongest note on the first of every bar, and of having, with rarest exceptions, the close or cadence or conclusion of every phrase on this note of strongest accent. To induce such termination of a phrase many a strain must begin with a half bar, or with a shorter or longer fragment, and the exceptions from the rule are so few as to be easily mastered, and so clear as to aid in strengthening the principle.

Descant, which has become a term of general use for disquisition on a stated subject, has been shown to owe its first meaning and musical application to the word discantus. A like meaning belongs to the word motet, which seems to have come from motetus, to denote a florid or moving part against a fixed in longer notes.1 It may be supposed that the term anthem had reference originally, similarly to the word motet, to a free part constructed against or upon the plain-song. The word descant has passed out of use as a musical definitions ; motet now generally signifies a composition to Latin text for the Roman Church, and it is also applied to the words to the works produced in North Germany in the centuries next following the Reformation which were elaborations of the choral melodies ; and anthem is applied to pieces designed for use in the Church of England.


80-1 See Chappell, op. cit.

80-2 The ratios of the three many thus be stated with reference to modern notation, the last being the temperament now in use:--

Pythagoras . . 576 648 729 768
Didymus. . . 576 640 720 768
Ptolemy. . . 576 648 740 768

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