Friday, September 18, 2015

Medieval, Not Med-Evil

On many occasions, I've had to defend medieval music as a topic on which time is well spent in music history curricula. Even beloved colleagues in performance have questioned the necessity of learning ‘dead’ repertoire that most of their students will never perform or interact with in a meaningful way. This is especially true of chant, that dustiest of dusty repertoires, inhabitant of music history's grungiest dustbins. 

These are legitimate questions, but they ignore the value of muddling about in the monophonic, and more importantly, in a tradition that is primarily oral—a far cry from the land of "deified composers" and "fetishized scores" that James Parakilas so aptly identifies in his essay, "Texts, Contexts, and Non-Texts in Music History Pedagogy." The question of what you can say or write about a single line of music is not inconsequential. It is hard, as my students quickly discover. Stripping away several centuries of musical knowledge is no easy task and requires a type of historical imagination with which they seldom engage. It is easy enough to picture Schubert at the piano during one of his famous soirées, making music with his friends, embodying the spirit of Romantic community, blissfully unaware that his music will be deployed on the battleground of style periods a century later. Somewhat less inspiring to the typical undergraduate is the anonymous-faced monk, cloistered away in the scriptorium, copying tunes that are but one version of a song born long before that moment.

But those monks are not so far removed from the beatified Mahler symphony as one might think. The copying down of those neumes led to various notational systems, including that of Guido d’Arezzo, who is responsible--at least in part--for “one of the simplest but most radical breakthroughs in the history of writing music,” as Tom Kelly reminds us. At this juncture, notation became not just a simple mnemonic device, but “made it possible to sing a song you have never heard before” (Kelly, 62). That distinction is a game-changer, and hardly something to be glossed over. Moreover, as David Hiley muses in his primer on Gregorian chant, pitch-accurate notation likely reflects the surge in new music in the eleventh century, when “many new melodies of non-traditional melodic character were composed” (Hiley, 200).  The real take-away here is that history repeats itself and what is distant and dusty is also a mirror for our own times. Without early notation might we imagine a Chopin-less world, a Beethoven-less world…the entirety of the Western canon at whose altar we worship having never been? Would music have ceased to exist? No, of course not--and that is exactly the point. The graphic notation of Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and others, is the progeny of that new music of the eleventh century. (For a convincing argument for the direct influence of neumatic notation on Earle Brown’s work, see Alden, below). I don’t make claims of evolutionary progress here, but to deny the significance of early music and notation is akin to denying a relationship between primates and homo sapiens.  Chant is usually the first repertoire to be sent to the firing squad of curricular decision-making, ironically defended by shaky Darwineqsque arguments of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Shall we also remove “H. erectus” from our study of human development? After all, anatomy and science focus on Homo sapiens. (For that matter, does that make the recent discovery of the species Homo naledi irrelevant?)

But perhaps the historical argument is shouting into an abyss—if one is not convinced of history’s import in the first place, a distinction between notated v. orally transmitted music is probably not crucial. But what should be crucial to performers--and here is where the argument might be more relevant even to those who eschew history--is that much of the essence of chant as a practice is the basis for the music of modern times. There seems to be an increasing acceptance of "improvisation" as a valued contribution from the jazz world (Yale notwithstanding, as Alex Ross reports), yet chant, which one could argue constitutes improvisation before improvising was cool, is rarely mentioned in the same context. Improvisation isn’t a new idea—it was there first before the systems and the rules. How much less daunting might it be to understand that fact before dropping students into Lydian chromatic theory, chord structures, or a Schenkerian Ursatz? If we subscribe to a chronological approach to teaching music history (as most departments still do), why not get students saturated in the ability to understand that modern performance—a composite of artistic expression, deportment, and polish—grew out of an innate expression of human culture? In this way, chant is of cosmogonic importance in understanding music that was not conceived or learned originally by score.  Why not steep ourselves in repertoire that was improvised, not “performed,” and that was “composed,” but not fixed?

In my medieval music course (and I am fortunate to teach at a place with a five-semester undergraduate music history sequence), I ask my students to listen to a monophonic Alleluia, and then ask the intentionally vague question, "what can you tell me about this?" The initial response is "not much," but when pressed, out come timid comments about contour, key v. mode, speech-rhythms, melismas, text, and plentiful other observations and contextual hypotheses that seem to rise out of the anxiety of having nowhere to run. When faced with the absence of dense polyphony, augmented chords to identify, and instrumentation to critique, there is an invitation to investigate context, to understand that chant is part of a family of musical traditions--most of them popular--where authorship is ambiguous at best, and there are blurred lines between intertextuality, plagiarism, and musical borrowing. As Parakilas observes, one need look no further than a radio station to see this legacy play out in our urban soundscapes.

I’d like to return briefly to my embedded quip above about recent events at Yale and decisions about jazz in the curriculum. While I don’t wish to focus upon the place of jazz in music curricula, conductor Michael Lewanski’s thoughts on the matter are relevant to this discussion. He offered the following in a profoundly good essay:

The notion of “training people in the Western canon and in new music” is flawed, first of all, because it assumes that the Western canon is a fixed, reified thing that doesn’t change, and, secondly, that new music is separate from it (whatever “it” is).”

Like jazz, medieval music is also increasingly getting short shrift despite its inarguable connection to the so-called “canon.” In fact, Lewanski’s entire article about jazz and new music parallels the argument that I am making. He continues:

“To pretend that these [canonical] pieces are deserving of being played because there is something inherently, unquestionably cool about them is the problem.  The reason they are important is the opposite: it is because they have a reception history, a tradition of people thinking about, feeling, playing, interrogating, fighting, reacting against them; and we are among those people.”

[Incidentally,  Lewanski’s postscript addressing canons and performing musicians is also a worthwhile read. ]

Curricular priorities are based on a lot of assumptions, some of which are so deeply embedded in institutional tradition that all the backhoes of practical evidence to the contrary can’t dislodge them. That said, it is time for a different discussion about “relevance” when it comes to history. And here I deliberately leave off “music” because this is ultimately not a discussion about chant and its importance. Instead, it is a plea for understanding and internalizing a truth that “old” and “new” are no longer terms to mark relative moments in time, but instead qualitative and often dismissive words that do art a terrible injustice. If we can recapture the newness of what is “old,” and the timelessness of what is “new,” I think that makes us better students, better educators, and dare I say it—better homo sapiens.


Alden, Jane. “From Neume to Folio: Medieval Influences on Earle Brown’s Graphic Notation.” Contemporary Music Review 26:3 (2007): 315-332.

Hiley, David. Gregorian Chant. Cambridge Introductions to Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Kelly, Thomas Forrest. Capturing Music: The Story of Notation.  New York: W.W. Norton,  2015.

Lewanski, Michael. “Education, Jazz, Canons.” August 30, 2015.

Lewanski, Michael. “Education, Jazz, Canons: A Theoretical and Practical Postscript.” September 7, 2015.

Parakilas, James.  “Texts, Contexts, and Non-Texts in Music History Pedagogy.” In Vitalizing Music History Teaching, 45-58. Edited by James R. Briscoe.  Monographs and Bibliographies in American Music, No. 20. New York: Pendragon Press, 2010.

Ross, Alex. “God and Jazz at Yale.”  August 29, 2015. (Accessed August 31, 2015)

"Statue of Guido of Arezzo". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - 

Yong, Ed. “6 Tiny Cavers, 15 Odd Skeletons, and 1 Amazing New Species of Ancient Human” The Atlantic. Sept 10, 2015.
 (Accessed Sept 13, 2015)

With many thanks to those who read this post in draft form!


tpeck said...

Fascinating post, Rebecca. I'm diving into some or the related links as well. A great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Rebecca Marchand said...

Thanks, Tim! I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts, if you would like to share! Thanks for commenting here!


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea