Medieval Music Manuscripts: Treasures of Sight and Sound

Medieval Music Manuscripts: Treasures of Sight and Sound

By Sarah J. Pruett

Lustre: Spiritual Treasures and Sensory Pleasures (University of Houston, Texas, 2005)

Manuscript page with the five-voice "Kyrie" of the Missa Virgo Parens Christi by Jacques Barbireau (ca.1420-1491).

Manuscript page with the five-voice “Kyrie” of the Missa Virgo Parens Christi by Jacques Barbireau (ca.1420-1491).

Introduction: The modern musical notation system developed over many centuries, but its roots lie in the medieval world. Medieval music began as a part of the Catholic Church and flourished as the power of the Church grew. Eventually, music spread into the secular world as a burgeoning art form. Like other forms of medieval manuscripts, those containing music provided an opportunity for artists (other than the composer, author, or poet) to express themselves through the decoration of the manuscript. The medieval musical manuscripts that remain hold insights not only into the music of the past, but also into the artistic practices of the past.

Written music did not appear in the Middle Ages until the reign of Charlemagne (768-814) and the “Carolingian renaissance.” Charlemagne encouraged and fostered learning and the arts during his reign, hoping to re-establish the traditions and achievements of Classical Rome, including a system to write music that derived from a lost Greek system. The system of notation that developed during Charlemagne’s reign aided the oral tradition of music that existed prior to the Carolingians.

Music played a central role in the liturgy of the Catholic Church. The Church developed many different types of liturgical manuscripts to complement the extensive liturgy and quickly became one of the largest manufacturers of musical manuscripts. Worship for the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages fell into two main sections: the Mass and the Divine Office. The Mass is a symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper of Christ. The central events are the consecration of and consumption of the bread (Eucharist) and wine. The form of the Mass became fairly standardized by the tenth century, although some regional variations did prevail. Some parts of the Mass remain constant from day to day and are called “common.” Other parts changed from week to week or even service to service, depending on the feast day or season being celebrated, and are called “proper.”

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