Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Early Music -- How did it begin?

Mankind has always made music.  Some anthropologists have even posited that the music-making came first, and the development of language followed.  We have found carved flutes buried in caves with Ice Age remains.  Imagine Og crouched by his fire, one shifting migration pattern away from starvation, and he spends his time creating a musical instrument, which will in turn become a possession so prized as to accompany him to the afterlife.  In the Bronze Age, one need look no further than the Bible to find music lyrics and descriptions of many kinds of instruments.  Think of 
David the shepherd boy, who played the harp for King Saul.
(A struggling family of subsistence animal herders, and they owned a harp?)  Egyptian paintings show strings, winds, and percussion in use together.  The Ancient Greeks had so many gods, demigods, and muses dedicated to particular types of music, one is reminded of the legion of Eskimo words for “snow”.   Make no mistake – music is what we humans do, what we have always done.  It is as natural as breathing, as necessary as sleep, taken absolutely for granted in the earliest stories we have. 

So when we talk about the music being composed in, say, AD 1000, don’t fall into the trap of believing that it must be primitive, that people so long ago didn’t understand music as well as we do today.  The human brain has always had a sophisticated, even visceral understanding of music.  The styles were different and our tastes have changed, but even then they knew exactly what they were doing.  No, the big leap forward around that time was simply the invention of a notation system.  Music was written down before—we definitely have fragments from the Greeks—but those earlier systems are a mystery to us.  We can’t read them.  David’s original tunes for all those Psalms?  We’ll never know.  There are educated guesses about some ancient music, but until a Rosetta stone for music surfaces, guesses are all they’ll ever be. 

 But somewhere around the year 1000, a monk named Guido d’Arezzo worked out a new system for conveying the complicated concepts of music on paper.  He made a picture of a sound. His system is the ancestor of the one we still use today. This is when we can begin to peer into the minds of our ancestors, and hear exactly what they were thinking.  The written history of music begins about a thousand years ago.

Who remembers this old tune?
The phrase we use today, “Early Music,” is really, therefore, a misnomer.  Music from 30,000 years ago might qualify as early, but not music as recent as 1,000 years ago.  But the millennia of lost music are just that:  lost.  “Ancient Music” is what we call it.  And although it’s not early at all in the greater scheme of human history, we use the phrase “Early Music” to describe the first music that we can read.  

In the year AD 1000, of course, it was church music that was deemed important enough to write down.  For the first time, choirs across Christendom could quickly learn Vatican-approved liturgies, responses, and credos.  But it didn’t take long for the wider possibilities to become apparent.  Preserving musical ideas in writing meant that the music could become more complicated.  Harmonies, counterpoint, independently moving parts, all became within reach.  Music composed in Italy could be taken all the way to Ireland and faithfully reproduced.  The Swedes and the Spanish could swap songs.  It was a sea change of possibilities.

And before you knew it, composers’ names began to appear on scores. Genius composers, inventing the modern musical world.  Hildegard von Bingen. Pérotin of Paris. Guillaume de Machaut.  John Dunstable.  Guillaume Dufay.  Johannes Ockeghem.  Josquin des Prez.  Guido d’Arezzo lit the fire, and these people and many more brought the fuel.

The Cincinnati Early Music Festival will begin at the beginning.  February 1, 2014, the vocal ensemble Cantigium will perform music from the 11-, 12-, 13-, and 1400s.  You will be able to hear music by many of those brilliant minds, including Machaut, Dufay, and Josquin, and music by some extraordinary voices who left behind their creations but not their names.  Although we will be joining the human musical journey in medias res, hearing the voices of these centuries tells us a lot about what came before, and helps us understand what came after.   

For a complete listing of events, go to

No comments: