Music is a very large and significant part of human history. The characteristics, style, and theme of music is affected by what is going on in the world during the time when it is written. The constant changes in technology and culture throughout history cause music to be an art that is always building on itself and evolving. The connection between the progress of human history and the development of music is highly evident when comparing Hildegard of Bingen’s Alleluia, O virga mediatrix and Notre Dame Cathedral’s Gaude Maria virgo.
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Hildegard of Bingen was a very respected figure in the twelfth century Catholic Church for her prophesies, scientific writing, medical writing, and religious poetry. Her chant, Alleluia, O virga mediatrix, is a praise for the Virgin Mary which exemplifies the Gregorian chant genre of the Middle Ages. The most defining characteristics of a Gregorian chant, or plainchant, is the single-line melody and melismatic text setting.
This gives the piece a freely flowing vocal line, allowing the music to follow the inflexions of the religious text. Alleluia, O virga mediatrix is a sacred work and was designed to educate people on the teachings of the church, which is why it sounds like musical speech more than anything else. Hildegard gives her music an ascending, soaring feeling by making the lines climax at important words like “chastity”. Also, she accentuates Alleluia with huge amount of melismas in order to focus the listener on the Virgin Mary’s purity. This piece, like all other Gregorian chants, is monophonic, meaning it has only one melody without any musical accompaniment.
Polyphony, the opposite of monophony, is the meshing of multiple melodic lines. The rise of polyphony was coupled with the advent of the first musical notation system. Gregorian chants, like Alleluia, O virga mediatrix, had almost always passed from generation to generation through an oral tradition. However, once polyphony was introduced in the early thirteenth century, songs like Guade Maria virgo had to be written down because they were too complex to be simply remembered by the singers.
The fact that
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music could and had to be written down caused the art to to transform into something that was well thought out and studied. It also meant that individual composers could be recognized and highly respected. The institution at the spearhead of this new polyphonic movement was the Notre Dame Cathedral. Léonin ran the cathedral and is credited with being the first composer of this innovative new genre, which came to be known as organum.
Organum has a very different musical technique than Gregorian chants. For example, the organum is sung by anywhere between two and four soloists whereas a Gregorian chant was only featured one singer. The most unique characteristic of an organum, which is displayed perfectly by Notre Dame Cathedral’s Gaude Maria virgo, is the roles that each singer plays in the piece. There is always one tenor, who sustains the same pitch for almost the entire song. On top of this bottom voice, there are soloists signing in rhythmic mode in a highly melismatic setting. This combination of constant drone and creative melismas gives the organum a very different feel than the Gregorian chant.
Although Gaude Maria virgo and Alleluia, O virga mediatrix have many differences when compared to each other, it is important to note the characteristics they have in common as well. Both of these pieces are from the beginning of the Middle Ages and are sacred works. Not only are they both sacred but they share a main theme; the praising of the Virgin Mary. This illustrates that although the technology and popular techniques with music were changing, the church still remained as a cornerstone of all musical development. In fact, the words rarely changed between Gregorian chants and organum since they were often both based on the same scripture.
Comparing these two pieces says a lot about what sort of things were going on during the middle ages. Things like the invention of written music and the rise of master composers caused musical technique to develop significantly in the time period between Hildegard and the Notre Dame Cathedral. However, the progress of music was grounded in the church for most of the middle ages so many aspects of songs to remain constant. There is no question that studying the musical history of a certain time period is an excellent way to get a feel for the direction of human progress for that