In historical terms, the Medieval Period lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance. An incredible period of almost a thousand years.
We usually divide it into different periods. To understand what came after in terms of musical greatness, and there was plenty, we need to understand this period. Looking at 10 Important Composers of the Medieval Period will help us achieve that.
The Three Medieval Periods
From 500AD to approximately 1100 AD is what we call the Early Medieval period. Instruments were at a premium, and the majority of music was controlled by the Church. It was the era of Gregorian chants. The music that was created was not written down and passed from player to player. But usually only within the confines of monks or nuns.
It was in what we know as the High Medieval period that slowly, things had begun to change. This lasted from 1150 to about 1300 and was a relatively short period. New instruments were created.
The music ceased to be “owned” by the church, and it became much more than an expression of religious beliefs. Composers began to write secular work about love and romance. Music was also seen as entertainment and, for some of the talented ones, an occupation. It was at this time that the first semblances of written music in significant amounts began to appear.
A Period of Learning and Understanding
From 1300 to what we know as the start of the Renaissance in the 1500s was the Late Medieval period. Medieval Europe finally came of age. Philosophy, Art, Literature, and of course, Music had huge impacts.
No longer was the church the fountain of all knowledge and activity. People were being educated and, through that, finding new things. Music was one of those things. And approaching the Renaissance, there was an outpouring of creativity.
It is an often ignored period in terms of its musical importance. To follow it over a couple of hundred years were some of the greats. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky. The concentration understandably, to a certain extent, has been on them.
But just as many of those were inspired by the greatness of what went before. Like all things, it had to start somewhere. There had to be a point where inspiration was gained. That is why it is important to understand the music of the Medieval period because that is what gave the initial impetus to what came after.
Limited knowledge of some works…
Notation was not common practice until the 9th Century, and then only in limited form. There are, therefore, no written records of the works before that period. And very few after. However, as the Medieval Period moved forward, more is known about the input and the work of the composers of the time.
A Multicultural Europe
The early part of the Medieval Period reflected only regional and community-based influences. But by the end, the cultures were being mixed through travel and other cultural changes. The music was affected, and life and the music became much more cosmopolitan.
Not as well-known as their later counterparts, some great composers were working with, at times, limited resources. Let’s take a look at just ten of these. In no order of importance but listed chronologically, here are the 10 Important Composers of the Medieval Period.
1 – Stephen of Liège ( born 850 – 920)
Stephen was the Bishop of Liege and wrote history books as well as music. He is one of those we mentioned earlier whose work has largely been lost. During his most productive writing period, his music was passed by ear on to others. Fortunately, in the case of his later works, some were written down as notation became more common.
He is one of the earliest Medieval composers for whom we have much information. He wrote monophonic pieces. They were single melody lines that were sung in unison. They had no harmonic accompaniment or instrumentation to go with them. The Gregorian chant was the dominant music of the time, and his music is an example of Gregorian music.
2 – Fulbert of Chartres (unknown dates)
Fulbert is one of those characters from the Medieval Period, of which we know very little. He was the Bishop of Chartres in France for a while and was a teacher at the school in the cathedral. He was probably born in the 10th century. Some say in France, others in Northern Italy. Wherever he originated from, he ended up in Chartres.
He is known for his hymns and sacred music, much of which was memorized and later preserved in notation. In recent years his work has been reinterpreted by today’s musicians and recorded.
3 – Peter Abelard (born 1079-1142)
For those that like a radical, Abelard is going to appeal to you. Theologian, Scholar, Musician, and Composer, this controversial Frenchman became one of the most important figures of his time.
Unfortunately, his affair with a nun, Héloïse, became a scandal and at the time overshadowed his musical creations. He wrote many love songs to her, all of which have disappeared or otherwise been removed from circulation.
He was known for his monophonic hymns and his mournful biblical “planctus” work. Songs that were about death and sadness.
What we get from Abelard is that he was ahead of his time and pushed the boundaries a little bit further with his music. Boundaries that were considered by some unsuitable music for worship purposes. Much of it was plain, repetitive, and had little in the way of melody that most of his counterparts were producing.
4 – Léonin (born sometime in the 1150s-1201)
Léonin was a French composer who had a significant influence on the music of the time, and even to this day. Early forms of what we now call Counterpoint were beginning to be developed as early as the 9th century. This despite the religious preferences for monophonic chanting.
Léonin took the idea and created an additional voice to his melodies. He worked out a way of ensuring this voice remained at a fixed distance from the original voice.
A big moment…
This could well have been the Eureka moment for simultaneous musical lines that were interdependent. Or the invention of Counterpoint, as we call them. But further than that, it may also have been the start of harmony as we know it.
He is, therefore, rightly given the credit of being the first to write two parts with a set length to each of the notes. He was the first Polyphonic Music composer.
5 – Adam de la Halle (born 1240–1287)
Another Frenchman, also known as Adam le Bossu. He was probably born in Arras and was destined for a life in the church but rejected that and married instead. He became known as a Troubadour.
Some of you may be asking, “What is a Troubadour?”It’s a cross between a poet and a composer. Often employed by the aristocracy to compose love songs. De La Halle was highly thought of as he was employed at times by various European noblemen.
In the early days…
When the rich and famous would employ musicians to be resident in their court to entertain guests, Mozart, of course, was another, albeit five hundred years later. Although by then, the name troubadour had been dropped.
In this capacity, he composed 36 chansons, a type of French song driven by its lyrics. They often became used in secular theater and became the forerunner of French comic opera. One Of his works was the “Jeu de Robin et Marion,” which he wrote in 1283. Some think this may be the earliest surviving musical play by a French composer.
6 – Moniot d’Arras (born 1213-1239)
With this composer, we are not even sure of his name. It appears that his title might mean he was Moniot from Arras in Northern France. But Moniet is actually a diminutive of Monk. So it seems he was known as the Monk of Arras. Religious orders were notoriously secretive at the time.
Whoever he was, he was located at the center of the Troubadour activity in France. The monk was a contemporary of Adam de la Halle. The music he wrote was all monophonic and told of love and romance.
We still have in existence fifteen of his songs plus two of his religious efforts. His most famous being “Ce fut en mai ”. In his short life, he became a notable musician and a respected and influential composer.
7 – Philippe de Vitry (born 1291-1361)
Born in Paris, de Vitry became a prominent advocate and one of the chief designers of the “Ars Nova” movement. Ars Nova, translated from Latin, is “New Art.” And that is exactly what it was. This came to prominence in the mid 14th century. And it’s the main reason he’s one of the 10 Important Composers of the Medieval Period.
It was expressive secular music…
But it demonstrated how the creativity of composers was shifting away from the monophonic chanting of their predecessors. Now it was Polyphonic, having two and sometimes more melodic parts independent of each other. This was later to be known as ‘Counterpoint,’ as we’ve already said when referring to other composers.
Changing European music styles
It embedded itself in European music through a small number of composers. De Vitry was one. Sometimes the term was used to describe all European polyphonic music. For instance, there was “Italian ars nova.” This was often used to describe the music of the Italian composer Francesco Landini and others.
The Renaissance is coming
It was almost as if de Vitry and his colleagues announced the arrival of the Renaissance styles a hundred years before it happened. An esteemed poet as well as a composer, he developed a unique style with his instantly recognizable music.
8 – Guillaume de Machaut (born 1300-1377)
By the time of the late 14th century, the Ars Nova movement had gained pace. Guillaume de Machaut was at the centre of it with de Vitry. Most consider De Machaut the most important Medieval composer. He is also a composer for whom we have full personal information and a full list of all of his work.
He wrote of courtly love and romance as was the style at the time. But he also wrote some sacred works. The “Messe de Nostre Dame,” a polyphonic version of a mass, is considered a masterpiece.
And it wasn’t only his music that inspired others. His poetry was said to have inspired Geoffrey Chaucer. His reputation as composer, poet, and creator had spread throughout Europe. And he has become one of the important figures of Medieval period composition.
9 – Francesco Landini ( born 1325-1397)
Landini was an incredible man. Rendered blind by smallpox at a young age, he dedicated himself to music and became proficient on organ and lute.
His birthplace is listed as Fiesole, but he was likely born in Florence. He was known by dozens of different names during his life which has confused most historians of the Florentine period.
The Italian Ars Nova
He was an essential exponent of the Italian Ars Nova as it was called or the “Trecento” style. Fortunately, a good number of his works have been preserved. While he did write sacred music, most are secular. There are a total of 154 pieces, mostly written for voices rather than instruments. Some of these were for two and three voices.
The work we have for him is preserved in his “Squarcialupi Codex.” Such is the amount of work it represents one-quarter of all Italian music from the 14th century that has survived.
10 – Guillaume Dufay (born 1397-1474)
Dufay was a composer born near Brussels in what is now Belgium. It could be argued that this was the composer that took us from the Medieval music schools into the Renaissance period.
He certainly passed through the latter of one and the start of the other. As an important figure in the Burgundian school, he became probably the most famous composer in Europe at this time.
Like most composers at this time, he took inspiration for his work from others. One of these was the English composer John Dunstable. But music was changing; it was no longer localized or even regionalized. It was becoming global, as far as global really only meant Europe.
Musicians and composers were in contact with each other. Listening to each other. Influences from a wide variety of sources were common. This was one of the things that pushed music forward over the next 300 years.
Range of Compositions
He wrote a full range of secular and sacred music, with most of his secular work being what we would term today as ballads. His music was distributed and copied all over Europe. Everywhere that Polyphony had become fashionable, you would hear his pieces.
A great number of composers that succeeded him in the full Renaissance period used certain elements of his musical style. He was by far the most important composer of the 15th century.
A Thousand Years
A relatively short history given that we are talking about a period that lasted a thousand years. But I hope that what has been shown is the movement away from the formality, away from the strictness of the early Medieval Period. That eventually led to the musical freedoms enjoyed as we entered the Renaissance.
There were still the critics at the time, of course. Not dissimilar in some ways to those today. There will always be those who fight change. And it is worth mentioning that in Europe, heresy was punishable by death. Anything that upset the power of the church usually resulted in some kind of punishment.
Were some of these composers walking on thin ice at times as they pushed the boundaries? They made secular music as well as sacred. So, some were most likely erased from history.
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10 Important Composers of the Medieval Period – Final Thoughts
All the composers listed here contributed, along with others not mentioned. Because of them came Handel and Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Liszt, and endless others.
If you would like to learn more about some of the composers who changed musical history, here are some great resources…
Until next time, let the music play.