Medieval Music and the Art of Memory

Medieval Music and the Art of Memory

Medieval Music and the Art of Memory

Medieval Music and the Art of Memory


This bold challenge to conventional notions about medieval music disputes the assumption of pure literacy and replaces it with a more complex picture of a world in which literacy and orality interacted. Asking such fundamental questions as how singers managed to memorize such an enormous amount of music and how music composed in the mind rather than in writing affected musical style, Anna Maria Busse Berger explores the impact of the art of memory on the composition and transmission of medieval music. Her fresh, innovative study shows that although writing allowed composers to work out pieces in the mind, it did not make memorization redundant but allowed for new ways to commit material to memory.

Since some of the polyphonic music from the twelfth century and later was written down, scholars have long assumed that it was all composed and transmitted in written form. Our understanding of medieval music has been profoundly shaped by German philologists from the beginning of the last century who approached medieval music as if it were no different from music of the nineteenth century. But Medieval Music and the Art of Memory deftly demonstrates that the fact that a piece was written down does not necessarily mean that it was conceived and transmitted in writing. Busse Berger's new model, one that emphasizes the interplay of literate and oral composition and transmission, deepens and enriches current understandings of medieval music and opens the field for fresh interpretations.


While musicologists have long been aware that memorization played an important role in medieval education and that much of the music of the period was sung by heart, the role of memory in the creation and dissemination of polyphony remains to be studied. The reason for this neglect is simple. The music of the first important polyphonic collection, the Magnus liber organi, was written down in a notation that for the first time in music history attempted to specify not only pitch, but also rhythm. Consequently, the repertory has long been recognized as a milestone in the development of European art music. Thus, it was natural for scholars to approach the repertory with the same questions that were so fruitful for later European repertories, questions of authenticity and chronology. In other words, scholarship has tended to focus on the musical texts and their interrelationships, rather than on the cultural practices that produced the sources in which these texts are preserved. Underpinning this scholarship has been an unexamined assumption that the musical culture that produced the Magnus liber was literate in the same sense and to the same degree as later European music cultures.

Yet the repertory exhibits many features that are characteristic of oral transmission. The three main manuscripts of the Magnus liber organi are so different that it is impossible to arrive at a critical edition. Thus, the editor of the most recent edition, Edward Roesner, has chosen to publish the versions transmitted in each manuscript separately. More than any later repertory, Notre Dame polyphony is characterized by what Fritz Reckow called “pasticciohaftigkeit,” an appropriately macaronic term. Scholars have generally explained the extensive interrelations among pieces as a re-

1. Roesner, ed., Magnus liber organi.

2. Reckow, “Das Organum,” 474.

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