The Music of the Bohemian Middle Ages

By Matousek, Lukas | Czech Music, July 2006 | Go to article overview

The Music of the Bohemian Middle Ages


Matousek, Lukas, Czech Music


Today we are seeing ever more interest in historical or "early" music and its "authentic" performance. This has been moving successively further and further back into history, so that the initial interest in the Baroque period has led to the Renaissance period and now we are reaching the Middle Ages. There are perhaps two main impulses behind the present admiration for this era of musical history. One is fascination with non-musical aspects of medieval culture, admiration for Gothic and Renaissance architecture, the fine art of these periods and their literature. (It is paradoxical that Gothic architecture often tends to be associated with Baroque music, so that concert performances of great Baroque works are more often given in Gothic cathedrals than in Baroque churches, while various films about Gothic architecture are given Baroque background music). The second impulse is the growing interest in sacred and liturgical singing, and above all Gregorian chant (plainchant). More generally (maybe prompted by the "heroic" stereotype of chivalry) there is a now established fashion for displays of swordsmanship and brawls in "period" costume accompanied by "period" music. From here it has been but a step to concerts of Medieval and Renaissance music in "period" costume, although one must inevitably wonder about the notion of "period" when programmes cover 300 years a major cultural transition.

It needs to be remembered first and foremost that the Middle Ages represents and extremely long period (roughly a thousand years). Originally the term was supposed retrospectively to cover a rather despised "middle" era between Antiquity and the Renaissance with its ideal of recovering and resuming continuity with the Classical World. Pejorative connotations apart, the Middle Ages indeed differed its in ideals from Antiquity and the Renaissance. The music of the Middle Ages (as we see it today) differs markedly from the music of the Renaissance and it is as peculiar to lump them together as to lump together Renaissance and Baroque music or Baroque music with musical Classicism.

The whole period between Antiquity and the Renaissance was the era of the rise and consolidation of feudalism, in terms of the social hierarchy, political entities and state formation, and at the same time of the emergence of the universal (European) supremacy of Christianity governed by the Roman Church. The Europe of this era saw the emergence of a society in which culture and art flourished in a way that had no equivalent elsewhere in the world. Music was a part of this culture, and it was precisely in the Middle Ages--the second half--that music was changing and evolving (above all with the birth and development of polyphony) in a way that has had no parallel in the later course of music history. It is only a slight over-statement to say that all subsequent development has been simply the elaboration of the impulse given by the Middle Ages. The fact that by contrast the concept of composition as we know it today began to form only in the Renaissance period (another reason why Medieval and Renaissance music cannot be lumped together) has created distortions of perspective and makes it even more important that we should try and understand Medieval movement in its own historical context, free of modern constructs and imposed categories.

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

The Bohemian Lands (or Czech Lands as they came to be known in the modern period--in Czech there is no distinction!) were an integral political part of Europe in the Middle Ages, and in the High Medieval Period (which will be the focus of this article), often enjoyed a political influence that extended beyond Central Europe. Here it is essential to remember that in the Middle Ages territorial boundaries and groupings constantly changed according to the power and holdings of particular rulers and so extensive foreign territories often came under the control or influence of the Bohemian state (Bohemia, Moravia and part of Silesia), sometimes for very long periods of time. …

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