Antiquity and the Middle Ages: From Ancient Greece to the 15th Century

By Brown, Terry | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Antiquity and the Middle Ages: From Ancient Greece to the 15th Century


Brown, Terry, Canadian University Music Review


James McKinnon, ed. Antiquity and the Middle Ages: From Ancient Greece to the 15th Century. Music and Society. Englewood Cliffs: New Jersey, 1990. x, 337 pp. ISBN 0-13-036153-4 (hardcover), ISBN 0-13-036161-5 (paperback).

1. James McKinnon: "Early Western Civilisation"; 2. Andrew Barker: "Public Music as 'Fine Art' in Archaic Greece"; 3. James McKinnon: "Christian Antiquity"; 4. James McKinnon: "The Emergence of Gregorian Chant in the Carolingian Era"; 5. David Hiley: "Plainchant Transfigured: Innovation and Reformation through! the Ages"; 6. Marion S. Gushee: "The Polyphonic Music of the Medieval Monastery, Cathedral and University"; 7. Peter M. Lefferts: "Medieval England, 950-1450"; 8. Christopher Page: "Court and City in France, 1100-1300"; 9. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson: "Ars Antiqua - Ars Nova - Ars Subtilior"; 10. Michael Long: "Trecento Italy"; 11. Reinhard Strohm: "The Close of the Middle Ages".

Few would question the need for a book designed to illuminate the relationship between music and society before the Renaissance. Of all music's stylistic periods, the Middle Ages is arguably the one for which this relationship remains most dimly perceptible. Medieval studies in music have been preoccupied with sources and texts (both musical and theoretical) because there were so many to be worked through, and because there are so few which easily furnish much information about the societies from which they emerged. Unfortunately, it must be questioned whether this volume really represents much of an advance. It succeeds in so far as revealing how much remains to be learned, or at least, hypothesized, and in highlighting many of the questions which scholarship has neglected or failed to explore. In fairness, it must be pointed out that it is much easier to identify such questions than to find answers, or even to know where to look.

Contrary to what the series' Preface and dust-jacket material promise, a good deal of the volume consists of historical survey - "what happened" - ignoring the promises about the "why it happened" (ix). David Hiley's chapter on medieval plainsong creates a long series of frustrations, describing or mentioning the versus, cantiones, Feast of Fools, liturgical drama, and saints' offices without apparently considering the ideas of social function and meaning. Like Daniel Leech-Wilkinson's chapter on later continental polyphony, it is long on Manuscripts and short on Man. Similarly, Marion Gushee discusses instructions for the use of polyphony for processions without mentioning the very great civic and religious significance these events held. Surely the link between special occasions and special styles is what should be of interest in a book with this one's stated aims. Both Gushee and Peter Lefferts (on English Music) gloss over the intriguing similarity of certain polyphonic styles to dance music and folk polyphony, ignoring the interactions between sacred and secular music and musicians.

Michael Long's essay on the Trecento surveys styles and genres. He considers "Italian awareness of French musical culture" (252) but not the relations of Italian people with the French, or even their appetite for French songs. Long also makes offhand mention of the effect on the madrigal of "Florence's republican social milieu" (254). The reader is presumed to know what the implications of that milieu were, and it is not shown how the effect occurred. Yet documentation for, and modern interpretations of, Florentine society are in fact both exceedingly rich; work on the confraternities and the laude spiritiiali comes to mind. This essay, like much of the rest of the book, is often effective in its traditional discussion of "high" cultural interaction, but it gets weaker as it moves toward the properly societal. …

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