Folk Music During The Middle Ages
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
EVERY nation and every tribe, even in ancient times, has had its folk-songs, an outgrowth of the very life of the people, more or less artistic according to their emotional development, in which the soul sought expression of that for which speech was inadequate. The authors of such songs are in most cases unknown; many were undoubtedly of the common people, although possessed of artistic instincts, and their song unconsciously reflects most truthfully the soul's movements.
The folk-song and the Gregorian chant, or Plain-song, form the foundations of our musical art, the one being the naïve melodious expression of the sentiment of poetry which depicts human emotions, the other typifying the solemn churchly and mystic emotions, and voicing the aspiration for a future life. We will now investigate the folk-music of the various nations of Europe previous to and during the Middle Ages.
Among the Celts music had a distinct place in the national life outside of religion. Their bards, or minstrels, were sought after and honored because of their ready and active intervention in the causes of religion and patriotism, and in social life. They sang legends and stories of martial adventure, accompanying themselves upon primitive harps, and were the popular singers of this very musical people. Even their royal rulers seem to have ventured into the domain of music, for there is a tradition that Scifylt, who reigned as king in Brittany about the middle of the second century, was a good musician and player upon the harp. They also used another stringed instrument played with a bow, known by the apparently unpronounceable name of crwth (the crowd, afterwards called chrotta), of which we shall learn more at another time. Three different classes of bards were recognized among the people: (1) the priestly bards, who were also the historians; (2) the domestic bards, who made music for the glory of their employers, somewhat after the manner of the later musical directors at the smaller courts of Europe; and (3) the heraldic, patriotic bards, who sang in praise of individual and national deeds of heroism. The following song, which is ascribed to the Druids, is characteristic of their rugged energy.
That these bards were an important institution is evident from the comprehensive examination required for admission into their midst. At their annual Eisteddfod, those belonging to the lower ranks of bards were tested as to their knowledge and ability to enter the higher ranks. Gerald Barry, a traveler through Britain during the eleventh century, wrote an interesting account of some of his musical experiences. Of the Welsh he says, that guests were entertained all day with music, and that proficiency in harp-playing was considered preferable to all other learning. He also mentions their practice of part-singing (for two voices) and his belief that this was learned from the Danes.
Barry mentions a similar practice of music in Ireland, the instrumental part of which he praises even more than that of the Welsh. He implies that the Irish were industrious only in their playing upon musical instruments, and lauds their skill as performers upon the harp and tabor. The harp, among the inhabitants of Ireland at the time of Brian Boru (who drove out the Danes in the tenth century), was quite a complete musical instrument. The specimen still to be seen at Trinity College, Dublin (said to have been the property of Brian Boru), must have been a fine instrument in its day, as it is made with the utmost attention to every detail that might help to strengthen and beautify its tone.
The Anglo-Saxons, a very mixed race, were also great music-lovers, but their poetic literature was of a higher character than their music, the production of fine minds giving expression to their national consciousness. So great was their appreciation of singers, that these were welcomed everywhere with great hospitality; even King Arthur himself is said to have visited the camp of the Danes, his enemies, disguised as a minstrel. It is claimed that secular music in England during the Middle Ages was far in advance of that in other parts of Europe, and there is reason to believe that various musical forms, such as rounds and songs with refrains, or so-called burdens, were quite common.
There is in existence a copy of an old Northumbrian round entitled "Sumer is icumen in," which has already been mentioned and whose approximate date of composition is 1230. This is a highly finished work, far in advance of the contemporary French school of whose style it shows traces. In addition to its being a round for four voices, it has two other voice-parts which form a sort of ground-bass (pes) to the round itself, which, being a strict canon, shows that the polyphonic principle of imitation was well understood; its ground-bass forms what was later called a basso ostinato (a bass part that remains unchanged in spite of changing harmonies above it), a favorite device of many modern composers. A "translation" of the manuscript of this old composi tion may be found in Grove's Dictionary, under its own title.
In the Northland, in Scandinavia, Iceland and Finland, there existed before and during the Middle Ages a class of folk-poets called Skalds, whose office was similar to that of the bards of Wales, and who also accompanied their songs on small harps. The poetry of these songs is so rich in imagination, and at the same time so full of sentiment, that they are admirable even in their translations, which of course cannot fully equal the originals in ruggedness of character. They sang of their gods and their heroes, of home and love, and the best of these poems formed, when collected, the great Eddas, the Norse national epics, which were already well known in the eleventh century.
In France the development of secular music resulted in the "Chansons de geste" (songs of deeds and action), which developed into national epics. These "Chansons" were tales of the romantic and heroic deeds of Charlemagne and his followers in their battles against the invading Moors who ruled in Spain. These battles were the deciding factors in the religious struggles between the followers of Mohammed and those of Christ, and their issue saved France and Europe for Christendom. The heroes of these struggles were famous in story and popular song, in camp and town, and the names and deeds of Charles Martel (the Hammer) and Roland of the Basques became the affectionally treasured possession of the common people. Each of the races whose mixed descendants formed the population of France during the early Middle Ages contributed its share towards the establishment of these songs of ideal heroism, and thus aided in the formation of a really national life and a national language.
Their earlier people's song, of ballad or narrative character, dealt preferably with religious experiences and incidents. The following is the first stanza of such a popular ballad, in which is to be found an exaltation of religious faith.
"A good virgin was Eulalie,
There are some twenty-three stanzas of this ballad, telling how Eulalie refused to yield to temptation and was there-upon thrown into a fire that would not burn, and how she flew away in the form of a dove. This song, because of its religious character, was probably sung to a chant something like a church melody; but others of historical, chivalric or political character were undoubtedly sung to folk-melodies. These ballads were a great power in society, among the courtiers, among the common people in the towns, and the political ones made the most powerful courtiers tremble. Slander or gossip, as we call it, seems in those days to have been circulated thus in metrical form in rhymes that were sung. If any man did something violative of others' rights, one of the folk-poets would compose a song on the subject and sing it in public places until everybody took it up and it spread from town to town. Therefore it is said, that when a man was tempted to do something that he knew was not right, he often fortified himself against temptation with the thought, "I must not do that, or they will make a bad song about me." That may sound strange to us, but even within the last few years in Norway, Sweden, Holland, and other European countries, I have heard the street-singers singing poems by popular folk-poets on political subjects, on matters of govern-mental policy or acts, and these are printed on very cheap sheets and sold for the merest trifle, a fraction of the American cent, so that they are taken home by the people and sung at the fireside as well as in public. Even today public men and people generally are afraid to be made the butt of one of these songs, because to become the subject of derision through song means death to their hopes of political or social preferment.
Charlemagne, in his dream of a great Christian European empire, sought to compel all of his subjects to accept the Christian faith, with all its practices, but at times the people rebelled. The popular songs of the market-places, even in those earlier days, often voiced resentment of the rulings of the Church. Many times, as we find later, the folk-poets expressed this in humorous or satirical stories, which, unless their purpose is known and the local allusions understood, are difficult of appreciation as criticism of the acts of rulers and of edicts of the Church.
During the tenth and eleventh centuries, it was generally believed that the world would come to an end in the near future. Life being at that time narrower than it is now, people were strongly inclined to put faith in such prophecies; and nations even refrained from making war upon one an-other because of the unexpressed feeling, "What is the use? The world is coming to an end very shortly anyhow, and we shall all be going."
In the hope of a happy after-life, and wishing to stand well with the Church and to gain her forgiveness for past sins, men donated land and money, and thus gave her the power of wealth in addition to the spiritual power which she already possessed. When the expected time passed, and the world still stood, men's hearts became softened and kings and lords vied with each other in erecting the great European cathedrals, many of which still remain as tokens of their gratitude. The power of the Church in those early times was universally acknowledged by all who came in any way under her dominion, or even came in contact with her, and this to a degree such as we can now scarcely realize. Men sought the approval of the Church above everything. Pilgrimages to this or that sacred shrine were common; to atone for even the greatest sins, one needed but to bathe in the River Jordan, or to sleep on Calvary. Because of this, every year during the early centuries hundreds of pilgrims went to the Holy Land. In the latter part of the eleventh century, the followers of the Mohammedan faith seized Palestine and began to inflict out-rages upon these Christian pilgrims who came to do penance and to worship at the Holy Sepulchre. When Peter the Hermit, the pilgrim-monk, returned with this news from Jerusalem, he traveled through Europe, bareheaded and bare-footed, carrying a crucifix and inciting all he met to rescue the Holy Land from the hands of the infidel. A council of the Church was called at Clermont, in 1095; the fiat went forth, "God wills it! " and the blood-red cross became the symbol of the Holy War. Several popular but unsuccessful crusades, under the leadership of the monks Peter the Hermit, Walter the Penniless and Godeschal, resulted, but the first effective one was that led by Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lorraine, who, with five hundred thousand fighting-men and one hundred thousand knights, including Robert the son of William the Conquerer and many of the foremost Christian warriors, went to the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre. While resting in Constantinople, and during similar temporary halts in their journey to the Holy Land, the knightly crusaders became familiar with the refinement and culture of the Orient, with the character of its poetry and attendant music then in vogue among the followers of Mohammed, and especially the subject-matter of that poetry. It is an apparent anomaly that in Oriental countries, where woman's place is a questionable one, she having no social status, poetry should mostly be in her praise. She is lauded by their poets for her beauty, her perfection, her loyalty and devotion, in spite of the fact that she is not allowed to enter a mosque, because she is supposed to have no soul. We shall see what influence this literature and music of the Orientals had upon the music of Europe.
Some of the Oriental music heard by the Crusaders was difficult to learn, because of the peculiar division of their scales previously mentioned; but their method of singing, with its weird ornamentation, the subject-matter of their songs, and the little instruments which they used (the lute and the guitar, unknown to central Europe until brought from the Orient), had a great influence upon the character of European secular or popular music. The long separation from home and family during the Crusades had also deepened the emotional life of the Crusader knights, and upon their return a new species of poetry arose, especially in Provence, called the "gay science of Chivalry and love-service." That this "gay science" should blossom first in Provence is not strange, considering that Grecian culture, brought there by the Romans, had never been wholly forgotten, that the country had been in a comparative state of peace for centuries, and that, under its brilliant skies, manly courage and womanly beauty had always been held in high esteem. Music soon began to adapt itself to this new art, this "gay science," by liberating melody from the clog of calculation, giving it the stamp of individuality, and thus attaining a character wholly different from the music of the Church. Noblemen, even kings, devoted themselves to it and were called troubadours — inventors or finders of new poetry and music. William of Poitiers, a noted French knight, was one of these troubadours, and so were Thibaut of Navarre and Richard of the Lion-Heart. Among the many stories related of the latter, one tells how, after returning from the Crusades, he wandered away from the army in Germany and was captured and imprisoned in a tower; how his "familiar," as he was called, his friend Blondel, missing him, went in search of him and finally found him by hearing a song that he knew was sung only by Richard of the Lion-Heart, and how this friend then brought succor from the army and rescued him.
Among the Provençal troubadours, members of the guild of chivalry, there were two kinds of poetry, that which was to be sung and that which was to be recited. The same thing obtains in the English tongue, which has one class of poetry that almost sings itself, it is so strongly rhythmical, such as the poems of Burns and Tom Moore, and another class that is equally beautiful, but does not so readily adapt itself to music. An example of this latter class is Long-fellow's "Hiawatha." It was years before any one thought of attempting to set that kind of poetry to music, and even then it could not be composed in such form as to become a popular song, because of the length of its sentences and periods. It is not adaptable to the style of song called folk-song or ballad, and can better be used i the statelier forms of modern music, which are not conceived in the smaller metrical forms of poetry, but in which the music is the primary consideration and the text the secondary one.
In the troubadour's conception of song, the sentiment was the chief concern, and the manner of its musical setting was secondary. Therefore, the singer who had the gift of improvising the text and then setting it to music that would convey the sentiment most clearly and forcibly, with an artistic delicacy of touch, was the great, the real, Troubadour. Their saying, that "to exalt the music at the cost of destroying the word-meaning, made a man a mere minstrel or maker of tunes, and to be a real troubadour the music and the words must be in complete accord," shows that they had a fairly good knowledge of music and of the interpretation of the text. Such of their songs as have been discovered also show that they had a very good idea of the compass of particular voices, and wrote their songs accordingly. After the Crusades, their music becomes full of Oriental turns and trills, what we now call fioriture, with many notes on one word, or on one syllable, after the manner of the singing of the Arabs, The following song is a fair example.
The song of the Northern Troubadours, called Trouvères, was different in character; it was more rugged, and did not deal so much with love and romance, but more with the martial side of life. They also made attempts at discant, and sometimes became very able in that art. They did not play on instruments, but hired musicians to play accompaniments for them, while they sang prepared songs. After a while these players of instruments, these accompanists, were employed as general entertainers, who played all kinds of tricks, and were then called jongleurs. Some jongleurs also knew the art of discant, and in practice took liberties with the musical rules which the church composers had promulgated about singing in fourths, fifths and octaves, and made laws of their own. Among these laws was formulated the musical rule that a dissonance between two consonances, if nicely put, was very interesting and very pretty, which is a contrapuntal axiom to-day. It was from the jongleurs that we get the first part-songs for men. After this practice had been in vogue for a while, the more educated and theoretical musicians came along and formulated laws in accordance with what was more euphonious.
During the period of the Troubadours and Trouvères, there existed in Germany, and especially along the Rhine, a similar class of exponents of the "gay science," which was there called Minnedienst, or, literally translated, "love-service." Heinrich von Morungen, Prince Witzlav, Sperrvogel, Gottfried von Strassburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Tannhdauser, Heinrich von Osterdingen, a clerk, and Biterolf, a sort of upper servant of Herrmann, the "Landgraf " of Thuringia, were all noted Minnesingers; some of them were admitted as worthy contestants to the tournament of song whose prize was the hand of Elizabeth, the daughter of the Landgrave, as depicted in the opera Tannhduser. The democracy of art is nowhere more evident than in the fact that talented poet-singers, even though not of the nobility or knighthood, were allowed to compete for such an exalted prize at a time when class-distinctions were so strictly observed. Some of the great epics of the time of the Troubadours and Minnesingers furnished the basic material of the poems of Wagner's great operas, the Ring des Nibelungen, Lohengrin and Parsifal. The stories of the Holy Grail, of King Arthur and Launcelot, though originating in France and Provence and sung by the Troubadours, appear in German dress, with German alterations, in the songs of the Minnesingers, sung at times even in the market-places.
High ideals were thus kept before the common people until gradually a similar form of song sprang up among them, which, although more crude, furnished them with new means of expression. These folk-poets and singers formed a society or guild similar to those of the artisans, and called themselves Meistersinger, or Mastersingers. Admission to this guild, as to others, was by examination in the knowledge of rules governing the construction of songs and poems, and ability to sing them. To understand how much that meant to the common people of that time — this means of expressing that which was in them, of giving vent to their feelings — to realize this to the full, we must know the conditions under which they lived. Bands of returning crusaders often drove out the people from their towns and villages or else levied tribute on all who remained. In time the farmer came to have no rights, neither to his lands nor to his crops, nor even to his children — to his family. If the Overlord wanted any of these, the farmer had to give them up. One day, the peasant or artisan was the servant of this Overlord or Baron; next week, another Overlord came along with an army, devastated the fields, and either killed the farmers, the laborers and artisans, or took their stock, razed the former baron's castle to the ground, and made the laborers build him a new one. Life was a very uncertain thing. Cities and towns that were rather wealthy made compacts with the robber barons who commanded the roads and confiscated passing goods. Several cities sometimes banded together to pay tribute jointly, in order that they might be free from the threat of destruction. They even paid annual taxes to these Over-lords, so that their citizens, merchants and others could go in and out of the cities without molestation or hindrance. Such were the conditions under which the people of those days lived. These civil difficulties were only a part of those with which they had to contend, for they also had to reckon with ecclesiastical authority and punishments. No wonder that men's minds became unsettled, and that they sought to vent their feelings in every way they could. It was under such conditions that the folk-poets and Mastersingers arose, and many of their poems therefore deal specially with the vanity of life and reminders of death.
Thousands of such poems were written, and many of them have been collected. Through Wagner's opera Die Meister-singer the name of one of the most prominent among these poets, Hans Sachs of Nuremberg, has become a household word in musical families. The Mastersingers, like the Welsh and Icelandic bards, were divided into three classes: (I) Those who had to do only with the metrical difficulties of the songs and simply learned to sing them; (2) the poets, who could compose a text to any given tune; and (3) the "Mei ster," who could compose both poem and tune within certain rules. The rhythmic form of the text was determined entirely by the tune; the tune was composed first and the text was made to suit the tune, and usually treated some political or religious subject. The same tunes were used over and over again for different poems as new poets were admitted to membership. Robert Burns, under the title of his poems, often gives the name of a tune or "air" to which the words may be sung. He sometimes made his verse to fit a tune, just as did the Meistersinger, but he did it as a poet, an artist, not as a literary artisan.
Wagner himself probably expressed the essential characteristics of the Meistersinger better. than any one else. This is what he makes Hans Sachs say in answer to Walter's question as to the requirements for a successful examination as a Meistersinger.
To words and rhymes by himself prepared Can shape from the tunes a new strain or ditty, He is a Meistersinger declared.
But a few years ago there still stood, in the city of Nuremberg, the old St. Catherine's church where the Meistersinger examinations were held for centuries; and a visit to the meadows on the banks of the slowly flowing Pegnitz is an event in the life of the music student.
The flow of the melodies of early secular or folksongs may have been rather stiff, but later these became quite free, as may be seen from the examples submitted below, and they furnished another ingredient necessary to our modern art.
Later we shall see how the popular song from the hearts of the people was permitted by the Church to enter the Mass and thus into the church service. And it is that leaven which finally gave music its liberty, untrammeled by the rules of the Church.
For your delectation I wish to submit some of these love-songs of the Troubadours and Minnesingers of which I have spoken, and regret that I can present only their text. The first one was written in 1100, by Bishop Fouquet of Marseilles, who took great pride in being a good troubadour.