Christian Music in the Middle Ages

In 406 AD, Germanic tribes sacked the Roman Empire and catapulted the western world into a dark time. The Christian world, already divided between east and west, now further contended with Islam from the south. Simultaneously, powerful popes, kings and emperors clashed to determine the fate and faith of the insignificant masses. Great wars raged, and competing alliances engaged, many in the name of Christ.

Abject poverty reigned supreme under feudalism, and Thomas Hobbes described human life as, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This 1,000 year period has largely been depicted as the bleak and unfortunate interruption to western civilization and development. However, this was the church’s golden age in art. Particularly, for Christian music in the Middle Ages, dramatic changes occurred. This was mainly because of music’s importance to the increasingly powerful Catholic Church.

Gregorian Chant

In the fifth century, Pope Gregory I the strengthened Christian music in the Middle Ages. Already a prolific statesmen who furthered the empowering of the Catholic Church in matters of state, he encouraged the conformity of styles in worship. The different ethnic variations on worship, Celtic, Gallican, Abrosian etc, were all absorbed into the Roman and influenced the standardization of the melodies. It is after him, the mystical Gregorian chant is named. During this time, the modern organ was created. Pope Gregory put great organs in the churches, and the church began to use musicians of psaltery, flutes, trumpets, and even drums.

The Creation of Organum and Polyphonic Music

With the influence of varied instrumentation, and the freedom to experiment with new sounds, Christian music began progressing past the Gregorian chant. The choir at the Abbey of St. Martial at Limoges, for instance, gradually took to singing certain items of the Mass by sectioning the choir into parts. One group sang the original chant and others, sang four, five or eight notes below. This technique, called organum, introduced a new musical decoration into the chant.

During the building of Notre Dame, the composers at its music school improved upon the organum, and formed a new music. Leonin, one of the main composers, created the Great Book of Organum. In The Story of Christian Music, Andrew Wilson-Dickson writes about The Great Book. “It created up to four vocal parts. As a result, some of the parts of the chant became greatly stretched out, with its singers spending about twenty seconds or half a minute on a single note.”

Some of the time signatures were later shortened, and polyphonic music was born. Because of the complexities of the organums at Notre Dame, a system of musical notation was born. Dickson writes, “The importance of the development of notation cannot be stressed too strongly, for it allowed new types of music to be created which would have been quite out of reach of traditions where music was passed on by ear.”

Ars Nova Music

By 1200, most churches replaced the organum with a new tradition, called ars nova, (new art). Ars nova was a polyphonic music in much greater complexity. One of the great champions of ars nova, was Guillame de Machuat, a professional French composer. He wrote the Messe de Notre Dame, an outstanding mass composition set for four voices.

Dickson writes, “His setting is ornate and written with extreme care and great creative energy…Machuat’s Mass is the first setting of the type that countless composers have written since, consisting of a Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and a final Itse, Missa Est…As a monument to the Middle Ages’ expression of spiritual truth, it is outstanding.”

The Middle Ages marked a period of great growth for Christian music and the Catholic church. The political weight of the papacy brought the church much wealth and influence. They were able to lead the arts by funding musicians and experimenting with new ways to worship. They created the Gregorian chant, and then progressed to the organum and polyphonic music, which gave way to the more complicated ars nova music. However, the social and religious turmoil brewing would mark a decisive end to this artistic growth.


Andrew Wilson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003).
Frances Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Crossway Books, 1976).

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