The history of Western classical music can be divided into six major eras, and the Medieval period is the first of these. It is also the longest, spanning an incredible 900 years, from 500 to 1400AD. Religious music dominated the era, with Gregorian chant perhaps its best-known exponent. And while a relatively small amount of Medieval music survives today in comparison to other periods – in part because written notation was not invented until the 9th Century – there are some beautiful and important pieces from this time that survive and continue to be performed today.
Medieval composers are also less well known than the major artists from later periods of classical music, but there were some fascinating figures writing music during the era, including some multi-faceted characters who composed brilliant pieces in addition to also doing significant work in other areas such as philosophy, the church and other artistic disciplines like poetry.
This article will take a look at the lives and music of ten of the most important composers of the Medieval period, as well as recommending a piece to listen to by each one.
1. Stephen of Liège (850-920)
Stephen of Liège was active towards the end of the Early Medieval period, which lasted from 500-1150AD.
However, the further back in history one looks, the scarcer names of individual composers become, so Liège is one of the earliest formal composers we are aware of.
This is largely because music was passed “by ear” from person to person until the 9th Century when primitive musical notation was developed.
He wrote Gregorian chant, or plainsong, which was the dominant form of music in the Early Medieval period.
Largely monophonic – meaning that it is made up of a single melodic line sung in unison, with no instrumental accompaniment – it was performed by monks as a part of mass during the Catholic church service.
He was Bishop of Liège from 901 to 920, having previously held various other religious posts, and also worked as a hagiographer (someone who writes biographies of saints and religious icons).
2. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
A fascinating figure, Hildegard of Bingen was a German abbess (head of a group of nuns), writer, philosopher, poet and composer.
She experienced religious visions from a young age and her Christian mysticism informed her work deeply.
In fact, she was not formally trained as a composer or musician, but claimed that the pieces she wrote came to her while she was in trance-like states.
She is one of the best known and most frequently recorded composers of monophonic sacred works, while her Ordo Virtutum, which contains 82 songs, is considered the first ever morality play.
She also wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, and was made a Saint in 2012:
3. Fulbert of Chartres (c. 952-1028)
The exact details of Fulbert’s origins remain something of a mystery, although he was born in the late 10th Century in northern France or possibly Italy, before becoming Bishop of Chartres and a teacher at the cathedral school there.
He wrote a number of hymns to glorify the Virgin Mary, as well as “Chorus Novae Jerusalem”, to be sung at Easter.
His sacred works have proved popular in recent years and have been interpreted on a number of modern recordings:
4. Peter Abelard (1079-1142)
Abelard is best known as a theologian and scholar: the Frenchman was one of the most important and controversial figures in the Western church in his day.
But he was also a composer, writing monophonic hymns and biblical planctus.
These were mournful songs that lamented a death, in this case the demise of a biblical figure.
He had a famous and scandalous affair with Héloïse, a well-known nun and scholar, composing a number of love songs for her, although these have sadly now been lost, as well as a book of hymns for Héloïse’s order of nuns.
His music was ahead of its time in its use of repetitive sequences and limited melodic material.
5. Léonin (c. 1155-1201)
French composer Léonin was active during the High Medieval Period (1150-1300), and was a pioneer of polyphonic organum.
Organum – when the primary melody of a plainchant is accompanied by an additional voice, usually at a fixed interval away from it – had developed in the 9th Century, creating early forms of counterpoint (the relationship between simultaneous interdependent musical lines), and the beginning of harmony as we now know it.
However, Léonin was the first person to write two melodic parts with greater independence and strict note lengths, so he is credited as the first composer of polyphonic art music.
Léonin was also innovative in his use of rhythmic modes.
These were set patterns of long and short notes and one of the first ways in which rhythm was notated:
6. Pérotin (c. 1160-1220)
Perotinus Magnus, as he is also known, is presumed to have been a Frenchman who lived around the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th Centuries, but very little is known about his life.
The reason we know about him and the importance of his work is due to the testimony of an anonymous English, who wrote about Pérotin in glowing terms, referring to him as “Magister Perotinus” (“Pérotin the Master”).
Pérotin expanded upon Léonin’s two-voice organum style, writing the first ever four-part polyphony with his organa quadrupla.
Given the importance of four-part harmony in later classical music (Bach chorales and string quartets, to give just two examples), this was an incredibly significant development.
Pérotin is associated with the Ars Antiqua style, which was prominent during the High Medieval period, and the Notre Dame School of Polyphony:
7. Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361)
Ars nova was an artistic movement that came to prominence in the Late Medieval era (1300-1400), and it was de Vitry who wrote the influential treatise that gave the style its name.
Meaning “new art” in Latin, this was increasingly expressive and varied secular music, with polyphony (music which has two or more simultaneous independent melodic parts) now becoming ubiquitous.
This shift anticipated the transition into the Renaissance era, in which music tended to be more grand and complex.
Born in Paris, de Vitry wrote a number of important motets (multi-part vocal compositions which became particularly popular in the Renaissance period) and also pioneered the use of isorhythms.
This is a technique where a repeating rhythmic pattern is used throughout a piece.
As well as being one of the first composers to have a uniquely recognisable writing style, he was also an esteemed theorist, poet and cleric:
8. Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377)
De Machaut was one of the central figures of the Ars Nova movement and perhaps the most important composer of the 14th Century.
He was also one of the first composers for whom extensive biographical information and an exhaustive list of surviving works exists.
The majority of his works were secular, with the lyrics to many describing ‘courtly love’, or the love of an idealized woman from afar, which was a popular theme at the time.
His sacred work includes the Messe de Nostre Dame, a polyphonic setting of the mass that is considered a masterpiece of the Medieval period.
He was also a prolific poet who influenced Geoffrey Chaucher and others:
9. Adam de la Halle (1240–1287)
De la Halle was a French trouvère, the etymology of which is linked to the word “troubadour”.
These were poet-composers who played music as part of the aristocratic courtly tradition, and de la Halle was employed by the households of various European noblemen.
He composed 36 chansons in the trouvère tradition, and also innovated in the field of French secular theatre with Jeu de Robin et Marion, a musical play which is considered a predecessor of comic opera:
10. Francesco Landini (1325-1397)
After becoming blind as a child, Landini devoted himself to music, learning a number of instruments, and becoming particularly proficient on the organ.
He was probably born in Florence, although concrete details about his life are lacking, and was the primary exponent of the Trecento style, the Italian take on Ars Nova. 154 of his secular songs survive, including madrigals, caccie and ballate (common song forms of the era):
So, that concludes our guide to some of the most important composers of the Medieval era.
We’ve learned about composers of monophonic Gregorian chant, polyphonic organum and secular music from the Ars Nova period.
Furthermore, this diverse cohort managed to compose alongside a whole range of other jobs, vocations and interests.
We hope you’ve discovered some enjoyable new music from this fascinating period of musical history.