MUSIC OF ANTIQUITY
Music historians have traced the origins of Western Music, back to the 6th and 7th Centuries, during the Early Medieval period. Since then, surviving hymns, notation and compositions, have enabled us to observe how music developed over the centuries.
The drone was a popular favourite during the medieval period (the 10th and 11th Centuries). When wonderful exotic instruments, such as the hurdy gurdy or the bagpipes, would simply hold one long droning note while the various musicians – perhaps singers, recorder players, or percussionists – would improvise solos over the top. These occasions would have been similar to today’s jazz or blues musicians jamming. From the manuscripts that still exist, these impromptu ‘jam sessions’ were highly virtuosic, with extraordinarily complex scores, percussion, voice and drum beats.
Interestingly, the concept of the drone wasn’t just found in Western music, but appears in the traditional music of Africa, China, Japan, and of course Australia. Where the Australian Aborigines hollowed out branches to produce the now famous droning sounds of the didgeridoo.
The main advancement for Western music, began in the Catholic Church, with the Gregorian Chant. Named after Pope Gregory I, originally these chants consisted of one glorious note, sung with utter perfection, to glorify the name of God. Then one fine day, someone, somewhere, thought, ‘What happens if we put another voice on top of that one?’ This was considered blasphemy at the time, but eventually the church had to except this outrageous new idea!
Over time, another voice was added, and another, and another, eventually forming what we now call harmony – soprano, alto, tenor and bass. These early laws of harmony are still the foundation of all harmonic music today. This idea developed over the centuries moving into the Baroque and beyond. Bach, for example, would improvise using six voices, or even seven or eight!
Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque eras (1400-1700), musicians were highly sought after by Royalty and the elite upper classes. In fact they were similar to todays athletes, that is, they would go to the highest bidder! The finest courts and richest families had the most famous musicians, the Medici family in Florence, the Vatican in Rome, and all the Royal households throughout Britain and Europe.
The highest paid musicians in those days were mainly lute players, who were bought, sold and traded for their talents and skills. Queen Elizabeth I had six of the finest lutenists money could buy and were there to do the job of our modern day ipods! In other words, they accompanied their employers wherever they went, writing and improvising music on the fly, to suit the occasion. Just like today, where we listen to music wherever we go, they did the same, only theirs was live and ours is digital. This included balls, banquets, religious services, garden parties, soirees, all of their leisurely endeavours, not to mention, in the boudoir!
Music was held in the highest esteem and members of every Royal household learnt an instrument. King Henry XVIII was an accomplished lutenist, and is credited with writing the now famous Greensleeves, as well as other dance tunes that are still performed to this day. For many years The Vatican employed lutenist, Francesco da Milano. Milano was considered the greatest lutenist of the day, known throughout Europe as Il Divino – The Divine One. A name shared with only one other artist of the 16th Century, none other than Michelangelo himself!
The French King’s lutenist was second highest on the court payroll, the first being the Minister of Defence! This was the case in courts across Europe, indicating just how much music was admired. To put it in perspective, Leonardo da Vinci was number seven on the court payroll!
In those days, sacred or religious music, was composed for the sole purpose of transporting the listener to Heaven. It was believed when a musician played here on Earth, one would also be playing in Heaven, thus the performer was literally channeling the Divine.
In the Medieval period, sacred music was unashamedly ‘simple’ (deceptively so as in fact it was highly virtuosic!). As it was believed that only the ‘simplest’ and purest of notes would reach Heaven. There was no vibrato, no embellishments, just innocence and purity, almost childlike. For it was written of course, that ‘only as a little child may ye enter the Kingdom of Heaven’!
As music, and the skills of the musicians, advanced over the centuries, more and more flourishes were added. The music of the Renaissance (1400 to 1600) was far more elaborate, and by the time the Baroque period began (1600- 1750), the music was rich and complex, intricate and ornate.
Of course, there were not only lute players. There were viols, the early violin, the viola da gamba, the early cello. There were citterns which were double stringed the same as a twelve-string guitar of today, and of course percussionists. One could say that these early ensembles were the birth of the rock ‘n’ roll band!
Like The Rolling Stones a standard Renaissance ensemble would consist of a percussionist (the drummer), a lutenist (the lead guitarist), a viola de gamba (the bass player), a viol (the second guitarist), a singer of course and sometimes a harpsichordist (or keyboard player). Their music had the same structure and chord progression as todays music, in fact, the similarities are quite fascinating!