Music of the Middle Ages: Style and Structure, by David Fenwick Wilson

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fenwickMusic of the Middle Ages: Style and Structure, by David Fenwick Wilson. New York: Schirmer, 1990, xxii + 403 pp. ISBN 0-02-872951-X.

In recent years professors of medieval music have had the good fortune of being able to choose from among several excellent texts for their courses, each with a different emphasis.1 These texts have moved from a focus on the philosophy and culture surrounding music of the Middle Ages through source readings and the history of musical styles to the compositional process of medieval music. Wilson's new book on medieval music represents the last focus and comes in three parts: the text Style and Structure, which includes 124 musical examples; An Anthology for Performance and Study with 80 compositions; and two 90-minute cassettes of music recorded by the Hilliard Ensemble and specifically produced for this set.

Wilson's Music of the Middle Ages follows on the heels of Yudkin's Music in Medieval Europe from 1989, and although these two texts cover the same ground, Wilson's study offers a new approach to the understanding of early music history. Wilson's preface asserts "the belief that the historical study of music begins with the music itself." The text is designed for upper-level or graduate courses and requires at least a rudimentary knowledge of music theory because of the practicum units at the end of each chapter, providing graded exercises in the analysis and composition of musical styles. By contrast, Yudkin's goals are much broader"—to introduce to a wider audience the rich treasures of music from medieval Europe"—and are more appropriate for musicians who might consider the performance of medieval works along with their more traditional repertories. Although Wilson's expectations of poetic and musical analysis from the student are greater than Yudkin's, his layout of the material and introduction may, in fact, be more appealing to performers and amateur musicians. His discussions of medieval culture and musical theory are less detailed and are integrated into the discussions about musicians and the music itself. Yudkin explores the concept of "Middle Ages" and describes the social, political, and musical life of medieval Europe in an illuminating but lengthy eighteen-page essay. Wilson's three-page introduction, on the other hand, is little more than a comparison of modern and medieval musicians, followed by a brief historical background to Roman-Gallican chant. Furthermore, Yudkin's chapter on the theoretical knowledge of music from antiquity and the lack of musical examples in the first forty pages of text may be obstacles to his aim of inspiring young students and musicians about medieval music: Wilson's musical examples appear after thirteen pages. Wilson's treatment of the diverse European traditions of chant (Ambrosian, Mozarabic, and others) as "repertories" rather than "liturgies" also emphasizes the music.

In contradiction to their own aims, then, Yudkin's explanation of culture and medieval theory is more thorough and appropriate for graduate students than Wilson's, but Wilson's plunge into the music itself is more accessible to traditional musicians. For musicians who shy away from the strict music history approach, the opening chapter may be the critical point at which the authors gain or lose their reader's enthusiasm for the material.

In Wilson's account, music theory and the evolving concept of modes come as a product of musical developments and the reconciliation of Byzantine and medieval systems. The modal changes and modal ambiguities in the early repertories are illustrated through discussions of individual compositions, and remind the musician that musical style always precedes theoretical practice, medieval music being no exception. The emphasis on the understanding of medieval theory and compositional style extends to the point of practical application of these techniques. Although instructors always expect and hope that students will sing or play musical examples as a means of exploring their styles, Wilson reinforces that expectation by teaching solfège and the hexachord system, with solmization applied to several examples to teach the process of changing hexachords. The connections between musical theory and musical styles here are the clearest explanations in the textbook literature intended for undergraduates.

The degree to which Wilson emphasizes the structure of poetic texts and text/music relationships is particularly appealing. The chapters on monophonic music reflect the views of current researchers on the declamation rather than rhythmical performance of secular texts, with supportive interpretations on the recordings by the Hilliard Ensemble. There are also analyses of the poetic content and wordplay of troubadour texts, and of syllabic accentuation and textual form. The text is weaker on the musical structure of these songs, and on this point Yudkin's Music in Medieval Europe offers more extensive analysis, but the examples in Wilson's Anthology at least separate the monophonic phrases clearly for further analysis.

Wilson's practicum units are well-conceived exercises for developing the analytical skills that relate specifically to early music. Transcribing chants from square notation, learning to sing solfège, changing hexachords, composing in organum styles, and constructing and analyzing motets are perhaps the most cogent ways to insure an understanding of medieval compositional techniques and to retain that knowledge. The units are well written, give clear explanations about how to proceed, and describe goals for each exercise. Some of the units are extensive and cover several aspects of a genre, providing instructors with assignment options. However, only nine of the seventeen chapters include practicum sections. Wilson might have considered offering at least a few exercises or suggestions for assignments in each chapter, given that his goal is to promote competence with all of the musical styles. The majority of the exercises are appropriate for all undergraduate students, since similar practica occur in John Bauer's Music Theory Through Literature (New Jersey, 1985), first and second-year college courses in music theory. Students who are introduced to medieval compositional techniques early in their curriculum, after a thorough grounding in the construction of intervals and scales, are perfectly capable of writing in the styles of chant and polyphony. I have used John Bauer's text several times and reinforced the text's analytical concepts with repertorial knowledge in the music history segment of the curriculum, and I find this approach quite compelling. Students complete their curriculum with an enthusiasm and competency in early music that is on a more equal footing with their studies of later repertories of music. One may find Bauer's and Wilson's texts too similar to use sequentially, but since music theory programs are frequently traditional in exploring primarily tonal music, Wilson's text provides a welcome alternative to the approach of early music history.

Each chapter is subdivided into smaller sections, which have boldface headings, almost in an outline form; these headings are used quite frequently, even for brief paragraphs. Wilson provides an up-to-date annotated bibliography for each chapter, divided into sections on music, theory, and readings, with UMI numbers given for dissertations. By referring to Yudkin for a current discography, the reader will have the necessary materials to begin the study of any subject in medieval music.

There are a few minor drawbacks to the presentation of material. The notation of chant is explained in the chapters "Roman-Gallican Chant" and "Medieval Chant," but these discussions, although slightly different in content, could have been integrated. Chapter 8, entitled "Other Polyphonic Styles," immediately follows the chapter "Secular Monophonic Music." The title of chapter 8 actually refers to styles other than the "Free Organum" and "The Sacred Music of Southern France" treated in chapters 5 and 6, respectively, and a simple adjustment of reading assignments can alleviate the problem. At another point in the text, Wilson might have chosen a more positive title for the section "Primitive Polyphony" (p. 185) and more positive language for part of the text that immediately follows: "The twelfth-century polyphony we have so far studied represents a repertoire of music worthy of being preserved in notation. Probably far more prevalent in the period was the more-or-less artistic improvisations of singers of varying levels of ability, singing service music week after week, music not preserved nor meant to be preserved, music for the moment." But the idea of "music for the moment" does not imply a lack of training, as does "primitive," and had these repertories been preserved, scholars could learn a great deal about medieval improvisational techniques. A few editorial oversights also occurred, including the jumbled arrangement of exercises and bibliography on pages 109-12, and the omission of part labels, measure numbers, and source information on pages 262-3 (Ex. 11-2): these omissions are noticeable only because complete information is included for the other musical examples.

The Anthology is an essential complement to Wilson's text. The compositions are complete, and included with them are the sources from which Wilson's own transcriptions were made, commentaries, and the accompanying plainchants to polyphonic settings, all edited with the appropriate early-music conventions of ligatures, ficta, and chant symbols. The text underlay is commendable, although the editor's use of hyphens obscures the recognition of completed words: hyphens are placed exactly halfway between two syllables of a word, even if these two syllables are several measures apart, making it difficult to tell if one is looking at a final syllable or the middle of the word until all the parts are found. Wilson acknowledges the integrity of medieval compositions with text by translating all of their stanzas, but his viewpoint may have prevented the inclusion of a Machaut lai among the secular works because of the length of text. All refrain lines or stanzas are italicized in both the original language and in English, providing students with every opportunity to explore the content, meaning, and structure of the text of each work. Structural repetitions in the isorhythmic motets are identified only in the two Machaut works, Quant en moy-Amour et biaute-Amara valde and De bon espoir-Puis que la douce-Speravi, but not in the remaining isorhythmic motets, which are intended as studies for the practica exercises. Students are given not only a model of an isorhythmic motet analysis in the Style and Structure text, but also examples from the Anthology to analyze on their own.

The two cassettes are recordings made by the Hilliard Ensemble and Western Wind (both directed by Paul Hillier), whose performances are musically interesting and expressive. The Hilliard Ensemble's earlier study and experiments with some of the versus and monophonic secular repertories for the NEH-sponsored Medieval Lyric recordings (Mount Holyoke College, 1987) result in the most creatively performed examples in this set. The choice of compositions is much broader than that normally represented in anthologies. There are performances of plainchants, the same chants with melodic tropes, and then again with textual and melodic tropes, plus a variety of versus and conductus forms. Generally, among related works, one composition or set of compositions is recorded and one is not, leaving some transcriptions available for class performance. Many of the early motets are not otherwise accessible on recordings; this recording therefore widens the repertory of performances for study. Although the Anthology presents the monophonic works in "noncommittal noteheads" (p. xi-xii), they are interpreted by the singers with the natural rhythm of the text, rather than in equal values.

The one potential drawback to the three components of Music of the Middle Ages is the price. Each item in Wilson's set is $25-30, making the cost for each cassette comparable to that of a CD. Despite the cost, Wilson's Music of the Middle Ages offers a stimulating and concisely worded text, a valuable anthology, and well-recorded cassettes, suitable to undergraduate and graduate courses whose goal is to equip students with the tools for an analytical understanding of medieval music.


1In a fifteen year period, five texts were published on medieval music, including Albert Seay, Music in the Medieval World, 2nd. ed (Englewood: Prentice Hall, 1975), Richard H. Hoppin, Medieval Music (New York: Norton, 1978), Giulio Cattin, Music of the Middle Ages I, trans. by Steven Botterill (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), F. Alberto Gallo, Music of the Middle Ages II, trans. by Karen Eales (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), and Jeremy Yudkin, Music in Medieval Europe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1989).

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