Music in the Medieval West, by Margot Fassler

November 4, 2014

AnthoMedievalWestMedievalWestMusic in the Medieval West (Western Music in Context: A Norton History) [Paperback] Publication Date: March 2014 | ISBN- 978-0-393-92915-7

Anthology for Music in the Medieval West (Western Music in Context: A Norton History) Publication Date: August 2014 | ISBN- 978-0-393-92022-2 | Edition: 1

Medieval composer Jacob Senleches’s famous La harpe de melodie graces the cover of what represents many a student’s first foray into the music of the Middle Ages: Richard Hoppin’s Medieval Music and its accompanying anthology in Norton’s series, The Norton Introduction to Music History. For many, Senleches’s harp has become synonymous with that iconic text of medieval music history—in my own undergraduate career, it served as a guiding light to the unfamiliar world of premodern music. Since Hoppin’s textbook, which itself succeeds Gustave Reese’s seminal Music in the Middle Ages, only Jeremy Yudkin’s Music in Medieval Europe has attempted a similar survey of the period. In recent books covering the period, Mark Everist’s edited volume, The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music, certainly offers possibilities as a textbook, but is not necessarily intended as such and, moreover, is aimed at readers and students already possessing some familiarity with the period. And so, Margot Fassler’s contribution as part of the Norton series, Western Music in Context (edited by Walter Frisch), is a welcome addition to any music educator’s bookshelf, providing a more recent option to Hoppin’s well-loved, but decades-old, text. Fassler’s Music in the Medieval West and its accompanying anthology feature their own monument of medieval music to rival Hoppin’s Harpe de Melodie: a fourteenth-century illumination of German poet and minnesinger Henrich von Messan (Frauenlob).

The author of Music in the Medieval West, Margot Fassler—now Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy and Director of the Program in Sacred Music at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana—is one of the most esteemed scholars of medieval music, with numerous books, articles, and multi-media projects to her credit. She is unquestionably among the few musicologists truly qualified to write a book such as Music in the Medieval West, since her broad range of interests enable her to make the necessary choices as to what to include and exclude in the textbook and anthology.

Fassler follows a chronological approach to the vast medieval “period,” while, as explained in the preface, still fulfilling the overall focus of the series on the “cultural, social, intellectual, and historical contexts for music.” Fassler divides the enormous period into four parts, each with two to three chapters, and all introduced with a chapter titled “The Making of the Middle Ages.” This initial chapter begins unlike most surveys of medieval music by glossing over the pre-history of western music (i.e., the music of antiquity) and moving quickly to a case study of a medieval hymn, Ave maris stella. The hymn is used as an entry point to important issues like intertextuality, gender, contrafacta, borrowing, and reworking. Overall, Fassler uses the introduction to convey an important message—that medieval music is a story of change and development, not permanence. In the introductory chapter, Fassler also introduces the parallel ideas of literacy (books) and memory, both important for understanding the dissemination of medieval music in the following chapters. As with all 12 chapters, the first concludes with a brief bibliography titled “For further reading”; each chapter lists six to ten additional items, both books and articles. None of the chapter bibliographies include primary sources; instead, these are included in the accompanying website (discussed below).

The remaining eleven chapters divide into four parts: Part 1 is labeled “Founders and Foundations of Western Music”; Part 2 is “Conquest and Devotion in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries”; Part 3 is “Schools and Urban Sounds in the Thirteenth Century”; and Part 4 is “Musicians and Patrons in the Fourteenth Century.” As is clear from these broad divisions, Fassler chooses a periodization (described above) that is conventional and no more or less problematic than any other. In Part 1, Chapter 2, Fassler introduces music before writing, exploring the rites of the early church, the theoretical basis of medieval music, and the early medieval harp, among other topics. In Chapter 3, she moves to chant (and therefore notation) and the liturgy, concluding with an analysis of the earliest polyphony transmitted in the Musica and Scolica enchiriadis treatises. Chapter 4 deals with the liturgy and troping, wrapping up Part 1 with the figures of Adémar of Chabannes and Hroswitha of Gandersheim, the latter included despite the lack of extant music. Part 2 comprises three chapters that cover people and music from the twelfth to the thirteenth century. As with Part 1, Fassler introduces a vast range of topics and ideas, with Chapter 5 on “Teaching and Learning in the Late Romanesque” presenting insight into the period through an exploration of music education, a perspective not frequently found in music history textbooks. The sixth chapter highlights political and religious movements in the form of crusades and pilgrimages, concluding with an extended discussion of the twelfth-century Codex Calixtinus. Chapter 7 concerns the poet-composer, featuring the star-crossed Heloise and Abelard, troubadours, and Hildegard of Bingen.

With Chapters 8 and 9 in Part 3, the reader traverses territory as diverse as St. Francis and laudesi, to the thirteenth-century motet. The diversity stems both from the array of topics and genres presented, as well as the geographic spread (France, Germany, Spain, Italy) and the contexts of musical production (cathedral, school, street, court). At first glance, the early motet gets only passing treatment in the final pages of Chapter 9; however, Fassler returns to the ars antiqua motet via a discussion of the Montpellier Codex beginning in Chapter 10 of Part 4. Chapters 10-12 of Part 4 speed through the fourteenth century and then some, pausing on Machaut and his expansive output and major works in the English and Italian repertories. The final chapter of the book, described by Fassler as an epilogue, serves also as an exploration of “peripheral” musics, including the creative output of Frauenlob, Birgitte of Sweden, and the music of far-flung Iceland and not so far-flung Spain. The final chapter also frames the overall thrust of the book—a concern with music created by and for real people. As Fassler writes, the book “speaks for thousands upon thousands of voices, of tunes and families of tunes.” This is, ultimately, the strength of Music in the Medieval West; it humanizes and brings vibrantly to life one thousand years of music.

The central question I was left with was the intended audience for this short yet comprehensive book. It assumes a great deal of background information for non-music majors and even for students with only a little undergraduate background in music history if this were used as one of several texts over a semester or yearlong history survey. This assumption conflicts, at times, with the tone. In the primer at the end of the book (see below), an overview of the Graduale Triplex includes this didactic suggestion: “Working with your teacher, or by yourself (if you are feeling adventuresome), use the GT as a guide to locate chants in some of the earliest manuscripts” (p. A6). The combination of a tone directed to freshmen and content better suited to an upper-level undergraduate or graduate student makes it difficult to clearly pinpoint the intended student body for the textbook. Portions, as well as entire chapters, could certainly be excerpted for use in seminars or as supplementary readings to more cursory textbooks. This potential is clear even in the series preface, which suggests using one or more books over a semester, and supplementing with other resources, like Norton’s own Critical Scores and Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History. The latter appears frequently in Music in the Medieval West, abbreviated as SR and referred to at several moments in the text (without explanation except in the endnotes).

A highpoint of the text and a feature that enhances its accessibility is the “Medieval Music Primer” appended to the end of both text and anthology, which deals with the nitty-gritty of medieval musicology. The primer aims to help students new to this period familiarize themselves with the following: sources; medieval notation; music theory and practice; and the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. This Fassler does in an impressive thirty-two pages, covering everything from databases like CANTUS to the Greater Perfect System. In providing this primer, Fassler successfully resolves one of the central challenges in teaching a class on music pre-1600 that introduces students to unfamiliar and often initially alienating repertory. The teaching and study of early music involves a great deal of background knowledge in an array of areas, from codicology to liturgical studies. In standard music history textbooks for majors and non-majors, this immense amount of foundation information is offered via sidebars in the text, diagrams, images, and excerpts of source readings. In Fassler’s text, this information is found in the primer, which could be read alongside the main chapters or even covered before students begin reading the first chapter.

A further supplement is the glossary (pp. A33-A42) of terms used throughout the book. It would have been helpful for the words that appear in the glossary to have been somehow indicated in the text proper, either through bold type or another visual signal. Following the glossary are endnotes, divided into chapters and indicated not with standard endnote numbers but with page numbers beside each note; this is because, within the text, the endnotes are not indicated. While I understand the desire to avoid hyper-script numbers in the text for clarity’s sake, the lack of any signal at all for the existence of endnotes within the main text makes these otherwise very useful notes irrelevant to readers, especially student readers. Footnotes may clutter the page, but numbers corresponding to the endnotes would be a valuable edition and add to the comprehensiveness of the text as a whole. A full index follows the endnotes and a list of credits; a test of the index using a few sample terms revealed its value immediately.

Overall, the end materials offer a great deal to teachers and students alike. The primer especially could be a valuable tool for a class where an introduction was needed to the materials of medieval music history. Both the primer and the glossary, however, have typos and misleading information that will hopefully be rectified in future editions, particularly when they appear in passages that illustrate difficult theoretical ideas. For example, in the primer on pp. A8-A9, Fassler’s discussion of Ex. P2 includes a reference to the word “Hymn” and the mode number appearing below it; the example excerpted from the Liber Usualis, however, does not include these. For Ex. P8 on p. A25, a diagram of Hucbald’s tetrachord of the finals, a tone step is mislabeled as a semi-tone. Other small typos (such as the word “whas” instead of “was” on p. A26) also appear, mostly in the end materials.

The accompanying anthology (for which I was able to consult an advance copy) offers modern transcriptions of more than forty works. Although the contents page lists forty entries, several entries include multiple pieces for comparison and study (for example, the third item in the anthology comprises a selection of Mass Propers, while the twenty-ninth, the “School of Pérotin,” includes three examples). The commentaries following each of the forty entries in the anthology are thorough and informative, dealing, when relevant, with issues of editing, analysis, and performance. One of the most useful aspects of the anthology lies in Fassler’s citation of the manuscript source for every piece of music she includes. Too often, anthologies do not include such information, leaving an instructor struggling to find the source for comparison and teaching purposes. By including this pivotal information, Fassler does a great service to teachers and students alike. Moreover, many of the manuscripts are now digitized, and the accompanying website does include links to many of them. What would have been useful and perhaps might be included for future revisions is a page in the online resources that lists any URLs currently available for the manuscripts Fassler cites. Another useful addition, although it is partly taken care of through Norton’s online “Playlist” for the anthology, would be a discography. Fassler cites numerous recordings throughout her comments (see, for example, p. 4 in the commentary for Ave maris stella), but nowhere is there a list of these recordings and their full information. The online “Playlist,” moreover, does not include all the recordings that Fassler discusses throughout the anthology. These minor accessibility issues aside, the anthology includes many highly versatile selections, some of which appear in other anthologies, but others of which are anthologized here for the first time. Certain themes developed in the textbook based around composers or religious figures also come across clearly in the anthology; for example, the emphasis on music for St. Nicholas in Congaudentes exsultemus and excerpts from the Fleury Play, The Three Daughters to complement discussions of the saint in the text (specifically pp. 89-93). Also invaluable in Fassler’s commentary on the pieces is her frequent engagement with scholarly issues, such as rhythmic interpretation of monophony.

One of the most valuable features of the book is the accompanying website of the author, hosted by WordPress, a popular blog publishing platform: This website is in addition to Norton’s StudySpace (, which includes an anthology playlist and links to Naxos, Amazon, and WorldCat, as well as some streamable examples, and chapter bibliographies with live links (mostly to JSTOR and WorldCat). The WordPress site, by contrast, has a wealth of information and materials, all without a paywall. Each chapter has its own tab with three different pages: the basics, lessons, and bibliography. At the time of writing this review, the lessons only went up to Chapter 7, and the basics were sparse after Chapter 7. The bibliographies—which include both works cited in the text itself and additional readings—are complete through to the final chapter. Under the “basics” Fassler includes further information on the pieces in the anthology (for example, where to find a digitization of an original manuscript containing the piece in question) and a list of terms and names from the relevant chapter. While this would likely be very useful for students who would like to know which terms to focus on, the lessons are really where the website provides the most in terms of teaching and learning.

The lessons take the form of step-by-step guides through mini-research projects, utilizing numerous online resources. The lesson for Chapter 2, for example, concerns the manuscript history of the hymn Eterne rerum conditor. The goal of the lesson is to locate one of the manuscripts containing the hymn with the help of online resources like Gallica (the digital repository for the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, France), the CANTUS chant database, and the “e-codices” digitization project in Switzerland ( Having led the intrepid student to the relevant online sources and locating the accurate folios, Fassler addresses the issue of finding manuscripts that are not online, touching on the process of requesting copies of materials like microfiches. Any of these lessons would provide a useful starting place for assignments or in-class activities, combining the study of medieval music with research skills and digital literacy. As a scholar who frequently works with digital sources and incorporates them into the classroom, I appreciated that Fassler fully embraced online tools throughout the website. Moreover, since the website is not behind any sort of paywall or textbook registration code, it is completely public and accessible. Even if students are not required to purchase the book—or they purchase a used or digital version—they will still be able to use the online resources (in contrast with other Norton textbooks).

Fassler’s Music in the Medieval West and its accompanying materials offer a novel approach to the study of early music. The text provides a compelling and culturally-situated examination of medieval music that moves beyond any idea of a “dry” textbook of the period. From the initial case study of the hymn Ave maris stella to the songs of Frauenlob (Heinrich von Meissen), Fassler brings medieval music to life on the page and in the mind. Her emphasis on the creators of music—whether women, anonymous monks, or wondering clerics—serves to connect the reader intimately to a distant and often unfamiliar past.

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