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Music In The Post-Classical World

Music and the Roman Catholic Church

Peter Kun Frary


Western music history begins with the sacred music of the Roman Catholic Church. Why? The earliest notated music and theoretical treatises come from the Church. Music was an integral part of the liturgy and, thus, received considerable attention from scholars and Church leadership. Obviously, medieval secular music existed but was not notated or discussed much in historical records until near the end of the Middle Ages.

Early music notation | Gloria from from the medieval Spanish manuscript Missa Barcelona. Ars nova (c. 1300-1400) | Biblioteca de Catalunya

One of the most significant developments in medieval music was creation of an accurate form of music notation by cleric and music theorist Franco of Cologne (c. 1250). Franco's notation system is called Franconian notation. His tome, Ars cantus mensurabilis, is an important guide to medieval sacred music practice and a primer on Franconian notation. While there were prior attempts to notate music with mnemonic techniques and pitch only, Franconian notation was the first system to symbolize both pitch and duration. Church music notation was refined over the next century and came to be known as mensural notation (measured notation), being widely used until about 1600.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris | Construction of Notre Dame began in 1163 and took over 180 years, with all elements finally complete by 1345.

Development of Christian Liturgy

Early Christianity was rooted in Judaism. Elements of Christian liturgy such as Holy Scripture, belief in one God, singing of Psalms and hymns, prayers and tithe, etc., were adopted by early Christian churches. The first Christians were Jews and they brought their rites of worship from the Synagogue. Christianity was propagated by Jews within Israel before spreading to Asia Minor, North Africa, Europe, etc. Thus, many early Christian songs were variants of Hebrew songs.

The Catholic church's emphasis on ecclesiastical uniformity was the main driving force behind the development of music notation. The alignment of churches across a far-flung empire was essential to maintaining the centralized authority of the Church. Thus, regional styles of chant and other aspects of liturgy gradually faded away. The notation of music, aside from educational and historical benefits, aided greatly in maintaining a common liturgy across thousands of miles and multiple countries.

The Shipwreck of Saint Paul | Acts 27:43 | Monastery of Santos Facuntkl y Primitivo, Sahagun (León), c. II8I | Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.


Franco of Cologne, Franconian notation, mensural notation

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved