acred monophonic, nonmetric melodies set in the church

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Last updated: May 24, 2019

acred vocal music has developed dramatically over time and is still continuing to do so. This type of music in the Middle Ages was very simple compared to the religious vocal music in the Classical Era.

Some differences in the two include the textures of the music, the harmonies throughout the piece, dynamics and rhythm, and even what the sacred music was about. The music of the early Christian church featured monophonic, nonmetric melodies set in the church modes or scales. Sacred vocal music in the Middle Ages, like Gregorian Chants, are set to latin texts and sung unaccompanied with a single line melody, making them a monophonic. Gregorian chants have small leaps, allowing its smooth figure to create a kind of musical speech. Free from regular phrase structure, the continuous vocal line is the musical counterpart to the ornamentation found in medieval art and architecture.

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 In chants that serve for recitations, such as psalms, lessons, or prayers, the music is secondary to a clear projection of the text; these settings are predominantly syllabic and use relatively few pitches.The Gregorian melodies, numbering more than three thousand, form an immense body of music that was composed by unknown sources. Later on, musical instruments were allowed in church, but it was mainly used for important days in the Liturgical calendar.

Music during the Middle Ages is characterized by the beginning of musical notation as well as polyphony. During this time, there were two general types of music styles; monophonic and polyphonic. Gregorian chants not only served a liturgical function, but also provided source material for much of the monophonic music of the Middle Ages. There are three main chant classes, each different in its own unique way, syllabic being sung to each syllable of the text to mimic speech.

Neumatic, having small groups of five or six notes sung to a syllable and Melismatic having long groups of notes to a single syllable of text.The melismatic style descended from the improvisations of Middle Eastern music. Chants were passed down through vocal tradition from one group to the next, as the chants grew in numbers singers needed assistance remembering the shapes of the vast multitude of melodies. Neumes were created to be put atop the words to signify the changes in the melody.  From Gregorian Chant through Renaissance polyphony, Western music consisted of a variety of scale patterns, the modes were a basis for European art music for over a thousand years. To the medieval mind, the new had to be found in the old, therefore composers of Organum(two musical voices)  based their pieces on preexisting Gregorian chants. Lower voices sang the melody in long notes ; the higher voices sung a freely composed part that moved swiftly  above it, in the setting the melody was unrecognizable. Sacred vocal music in the Classical Era is very different from the religious music found in the Middle Ages.

By this time music had developed into a new style and was more widely understood. Music became more structured and more complex over time, causing a change that reflected important events in history. Some changes in religious vocal music include texture and instrumentation. In the Classical Era we start to see more instruments used in the church, including pianos, brass and woodwind instruments, coming together to create orchestras. But instead of being used for Liturgical reasons like bells and organs were in the Middle Ages, they were being used as accompaniment for vocal choirs.

This made the music largely homophonic with the melody in the soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices and the orchestra being used to accompany the soloists or a melody with supporting chords and other ornamental factors that gave the religious vocal music a new name. Despite the use of accompaniment, sacred music in the Classical Era, much like in the Middle Ages, found that it was more important to get the words across to the listener and were often written in Latin text as well. Sacred choral music in this era can be split into three different genres; Mass, Requiem, and the oratorio.

The Mass was used for the most formal service used in the Roman Catholic church. The Requiem is a Mass service performed for the dead. And an oratorio usually focuses on a biblical story. Many of the popular instrumental composers also wrote choral music for the church setting that fit into these genres.

Some examples would be Beethoven’s Mass in D Major, Mozart’s Requiem, and Handel’s famous oratorio Messiah. Thus giving religious choral music newfound popularity and having religious pieces performed in concert halls as opposed to only churches. With the complexity of music on the rise, there have been many changes that affected all types of music, including sacred vocal music throughout history. The classical era has already been introduced to different forms in music like ternary or three part form, which was predominant during this time, where an ‘A’ section is stated, then a ‘B’ section, and ‘A’ is stated again. This form would grow to be the form used in many songs, adopting the name song form. Harmonies in the classical era were diatonic and followed tonic-dominant relationships thanks to the use of chords. The melodies of sacred vocal music were also very tuneful and had narrow leaps in the Classical Era. The use of dynamics were commonly used in this time period with crescendos and decrescendos.

And meter and rhythm had been established and was kept clear. But in the Middle Ages there was no definite form introduced in the music, but did use the simplest version of the forms. Harmonies were still modal, and melodies had very small leaps and were conjunct with no use of dynamics or a meter. And the biggest difference is the fact that sacred vocal music in the Middle Ages was sung  acappella. The Middle Ages and Classical Era were also very different time periods and the differences between those two time periods and what happened in them had a direct reflection on all kinds of music created. The Middle Ages were ran by the catholic church, making the majority of the music sacred vocal music by default. Many people in the medieval times devoted their lives to the church and would sing in the congregation with the pope.

With the rise of notation the Middle Ages also saw a rise in polyphonic textures creating Organum. The Classical Period differs because it saw the rise of many new discoveries in and outside of music that influenced many composers like, Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart to create the many pieces still seen today. The Classical period was all about following rules and restraining emotions, which would explain why all types of music had more structure than what was seen prior to this time of enlightenment. The Middle Ages saw simpler sacred vocal music because it was a simpler time. And the Classical Era saw more structured and planned out music because it was an age of reason. Some examples of the differences and similarities seen in sacred choral music in both eras can be seen in Hildegard of Bingen’s Alleluia, O virga mediatrix from the late 12th century and Mozart’s Dies irae from Requiem from the late 18th century. The main difference is the instrumentation and texture, Hildegard’s piece begins with a soloist and then the rest of the choir joins in on the melismatic and monophonic melody sung a capella. While Mozart’s piece is obviously not monophonic, but homophonic through the use of so many voices and instruments and parts that are performed.

Hildegard’s piece lacks harmony because of his use of monophony, while Mozart’s piece alternates from minor to major throughout the piece as a whole and uses dissonance and consonance to add more personality to the music. Hildegard’s piece has a three-part structure in it that is sung responsorially, the song starts and ends with words “Alleluia” that are melismatic and has a neumatic verse in between, and giving it a sense of ternary form. While Dies irae has eight different verses, but is part of a much larger work. Another difference between the two is that Alleluia does not have an existing meter and is very free while Dies irae is in a duple-meter that is heavily accented.

Another very noticeable difference is the moods and complexities between the two songs. The mood in Hildegard’s piece does not change throughout its entirety, but there are more dramatic leaps and climaxes on important words like “mortem” meaning death. But Mozart’s work has much more emotion shown throughout the piece.

The beginning shows fear through loud dramatic and accented music with phrases like “Dies irae” meaning day of wrath; and then shifts to a state of awed admiration with a the trombone and bass voice solos speaking of “Tuba mirum spargens sonum” or a trumpet with an astonishing sound; then changes to a plea to be saved when the full choir comes in with words like “Salve me, fons pietatis” meaning save me, fount of piety. Despite the many differences, there are some similarities between the two pieces. Though both are written about different things, Alleluia, being about the Virgin Mary and Dies irae, being about death and salvation; both were written for different types of Mass ceremonies for the church. Both are also written in the church’s original language, Latin, and are still sung in Latin. And of course the main similarity, the fact that both were popular forms of sacred vocal music.

Middle-aged music and Classical era Sacred vocal music have developed dramatically over time and is still continuing to do so and this type of music in the Middle Ages was very simple compared to the religious vocal music in the Classical Era. Sacred vocal music in the Classical Era is very different from the religious music found in the Middle Ages.  Some differences in the two include the textures of the music, the harmonies throughout the piece, dynamics and rhythm, and even what the sacred music was about.

Though in the different time periods Middle age music and Classical era music have a lot of similarities and differences they worked off of each other.Both of the genres also have changed music greatly throughout the years. Classical music in its own way change the way we now create music and we could not have one without the other.

The changes in vocal music variations impacts the way we hear and perceive it for generations after it was created. Sacred vocal music continues to dramatically change  over time.

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