Music of the past already highly valued in the Middle Ages


Music of the past already highly valued in the Middle Ages

Your musical taste says who you are and people in the late Middle Ages already had understood that. Religious and political movements made clever use of music of the past. Professor of Musicology Karl Kügle led a study with research teams in five European countries. ‘It is amazing to see how closely different regions in late medieval Europe were interconnected.’

Karl KügleKarl Kügle

In the Amsterdam Begijnhof (Beguinage), private houses doubled up as a church (‘schuilkerk’) from around 1600 onwards. The Begijnhof was the only official Catholic place left in Amsterdam after the introduction of the Reformation. Ulrike Hascher-Burger, a member of the Utrecht team, investigated the Beguines’ music and liturgy. Karl Kügle (also Utrecht University) explains: ‘Although the women in the Begijnhof were not obliged to become reformed, they did lose their own church building, and that forced them to make some changes in their liturgy. Besides using Catholic music of their own time, they continued to use songs from the 15th century, demonstrating their awareness of their own past. There are extensive manuscripts from the 17th century in which two-centuries-old songs with old melodies in modernized settings were copied. It cost a lot of time and money to produce such manuscripts, so that was done very deliberately. This demonstrates how important these "old-fashioned" songs were for the Amsterdam Beguines of the Golden Age to state who they were, and how they wanted to be seen.’

A myth from the late 15th century

Up until now researchers thought that people only started to value music of the past and make strategic use of it from the 19th century onward. Kügle: ‘The idea was that, for people from earlier periods, music remained interesting for one generation at most. This view has its basis in a statement by a famous music theoretician, Johannes Tinctoris, from about 1480. Our study, carried out by scholars in five European countries, demonstrates that this is not entirely so.’ Kügle and his team worked together with ten researchers from Cambridge, Heidelberg (later Zurich), Prague and Warsaw. And: with six musical ensembles and musical institutions throughout Europe, including the Dutch Trigon Ensemble, who  brought the mediaeval music back to life (see the videos).

Did you know? Collecting music in luxurious manuscripts gave rise to a new awareness: music had a past.

A new kind of musical notation from 1200 onwards

Around 1200, new technologies emerged which became essential for recording more complex forms of music and made it possible to appreciate them retrospectively. Kügle: ‘From that moment onwards, rhythms could be encoded in the notation, allowing various parts to be differentiated precisely against each other. People started to collect this new type of music in luxurious manuscripts. This gave rise to a new awareness: music had a past. From a modern perspective, it is amazing how fast the new technologies spread across Europe. The reason: Noble families and members of the Church were connected with each other in a multitude of ways, for example through travel and by marriage. As a result, a lot of communication and cultural exchange took place.’

Reconnecting with older ways of singing could also be an acoustic signifier of religious renewal, as musicologist Manon Louviot revealed in her research into the liturgical and spiritual practices of the Congregation of Windesheim in the late Middle Ages. On 18 December, she will defend her doctoral thesis about this research at Utrecht University.

Now that we have a better understanding of how long ago music of the past already helped define social identities, the entire picture of what music of the past can mean has changed.
- Karl Kügle

Funding for music

According to Kügle, it is important to realize that music was already used to communicate identity such a long time ago. ‘To give an example: people rarely use arguments when it comes to the question as to whether certain types of music should receive funding. Now we have a better understanding not only of the importance of music for social identity but also how old this phenomenon is. That changes the entire picture of what music can mean. For people back then and for us today. After all, doesn't which music you like say an awful lot about who you are or how you want to be seen?’

More information

Manon LouviotManon Louviot

Karl Kügle is Professor of History of Music before 1800 at Utrecht University and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University. His team, consisting of co-investigator Ulrike Hascher-Burger, post-doc Ruxandra Marinescu, project assistant Frieda van der Heijden and PhD student Manon Louviot worked together with ten researchers from Cambridge, Heidelberg/Zurich, Prague and Warsaw.

The project Sound Memories: The Musical Past in Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Europe (SoundMe) was part of the HERA Joint Research Programme “Uses of the Past”. HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area) is a collaboration of European research councils in the humanities, including NWO.

Text: Rianne Lindhout