Alnwick, Recorded Music Society

St James's URC Church

St James's URC Church

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500 years of music

At its latest meeting, Alnwick Recorded Music Society’s Mike Alexander led his audience through an epic musical journey of 500 years, stretching from 1000 to 1500.

Starting with recordings of the simple, but hypnotic sounds of plainchant in its various forms, Mike explained how Western music originated in the church.

Plainchant was eventually formalised into what is now known as Gregorian chant. This formed the basis for further developments, such as the introduction of additional words and melodic phrases, which were interpolated within existing chants to create a more florid and complex music.

The greatest problem in interpreting early music is the lack of any method of notation. The earliest forms indicated little more than the rise and fall of notes, without any indication or pitch or rhythm.

Gradually a system of notation was devised, which evolved into that used today. This meant that more complex music could be written down.

One of the first named composers was the visionary poet Hildegard of Bingen. A track from a landmark CD entitled A Feather on the Breath of God provided an example of her work.

Based at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, two pioneers in the development of polyphony – a style of musical composition employing two or more simultaneous, but relatively independent, melodic lines – were Leonin and Perotin.

Mike played brief examples of their music to show how it had developed.

We were then taken through various stages of musical evolution, with examples of the compositions of Guillaume de Machaut from France, John Dunstable from England and the Burgundian Guillaume Dufay.

Finally, the Flemish school, including composers Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez, provided polyphonic settings of the mass and liturgical motets that formed the basis for future developments in the 16th century.

Outside of the church, music was also developing, and Mike played a rumbustious song in praise of wine from the 13th century manuscript, the Carmina Burana.

Other 12th and 13th century secular music included that of the troubadours of southern France and the trouveres of northern France.

Mike’s fascinating and well researched presentation had taken his audience back into the musical culture of medieval and early renaissance Europe. We look forward to the next episode.

For details of future meetings, held at St James’s United Reformed Church, please contact Mike on 01665 510684.