Medieval music evolved significantly from plainsong monophonic sacred chants in the early medieval period to both secular and sacred music by the late medieval period and the use of a high variety of instruments.
This immense change in the nature and style of music in Europe took place from the 5th to 15th centuries of the medieval period, and critical in bringing about this change were the leading composers of different medieval centuries.
While early medieval period reflected little extra-regional influences, the late medieval period came to be a mixture of different cultural currents of Europe and was more cosmopolitan in nature.
Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard von Bingen was a German nun who composed a vast body of sacred music during the 12th century.
At a time when sacred music had to be composed within strict church guidelines, Hildegard was able to push the limits of composition by adopting many new techniques and introducing many innovations to sacred music.
Most of the music composed by Hildegard comprised of melismatic solos and hymns.
A notable aspect of her songs was their highly melodic nature, the use of many different notes and pitches in a single composition and the musicality of words corresponding with their meaning.
She tested extensively with the limits of composition of sacred music and produced some enduring masterpieces of medieval music that survive to this day.
In the 13th century, Arras in northern France was a hub of the trouvere tradition of music. It was in this setting that Moniot d’Arras, a monk in the abbey of Arras, made a name for himself as a notable musician and composer.
Given that the scope of his music was mostly limited to the trouvere tradition, he mostly composed monophonic songs with themes of courtly love and chivalry. He also wrote a number of sacred music pieces. Many of his secular and sacred compositions are extant today.
Leonin and Perotin
By the High Middle Ages, the music school established at the Notre Dame cathedral emerged as a major centre of musical innovations in the composition of sacred music. The most notable composers to emerge out of school were Leonin and Perotin.
Until the 13th century, church music was mostly monophonic, utilising a single vocal composition. Leonin altered this by introducing a new style wherein a second voice could chant in parallel with the original chant or a lot faster than the original chant.
This additional vocal part came to be called organum and was the defining characteristic of the High medieval music.
While Leonin introduced two-part sacred music, his student Perotin took this even further by introducing three-part and four-part compositions, combing the vocal effects of multiple singers.
The style introduced by the duo would remained an enduring aspect of the sacred European music on which subsequent musical developments in medieval Europe were based.
Adam de la Halle
Adam de la Halle was another French composer who emerged out of the trouvere tradition of northern France. Born in mid-13th century, Halle was a not just a composer but also a poet and a musician like many of his contemporaries.
He was most noted for the fact that he pioneered the drift away from sacred music and established the foundations of independent secular music.
One of his most notable compositions is the Jeu de Robin et da Marion, a dramatic work which includes a significant portion of musical compositions. He was also notable for being adept at both monophonic and polyphonic forms of composition, a rarity at the time.
Guillaume de Machaut
Guillaume de Machaut was one of the greatest composers of the late medieval period. He was born around 1300 and died in 1377, spanning a long career of musical compositions, poetry and a variety of other creative endeavours.
He was one of the leading figures of the Ars Nova movement in France during the late medieval period.
A notable aspect of Machaut’s music is that he composed both sacred and secular music.
In secular music, he composed in the motet, ballade, rondeau, virelai and lai genres. Although he adhered to the form of genres, he creatively embellished them with his own style.
He similarly created many brilliant pieces in sacred music as well, one of the most notable being the Messe de Nostre Dame, a cyclic mass which was the first to be composed by a single person.
In the general composition of his music, Machaut used both monophonic and polyphonic forms. He is a towering figure of Ars Nova due to the sheer breadth of the variety of his music and the sheer volume of music he composed.
Francesco Landini was one of the most notable composers of the final decades of the medieval period. During the late 14th century, he was considered one of the best composers of all Europe and the best composer in Italy. Born in Italy in 1325, he was the key figure in the Italian Trecento which ushered in the late medieval style of music in Italy.
A large body of his musical compositions is extant today, most of it in the ballate and madrigal styles of Italian music. All of his extent pieces are secular music and there is little proof that he composed any sacred music.
The “Landini” in his name refers to the Landini cadence, a special element used in musical composition. Although he didn’t invent the Landini, he make extensive use of it in his compositions, earning him the eponym.
Guillaume Dufay was born in 15th century France and went on to become one of the foremost European composers of the 15th century.
Like many other composers of the period, he admitted influence from composers of different regions of Europe. John Dunstable, the English composer, was a notable influence on Dufay’s music.
Dufay composed both secular and sacred music with his secular music written mostly in the virelai, rondeau and ballade forms.
In the list of his sacred music are included a number of Mass compositions and a notable lament he wrote following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire.