A Little Knight Music

A Little Knight Music

Written by Don Kaplan

The Middle Ages lasted from the fall of Rome (c. 500) to the start of the Renaissance (c. 1400 – 1500). It’s a span also referred to as the medieval period or Dark Ages – an age that brings to mind images of knights in shiny armor, castles, and damsels in distress. [1] The Dark Ages were known for widespread poverty, famine, plague, superstition, and social oppression, but are now looked back on as an active time that also included economic expansion, urban growth, the emergence of national identities, the Crusades, Gothic art and architecture, and the birth of the university.

There were positive developments in music, too, from monophonic chants to the beginnings of  polyphony. The first music we have any documentation for comes from this period and some modern composers have looked back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance as sources for their own compositions. Here’s a sampling of medieval music from several countries as well as two modern approaches to these early compositions.

Hymns of Kassiani/“Hymn of Kassiani”/Cappella Romana (Cappella Records/Naxos SACD) Kassiani (aka Kassia c. 810 – c. 867) was a 9th century nun, poet, and hymnist generally thought of as the first woman composer. She was certainly not a helpless damsel in distress. Born into a wealthy family associated with the imperial court in the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) she became famous partly because of her popular composition known as “The Hymn of Kassiana” and partly because of her supposed encounter with the emperor Theophilus:

“The emperor is said to have met Kassia as a potential bride. He said to the young Kassia: ‘Through a woman came forth the baser things’ (referring to the Biblical story of Eve eating the forbidden fruit). To which she replied, almost certainly with a steely glint in her eye: ‘And through a woman came forth the better things,’ referring to Christ’s mother, the Virgin Mary…

She did not marry him. Instead she became a nun and wrote some of the most haunting music of all time.” [2]

The Cappella Romana, a leading ensemble in the field of medieval Byzantine chant, performs Kassia’s hymn in a traditional manner. The music is usually sung by an accompanied soloist but also performed by choirs singing in unison supported by a Byzantine vocal bass drone. Kassia’s melodies closely follow the rhythms of the text, and motifs are often used to mirror the words. The hymn is attractive and melodic but also has occasional resolutions and chromatic changes that wouldn’t be out of place in some modern choral music.

There are several examples of the composer’s music on the disc that haven’t been recorded before, all impeccably sung. The sound is excellent in the standard CD format and even better for those who can take advantage of the SACD layer. The production quality is outstanding, including texts that are provided in Greek and English. A very appealing and welcome new release…the first in a planned series to record all of Kassia’s surviving works.


Hildegard von Bingen: Symphoniae/“O quam mirabilis”/Sequentia (BMG CD)

Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179) was another woman who would never be considered a damsel in distress. A well-known German saint, she is now recognized as a New Age guru, an early feminist, composer, writer, and visionary celebrated not only for her music but for her experimental contributions to holistic medicine and nutrition. (Her name has also inspired the creation of contemporary products like Hildegard bread and Hildegard’s naturopathic moisturizers and face creams.)

In the 1150s Hildegard gathered her songs into a lyrical cycle called the Symphony of the harmony of heavenly revelations. “O quam mirabilis,” from that cycle, is her depiction of life’s central miracle: When God looked at the beauty of man (referring to both males and females), he knew he could not create anything greater. Hildegard’s music is important because her melodies were freer, more wide-ranging and elaborate than those used by her contemporaries and she gave plainsong greater expression through the use of long, spiraling melismas [3] and soaring melodies. [4]

Maybe not be the best choice for Karaoke night, but ideal music for relaxing while eating Hildegard bread.


Love’s Illusion: Music from the Montpellier Codex 13th-Century/“Amours, dont je sui”/The Anonymous 4 (Harmonia Mundi CD) For 30 years the critically acclaimed female quartet Anonymous 4 (established in 1986) specialized in singing early music. Every album these four women recorded treated listeners to little-known medieval repertoire, with superb performances and musicianship presented in superior sound by Harmonia Mundi.

Love’s Illusion focuses on courtly love texts from the Montpellier Codex, the richest single source of 13th century French polyphony. The Codex spans the entire century and contains polyphonic works in all the major forms of its era, especially motets. [5] From the extensive literature of fin amours [6] “there emerge two inviolable precepts: first, true love may exist only outside of marriage and, second, a man must subject himself totally to the will of his beloved, whether her requests seem rational or not. A woman’s physical perfection…was an outward symbol of her inner goodness, for which a man yearned and suffered, to the point of death…[However] the romantic love expressed in the literature of fin amours was probably little more than a clever illusion; the [misogynistic] reality of day-to-day life remained unchanged.” [7]

“Amours, dont je sui” is a double motet where each of the two upper voices has its own text. The following translation is from from the start of “Amours…” and reflects the ideal of courtly love:

“Love, who holds me captive,
makes me sing.
I must be gay
and conduct myself joyfully,
for the one whom I most love and desire
deigns to call me sweetheart.
I want to serve and honor her
with a true heart, without deception,
all my life long.


On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols & Motets/“Ther is no rose of swych vertu”/The Anonymous 4 (Harmonia Mundi CD) The Anonymous 4 return in a program of carols, plainchant, songs, and motets for Christmas using English sources from the 13th through the 15th centuries. These works refer to all aspects of the Christmas story and its many related legends, and “express a range of responses to these marvels: mirth and joy, wonder and praise, and even theological exegesis. But the thread that ties this music together is a striving toward something out of the ordinary, a special sound or gesture, reserved for this most wonderful time.” [8]

Most of the carols on this disc date from the early 15th century and were written for two or three voices. They follow a basic pattern of refrain alternating with a number of verses but are still varied and expressive. The two-voice sections sometimes incorporate fauxbourdon  an improvisatory technique where a third voice is added between the two written outer voices to create a richer harmony.


Officium/“Parce mihi Domine”/The Hilliard Ensemble, vocals with Jan Garbarek, saxopohone (ECM CD) The combination of medieval/Renaissance vocal music and saxophone seems like an odd concept but is surprisingly successful. Garbarek’s instrument provides musical commentary as it weaves through the voices and breaks through any predispositions caused by time and style. Words like spacious, ancient, primeval, and spiritual come to mind and this distinctive style can be haunting.

John Potter of the all-male Hilliard Ensemble makes a connection between modern jazz improvisation and the earliest music. He explains that ancient songs had lives of their own and each monastery had its own living tradition: “There was no central authority to call upon, just the experience and skills of the singers; every performance was the first one.” As for adding a saxophone to early music, “What is this music? We don’t have a name for it…When jazz began, at the beginning of this century, it had no name; nor did polyphony when it began around a thousand years earlier. These two nameless historical moments were points of departure for two of the most fundamental ideas in Western music: improvisation and composition. The origins of the performances on this record, which are neither wholly composed nor completely improvised, are to be found in those same forces that awoke a thousand years apart from each other.”

Although the YouTube selection is from a concert, performances by the same artists can be found on ECM’s Officium. The CD has three different versions of Spanish composer Christóbal de Morales’ early 16th century “Parce mihi Domine”: the original version for acapella vocal ensemble and two performances for ensemble with saxophone.


Carmina Burana Vol. 1/“Tempus est iocundum”/New London Consort (L’Oiseau-Lyre/Decca CD) This isn’t the famous Carl Orff piece but the early text and music Orff based his composition on. The original manuscript, compiled in Bavaria during the first half of the 13th century, contains the most important and comprehensive collection of medieval Latin lyric poetry we know of. There are over 200 pieces organized by subjects like moralizing and satirical songs, love songs, and eating, drinking, and gambling songs. The codex draws upon several preexisting sources, resulting in a collection with moral and didactic annotations similar in form to various moralizing encyclopedias of the Middle Ages. Scholarly and artistic poems written by successful clerics are found side by side with lusty verses generally attributed to poorer clerks and itinerant scholars who wandered from one patron and university to another.

The Carmina Burana is an uninhibited celebration of life’s pleasures including sensuality and the physical excitement of love. You might want to listen to the original version of “Tempus est iocundum” first, then compare it to Orff’s interpretation.

“Tempus est iocundum” from Carmina Burana (original)


“Tempus est iocundum” followed by “Dulcissima” (Orff) – stay tuned for a slightly blurred but outstanding and clear-sounding 1989 videotaped performance of Orff’s complete work (Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic with soloists Kathleen Battle and Thomas Allen).


[1] There were many tales of knights saving damsels in distress, but there is little if any evidence of anything like that having actually occurred.

[2] Lizzie Davis, “Listen to the music of the first female composer: Kassia a ninth-century Byzantine abbess,” Classic FM (March 8, 2018).

[3] A group of notes sung to one syllable of text.

[4] For more about Hildegard see Anne E. Johnson’s “Hildegard of Bingen” (Issue 98) and my own article about “Women Composers of Early Music” (Issue 114).

[5] Polyphonic choral compositions on a sacred text usually without instrumental accompaniment.

[6] The 13th century gentle spirit of fin amours in northern France is found in thousands of trouvere love lyrics. The idiomatic expressions of fin amours poets and the musical style of the trouveres (northern French lyric poets/musicians influenced by the original southern troubadours) had a major influence on the most important polyphonic genre of the 13th century: the motet.

[7] Susan Hellauer, Anonymous 4 performer

[8] Susan Hellauer

Header image: Officium album cover by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble.

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