One of the most startling books I have read was Improvisation and Inventio in the Performance of Medieval Music, by Angela Mariani. My contact with medieval music has mostly been through singing in a Gregorian chant schola and singing the Divine Office privately (so that would be liturgical music of the 9th-15th centuries, mostly); and when I was 8-12 years old I played the recorder and participated in the medieval instrument groups at an early music center near my house. I remember it being a blast. Via Gregorian chant I became interested in what’s called para-liturgical medieval music, which are songs that would have been sung outside of the liturgy: that is, they are not part of the Mass or Divine Office, but rather would have been sung by people on processions, during vigils, to pass the time, for fun, and so on. But their content is religious, predominantly about the Virgin Mary.
The attraction in para-liturgical music is that it is not constrained by ritual considerations. If you want to sing it fast or slow, repeat it ten times, add some ornament, dance while you sing, or have your friends join in with trumpet and drums, you are free to do so. Liturgical music is part of the liturgy, which is a form of ritual sung prayer offered to God, not entertainment for us to do with as we please. So the purposes and demands of the music are quite different. With liturgical music one wants to participate in the prayer, not make a show of oneself. And the chants fit in specific places in the liturgy, and cannot be improvised or modified at a whim. This is not a bad thing (it is a very holy and profound thing to chant parts of the Mass or Office); but it is fun to have fun with non-liturgical music, too.
So in light of this I discovered there is quite a fuss over how exactly one should sing medieval music (even the chants of the Mass), because the notation at that time was not like later classical music notation which indicates every detail of performance. Early notation was like a sketch or gesture, probably largely a mnemonic device to help remind people of the melody and words when they already knew it mostly by memory. When people today perform medieval music they bring all sorts of modern ideas to it – should it sound like rural peasant music from Europe? Should it sound like Middle Eastern music? Should it be regular and slow? Bouncy and fast? With what instruments? With what sort of voice quality? (There is a way of women singing Gregorian chant that I call “nun voice” – a kind of delicate, high voice. Not the way I sing.)
Here for instance is a German group singing a medieval song: https://youtu.be/2l-H6eG2SsY
And here is a very different interpretation of the same song by an Italian group: https://youtu.be/Y40cH2zJwfU
Anyway, Ms. Mariani, author of the book mentioned above, started out as a rock musician, moved into folk music, and then discovered medieval music. She is also conservatory trained and now a professor of music in the US. From that experience she writes a very readable, very straightforward text on the necessity of bringing improvisation to performance. The notation was never intended to be read in a prescriptive way (not until after the baroque period did more prescriptive notation develop – in part because manuscripts were now being sent far away, without the composer in attendance to conduct the musicians and explain how he wanted it to sound).
She then talks about the use of rhetoric in the Middle Ages. Memorization in a culture that valued memory and oral tradition didn’t mean rotely memorizing texts. It meant memorizing chunks of information which one could then call up and reorganize into arguments, interpretations, sermons, song, poetry and so on. Improvisation in music consists in knowing the musical genre and your instrument(s) deeply enough that you can draw on that pool of possibilities to create new interpretations, improvisations and performances at will.
I grew up learning music by reading only, and struggled to memorize when it was required for lessons. When I moved to Brazil I was horrified to discover there was no sheet music and no hymnals. When people sang in the local parish, they sang what they had learned by ear. I remember someone trying to teach me a new hymn once by singing it for me a few times. I stared at him, stupified. He seemed baffled that I couldn’t get it on short notice.
Interestingly, after several years of having to deal with this every weekend I began to be able to pick up melodies quickly. The ‘rehearse for the first time half an hour before Mass’ scenario became less frustrating. I am also finding it easier to memorize pieces for my (classical) voice lessons. And I have experimented briefly with composition. That’s something I want to explore more deeply. But like the brush and pen exercises: one step at a time.
Angela Mariani’s book on improvisation: Highly recommended, life changing, fabulous.