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. Continue reading “Improvisation”