“Why do I teach early music?”

By Alice V. Clark, Loyola University New Orleans.

Music programs are focusing more and more on what graduates need to function in our modern global world. This is, of course, a worthy goal. In the process, however, especially as surveys are being eliminated, European music before the beginning of functional tonality c. 1700 is increasingly being squeezed out of the curriculum. Why do I continue to teach early music? Sure, I’m a medievalist, but that’s not the only, or even the primary, reason—after all, my own research field of fourteenth-century France only represents a couple of days of my own course. I’m well aware that my students are not likely to go on to become either musicologists or early-music performers, but I believe music before common practice still has something to teach them.

L. P. Hartley began his 1953 novel The Go-Between with the infamous line, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Part of the value of early music to my mind is its very strangeness: that unfamiliarity can provide students with a space to practice leaning into the unfamiliar, digging underneath their initial reactions to discover that what they find most strange is often what is most characteristic of a world that is in some ways familiar and in others not. By examining the unfamiliar, students can begin to see the latent values in both the past and the present, and they can improve their ability to think critically about music, themselves, and the world around them.

A good example is the genre where my own scholarship focuses: the fourteenth-century motet in France. I once had a student burst into laughter on hearing a medieval motet, and I encourage students to think about why this genre is so strange, even difficult, to them. Many comment on the multiple simultaneous texts, or the texture sometimes described as “chaotic” (even while it is, in fact, carefully crafted). They may be left cold by my enthusiasm for number symbolism or subtle intertextual connections between the tenor and upper voices—and that tenor, which is the foundation of the compositional process (figuratively and literally) may be little more than a “drone” to them. What I try to do, however, is take the features that they see as strange or even wrong and help them see them from a different perspective. From the idea of building new work on existing authority (and for music there is no greater authority than chant), to the intermingling of what we separate as “sacred” and “secular,” to the Boethian notion that sounding music is a point of entry to greater, inaudible harmonies, these very things that make the motet strange to our ears can be used to shed light on medieval culture.

Unlike the nineteenth-century musical world that is in many ways at the foundation of our own, early music (both in Europe and beyond) does not rely on concepts such as genius, nor is it considered “selling out” for music to be created to fit the needs of an audience, patron, or other function, instead of only the composer’s self-expression. Indeed, music frequently circulated anonymously, and even where we have a name, we may not know much more. Sara Haefeli has rightly called on us to find ways to debunk the myth of composerly genius, and one way to do that is to go back before the concept effectively existed.[i] It is true that Josquin des Prez has been saddled with the “genius” label, but Paula Higgins has convincingly shown both how that came about in the hands of 20th-century musicologists (most notably Edward Lowinsky) and how it has shaped our understanding of Josquin and the music of his time.[ii]

Notation is another area where early European music can help undercut (and hence contextualize) the nineteenth-century baseline. I sometimes find my jazz students rather dismissive of the “play the notes on the page” mentality they associate with western art music.  On the other hand, the openness of, say, troubadour notation shows how much interpretation was left to medieval performers, most of whom didn’t actually use notation at all. This year I went even further afield to borrow the material on Chinese guqin notation from Eric Hung’s “Teaching Notation Multiculturally” module to start our consideration of notation.[iii] We discussed what guqin notation, ancient Greek notation (as represented in the Epitaph of Seikilos), and modern western notation do and don’t do. That set the stage for us to talk about early notations beyond how they fail what we need or expect, to how they reflect the needs of the time, and how when those needs change, notation changes. This conversation about notation, and about how notation is interpreted and expanded on in performance, continued throughout the semester.

There may be no better way to demonstrate how history is constructed than a pair of excerpts on Charlemagne and the creation of “Gregorian” chant.[iv]  John the Deacon’s Life of St. Gregory emphasizes the superiority of Roman chant and the flaws of the Frankish singers, using heavily biased terminology, while the Monk of St-Gall’s Life of Charlemagne spins a conspiracy theory of prejudiced Romans and Frankish spies. It is tremendously valuable to have two accounts of the same basic event (Charlemagne recognizes the chant he’s hearing as different from what he’d heard in Rome) reported from diametrically opposed points of view! It shows that even our earliest sources are clouded by the points of view of those who wrote them—and by implication, the same is true of modern writers of textbooks and works of scholarship.

One criticism of early music, like western art music in general, is that it is a music of “dead white men.” A growing amount of material is available, however, to show both the contact between medieval and early modern Europe and the rest of the world (such as this map of trade routes) and the musical (and other) activities of Jews, Muslims, and people from the middle east and Africa—and, of course, plenty of women.[v] Not all of these activities survive in the form of notated music, but they testify to a musical world that extends beyond Europe. The advent of colonialism complicates this picture, but that provides an opportunity for us to engage in discussions with our students, whether about the use of music in Jesuit missions or George Frideric Handel’s investments in the Royal African Company.[vi] I provide some suggestions of how to introduce these diverse connections to students in an article in the Journal of Music History Pedagogy, but the resources available are ever-growing. [vii] Excellent starting points include Inclusive Early Music and Beyond Tokenism, as well as the Pedagogy Study Group of the American Musicological Society.[viii]

We can also use early European music to think about the ethics behind performing music created in different times, with different values, today. From the medieval pastourelle, which often deals with sexual assault, to exotic influences in baroque musical drama, such as Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les indes galantes, there are plenty of examples of pieces that raise questions of how, or whether, they should be brought to life in our time, questions that our students need to practice thinking through. The very fact that this music is less familiar can make these questions less fraught, which can make them a good starting point for these sorts of discussions.

Of course, one of the best reasons to continue to teach early European music is that there’s so much good music out there! Our students may never encounter the kaleidoscopic brilliance of Perotin’s four-voice organum on Viderunt omnes, the wrenching dissonances of Barbara Strozzi’s Lagrime mie, or the haunting loneliness of Martin Codax’s Ondas do mar de Vigo outside of our classes. They may never use that knowledge in a direct way—in other words, they may never perform or teach it themselves—or maybe they will: a symphonic violinist may pick up extra gigs if he can also play in a baroque group, and a singer might find her voice is actually better suited to fifteenth-century song than nineteenth-century opera. Even if that doesn’t happen, our students have reflected on values and developed their minds. They have heard music that was unknown to them and learned something about it, and that knowledge will make them better musicians, and better people.

We do have to make choices: it is simply not possible to include everything in our classes. I believe, however, that drawing a line around 1700 and leaving out everything on the “wrong” side of that line is not a productive approach. Whether we continue to teach surveys or take other approaches (or some combination of the two), we can find ways to include medieval and early modern Europe within our musical world. I would be glad to continue the conversation with anyone who might want to do so. You can reach me at avclark@loyno.edu.


[i] Sarah Haefeli, “The Problem with Geniuses,” https://theavidlistenerblogcom.wordpress.com/2020/07/24/the-problem-with-geniuses/.

[ii] Paula Higgins, “The Apotheosis of Josquin des Prez and Other Mythologies of Musical Genius,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 57/3 (Fall 2004):  443-510.

[iii] Eric Hung, “Teaching Notation Multiculturally,” https://musichistoryredo.wordpress.com/redoing-mh-pedagogy/reframed-narratives/teaching-notation-multiculturally/.

[iv] These are translated by James McKinnon in Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History, rev. ed., general ed. Leo Treitler, vol. 2: The Early Christian Period and the Latin Middle Ages, ed. James McKinnon (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 69-73.

[v] https://merchantmachine.co.uk/medieval-trade-routes/

[vi] https://musicologynow.org/handel-and-the-royal-african-company/

[vii]Alice V. Clark, “Uncovering a Diverse Early Music,” https://www.ams-net.org/ojs/index.php/jmhp/article/view/333.

[viii] https://inclusiveearlymusic.org/; https://musichistoryredo.wordpress.com/; and https://www.teachingmusichistory.com/.

About the Author

Alice V. Clark is the author of the A-R Music Anthology’s article on Guillaume de Machaut. She is Professor of Music History at Loyola University New Orleans, where she teaches a wide variety of courses in music history and medieval studies.  Her scholarship focuses on the motet in fourteenth-century France, and she has published in The Cambridge History of Medieval Music and Journal of Musicology, among other places.  You can reach her at avclark@loyno.edu.