Music in the Middle Ages by Gustave Reese

When this book was released in 1940, it was the gold standard for research on this topic.  This was before the Early Music revival of the 1960s that led to the advent of the Renaissance festival and all of those wonderful album releases that flowed over the next three decades.  My copy is a 1968 reprint, which pretty much says exactly what one would suspect: this book informed a lot of the scholarship that went into the revival efforts that continue to this day.  It remains one of the most authoritative books on this subject after all these years, and while it’s out of print, used copies can still be found if you’re willing to track them down.  I did.

The book is essentially broken into five sections.  The first three are the text itself.  Part one deals with ancient music: Southwest Asia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.  Part two is largely early chant from across the whole of Christendom from Spain to Russia, and down through the Middle East.  It covers Gregorian chant, and of particular interest to me, Secular Monody (Troubadours, Minnesingers, etc.).  This leads up to around the year 1300.  Part three deals with Polyphony from 1300 to around 1450 (the beginning of the Renaissance, which is covered in the author’s companion book).  This section covers Organum, musical notation, Motets, the Mass, instrumentation… all of the ideas that really pushed musical development along and made it interesting.  In the case of all three parts, the focus is on narrative and development of style.  It’s about as friendly to new students as it can be, which can still be overwhelming for those of us with no background in musicology.  Part four is the extensive bibliography, which if you’re looking to go down some research rabbit hole… well, there you go.

Of extreme interest to me is the fifth and final section: the recordings list used for study to compile this book!  People, I had NO idea any of this was recorded before the 1960s, let alone in this much abundance.  Just knowing this completely spins everything I understand on its head in the most wonderful way.  So that means somewhere out there, there is a treasure trove of old recordings and previously unknown performers waiting for me to discover them.  Based on what I’m seeing, most of them look to be religious choirs and such, which stands to reason.   And it looks to be that many of these recordings were recorded on site, such as at Notre Dame or Nashdom Abbey.  Am I the only one geeking out here?  The hunt is on!

As I say, this one’s meant for scholars and students, which is to be expected given the esoteric nature of this musical tradition at the time the book was published.  It hasn’t gotten much easier to learn about it insofar as I can tell either, but that’s part of what makes a book like this so valuable.  This isn’t easy to digest, but it’s not a beating either due to the narrative structure used for most of the presentation.  Willingness to meet the author halfway makes all the difference, just as it does in the study of any area of history.  Now that I’ve worked through this one, I’m really looking forward to the author’s companion volume on the Renaissance.  Books like these are meant to be savored.

5 stars

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