The period in the history of Western Europe, today called the Middle Ages, begins around 450 A.D. What had once been a vast empire dominated by Roman law and culture fell apart in consequence of a series of incursions by the Goths, Huns, and other “barbarian” tribes.

Europe became a feudal society in which the majority of the population was peasants or serfs. The landowners were noblemen who lived in tapestry-hung castles in walled villages, some of which are the antecedents of European cities of today. To fight the almost constant wars with each other, powerful lords raised their sons to be warriors, knights who pledged to follow codes of loyalty and chivalry. When not engaged in battles, these armored fighters participated in elaborate tournaments for the entertainment of the court. Knights also joined the crusades, multi-year Christian expeditions to the Middle East to recapture the Holy Land from Moslem rule.

As Christianity spread during the Middle Ages, great cathedrals were built across Europe as places of public worship, each presided over by a bishop appointed by the pope.

Monasteries and convents were established as self-sufficient religious communities where monks and nuns lived in isolation from the outside world. At a time when the population was essentially illiterate, monasteries were centres of learning. Monks copied and illustrated
religious manuscripts as well as books that preserved writings of Arabic and Greek scholars.

Monasteries have a special significance in the history of European music. The intoning of sacred texts, a practice the early Christians borrowed from other religions, was an important element of their liturgy. The chants sung in the services, some of them of ancient origin, were passed on through oral tradition, undoubtedly undergoing changes in the process. In order to bring some organization to this huge body of melodies, monks formulated principles for classifying the scales on which they were based, the church modes. They also experimented with methods of writing them down.

Monophonic chants constituted the core of the repertory, but there were also practices of performing chants with one or more melodies added to them, an early form of polyphony. The system that the monks ultimately developed, essentially the staff of lines and spaces in use today, accomplished not only the exact fixing of the pitches of a melody but allowed for the notation of two or more simultaneous melodies that graphically represented their relationship to one another.

Musical Genres

Chant, monophonic settings of texts used in services of the early Christian church. Monophonic settings of secular poems, often about courtly love, by poet/musicians called troubadours and trouveres.
Polyphonic settings of sacred and secular texts for two or three parts, sometimes with one of the parts a preexistent melody, such as a chant.
Monophonic dances.


The designation “Renaissance” dates from the 18th century and reflects the revival of interest in the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome that profoundly influenced the culture and thinking of the century and a half following the Middle Ages. The period is also called the Age of Humanism because of the emphasis on the nature, potential, and accomplishments of man in literature, art and music, science, and philosophy. The medieval approach to understanding the world, which was based on speculative systems of divine order and harmony, was supplanted by theories derived from scientific observation. Learning was highly valued and, through the invention of printing, became available to a wide population. Other important inventions are the telescope and instruments for navigation used by explorers such as Columbus and Magellan.


Many of the historic events in Europe during the 17th and early 18th centuries are extensions of forces that shaped and defined the Renaissance. The explorations of the 16th century were followed by the establishment of more and more colonies in the New World. In the sphere of intellectual activity, the scientific methodologies and discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo laid the foundations for the work of Kepler and Newton, and the philosophers Descartes, Spinoza, and Locke embraced the Renaissance pursuit of truth through reason. Religious conflicts engendered by the Reformation continued to erupt throughout the 17th century. In the area that is now Germany, tensions between Protestants and Catholics following the Reformation ignited a catastrophic Thirty Years War, during the course of which half the population died. The history of England is also a violent one, with such bloody deeds as the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I, both Catholics, and the posthumous hanging and dismemberment of Oliver Cromwell, a commoner and Puritan who became England’s Lord Protector during the Commonwealth period. The powers of the absolute monarch reached new heights in France, whose citizens were heavily taxed to support Louis XIV and the 20,000 courtiers who lived at the extravagant palace he had built for himself at Versailles.


The term classical, when used in the context of works of art, refers to features such proportion and symmetry that characterize the sculpture and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome and also the art of subsequent periods that display those features. Classicists embrace the notion of universal ideals of beauty and strive in the art to achieve universality through the representation of ideal forms.

It is for this reason that the period that followed the Baroque, when the flamboyance and drama were supplanted by emotional restraint and formal balance and symmetry, is called Classical. The 18th century is also called the Enlightenment Period, because of the ideals of reason, objectivity, and scientific knowledge found in the writings of Diderot, Voltaire, and Lessing that permeated all aspects of European society and culture. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Ben Franklin are among the Americans who shared the belief in human progress and natural rights, that is, the rights of the individual as opposed to the rights of the state, as embodied in a monarch. These ideas led to the American Revolution, then the French
Revolution, with its slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”


In many respects, the social and political history of 19th century Europe and the United States is a continuation of trends and movements rooted in the previous century: secularization, industrialization, democratization. But the way in which artists perceived, interpreted, and expressed the world was informed by a romantic aesthetic. As a general descriptive, romantic is applied to literature, visual arts, and music that emphasize imagination over objective observation, intense emotion over reason, freedom and spontaneity over order and control, individual over universal experience.

The romantics of the 19th century sought inspiration in nature (poetry of Wordsworth, paintings of Constable and Turner), mythology and folklore
(stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann), and the past (Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn; Dumas, The Three Musketeers). They idolized tragic heroic figures (Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe), and the artist as visionary (Walt Whitman, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself”). And they were fascinated by subjects associated with dreams (Goya’s The Dream of Reason), oppression, injustice, and political struggle (novels of Dickens, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable), the macabre (stories of Edgar Allen Poe), and death (poems of Emily Dickinson). The lives of many romantics were marked by the restlessness, longing, and unhappy love relationships they depicted through their art (the English poets Byron and Shelley).


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