Courtly music

9th November 2017

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How did words, sounds, visual, gestural, material and spatial components interact and inform culture in late medieval Europe?

  • Detail from Limbourg brothers 'Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry' via Wikimedia Commons

Wadham’s Senior Research Fellow in Music, Professor Karl Kügle, is Principal Investigator of the MALMECC project (Music and Late Medieval European Court Cultures) funded by the European Research Council. In an extract from a recent article for the Oxford Musician, Karl explains the background to this five year project.

“Late medieval cultural history in Europe has traditionally been studied from a mono-disciplinary and  national(ist)perspective. For musicologists researching the period 1250–1450, this meant a strong focus on sources and on notation, leading to well-established distinctions between ‘English’, ‘French’ or ‘Italian’ music and styles.

“How can we rectify the distortions generated by such traditional historiographies? Can we rewrite the cultural history of late medieval Europe along lines that adequately reflect the perceptions of contemporaries and give due attention to courtly centres or networks that have become submerged?

“Specifically to music, what exactly were the social and architectural contexts in which a polyphonic song by, say, Du Fay, or a motet by Machaut would have been performed, and how would an audience have savoured these pieces aesthetically? These are some of the questions that the ERC funded MALMECC project is tackling.

“The project not only seeks answers across disciplinary fault lines but also strives to innovate methodologically. As Principal Investigator, I am the only musicologist on the team; all other MALMECC researchers were deliberately recruited from sister disciplines in order to generate the transdisciplinary critical mass that the project requires to achieve its objectives.

“Music, sounds and listening played a vital role in courtly life, from the daily prayers and mass to making, exchanging, discussing, hearing and performing courtly song and poetry, to dancing and acoustic signals performed at courtly ceremonies. Much remains to be recovered about music’s Sitz im Leben from romances, chronicles, educational texts and archival records as well as architectural, visual and material artefacts.

“Triangulating this evidence against that of the notated sources and archives already explored, and assembling our findings into a coherent picture, is an exciting challenge and the main objective of the MALMECC team in the upcoming years.”