Well before the emergence of musicology as a discipline, scholars had grappled with the Middle Ages. As the ever-growing number of participants at gatherings such as the annual Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference (Med-Ren) demonstrates, interest in the music of the Middle Ages continues. Two significant shifts, however, separate twenty-first-century medievalists from their ancestors: first, the study of medieval music has moved beyond the national competitions waged mainly between scholars of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany and France. The Med-Ren’s rotating locations that alternate annually between Continental and British venues are evidence of this. Anglophone scholarship has entered the scene of medieval music scholarship for good, and former battlegrounds along international boundaries are almost completely deserted today. Second, present-day research struggles with the broad-penned approaches to history writing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To the children of a ‘post-modern’ Zeitgeist, constructing a coherent, single-perspective historical narrative of medieval music seems deeply problematic.
The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music acknowledges both of these shifts pointedly. Published under the editorship of Mark Everist, the volume addresses the need for a ‘point of orientation for the informed listener and reader . . . for anyone with an interest in listening to and understanding medieval music’ (blurb). The volume is available in affordable paperback format and as an ebook—which will be of particular interest to undergraduate students, much of whose learning today centres around digital resources. The publication of an overview of medieval music in the English language reflects the interest in these issues held by international audiences beyond the circle of established researchers. The prefatory chronology and list of manuscript sigla, as well as the easily readable typeset and brevity of chapters—only five of nineteen exceed twenty pages—further add to the volume’s accessibility.
At the same time, the volume seeks to avoid any overarching master narratives along familiar paths of chronology, place, genre, and works. Instead, the chapters are separated into three distinct sections, each of which takes a different methodological approach: the first and second take the traditional routes of chronological repertory studies (‘repertory, styles and techniques’) and geography (‘topography’), although both sections counter the familiar focus on polyphony and central repertories by including chapters on chant and early polyphony, as well as on peripheral repertories from England, the Iberian peninsula, and Central Europe. The concluding third part on ‘themes, topics and trajectories’ addresses more broadly defined issues that transcend any repertorial survey, and seeks to furnish readers with the toolkit and background knowledge necessary to understand medieval music. This includes chapters on liturgical developments, poetic forms in Latin and the vernacular, a guide to musical analysis, manuscript studies, reception history, and more. In sum, the new Cambridge Companion covers an admirably diverse range of issues, encompassing ‘monophony and polyphony, psalmody and composed chant, written and unwritten, codex and rotulus, musical literacy, cheironomy, silence and sound’ (p.1).
Following Everist’s brief introduction, Susan Boynton opens the volume proper with a contribution on plainsong. She presents her material in concise form, providing a wealth of information for newcomers to this repertory. Only a few important details are missing from the chapter—a date for the ‘spread of new religious orders across Europe’ (p. 24), for example; some readers may prefer, however, a slightly more critical approach than Boynton’s straightforward compilational style.
Michael McGrade is more critical of existing scholarship in his overview of the expanding plainsong corpus, and problematizes the use of the term ‘trope’ as ‘encumbering our efforts to study those activities sympathetically’ (p. 30). His discussion of new genres of chant and their [End Page 672] performance highlights the difficulties of presenting such material in a jargon-free manner. Discussing the sequence, McGrade aims laudably to avoid using the term ‘versicle’, only to make it all the more problematic when it does appear (without explanation) on the following pages (p. 32 f.). While this example might be considered rather minor and quibbling, it...