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Medieval Music and the Art of Memory

Anna Maria Busse Berger

Publication Year: 2005

This bold challenge to conventional notions about medieval music disputes the assumption of pure literacy and replaces it with a more complex picture of a world in which literacy and orality interacted. Asking such fundamental questions as how singers managed to memorize such an enormous amount of music and how music composed in the mind rather than in writing affected musical style, Anna Maria Busse Berger explores the impact of the art of memory on the composition and transmission of medieval music. Her fresh, innovative study shows that although writing allowed composers to work out pieces in the mind, it did not make memorization redundant but allowed for new ways to commit material to memory.

Since some of the polyphonic music from the twelfth century and later was written down, scholars have long assumed that it was all composed and transmitted in written form. Our understanding of medieval music has been profoundly shaped by German philologists from the beginning of the last century who approached medieval music as if it were no different from music of the nineteenth century. But Medieval Music and the Art of Memory deftly demonstrates that the fact that a piece was written down does not necessarily mean that it was conceived and transmitted in writing. Busse Berger's new model, one that emphasizes the interplay of literate and oral composition and transmission, deepens and enriches current understandings of medieval music and opens the field for fresh interpretations.

Published by: University of California Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-vii


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pp. viii-ix

Music Examples

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pp. x-xi

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pp. xiii-xv

This project was begun in 1992–93 when I was a fellow at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Institute of Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence. I had planned to work on an entirely different topic, but within a few weeks, Jan Ziolkowski, a visiting professor at I Tatti, suggested that I look at memory texts and Mary Carruthers’s new book, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. ...


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pp. xvi-xvi

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pp. 1-8

While musicologists have long been aware that memorization played an important role in medieval education and that much of the music of the period was sung by heart, the role of memory in the creation and dissemination of polyphony remains to be studied. The reason for this neglect is simple. The music of the first important polyphonic collection, the Magnus liber organi, ...

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1. Prologue

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pp. 9-44

Why have musicologists been so slow to investigate the role of memory, when our sister disciplines have been thinking about these issues for more than half a century? Since the story I am trying to tell in this book is different from the one currently found in textbooks, it is important for us to understand where our notions are coming from. One of the most exhilarating ...

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Part One. The Construction of the Memorial Archive

The memorial archive of the medieval musician covered three areas. The first was chant, the second elementary music treatises, and the third counterpoint. While the first two areas are of importance from Carolingian times to the end of the fifteenth century, the learning of counterpoint became particularly important from the thirteenth century on. The central question I will address in all three areas is: how was the material ...

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2. Tonaries

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pp. 47-84

Life in early Western monasteries centered around the Divine Office. From the moment a boy entered a monastery he spent much of his time singing and memorizing chant. In 830, Agobard of Lyon described the demands made on monastic singers as follows: “Most of them have spent all the days of their life from earliest youth to gray age in the preparation and development ...

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3. Basic Theory Treatises

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pp. 85-110

After having mastered the chant, students had to learn intervals, the gamut, and, from the eleventh century on, solmization syllables and the hexachord. Much of the theoretical material has been described by scholars of music theory. My interest is less in what theorists explained than in how they did so. More specifically, we would want to know what methods were used to ...

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4. The Memorization of Organum, Discant, and Counterpoint Treatises

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pp. 111-158

After the choirboys had mastered chant and solmization syllables, the more talented went on to learn organum (pieces with a plainchant tenor in sustained notes against a melismatic upper voice or voices), discant, and/or counterpoint. In this chapter I use the last two terms in the most general sense as either written out or improvised pieces for two or more parts. The ...

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Part Two. Compositional Process in Polyphonic Music

In the last two decades, medievalists have fundamentally changed our understanding of how verbal texts were composed. Mary Carruthers, in particular, has shown that much of the composition was done in the mind, and that the final result could, but did not have to, be notated.1 Composition consisted essentially of putting together elements or chunks that ...

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5. Compositional Process and the Transmission of Notre Dame Polyphony

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pp. 161-197

In the middle of the twelfth century, John of Salisbury gave the following account of what must have been some kind of early Notre Dame polyphony (Leonin is considered to have been active at Notre Dame from the 1150s on):1 Music sullies the Divine Service, for in the very sight of God . . . [the singers] attempt, with the lewdness of a lascivious singing voice and a singularly ...

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6. Visualization and the Composition of Polyphonic Music

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pp. 198-251

This chapter is concerned with the impact of the art of memory on polyphonic music that was not improvised but written down, and more specifically with pieces that would not have come into existence without mensural notation. These pieces had a composer in the modern sense of the term, that is, they were put together by someone who conceived his music not only as ...

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pp. 253-254

Throughout this book I have tried to determine how the oral and written transmission of music interacts with the art of memory; or, to put it differently, what effect mnemotechnics had on medieval performers, composers, and the music they produced. The single most important result of this study is that it allows us to see how oral and written transmission complement each other ...


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pp. 255-279


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pp. 281-288

E-ISBN-13: 9780520930643
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520240285

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 62196185
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Medieval Music and the Art of Memory

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Subject Headings

  • Music -- 500-1400 -- History and criticism.
  • Music -- 15th century -- History and criticism.
  • Composition (Music) -- History.
  • Memory.
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