- The Cambridge History of Medieval Music ed. by Mark Everist and Thomas Forrest Kelly
Attempting to summarize and recount more than a millennium of music history in a single volume is no mean feat, and yet this is just what Mark Everist, Thomas Forrest Kelly, and their contributors to the Cambridge History of Medieval Music (hereafter CHMM) have tried to do. The CHMM is in fact in two volumes, each over 600 pages in length, making this a hefty and impressive contribution to the reference series by Cambridge University Press. Launched with the Cambridge History of American Music in 1998, the series consists of volumes for historical periods (single centuries, except in the case of the CHMM) and special topics, and 'represents the latest musicological research' (Cambridge University Press website).
The significance of the CHMM is felt in two ways, as the editors make plain. First, this is the first history of music in over twenty-five years (barring Margot Fassler's 2014 monograph, Music in the Medieval West) that is dedicated to the Middle Ages. The study of medieval music has undergone remarkable changes over the past quarter century, thanks not only to wider disciplinary shifts in musicology but also changes in medieval studies (one thinks of the contested terms 'New Medievalism' and 'New Philology' of the 1990s, for example) and technological advances that have transformed the kinds of work of which medievalists are now capable. With such dramatic shifts in scholarship, older histories of medieval music have become outdated and—though still of tremendous use, particularly to students—they must now be treated with a measure of scholarly caution.
A second aspect of the CHMM's significance lies in its multi-authored design. Thirty-nine leading experts have contributed chapters to the project, 'whose broad view of history [the editors] accept, admire or dispute' (p. 13). The contribution of a large number of scholars (drawn principally from Anglophone and German-speaking musicology) who possess expertise in the subject of their chapters is a distinctive feature of this history. Comparisons might usefully be drawn with another recent account of music in the Middle Ages: the first volume of Richard Taruskin's The Oxford History of Western Music. Whereas Taruskin presents a univocal (though not mono-linear) narrative from the ninth century onwards, the CHMM denies the reader such a unitary synthesis. The multiplicity of views, approaches, and hypotheses in the CHMM reflect both the state of medieval musicology today and the complex mass of evidence that survives for musical practice in the Middle Ages. This is one of the strengths of the CHMM, but raises further considerations about how the volumes should be read, by whom, and for what purpose.
In temporal scope, the CHMM is ambitious. Peter Jeffery's opening chapter demonstrates antiquity's legacy in the Middle Ages, looking back to Greek and Roman philosophy, Hebrew and Christian writings, and the early Church in the medieval period. Anne Stone's chapter on the ars subtilior marks the other temporal boundary, c.1400, of the volumes, though some contributors stray into the fifteenth century and beyond. The date of 1400 may seem an artificial cut-off for a history of medieval music—there are, after all, many continuities between musical practices of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—but the CHMM leaves off where the Cambridge History of Fifteenth-Century Music begins. The final chapter of the CHMM, written by Reinhard Strohm, is an insightful reflection on periodization in music history which I will not attempt to summarize here; suffice it to say, 1400 seems to me to be as good a cut-off as any.
Though the editors of the CHMM do not say so themselves, their organization and selection of contents for the volumes indicates their resistance to grand narratives. As for other periods of music history, scholars of the medieval period have, in the past, promulgated particular tropes in the telling...