A History of European Music, Part 1


The earliest evidence we have of musical instruments dates back to the Old Stone Age. We know that there were rich musical traditions in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and elsewhere. Indirectly, it is possible that some aspects of Babylonian musical theory and practice influenced the Greek, and by extension European, musical tradition. The ancient Greeks used various musical instruments such as harps, horns, lyres, drums and cymbals. Greek music theory evolved continually from Pythagoras before 500 BC to Aristides Quintilianus in the late third century AD, whose treatise De musica (On Music) is an important source of knowledge of the Greek musical tradition. Music was closely connected to astronomy in Pythagorean thought, as mathematical laws and proportions were considered to be the underpinnings of both musical intervals and the heavenly bodies.

Plato and Aristotle argued that education should stress gymnastics to discipline the body and music to discipline the mind. Plato was, as usual, the stricter of the two. He would only allow certain types of music for limited purposes and asserted that musical conventions must not be changed, since lawlessness in art leads to anarchy. Aristotle was less restrictive and argued that music could be used for enjoyment as well as for education. To the Romans, music was a natural part of most public ceremonies and featured in entertainment and in education, too. During the early Christian era, the musical legacy of the Greco-Roman world was modified and transmitted to the West by scholars such as Martianus Capella (fifth century AD).

The Church was the dominant social institution in post-Roman times and deeply affected the future development of European music. Some elements of Christian observances may derive from Jewish tradition, chiefly the chanting of Scripture and the signing of psalms, poems of praise from the Hebrew Book of Psalms. How much borrowing there was from Jewish sources is hard to say, but similarities between Jewish melodies passed down through oral tradition and medieval melodic formulas for signing psalms in Christian churches suggest that there might have been some borrowing. For medieval Christians, music was the servant of religion. The most characteristic Byzantine chants were hymns, which became more prominent in the liturgy of the Eastern Church than in the Western one.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (ca. 480-525) was born in Rome, knew Greek and has been called “the last of the Romans, the first of the scholastics.” Like Augustine before him, he believed that the application of reason to theology was essential. According to Edward Grant, “Boethius began a trend that would eventually revolutionize Christian theology and transform it into a rationalistic and analytical discipline.” He wrote on philosophy, logic, theology and mathematics, and his influence helped to preserve some fragments of Greek philosophy and mathematics in Western Europe during the Early Middle Ages. His De institutione musica (The Fundamentals of Music), written in Latin but drawn from Greek sources, was widely cited for the next thousand years. Church leaders drew on Greek musical theory but rejected pagan religious customs, elevated worship over entertainment and singing over instrumental music.

The term “medieval” has, somewhat unfairly, come to carry decisively negative connotations for many people. Renaissance humanists viewed everything in between the fall of Rome in the fifth century AD and the revival of the Classical heritage in the fourteenth century as an unenlightened age which they labeled the Middle Ages. Much later, historians such as Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) from Switzerland and George Voigt (1827-1891) from Germany devoted considerable time to the epoch which was dubbed the “Renaissance,” or “rebirth,” and they reinforced the impression of the previous era as a “Dark Age.”

There is no doubt that there was prolonged unrest and urban disintegration following the collapse of Roman authority, accompanied by major population movements across the European continent, yet even during these troubled times there were exceptions. Charles Martel and the Carolingians managed to halt the Islamic invasion in France in the eighth century and for some time rebuilt a stronger state. Christianity spread among the barbarians.

Saint Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636) and the Venerable Bede (ca. 672-735) contributed to the modest storehouse of scholarly and philosophical knowledge that was available in much of Europe before the organized recovery began in earnest from the twelfth century onward. The theologian Isidore was born into a prominent family in Roman Spain and served as Archbishop of Seville, then under Visigothic rule, for several decades. His encyclopedia Etymologies exists in more than a thousand manuscripts, making it one of the most popular books of the European Middle Ages before the printing press. It covers the seven liberal arts, medicine, law, timekeeping and the calendar, theology, anthropology, geography, cosmology, mineralogy and agriculture. He was not a very original writer, but his work contained some useful information in an age when this was in short supply.

The Venerable Bede was an accomplished English (Anglo-Saxon) monk and historian. At the age of seven he entered the monastery of Monkwearmouth in northeastern England, near the modern city of Newcastle. He is especially remembered for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which constitutes the chief source of information for modern scholars about early Britain. He also helped popularize the system of dating events from the birth of Christ. Bede’s work is a fine example of good medieval scholarship, but he was not typical, as most monks spent more time in the fields and farms or in administration than on being scholars.

Monks from Ireland, which was very early converted to Christianity following the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, played a major role in keeping alive what remained of learning in the West during the Early Middle Ages. John Scotus Eriugena (ca. AD 810-877), the Irish philosopher and theologian who served King Charles the Bald of France, wrote a significant treatise titled On the Division of Nature. According to Edward Grant, “Eriugena’s emphasis on reason was given institutional roots in eleventh-century Europe with the development of the cathedral schools that emerged in various European cities.” Grant believes that “…medieval theology was a systematic, rationalistic discipline.”

Emperor Charlemagne brought in Alcuin, a distinguished scholar and headmaster of the cathedral school at York in present-day England, to serve as his educational adviser. Alcuin had studied with an Irish teacher and was assisted by several Irish clerics. John McKay, Bennett Hill and John Buckler elaborate in A History of Western Society, Seventh Edition:

“At his court at Aachen, Charlemagne assembled learned men from all over Europe. The most important scholar and the leader of the palace school was the Northumbrian Alcuin (ca 735-804). From 781 until his death, Alcuin was the emperor’s chief adviser on religious and educational matters. An unusually prolific scholar, Alcuin prepared some of the emperor’s official documents and wrote many moral exempla, or ‘models,’ which set high standards for royal behavior and constitute a treatise on kingship. Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne set forth political theories on the authority, power, and responsibilities of a Christian ruler. Aside from Alcuin’s literary efforts, what did the scholars at Charlemagne’s court do? They copied books and manuscripts and built up libraries. They used the beautifully clear handwriting known as ‘caroline minuscule,’ from which modern Roman type is derived. (This script is called minuscule because unlike the Merovingian majuscule, which had letters of equal size, minuscule had both upper- and lowercase letters.) Caroline minuscule improved the legibility of texts and meant that a sheet of vellum could contain more words and thus be used more efficiently. With the materials at hand, many more manuscripts could be copied.”

Although this Carolingian revival was initially motivated primarily by concerns about the low level of clerical literacy, it welcomed the natural sciences as well. Astronomy, for instance, was relevant for timekeeping and the calendar and for determining the correct date of Easter. As David C. Lindberg says,

“The importance of the copying of classical texts is demonstrated by the fact that our earliest known copies of most Roman scientific and literary texts (also Latin translations of Greek texts) date from the Carolingian period. The recovery and copying of books, combined with Charlemagne’s imperial edict mandating the establishment of cathedral and monastery schools, contributed to a wider dissemination of education than the Latin West had seen for several centuries and laid a foundation for future scholarship.”

There was some revival of interest in mathematics after the work of Gerbert d’Aurillac (ca. 945-1003), who became Pope Sylvester II in 999. As Grant states,

“In the eleventh century, Gerbert’s students disseminated his love of learning and his teaching methods throughout northern Europe. As a consequence, logic became a basic subject of study in the cathedral schools of Europe. And, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, would become ever more deeply entrenched in the curricula of the cathedral schools and then the universities of Europe.”

The number of monks greatly exceeded the number of nuns during the Middle Ages, but nuns had an important impact on society, too. As with monks, intellectual and scholarly nuns were not typical of the era, but some of them did exist. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German abbess and composer who was given by her family when eight years old as an oblate to an abbey in the Rhineland, where she learned Latin and received a good education. A talented poet and composer, she collected 77 of her lyric poems, wrote scholarly works and carried out a vast correspondence with many prominent persons of her time. “Hildegard represents the Benedictine ideal of great learning combined with a devoted monastic life.”
The theologian Peter Lombard (ca. 1095-1160) wrote a treatise titled Four Books of Sentences, which became the basic textbook in all schools of theology in the Latin West until the seventeenth century. Between 1150 and 1500, only the Bible was read and discussed more than the Sentences. After education at Bologna, Italy, before 1150 he taught theology at the school of Notre Dame, Paris. Here he came into contact with Peter Abelard and the mystic Hugh of Saint-Victor (1096-1141), who were among the most influential theologians of the time.
The codification of liturgy, helped by Frankish kings, led to the repertory known as Gregorian chant, which was codified after centuries of development as an oral tradition. It was used in Christian services in Western and Central Europe until the Protestant Reformation and in Catholic areas even after that. Most people in these regions heard Gregorian chant at least weekly. From the ninth through the thirteenth centuries, chant formed the foundation for most polyphonic music. All later music in the Western tradition wears its imprint.
The Greek system of notation had apparently been forgotten by the seventh century when Isidore of Seville wrote that “Unless sounds are remembered by man, they perish, for they cannot be written down.” Yet with increasingly complex chants arose the need for notation, a way to write down the music. The earliest surviving books of chant with musical notation date from the ninth century AD. The invention of musical scales was important, but music antedated the invention of scales. The invention of musical notation enabled musicians to build upon the work of the past. It may well have been a necessary condition for the development of musical expression, but not alone sufficient to explain all later advances.
The connection between mathematical ratios and musical intervals discovered by Pythagoras and independently by the Chinese was important, but not as crucial as polyphony. “Just as linear perspective added depth to the length and breadth of painting, polyphony added, metaphorically, a vertical dimension to the horizontal line of melody.”
As stated in A History of Western Music,

“Many particular features of Western notation have been around for a millennium, including staff lines, clefs, and notes placed above the text and arranged so that higher notes indicate higher pitches. The invention of a notation that could record pitches and intervals precisely and could be read at sight was decisive in the later evolution of Western music, which more than other musical traditions is not just played and heard, but written and read. Indeed, notation is the very reason why we have a thousand years of music we can still perform and hear, and why books like this can be written. Almost as important, the codification of Gregorian chant and its diffusion in notation made it the basis for much of the music from the ninth through the sixteenth centuries. That these events took place under the Franks was significant, since Charlemagne’s empire was the political and cultural center of western Europe. From his day through the fourteenth century, the most important developments in European music took place in the area he once ruled.”

Churches and monasteries prospered after AD 1000 due to the relative political stability and great economic growth of the High Middle Ages. Europeans developed new and large cathedrals which employed the principles of the Roman basilica and the round arch, and artists decorated these buildings with frescoes and sculptures. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Vikings and Magyars had burned hundreds of wooden churches. In the eleventh century the abbots therefore wanted to rebuild in a more permanent fashion, so the builders replaced wooden roofs with arched stone ceilings called “vaults.” Because these ceilings were heavy, only thick walls could support them, which again allowed for only small windows.
Nineteenth-century historians coined the term Romanesque, meaning “in the Roman manner,” to describe church architecture in many regions of Europe between the tenth and the twelfth centuries. The main features of this style, solid walls, rounded arches and masonry vaults, had been the characteristics of large Roman buildings. Romanesque churches had a massive quality to them and symbolized a “fortress of God,” a place of refuge in a time of insecurity. Because of this, churches of this style often have a powerful, fortress like appearance.
The Romanesque style is usually called Norman style in English, as it was championed in England by the Normans, the conquerors of mixed French and Viking (Norsemen) origins. After the Norman Conquest in 1066 under the leadership of William I (ca.1028-1087), better known as William the Conqueror, English culture was more closely allied to that of France. The Norman-style Winchester Cathedral has been the seat of many coronations and burials.
The Romanesque style was eventually replaced by new ideas, which later scholars termed “Gothic.” This is a misnomer as the style had nothing to do with the Goths, a post-Roman Germanic tribe. The term was coined following the Renaissance and the revival of the Classical style by Filippo Brunelleschi, when everything before this was considered inferior. Those who have had the pleasure of seeing impressive Gothic cathedrals such as the Notre Dame in Paris will, however, fail to detect any sign of barbarism in them.
Due to the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress, the ceiling weighed less in the new architecture. This made possible thinner walls and large stained-glass windows which flooded the church with light. The construction of such cathedrals represented a gigantic investment of time and money. Many craftsmen and their apprentices had to be assembled: quarrymen, carpenters, stonecutters, glassmakers etc., in addition to unskilled laborers to do the heavy work. The construction was rarely completed in a lifetime, and later generations often added to the building. Contributors and workers left their imprints on the cathedrals, which often carried scenes celebrating country life and the activities of ordinary people.
According to A History of Western Society, Seventh Edition,

“Medieval churches stand as the most spectacular manifestations of medieval vitality and creativity. It is difficult for people today to appreciate the extraordinary amounts of energy, imagination, and money involved in building them. Between 1180 and 1270 in France alone, eighty cathedrals, about five hundred abbey churches, and tens of thousands of parish churches were constructed. This construction represents a remarkable investment for a country of scarcely 18 million people. More stone was quarried for churches in medieval France than had been mined in ancient Egypt, where the Great Pyramid alone consumed 40.5 million cubic feet of stone….Gothic cathedrals were built in towns and reflect both bourgeois wealth and enormous civic pride. The manner in which a society spends its wealth expresses its values. Cathedrals, abbeys, and village churches testify to the deep religious faith and piety of medieval people. If the dominant aspect of medieval culture had not been the Christian faith, the builder’s imagination and the merchant’s money would have been used in other ways.”

New instruments appeared or came into widespread usage at this time, among them brass instruments such as trumpets and various horns. This was during the revival of Classical learning and the foundation of the first universities, and these developments were paralleled in music. “Like stained-glass windows, song touched hearts and lifted spirits.” Those who sang polyphony at first valued it as decoration, a concept central to medieval architecture. “Polyphonic performance heightened the grandeur of chant and thus of the liturgy itself.”
We cannot say with certainty that the ancient Greeks did not invent polyphony. For Plato and Aristotle, music was considered to be a force that shaped ethical behavior and society itself. This music must have been more powerful than a few simple melodies. Just how sophisticated it was we don’t know for sure, yet as Charles Murray writes in Human Accomplishment:

“But as far as can be determined from the evidence, every previous musical tradition, Greek or otherwise, consisted of horizontal linkages of notes placed one after the other, forming melodies. The melody might have a rhythmic accompaniment. Many instruments might be involved in playing the melody. But the music had a single, linear melodic line. Polyphony was the first expression of the idea that notes could be stacked on top of one another, creating musical lines that went different directions at the same time. Technically, polyphony has a narrow meaning. It is music in which simultaneous voice or instrumental parts are in two or more melodic lines, each of which can stand alone. Exactly where and when polyphony began is uncertain. The Welsh apparently sang in different parts very early, and so did the Danes. It may well be that other folk cultures had local musical traditions that used simultaneous melodic lines. But the main sequence for the development of polyphony came through the Catholic monasteries, especially the great monastery of St. Martial in Limoges, in central France, via an evolution of the method of singing prayers called organum.”

Organa (pl.) grew more complex and sophisticated between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries, and secular versions of polyphony began to develop. “Advances in theory and notation during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries allowed musicians to write down polyphony and develop progressively more elaborate varieties, in genres such as organum, conductus, and motet. The rise of written polyphony is of particular interest because it inaugurated four precepts that have distinguished Western music ever since: (1) counterpoint, the combination of multiple independent lines; (2) harmony, the regulation of simultaneous sounds; (3) the centrality of notation; and (4) the idea of composition as distinct from performance. These concepts changed over time, but their presence in this music links it to all that followed.”
The term organum is used here for two or more voices singing different notes in agreeable combinations. This term was used for several styles of polyphony from the ninth through thirteenth centuries. Early in the twelfth century, singers and composers in France developed a more ornate type of polyphony which is known today as Aquitanian polyphony. The twelfth-century liturgical composer Léonin, or Leoninus, was the first major European composer we know by name. He had probably studied at the emerging University of Paris and was associated with the Notre Dame school of composition in that city. His works were superseded by those of his French successor Pérotin, or Perotinus, during the early 1200s.
A History of Western Music explains:

“Musicians in Paris developed a still more ornate style of polyphony in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The creators of this style were associated with the new Cathedral of Paris, Notre Dame (‘Our Lady,’ the Virgin Mary). One of the grandest Gothic cathedrals, Notre Dame took almost a century to build: the foundations were begun around 1160, the apse and choir completed in 1182, the first Mass celebrated in 1183, the transept and nave finished around 1200, and the façade completed about 1250. During this time, musicians at or connected to Notre Dame created a new repertory of unprecedented grandeur and complexity. This new repertory was perhaps the first polyphony to be primarily composed and read from notation rather than improvised, and included the first body of music for more than two independent voices. Such elaborate music was valued for its artistry in decorating the authorized chant, making important services more impressive, and paralleling in sound the stunning size and beautiful decoration of the building itself. The Notre Dame composers developed the first notation since ancient Greece to indicate duration, a step of great importance for later music.”

These developments had far-reaching consequences for the future course of European music. A History of Western Music again:

“Before 1000, virtually all composition consisted of inventing a single melody line. By 1300, composition increasingly meant creating polyphony, although monophonic melodies continued to be composed. The emergence of written polyphony was a major turning point in Western music, as the coordination of multiple parts, interest in vertical sonorities, and use of counterpoint and harmony to create a sense of direction, tension, and resolution became characteristics of the Western tradition that set it apart from almost all others. In this sense, medieval polyphony was of enormous historical importance. Moreover, the notation that composers developed for polyphony introduced two features that became fundamental to later Western notation: vertical placement to coordinate multiple parts, as in Aquitanian and Notre Dame organum and modern scores, and different noteshapes to indicate relative duration, pioneered in Franconian notation and continued in our whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes and rests.”

These developments continued during the Renaissance era. The Franco-Flemish Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450-1521), one of the leading composers of Renaissance Europe, was widely hailed as a great musician and held prestigious positions at courts and churches in France and Italy. The Franco-Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso (ca. 1532-1594) ranks with the Italian Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525-1594) among the great composers of sacred music in sixteenth century Europe, although unlike Palestrina he also wrote many secular works.
Despite the many contributions made by composers and theorists of late medieval polyphony, their music seldom outlived them by more than a generation or two. As new styles were created, older styles soon fell out of fashion. At the time of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, medieval music was often regarded as crude, harsh and primitive. Nevertheless, the medieval era created the entire basis for the future developments of European music. Without medieval polyphony there could have been no Bach, Mozart or Beethoven.
As Charles Murray puts it:

“The process that had begun with the invention of polyphony would continue for centuries. If one were looking for the most dazzling immediate effects of a musical invention, the most promising candidate would not be the original invention of polyphony, but the development of modern tonal (major-minor) harmony that began in the Renaissance and reached its full expression in the Baroque. It is tonal harmony that made possible the music from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras, and that fills most of today’s concert programs. But tonal harmony falls in the category of a great invention that builds on a more fundamental expansion of the human cognitive repertoire – in this instance, the idea that music has a vertical dimension as well as a horizontal one. Notes can be stacked. Melodies can be stacked. Once that idea was in the air, all else became possible.”


This is the first part of a history of European music, from Pythagoras to The Beatles. It will consist of five parts published at The Brussels Journal, Atlas Shrugs and possibly other websites such as Europe News and La Yijad en Eurabia. After these parts have been completed, the entire essay will be republished at the Gates of Vienna. I have utilized many sources for this text, but the single most important reference work is A History of Western Music, Seventh Edition, by Donald J. Grout, Peter J. Burkholder and Claude V. Palisca.

More missing (2)

Abba? If we're going down that path then why no mention of great black musicians and their contemporary white female flautists? What about William Jefferson Clinton, for example, and what's her name?

the end

It is strange that within the space of 200 years music reached an aesthetic point unrivaled in the history of man.  In Europe Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, culminating in Wagner who essentially represents the end of "classical" Western music.  I doubt the genius of Bach will ever again be witnessed, at least in our life.  And it is difficult to come to grips with Western music until one confronts Parsifal.  It is ironic (or, perhaps fitting) that what I view as the "end" of Western music should be so closely related to the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Buddhism.  

@ miss ing

"Why will the essay stop with the Beatles?"

 While I have my own thoughts on the possible answer to that question, why don't you do like the rest of us and wait until we've all had the opportunity to read the entire essay from start to finish to find out?


"Where is ...  Carmina Burana?"


For the answer to that question you need to have a greater familiarity with the music of the Rolling Stones. I'm thinking of one song in particular...



I miss the harpsichord instruments of Egyptian origin, as well as the Indian tambor variations. The instruments of European Middle Ages were quite imperfect, few could hold a tone and, if played with others, they couldn't be tuned. Thus, people turned to sing, as their voices can easily be tuned -> Gregorian Chants. Where is Benediktbeuren and Carmina Burana? Why will the essay stop with The Beatles?

Gerbert d’Aurillac

... was the main figure to call for an 'Holy War' against Muslims. His teaching/preaching style - to put men into closed monastries performing a profound brainwashing with the help of ever-recited holy formulas 24hrs a day (as we think it is done in islamo-fundamental madrasses!) - resulted in a blind followship and consequent wars, killing Christians, Muslims and women and children in the Name of God Almighty during roughly the following two centuries.

San Isidoro de Sevilla

... was part of a 'holy' family, as 4 familymembers are considered 'saints' by the Roman Catholic Church. So much holiness is due to their work to convert Visigoths and other northern Barbarians into Christians. Although he didn't knew much of Greek, it is said that he introduced Aristotelan and Platonic ideas to the Catholic world in Spain. His encyclopedia, composed of popular bestiaries, is based on Aristoteles' Historia Animalum. Later, Leonardo da Vinci made another one of his own. Yet, the good point is that San Isidoro (6th century) recognized Earth as a globe - but it was to early to publish that thought!

If you value freedom

Mark Steyn quote:

"If you value the freedom to stroll into a piano bar in a hotel somewhere on the planet, and hear a great singer singing 'The Way You Look Tonight' or whatever, you've got to understand that even that little miniature experience is at the apex of a whole cultural foundation, and that you can't shear off the small pleasures of a 32 bar song from all the big geopolitical issues. They are explicitly connected in that sense...".

And who would care to argue with that?