Medieval Music and Scholasticism

Medieval Music

Music strongly paralleled architectural styles as each moved through Romanesque into Gothic. For architecture, that meant development from the basic Roman basilica form complex architectural wonders to meet lofty Gothic demands; for music, it meant incorporating into the single-line, unison Gregorian chant, often embellished with an accompanying part parallel to the melody, or later with independent melodic lines that were both interesting in themselves and i interplaying with the predominant melody.  And then more independent melodic lines were added to make a Gothic structure in sound that reverberated among the stone surfaces of the cathedrals and soared to the ethereal heights to which the architecture not only pointed, but drew the congregant.

As secular forms came to descend upon sacred sculpture, so did secular melodies affect church music. With the rise of polyphony , i.e. , combining several independent melodies that would weave a cloth in sound and together make pleasing combinations.  Later those combinations could be identified as chords and still later they could be combined in a progression that would help the music to come alive and make a statement in sound supportive of its text , yet interesting in its own right.  As the skills of polyphony developed in church music, the enterprising composer could play a game with both the common folk in the congregation and unsuspecting clergy and ecclesiastical officials: often the polyphonic music was based upon a predominant melody derived from Gregorian plain chant, but the skilled composer could weave into that texture a melody familiar to the peasant – serfs, such as a drinking song, spicing their otherwise rapturous interest while by no means distracting the eclesiastical authorities from the otherwise worship experience.

The Orthodox Church (Byzantine)  and the Western Church (Catholic ) developed along different cultural and theological lines from the fourth century.   That separation became formalized in what has been known as the Great Schism in the 11th century.   Their theologies differed, and also their music.   In the Catholic Church, instruments were not permitted , from which tradition comes the name of unaccompanied singing called a cappella (as “in the chapel”).   Catholic chant was unaccompanied.   This difference of Orthodox theology and music is demonstrated in the website of the Orthodox Church , found at   There, you will find examples of chant in various monasteries of the Orthodox Church, including some with percussive  accompaniment, with links that you can click on at the bottom of the far left side of the page.   These examples also demonstrate early polyphonic development.

Scholastic Philosophy and Theology

At this time of transition to Gothic architecture, requiring the development of scientific principles of force transfer necessary to build their cathedrals, theologians of the church looked to logic to seek rational justifications of their faith.  For example, they asked whether the Trinity was merely a representative name for three aspects of one God; or were they three distinct deities?  Of faith and reason, Anselm put faith at the fore: “I believe in order to understand.”  Thereby he inaugurated Scholastic philosophy. Anselm asked why it was necessary that God become man to save man. His reasoning has been adopted by many a fundamentalist Christian: because, he answered himself, Adam and Eve, the parents of all mankind, had sinned against God, an infinite being.  The offense was likewise infinite, requiring infinite atonement to restore the moral balance between humanity and God.

Scholasticism emerged in the latter part of the Medieval Period and bloomed during the Gothic period. As Durant describes it, scholasticism had two main branches that developed during this time.  The first was associated with the Franciscans, that of Platonic mysticism; the second was associated with the Dominicans, that of Aristotelian intellectualism. These two branches each had many varied interpretations and expressions making of them, together, a very colorful spectical.

Bonaventura represented Christian Platonic mysticism in the 13th century.  He was a theologian that suspected rationalistic examination of the senses, claiming the goal of the Christian life to be participation in the spiritual world of the soul through intuition. As Durant describes it in The Age of Faith, at page 959, “God is not a philosophical conclusion but a living presence; it is better to feel Him than to define Him. The good is higher than the true, and simple virtue surpasses all the sciences.” When asked, as Jesus was asked, what one must do to “inherit eternal life,” Bonaventura responded as Jesus did: love God!

The dialectic form of Scholastic philosophy derives from Aristotle.  Thomas Aquinas represented the branch of Aristotelian intellectualism. While developing a view of the spiritual world as accessible through learning and logic, Aquinas held that the very fact that knowledge is limited suggested a supernatural world, not accessible by direct experience, but through revelations of the Scriptures. Thus was born another fundamentalist principle, asserting that God’s revelation contradicts man’s reason and by that very contradiction elevates revealed faith above sensual perceptions. Also, as many fundamentalist critics assert certain revelation to be superior to uncertain human perceptions and logic, nonetheless, based upon a view of revealed truth in the Scripture, Thomas models for them a complex system of metaphysics which, as based upon that revelation, supersedes human learning and sensual experience of the world. At the extreme, Scholasticism could assert rational argument to support such notoriously nebulous propositions as, how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

Links to my site:


Graphic Arts




Home Page


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s