Music in the Time of Plague
The Black Death ravaged Europe for three years. As we face our own plague of Covid-19, I thought it would be interesting to see what was going on in the world of music in the mid 14th century. One would think that in that time of fear and crisis, religion and religious music would become of greatest importance. However, music expanded in new directions as society collapsed in the face of the plague. Composers who survived the terror and death of the plague came out of it interested in exploring new secular musical forms.
In general, when faced with disaster and the inevitability of death, people seem eager to party—“eat, drink & be merry, for tomorrow we die” mentality. Medieval Europe was no different. They indulged themselves in wine, beers, music and raucous parties. There were complaints of large groups of wanderers loudly singing songs. The social order of Europe completely broke down.
As the social order disintegrated and chaos followed, new forms of secular music flourished—song forms like the virelai, ballade, and rondeau. These songs were part of a movement toward more complex music. Music became increasingly a part of the secular social fabric of European life, not just the religious part.
Between 1348 to 1350, one quarter to one half of the European population died of the plague. People believed it was the wrath of God delivered upon them, causing mass hysteria. Some chose to repent, others indulged themselves, still others isolated themselves. One who isolated was composer Guillame Machaut, who wrote in the Ars Nova, or New Art, style. He composed many secular love songs in different forms and firmly established the new style. He composed only one religious work, the Mass of Notre Dame.
In contrast, in Milan, Italy, worshippers who feared the plague stayed home and joined together in singing sacred songs from their open windows and doors. St. Sebastian became the “plague saint”, the one to whom petitions for deliverance were offered.
Toward the end of his life, Machaut wrote of mortality and the last things in his work titled “My End is My Beginning”. It is a play on words. Only one and a half lines of music were written down. One singer started at the beginning and sang to the end, another singer started at the end and sang backwards to the beginning. A third singer sang the half line, then turned around and sang it backwards. All three singers were singing their parts at the same time, resulting in a polyphonic piece of great complexity accurately mirroring the very tumultuous and complex times of the Black Plague.
Lynn H. Gardner,