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The music of the Bohemian Middle Ages.

Today we are seeing ever more interest in historical or "early" music and its "authentic" performance. This has been moving successively further and further back into history, so that the initial interest in the Baroque period has led to the Renaissance period and now we are reaching the Middle Ages. There are perhaps two main impulses behind the present admiration for this era of musical history. One is fascination with non-musical aspects of medieval culture, admiration for Gothic and Renaissance architecture, the fine art of these periods and their literature. (It is paradoxical that Gothic architecture often tends to be associated with Baroque music, so that concert performances of great Baroque works are more often given in Gothic cathedrals than in Baroque churches, while various films about Gothic architecture are given Baroque background music). The second impulse is the growing interest in sacred and liturgical singing, and above all Gregorian chant (plainchant). More generally (maybe prompted by the "heroic" stereotype of chivalry) there is a now established fashion for displays of swordsmanship and brawls in "period" costume accompanied by "period" music. From here it has been but a step to concerts of Medieval and Renaissance music in "period" costume, although one must inevitably wonder about the notion of "period" when programmes cover 300 years a major cultural transition.

It needs to be remembered first and foremost that the Middle Ages represents and extremely long period (roughly a thousand years). Originally the term was supposed retrospectively to cover a rather despised "middle" era between Antiquity and the Renaissance with its ideal of recovering and resuming continuity with the Classical World. Pejorative connotations apart, the Middle Ages indeed differed its in ideals from Antiquity and the Renaissance. The music of the Middle Ages (as we see it today) differs markedly from the music of the Renaissance and it is as peculiar to lump them together as to lump together Renaissance and Baroque music or Baroque music with musical Classicism.

The whole period between Antiquity and the Renaissance was the era of the rise and consolidation of feudalism, in terms of the social hierarchy, political entities and state formation, and at the same time of the emergence of the universal (European) supremacy of Christianity governed by the Roman Church. The Europe of this era saw the emergence of a society in which culture and art flourished in a way that had no equivalent elsewhere in the world. Music was a part of this culture, and it was precisely in the Middle Ages--the second half--that music was changing and evolving (above all with the birth and development of polyphony) in a way that has had no parallel in the later course of music history. It is only a slight over-statement to say that all subsequent development has been simply the elaboration of the impulse given by the Middle Ages. The fact that by contrast the concept of composition as we know it today began to form only in the Renaissance period (another reason why Medieval and Renaissance music cannot be lumped together) has created distortions of perspective and makes it even more important that we should try and understand Medieval movement in its own historical context, free of modern constructs and imposed categories.


The Bohemian Lands (or Czech Lands as they came to be known in the modern period--in Czech there is no distinction!) were an integral political part of Europe in the Middle Ages, and in the High Medieval Period (which will be the focus of this article), often enjoyed a political influence that extended beyond Central Europe. Here it is essential to remember that in the Middle Ages territorial boundaries and groupings constantly changed according to the power and holdings of particular rulers and so extensive foreign territories often came under the control or influence of the Bohemian state (Bohemia, Moravia and part of Silesia), sometimes for very long periods of time. We should also be aware that in the Middle Ages the borders between states were not as unambiguous or closed as they are today and that there were other "borders" and "cross-border communities" that undoubtedly had a great influence on the diffusion of culture in Europe. These included the boundaries of church territories (dioceses, and archdioceses), and the spheres of influence of religious orders organised at international level. Close contacts between the monasteries of individual orders definitely played a major role in the "transmission" of cultural influence over great distances, while on the other hand geographically neighbouring areas might have different kinds of liturgical music. The Cistercians and Premonstratensions were quite tightly bound to their centres in France (Citeaux, Premontre), the Minorites and Poor Clares in the Bohemian Lands belonged to Bavarian-Bohemian-Polish provinces, while the Benedictines had looser ties and so on. In the period of emerging Bohemian statehood, the Czech Lands were influenced by the general political and cultural developments taking place in the rest of Europe. In the 9th century Christianity reached Bohemia and what is known as Greater Moravia from the West, with the line of influence reaching back via the Bishopric of Passau and Regensburg to the Frankish Empire. In the third quarter of the 9th century (863--885), Byzantine influence and a liturgy in the Slav language reached Greater Moravia for what was to be a short period through the mission of Constantine and Methodius (It is interesting that in the 14th century Charles IV tried to revive the eastern liturgy in Old Slavonic not just by donation to the Sazava Monastery but also by founding the Monastery "Na Slovanech"--"At the Slavs" in Prague.) Christianity had at this early stage gained a greater hold in Moravia than in Bohemia (where the Premyslid Prince Borivoj accepted baptism only at the end of the 9th century), and so pagan sources evidently continued to play more of a role in musical culture in Bohemia in the subsequent century. With the disintegration of the Greater Moravian Empire in the 10th century the power of the Premyslids was on the rise, and with it came a renewal of ties with Western Europe. At the end of the 10th century the Premyslids (who were to rule until the 14th century) consolidated their grip on Bohemia and Moravia with the slaughter of the rival Slavnikovci (995) and later Vrsovci clans. From this time on, the power of the Christian Church grew rapidly. Bishoprics were set up in Prague (973) and later in Olomouc (1063), and a plethora of monasteries and other church institutions followed. While in the 11th century pagan ceremonies still survived, the 12th century saw the complete victory of Christianity, which was henceforward the main source of universal ideology. Until the mid-14th century, when Charles IV managed to get an Archbishopric for Prague (1344), the Bohemian church was subordinated to the diocese (and later archdiocese) of Mainz, where the princes of Bohemia even had to go to have their coronations recognised. In the 13th century the power of the Czech Premyslids (successively Wenceslas I, Premysl Otakar II and Wenceslas II) increased to the point where they came to influence the politics of all Europe, and this naturally opened up many channels for cultural influence. Another political highpoint for the Bohemian Lands, also bringing cultural stimuli from the outside, was the reign of the Bohemian King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (whose father was a Luxemburg and whose mother a Premyslid) in the 14th century. After his death (1378), conflicts and crises overtook the church, political life and society in general. Musical culture in Bohemia, which by this time had evolved a distinctive identity, had many different layers and was responsive to trends in Europe as a whole, was severely hit by the explosion of the Hussite Revolution in the first half of the 15th century.



From the 13th century the nobility increasingly consolidated its position in its struggle with the monarch over political power, but the struggle was bitter, taking up so much of its energy that this may be one reason that a courtly style of life, with the emphasis on luxury and pomp and therefore the cultivation of culture, did not emerge here in quite the manner so typical of West European courts. We have records of the existence of a courtly musical culture only in the case of important Bohemian rulers and a few Bohemian nobles. German minnesingers evidently served in the royal court of the last Premyslids, Wenceslas I, Premysl Otakar II and Wenceslas II (from the second third of the 13th to the beginning of the 14th century). From 1236 Reinmar von Zwetter stayed for some years at the court of Wenceslas I, whose praises he enthusiastically sang. Other minnesingers who came to Bohemia included Sigeher, Friedrich von Sunburg, Ulrich von dem Turlin, Heinrich Cluzener, Ulrich von Etzenbach (he was even brought up in Bohemia and spent most of his life there), Neithardt von Reuenthal (whose work was still remembered a century after his death--he died in 1240--not only by the chronicler Petr Zitavsky, but also later in a spirit of criticism by Master Jan Hus), Tannhauser (who was in Prague around 1250) and Heinrich von Meissen known as Frauenlob (who in 1286 celebrated the dubbing of Wenceslas II knight, and in 1305 lamented his death). Wenceslas II himself composed outstanding love songs, three of which have survived (unfortunately only the texts) and he is himself depicted among other minnesingers as an important patron of musicians in the famous codex of the Lords of Manesse.

Until 1358 the Prague court of King John of Luxemburg and later his son Charles IV was home to Heinrich von Mugeln (whom King John respected as an outstanding player on the fiddle) or Muglich von Prag. The Salzburg monk Herman was in Prague in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg Olbram at the end of the 14th century and it was from here that he wrote a musically exquisite love letter to Freudensal near Salzburg.


It is intriguing that the presence of German minnesingers in Bohemia and the major patronage they enjoyed from the Bohemian kings (above all Premysl Otakar II, who after the end of the Hohenstaufen line on the male side aspired to the imperial crown and hoped that the propaganda of the minnesingers would improve his image in the German lands) ultimately left so few traces in original Bohemian music. German minnesang was directly inspired by the music of the North French troubadours. Indeed many songs even by famous minnesingers (for example Under der linden by Walter von der Vogelweide) simply give a new text to an original trouvere melody (this is known as a contrafactum). The Bohemian love songs of the Middle Ages are by contrast under the influence of the Southern French troubadours, who differed from the Northern French trouveres not just in their use of a different language (Occitan), but chiefly in their greater emphasis on the lyric, and more pronounced employment of the basic principles of the chivalric concept of love and typical forms of the courtly lyric. Northern French trouvere poetry developed as a somewhat modified offshoot of the South French troubadour tradition roughly a century later. We know that the love poems that have come down to us were sung, although in many cases the melody has not been preserved. Many dozens of known Czech medieval love songs have survived as texts, but only in exceptional cases do we know the melodies (Drevo se listem odieva [The Tree Robes itself in Leaves], Andeliku rozkochany, Jizt mne vsie radost ostava, while the melody to V Strachotine hajku can be reconstructed on the basis of another song). It can be assumed that the influence of the South French troubadours reached Bohemia by the "southern route". We know that just as the Occitan love song spread to the north where it provided the basis for the trouvere tradition, it also made it way across the Pyrenees to the south (where it strongly influenced the circle of King Alfonso X "El Sabio", himself an exceptional poet and musician), and also south-east into Italy (above all to the circle of the royal court of another exceptional poet, the King of the Two Sicilies and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who in 1212 issued the Sicilian Bull granting the Bohemian rulers the hereditary title of king). From there the tradition of original troubadour song spread north to the Austrian Alpine Lands, some of which were annexed to the Bohemian Crown for 27 years by Premysl Otakar II, who installed Czech officials in high positions and so attracted bitter complaints from the Austrian Lands population that Czech was to be heard everywhere instead of German. This then is the route by which the troubadour influences probably reached Bohemia, and literary analysis of Czech love songs reveals that these were the sole models. Indeed, here experts can even trace the archetypes of forms that must have existed but have not survived in the South French sources (song Ach, tot jsem smutny i pracny).


After this general introduction we should now turn our attention to the different areas of music and their specific forms in the Bohemian Lands.


In the 9th century liturgical singing still contained a great deal of the Slavonic chant that Constantine and Methodius had created after their arrival in Moravia in 863 by translating Greek and Latin liturgical texts into Old Slavonic and adapting the melodies concerned. In its time the comprehensible language of the Slavonic liturgy facilitated the creation of new liturgical texts and evidently melodies too, but this was also a period when more Latin chant started penetrating into Bohemia. In the 10th century the Slavonic rite was gradually pushed out (and in Moravia too) by the Latin rite and Latin plainchant. For some time this was still simply imported, and indeed we have no records of new liturgical songs being written in Bohemia for the whole 11th century. Even the chant for the feasts of the Czech saints--St. Wenceslas, St. Vojtech (Adalbert) and St. Ludmila--was originally used in foreign general chants about martyrs. The oldest Czech hymn Hospodine pomiluj ny [Lord Have Mercy on Us] is considered to have originated in the 11th century, but was originally an abbreviated free translation of the Litany for All Saints. This litany ultimately became a song, a kind of state anthem throughout the entire Medieval period (in the time of Charles IV it was part of the coronation service), but remained in memory for centuries thereafter. In a similar way the somewhat later song Svaty Vaclave, vevodo ceske zeme [St. Wenceslas, Prince of the Bohemian Land] became a second state anthem, so popularised that at the beginning of the 16th century it was still serving as a cantus firmus for an exquisite three-voice setting.


The 13th century saw an important reform of liturgical chant in the Prague diocese on the initiative of the enlightened Dean Vit (from 1234 a canon, and in 1241-1271 Dean of St. Vitus). He ordered a large number of manuscripts to be made (of which unfortunately only a fraction have been preserved), and founded a group of boy singers--bonifantes, to assist at divine services. All the surviving manuscripts from Vit's reform are written in what is known as Late Lotharingian notation, out of which developed the monumental Czech rhombic notation typical of Czech musical manuscripts of the Luxemburg and post-Hussite periods (i.e. up to the 15th century). According to Dr. Hana Vlhova, the author of the most recent musicological research on the subject, Vit's activities may be summed up in the following terms: "The most decisive step towards "reform" was the systematic introduction of the new notation across the whole diocese. He was not only responsible for the clear organisation of the basic choral repertoire, but also did not hesitate to introduce into the liturgy new elements that faithfully reflected the latest trends in monophonic liturgical chant. His aim was to bring Prague and its diocese into line with current European developments."

In the 14th century many new chants start to appear, most devoted to honouring the Czech saints. Many of these new chants were created out of older tried and tested melodies, a practice entirely common and legitimate at the time. When the Austrian preacher Konrad Waldhauser came to Bohemia in 1360, after his sermon everyone sang the famous German Christmas song Christ ist erstanden, which has a melody derived from the no less famous Christmas sequence Victime paschali laudes. The Czechs sang this song using the text Buoh vsemohuci vstal z mrtvych zaduci, which became one of the most popular songs of the pre-Hussite period and has also been preserved in a version for two-voice organum. There also existed a Latin version of this song with the text Christus surrexit, mala nostra territ. It is interesting that in 1399 the priest of the Prague Tyn church tried to prohibit the Czech version of this song. This caused great outrage and Archbishop Olbram had the priest imprisoned. We also know another very popular Czech sacred song from the end of the 14th century; this is Jesu Criste, scedry kneze, with a melody that is a modified version of the German hymn Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist. Nonetheless, one of the composers of the time, the Archbishop of Prague Jan of Jenstejn (in this service 1380-1396) created a number of original compositions (most intended for Marian feasts and the feast of Corpus Christi) with charming new melodies. Thanks to his influential position (he was a cardinal and spent the last years of his life in Rome--a codex containing all his important pieces can be found in the Vatican Library) managed to get some of them included in the liturgical canon. His sequence Ducet huius cunctis horis, written for the Feast of the Visitation (he got it into the church calendar in 1386), was eventually to be used throughout Central Europe and even in Italy. Some of his chants were so popular that Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius) included them in Czech translation in his Kancional cesky--Czech Hymn Book (1659) two centuries later. In his youth Jan of Jenstejn studied in Paris, and brought back a superb 13th-century illuminated bible with many pictures of musicians and musical instruments, which is today kept in the library of the National Museum in Prague under the title of the Jaromer Bible.



Starting from the 12th century there are surviving records of medieval sacred plays, which developed as dialogues from tropes connected with the Easter introit. From this early period we know the scene of the angel appearing to Mary at the tomb of Christ, the scene of the apostle John and Peter at the tomb of Christ, and the scene of the appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene. It became a tradition in the Bohemian Lands to present these Easter plays as part of the service, and from the earlier 14th century Easter plays were performed with inserted Czech translations. This is the period from which we already know lyrical plancti (laments) of Our Lady under the Cross (for example the superb planctus Placi memu hodina). It is a time when dramatised bible scenes spread from the passion plays to other church feasts. Instrumental music was added, and the scenes gradually moved away from their purely church purpose, acquiring humorous and satirical episodes, scenes in hell with demons and Lucifer, so that in the end, already banished to the area in front of the church, they were the subject of repeated bans by the Prague Synod from 1366. It is also the period from which the oldest recorded melody of a secular song in Bohemia comes--the comic Czech-Latin song of the assistants to a mountebank selling ointments to Maries on their way to the Holy Sepulchre, Sed' vem prisel mistr lpokras.



In the 14th century, alongside Latin non-liturgical compositions that are most probably from the tradition of student songs (Prima declinatio, O quantum solicitor, or the Latin-Czech carol More festi querimus) there begin to appear on the one hand Czech translations of original Latin lais (O, Maria, matko bozie [Oh Mary, Mother of God] or O, Maria, matko milostiva [Oh, Mary, Gracious Mother]), and also Czech translations of excerpts from liturgical chants (O salutaris hostia--O spasitelna obeti or O lux beatissima--Ach, svetlosti blazena), and on the other hand original Czech songs (for example Otep myrry, which is a paraphrase of an excerpt from Solomon's Song of Songs). At the turn of the 14th/15th century, we also see new political and polemic songs (e.g. Pravdo mila, tiezem tebe or Slyste rytieri bozi) produced in the circle of the Prague Bethlehem Chapel where Master Jan Hus preached. It is interesting that the repertoire of Czech songs of the high Middle Ages (e.g. Dies est leticie, Jesus Christus nostra salus among others) spread to the rest of Europe partly through students and graduates of Charles University, and partly through the "travels" of members of the religious orders. This is the explanation of the fact that for example many of the Piae cantiones still known and sung in Finland today (first published in 1582) were originally songs from the Czech medieval repertoire.

At the turn of the 14th/15th century, many songs that originally expressed only intimate piety were transformed, mainly in the towns, into expressions of religious and political movements. The song Ke cti k chvale napred buozie for example, was sung against simony. It is interesting to find the melody of the Latin song lmber nunc caelitus employed at the beginning of the 15th century for a number of different, mutually antagonistic songs, some with slanderous and mocking texts but others that are serious, both Hussite (Cechove pomnete, Nemci zufali and O svolanie Konstanske), and anti-Hussite (Omnes attendite, Stala se jest prihoda or O svolanie pikardske). At this time other Hussite songs were produced and spread on a mass basis among Hussites and their supporters, and it is recorded that when the Hussite army advanced against the enemy singing these songs, the anti-Hussite crusaders, often very superior in numbers, would flee without joining battle. These were the songs Ktoz jsu bozi bojovnici [For We are God's Warriors], Povstan, povstan, velike mesto prazske [Arise, Arise, Great City of Prague], Dietky v hromadu se sendeme, Slyste rytieri Bozi and so on. After the death of the great Hussite general, Jan Zizka of Trocnov (1424), it was rumoured that he had ordered his body to be flayed after his death and his skin stretched on a drum to be carried in front of the troops. This was a legend spread by Aeneas Silvius Picolomini. It is worth recalling here that the song Ktoz su bozi bojovnici was used from the 19th century in many and varied symphonic works and operas (the best known are the last two parts of Smetana's My Country) and we can find the song Dietky, v hromadu se sendeme in Janacek's opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek. On the other hand, the Hussite movement crippled the development of all forms of art (including music) in Bohemia for several decades, illustrating the truth of the old Latin proverb Inter arma silent musae.


Let us now go back a little and consider the situation with regard to polyphonic liturgical music. The first records of liturgical pieces of organum polyphony in Bohemia are from the end of the 13th century, although they are known in other places from the 11th and 12th century. It is therefore possible that the principle of organum improvisation was used in the Czech Lands before the first compositions of this type were actually written down. Moreover, organum pieces may in fact have been written down earlier, as it is suggested by the will of the Dean Bartolomej of Olomouc in 1268, in which he leaves the church a new two-volume matutinale with organums, valued at two silver talents (matutinale novum in duobus voluminibus cum organis). In addition to the word organum, the word discantus was in general use for improvisation using a second (upper) voice over a plainchant melody. It was only in the Notre-Dame epoch (around the turn of the 12th/13th century) that a distinction began to made between the organum, involving melismata above the longer notes of the plainchant melody, and discant, where the voices are rhythmatised according to certain rhythmic models. In the Bohemian Lands in the course of the 14th century we can identify the gradual development of organum (and discant) polyphony from improvised to ever more complex composition, and at the end of the 14th century we can also identify the influences of mensural form of rhythm from the field of non-liturgical music (according to period testimony, these kinds of rhythm were known among educated musicians well before, by the end of the 13th century), and in the first third of the 14th century they began to spread among "laymen and pharisees", i.e. beyond the environment of clerical and church singers. Evidence supporting the theory that complicated polyphony of the French type had already arrived in Bohemia at the turn of the 13th/14th century is provided by fragments of a manuscript containing Latin sacred motets from the last third of the 13th century and used as flyleaves in a codex of theological tracts. In a catalogue of books belonging to the Opatovice Monstery in the period before the mid-14th century we also find a "liber discantorum operis Pragensis" (i.e. Prague Book of Discants--collection of polyphonic mensural pieces of the newer type and of Prague provenience). The short three-voice motet "discantus super Magnificat" using the text Magnificemus Dominum, written down in the Vyssi Brod Manuscript no. 42, may serve as an example of such a discant piece and can be dated to the beginning of the 14th century. We also have evidence for the use of mensural polyphonic compositions in divine service in Bohemia from the second half of the 14th century, including a number of orders of the Prague Synod that repeatedly forbid the singing of "rondels, or wanton cantilenas" during the mass. From this period there survive several polyphonic liturgical pieces (most frequently settings of the Credo and Sanctus) that indicate links with both older and more recent polyphonic practice. We may therefore conclude that from the end of the 13th century and above all in the 14th century, polyphony came to be employed as an enrichment, if still a marginal element in liturgical (vocal) music in the Bohemian Lands, although in other sacred and in secular music at the time it was already simply taken for granted in the Bohemian Lands as elsewhere in Europe.


In Bohemian polyphonic music, liturgical and non-liturgical pieces survive that employ the technique of exchange of voices. The principle here is that the melody of the 1st phrase (in the first voice) was sung at the same time as the melody of the 2nd phrase (in the second voice). When the first voice reached the 2nd phrase, the melody of the 1st phrase was sung in the second voice. Thus the voices crossed over and for the listener (so long as the voices were not distinguished in timbre), the effect was of the repeat of the same musical passage. It was only the text that carried on in both voices. If the structure of the first part was for example, A B A B, the second part necessarily had the structure B A B A. This tradition originally derived from the music in the French monastery of St. Martial. At the beginning these small pieces exploited the recommended intervals of early organum. The Bohemian St. Wenceslas Martir Dei Wenceslaus, for example, uses precisely the principle described above. It was also, of course, natural to sing the piece as a canon. Later, pieces using exchange of voices in most cases no longer took the previously given plainchant melody as the initial basis, and the voices were newly invented. Czech works that can be placed in this category include, for example, the benedicamens Procedentem sponsum, Johannes postquam senuit, and Zacheus arboris, which was later to be sung in rhythmatised form for at least another century. The typical cross-over of voices in pieces using the technique of voice exchange also influenced many other songs created in the 14th century, for example the Easter benedicamen Surrexit Christus hodie, the Christmas hymn Jezis, nas spasitel [Jesus, Our Saviour], and the New Year song In hoc anni circulo and so forth.


Non-liturgical polyphonic music, not bound to the improvisation of the old organum, developed into difficult and often complex pieces in which improvisation was no longer possible and for which well-trained musicians were needed. Conditions for the performance of such polyphony in Bohemia were not ripe until the turn of the 13th/14th century, and it was from the mid-14th century that this non-liturgical (and often secular) polyphony started to take root and spread in Bohemia to an important degree. One reason was significant expansion of the community of clergy in orders, convent houses and parishes, and another was the rising number of students at schools and from the mid-14th century at the newly founded Prague University as well: this process increased the supply of talented musicians. It is interesting that in the mid-14th century the Augustinians in Roudnice nad Labem were allowed to divide their dormitory into separate cells so that the monks could devote more time to studies and the cultivation of arts. At this period the influences of new music in the Ars nova style were reaching Bohemia from the main centres of Europe (France, Italy) and the secular forms were being taken up even among monks. One monk dedicated a two-voice piece to his fellow brother with the comment that it was "the most beautiful" rondellus.


In addition to response adoption of the formes fixes (fixed forms), in secular composition the use of a generally simply conductus became widespread in Bohemia. This meant the setting of a poetic religious or moralising (sometimes very sharply moralising) text with the basic voice (tenor) no longer taken over from plainchant but newly created, and the upper voices over the tenor being composed monorhythmically (note-against-note) in briskly rhythmatised form. Preludes and interludes without text testify to the performance of conducti with instrumental accompaniment as well. Also dating from this period were two-voice pieces that were response adoptions of improvisational practice, jauntily rhythmic and sung by students as well (for example the light-hearted two-voice song celebrating the end of the feasts of Saturnalia En, aetas iam aurea). Another form to be taken up in Bohemia from the 14th century was the motet. Unlike the French motets with secular French texts, the Czech motet often had not only Latin texts, but sometimes a liturgical text in the tenor (for example Veni sancte spiritus or Alma redemptoris mater), although motets with non-liturgical texts (e.g. Christus surrexit or Omnis mundus iocundetur) were more common. We can deduce that the complex structured French isorhythmic motet was also performed in Bohemia from records relating to the university and also from a three-voice isorhythmic motet of Czech origin, Ave coronata--Alma parens. Yet another form became quite widespread in Bohemia; this was the cantilena song in which the main melody was placed in the upper voice while the tenor (or sometimes contratenor) bottom line in slower motion is not texted and so most often performed instrumentally as an accompaniment to the melodic line of the upper voice. Pieces that combined the patterns of the conductus and cantilena song were relatively popular and widespread in Bohemia. The untexted introductions, interludes and conclusions had a melismatic cantilena structure (and were most often played instrumentally) and the text parts, which were sung, had a syllabic conductus structure. It was these forms of song that were to continue to be played in the following century, and sometimes lived on in rather modified form, often as contrafacta (with new texts) into the Renaissance period.

Contrafacta had been a usual way of producing new pieces in liturgical singing (see the translations of liturgical chants and hymns) and the situation was the same in other areas. In many sources we find pieces preserved with a sacred text but in a form (or reminder of the beginning of the original secular text) that clearly indicates their secular origins. In most cases the original secular form has not survived. Such songs were widespread throughout Europe including Bohemia and the tradition of contrafacta continued up to the beginning of the 16th century. We can identify a certain boom in contrafacta in Bohemia in the Hussite period (first half of the 15th century) when many hymns and liturgical pieces (including plainsongs) were translated into Czech. This Hussite tradition (including services in the national language probably started in 1416 in the Bethlehem Chapel by Jakoubek of Stribro) continued even after the Hussite wars in the practice of the Utraquist Church.



Medieval schools, and above all universities, were indisputably bearers of learning and culture. Charles IV's founding of a university in Prague in 1348 helped to increase the educational level of Czechs, above all those who had no opportunity to study at foreign universities. The basic level of university education were the seven free arts (septem artes liberales), with music having a place in the main "quadrivium" together with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. The Ars musica, however, was a purely speculative subject. It was based on the doctrines of Boethius from the beginning of the 6th century, in which all elements of music were mathematically subordinated to the abstract comparison of the numerical relations found in music with the cosmic universe, so that music could serve as a symbolic reflection of the divine order. Of course, since the times of Boethius, other theoretical treatises had been written that came closer to genuine musical theory and deepened musical understanding and knowledge. At the time of the founding of Prague university many new theoretical approaches were already being taught at Paris university; Boethius's Quadrivium is still included in the oldest catalogue of the Prague university library of 1370, but 18 years later the teaching was already based on the new work Musica speculativa by the professor of mathematics at Paris University Johannes de Muris, "creator" of the new metric and rhythmical system of Ars nova and its precise form of notation, which became the basis not only of what is known as the mensural notation of the 14th century, but essentially of the notation system used (after various modifications) to this day. Vaclav of Prachatice wrote a commentary on Muris's work at the beginning of the 15th century.


Yet musica theorica said nothing about the practical side of music. This was more the realm of the musica practica, which was cultivated outside the framework of the prescribed university syllabus. At this time the educated and thoughtful students and professors at Prague university "took up" the Paris tradition, as is shown not just by Vaclav of Prachatice's commentary, but also by a versified treatise on mensural notation that was compiled for Prague students as early as 1369 and was evidently one of the oldest treatments of French mensural theory in Central Europe. Another treatise (in prose) that like others of its kind contained descriptions of the main musical forms of the time can probably also be traced back to Prague around the year 1400. In several of these treatises there are references to specific pieces of French Ars nova that were generally known and probably formed the basis of the repertoire sung and played in the communities of men of learning and students at Prague university. Among them are compositions that represented the height of the avant-garde at the turn of the 14th/15th century (the musical theory of the day calls it the Ars subtilior). In addition to French pieces there were also pieces of Italian and Central European (demonstrably Czech) origin in the "university" repertoire. And it is precisely in the 15th-century pieces of Czech origin that we can find traces of the Ars subtilior style (e.g. Compangant omnes iubilose or Palmiger a vernulis).



The medieval town was an important phenomenon conditioning musical life. The inhabitants of towns were surrounded by a greater quantity of different musical sounds than the inhabitants of monasteries, noble residences or the countryside. The bells of the town churches chimed, the tower musicians announced all kinds of events from the outbreak of fires to the approach of visitors, while the town drummer with his piper announced news and the proclamations of the town corporation. Town (professional) musicians played at other events as well--feasts, processions, receptions of important visitors, courts, executions--and also just for pleasure. Foreign students formed part of the population with the permanent inhabitants (especially in Prague after the founding of Charles University), foreign merchants and traders would come and go, as would seasonal labourers (above all after the outbreak of "silver fever" at the beginning of the 14th century), while there would be an influx of people from the countryside and even foreign lands when larger markets were held. On these occasions the towns would be places where music of many different styles and from different parts of Europe mingled. Naturally, apart from the permanent "professional: musicians, there would be itinerant musicians visiting the towns when major "events" offered them the chance of making money or even finding a longer-term "engagement", and so it is not surprising that novelties in musical development in all genres should have been spread in this way as well.

There were also musicians at royal and noble courts. Hunting and military signals, fanfares at tournaments and feasts were certainly part of court life, where people could also listen to the music of the itinerant musicians known as joculatores, histriones, spielmans, jongleurs, goliards and so on. In the first quarter of the 12th century the Czech Prince Vladislav I gave land to his joculator Dobreita by name, and in 1176 Prince Sobeslav II provided an endowed income for his joculator Kojata, who as Kojata histrio (fiddler) is also mentioned in the necrologue of the Benedictine monastery in Podlazice. When a secular musician (joculator) lives out his life in a monastery, can we not perhaps take this as one of many indications that monasteries were not entirely closed to secular song? We also find mentions of joculators in 13th-century sources, while for the 14th century we already have quite a lot of concrete information. The minnesinger and outstanding fiddle player Heinrich von Mugeln lived at the courts of King John of Luxemburg and later of his son Charles IV until 1358.


Around 1352 the Emperor Charles IV had two pipers, Svach known as the Golden Hand and Marik, both referred to as masters (possibly they were only the best musicians from a larger ensemble) and around 1360 he had two favourite trumpeters, Jan and Velek, whom he paid generously and whose playing always lifted any of his sombre moods and filed him with zest for work. At the same time he is said to have received an illuminated manuscript with 58 scenes from the life of wandering musicians. The existence of a larger group of musicians connected with the royal court in Prague is also strongly suggested by the fact that Charles named one of them (evidently the principle master of the guild of musicians) the king of fiddlers (rex histriorum) and praised his art in the decree of appointment. In an entry made sometime in the years 1374-1380 in the Cancellarium of the Bishop of Olomouc Jan of Streda (Johannes Noviforensis), we read of a fiddle player Philippus and a Jesco, playing ala Boemica. Jan of Streda sent both these musicians, called family table companions and servants in the document, to his "person most dear, his blood relation Klara" in Kromeriz on the occasion of her wedding. This was a grand and exceptional gesture, since few--he said--were truly worthy to hear such masterly play. At the same time he reminded the newly weds not to forget the two musicians and their fee in their marital bliss. From the very end of the 14th century we have reports that King Wenceslas IV employed the trumpeter Jan (1396) and the piper Hanus Blutmar (1398). The Moravian margraves Jan Jindrich (1349-1375) and Jost (1375-1411) also had their trumpeters and pipers of both Czech and German ethnicity.


It is generally known that Guillaume de Machaut, probably the greatest French poet and composer of the 14th century, worked in the service of the King of Bohemia, John of Luxemburg (1310-1346) as the king's secretary. It would, however, be a mistake to believe (as earlier Czech scholars did), that Machaut influenced Czech music of the first half of the 14th century with his work. The reality is different. In the first place King John himself never stayed long in Bohemia (Prague Castle was not even inhabitable at the time), since in his European-wide policy and his attempts as the "last knight" to be involved in all kinds of battles and political negotiations he was constantly moving all over the continent (Machaut complained about this wandering life with the king). In the second place Machaut does not even appear to have been with the king during all the periods when he actually was in Prague. It is estimated that over ten years Machaut could only have spent a mere 12 months in Prague. Furthermore, he wrote most of his music after 1340, when with the king's intercession he obtained the very advantageous prebend of a cannon in Rheims, where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1377. After John's death in the Battle of Crecy in 1346 Machaut moved into the services of John's daughter Bonne, the sister of Charles IV and wife of the Duke of Normandy (later the art-loving King Jean le Bon). If Machaut's music reached Bohemia, it could only have been together with other French repertoire after the founding of Charles University (1348), and not at the time when he was in the service of John. From the 13th century we also have records of schooled and paid cathedral singers.


These were clerics with voice training and assured incomes (clerici prebendati), which were directed by a cantor. When the Arch-bishopric of Prague was established (1344) Charles IV also generously endowed a large choir of 24 mansionaries (resident canons) for the Prague Cathedral of St. Vitus, which became the model for other choirs of mansionaries founded in other parts of Europe. Apart from the male choirs, choirs of "good boys" were established on the model of the Prague St. Vitus Boys' choir of bonifantes (mid-13th century) in Prague at Vysehrad and at St. Gallen's, and then in towns of Litomerice and of Zatec. In Moravia at the same time these boys' choirs were called "poor boys who attend the choir". It is evident that the standard of the cathedral singers was the business not only for the cantors, but from the mid-14th century the subject of archbishop's ordinances and inspections. The Bishop of Olomouc Jan of Streda (Johannes Noviforensis) lent his favourite singer to the Abbot of Velehrad but soon missed his beautiful voice so much that he asked for him back.



The Czech sources contain mentions not only of musicians accompanying song but of instrumental music as well. We have already mentioned some musicians in court and town service and should now add some other information relating to the concrete performance of instrumental music.

In 1092 at the enthronement of Bretislav II, boys and girls played on pipes and drums on the route taken by the ceremonial procession. In 1112 the Polish Prince Zbigniew brought a group of musicians (simphonia musicorum) playing on citharas and drums to Bohemia. In 1255 Queen Margaret, the wife of King Premysl Otakar II, was welcomed "with great jubilation and with different kinds of musical instruments". The Abbot of the Zbraslav Monastery, Petr Zitavsky, described in the Zbraslav Chronicle how people rejoiced when the young heir to the throne Wenceslas returned to Prague from imprisonment in Sacony on the 24th of May 1283. Naturally the occasion could not have lacked music, and so apart from leaping jesters, drums were beated, citharas played, the voice of the trumpet rang out melodiously, the lyre was plucked, the bagpipes exulted and the organ sang. (Tympana tanguntur, cytharae quoque percuntiuntur, voxque tubae resonat sonitum, lyra tacta resonat, mox mimi saltant, gaudet chorus, organa cantant). When Wenceslas II was crowned Bohemian King in 1297, the same chronicler (who as the king's confessor was also probably a direct witness of the event) described great celebrations that naturally included musical instruments sounding with "wonderful sweetness" (tympana, nabla, chori, tuba, sambucique sonori, rotta, figella, lira resonant dulcedina mira). Henry of Carinthia's arrival in Prague in 1308 was likewise an occasion for music. The same chronicler recorded the rejoicing at the election of a new king who found favour with everyone: "One sang, another played on the cithara, another beat on the drums, another sounded the lyre" (lste melodizat, alius cithara citharizat, tympana pulsabat hic, ille lyra resonabat) and after the coronation of John of Luxemburg in Prague in 1311 an exultant throng played in tubis, cytharis et organis, tympanis et choris et in omni genere musicae. When the King of Cyprus Pierre I de Lusignan visited the Prague court of Emperor Charles IV to try to win the emperor's support for his intended crusade (in the preceding year the emperor had already exploited him and his whole curious entourage at his marriage to his fourth wife Elizabeth of Pomerania in Cracow) Guillaume de Machaut described all the festivities at Charles's court in his La Prise d'Alexandrie (The Conquest of Alexander) and listed 25 different instruments played. Possibly to give the event a greater sheen (after all, Pierre I had himself commissioned the poem for his own celebration), Machaut was simply putting down all the instruments he could think of, since he had not himself actually been present, but he knew Prague and Cracow (and also Charles IV in his younger years) very well, and so the whole description (written three years later) may be generally reliable. It is clear that many musical instruments and many pieces popular throughout Europe were played.



What was the instrumental music of medieval Bohemia like? Probably it was very similar to the instrumental music of the High Middle Ages in the rest of Europe. Given that there are plenty of mentions of instrumental music in the sources, but comparatively very few surviving pieces in written form, we are justified in supposing that instrumental music was for the most part improvised. It consisted partly of instrumental preludes and interludes for sung pieces (most often polyphonic) which were also accompanied by musical instruments (for example the Czech Christmas two-voice song from the turn of the 14th/15th century Stala se jest vec divna [A wondrous thing has happened] alternates text and non-text passages--and the non-text passages were almost certainly played on musical instruments). There were also polyphonic pieces without text, which were evidently designed from the start for instrumental performance (like for example Machaut's Hoquetus "David" written in the form of an isorhythmic motet) or separate dance pieces that were usually improvised. From the end of the 14th century (but outside the territory of Bohemia, although one of the manuscripts is today kept in a Prague library) we also know instrumental paraphrases of popular vocal pieces (preserved for example in the codices Faenza 117, "Reina" or the Prague National Library XI E 9), in which the originally sung discant part is richly adorned, while the "accompanying" tenor (and sometimes contratenor) remains in almost unaltered form. Evidently these were written down versions of usual improvisations on well-known songs in the Ars nova or Ars subtilior style. It is highly probably that this was the way in which musicians played in Bohemia too. On the basis of some 14th-century sources there are grounds for thinking that in Bohemia too at this time more vivid melodic upper voices were being improvised for the more tranquil "dance" tenor, as in the 15th century in the case of the French basse danse or the Italian bassadanza. Some pieces of this king may have been given sacred texts and may even have been sung in church, making them the source of Master Jan Hus's outrage when he condemned wanton cantilenas as more conducive to dance than to religion. One example might be the well-known Czech song with the charming Marian text Flos florum inter lilia in which the secular song Ach du getruys blut von alden soln is concealed in the tenor. The popularity of this song is strongly suggested by two other songs (Que est ista and Quem elegit, which is even known in the Czech variant Zhledniz na nas) that have melodies very close to that of Flos florum. Independent dance pieces (likewise only very rarely surviving in written form), were most probably also improvised. Some well-known melody or part of it would certainly have been used as a theme, and the musicians would then improvise rhythmic (or even melodic) variations on it. We know two such dance melodies from Czech sources (one even in two independent noted versions). The words czaldy waldy appear on one, and this may be a garbling of the Turkish saldy maldy, meaning to start dancing.



A great many of the musical instruments that are known from medieval written and iconographic sources all over Europe were used in Bohemia as well. They were in most cases instruments that scarcely differed at all throughout Europe, even in cases when an instrument was not European in origin but came from the Near East for example (e.g. the rebec, lute, quinterne). Nonetheless some instruments (mainly those used more rarely) showed certain regional marks.

In the medieval sources we find a whole series if names for musical instruments that suggest a specific territorial origin, e.g. musette d'Allemaigne, cornet d'Allemaigne, l'eschaquir d'Engletre, chevrecte d'Esclavonnie, cythara teutonica and cythara anglica, rabe morisco, guitarra morisca and guitarra latina, guitarra sarracenica, cor sarrazinios, cornet sarrazinoas, but also the ala bohemica or fleuthe de Behaingne. These were not frequently used names, and I tend to think that they were secondary in the sense of intended to characterise the foreign origin of the instrument in another place where it was used. Nonetheless, these names still suggest that musical instruments in the Middle Ages were not distributed evenly across Europe, but that many had their particular regions, or characteristic construction elements or methods of play typical for certain areas. Let us therefore take a look at this issue in relation to the medieval Bohemian Lands.


The ala Bohemica is the instrument generally known as the Bohemian Wing. In medieval written records the adjective "bohemica" appears in a single source. In the Cancellarium of the Bishop of Olomouc Jan of Streda, mentioned several times before, we read of Jesco, playing the ala Boemica. In another place in the same source the same Jesco is mentioned as a player on the ala, i.e. without the Boemica. Given that no other source known today calls the instrument anything but ala (or ele and suchlike), we are justified in agreeing with the organologist Pavel Kurfurst that in the Olomouc source the adjective "boemica" is meant simply to indicate or stress the provenance of the instrument, and not as its real title. For this reason we also recommend the use of the title ala (wing) instead of the incorrect name ala bohemica (Bohemian Wing), introduced into the literature on instruments by Czech scholars of the 19th and 20th century and evidently taken over from them by the other authors. The ala (wing) existed for a relatively short time.

All depictions of it fall into the period between 1300 and the 1370s, while written mentions can already be found in the 13th century and continue to the beginning of the 15th century. The peak in number of sources (pictorial and written) is quite brief, perhaps the 30 years between the 1340s and 1370s. The great majority of all known evidence for the existence of the ala (wing) points to Bohemia and so we can reasonable consider it to have been Bohemian, even if we reject the use of the adjective "bohemica" in the title of the instrument.

There are grounds for thinking that the ala spread beyond the Bohemian lands, since the cultural contacts of the territories under the Luxemburgs, and especially in the reign of Charles IV (1346-1378) with the whole of cultural Europe at the time have been demonstrated by historians of art.

Another medieval instrument that is considered by Czech scholars (above all Alexander Buchner and Pavel Kurfurst--on the basis of 19 iconographic sources of mainly Bohemian origin) as Bohemicum is the psaltery harp. The psaltery harp has been identified by research to date as having existed over the period roughly between the end of the 13th century and the third quarter of the 15th century. I have managed to assemble around eighty iconographic documents from the 14th and 15th century, in which Czech and foreign (mainly German) illustrations are more or less equally represented. This evidence leads me to the conclusion that the psaltery harp was an instrument used all over Central Europe. Clearly we must abandon the rather nationalist perspective of some Czech specialists in the history of instruments and recognise that the psaltery harp was at the very least a Central European instrument in the larger sense.


An interesting "instrument" on which the views of contemporary musicologists differ is mentioned in the written sources of the 14th century. Jean Lefevre twice mentions a fleuthe de Behaingne and Guillaume de Machaut a flauste brehaingne. I am convinced that this is a mirliton and not some kind of "Bohemian flute". This is because the old French meaning is "infertile" or "sterile" flute (eunuch--flute) and has nothing to do with the wind instrument flute since it is an instrument in which a membrane resonates with the voice in just the same was as when we "play" on a comb. This means that when Lefevre and Machaut set it beside the musette d'Alemaingne or cornet d'Alemaingne we should understand them not as doing so to distinguish the provenance of these instruments from this "flute" but just as a way of getting the same rhyme into the verse.

Nonetheless, after undermining illusions of specific Bohemian origin in two cases I have at least one comfort for the disappointed Czech heart. This is the mode of play on the psaltery in the Bohemian Lands in the Middle Ages. The psaltery was an instrument that had numerous modifications of form, the outlines of which were derived basically from four geometrical figures--square, rectangle, triangle and trapezium. The most common instrument was in the form of a "pig snout", i.e. a trapezium with the shorter edges bent inwards. The psaltery had strings stretched parallel to the longest edge of the instrument above the whole soundboard. The player would most often hold it pressed to his chest so that he had the longest string at the top (under his chin) and would proceed downwards (towards the waist) when playing the shorter strings, i.e. higher notes. This way of holding the instrument is confirmed in abundant iconographic sources and also in written records. Another known way of holding the psaltery was to play the instrument on the lap, the deeper strings being by the player's waist and the higher strings progressively further away towards the knee. In both methods of holding the instrument the player could play with both hands (more often with a plectrum of bird feathers, but also with fingers or a combination of both). Iconographic sources occasionally show it held in the opposite way, with the shorter strings closest to the player, but this is rare and may be considered an anomaly or license on the part of the artist. In all cases, however, the instrument is held in a way that means that the strings are horizontal (perpendicular) to the axis of the player's body.

In Bohemian art we encounter the psaltery held in one hand, and with the strings vertical (parallel) to the axis of player's body, so that the player can use only one hand for his play. Sometime in the years 1459-63 Paulus Paulirinus de Praga in a description of play on a psaltery singular stated--"it is struck with a quill held in the hand" ("cum penna percutitur tenta in manu"), thus confirming the reliability of the pictorial records. There also exist depictions of psaltery players who hold the instrument with the strings parallel to the body and try to use the hand that holds the instruments to play it as well, but this hand could only reach a few of the nearest strings and so we can assume that this was not the ordinary form of play. We can find the roots of the vertical method of holding the psaltery in play on the ala, which was in any case an off-shoot of the psaltery nd was used precisely in Medieval Bohemia. We can therefore consider the holding of the psaltery in a position in which the strings are parallel to the axis of the player's body as typical for the Bohemian Lands.

CD Recordings of Bohemian Medieval Music (extract):

Ach, homo fragilis, Supraphon, SU 3623

Anno Domini 997, Supraphon, SU 3288

Gothic Music in Bohemia, Studio Matous, MK 0026

Music of Charles University I, Studio Matous, MK 0003

Music of Charles University II, Studio Matous, MK 0005

In Pragensi ecclesia, Supraphon, SU 3191

Rosa mystica, Supraphon, SU 0194

The author of the article, the composer Lukas Matousek, is deeply involved in medieval music both practically as the music director of the ensemble Ars cameralis with which he performs medieval music, taking a great deal of note material directly from historical manuscripts, and as a scholar, above all in the field of medieval musical instruments.
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Title Annotation:history
Author:Matousek, Lukas
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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