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Art and Culture Through the Middle Ages

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Running Head: ART AND CULTURE THROUGH THE MIDDLE AGES AND BEYOND

Art and Culture through the Middle Ages and Beyond

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Abstract
In this essay I compare the art of Middle Ages period to the art of the Pop Art period. I begin by explaining each period and the social and cultural factors contributing to art during the era. I then give examples of musical works from each time, a liturgical piece from Guillaume de Machaut, and a rock and roll song from Pop Art icon Elvis Presley. A summary includes a compare and contrast of the styles in whole and of the specific pieces, noting the impact of rock and roll on modern day music and society.

Art and Culture through the Middle Ages and Beyond
The subject of art throughout history is one that is widely debated and highly subject to interpretation. One thing that isn’t debatable is that cultural influences from centuries ago are as relevant as ever, from theming box office movies to manipulating the way we see the world around us. Of course, art forms are available in a wide variety, but I find music to be perhaps the most influential. To further elaborate, I will give an explanation of two separate periods of music through history in the following essay.

The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages, also referred to as the Medieval period, was a time when science and technology were being pursued perhaps more than ever, yet humanism wasn’t quite in the lead. “We are inclined today to romanticize the Middle Ages as a time when things were simpler, but in reality medieval society was highly complex” (Forgeng, 1999). Unlike today’s constitutional/document driven society, Middle Age civilizations were much more driven by personal relationships, especially concerning wealthy and powerful bloodlines. As a result of the somewhat more emotionally driven structure, social norms were often determined by the choices of the few and were adopted by the many. Power and wealth varied greatly, and both were inherited elements. Medieval political theory commonly divided society into three estates, consisting of the aristocracy, commoners, and clergy” (Forgeng, 1999). Aristocrats and commoners were born into their class, yet clergy members were those who chose the clerical or religious foundation, as their occupation. During the period, commoners accounted for the vast majority, nearly ninety-eight percent of the population. Many religions, which continued to evolve and shift throughout society during this period, were still the basis used to explain human creation and helped to rationalize activities of nature. At the forefront was Christianity, although still somewhat in its infancy, Christian culture was quickly beginning to dominate society in Europe. Due to the religious overtones of the period, most forms of art were highly sacred and secular in nature (Hoppin, 1978).
Pop Art Period When the Pop Art movement took place, culture was again going through great changes. The world had just recently finished its second “world war” and international tensions remained high. Capitalism was now giving a chance of prosperity for those not lucky enough to be born into a wealthy or powerful family; however communism also dominated much of the Eastern world. Social norms were slowly shifting and becoming less conservative in America and parts of Europe. The civil rights movement, a series of political and social movements to promote equality across different races, religions, sexes, and cultural backgrounds was the inspiration for much of the art of the times. The political landscape had become very complex worldwide as many countries pushed to be the world’s most powerful. Technology was also rapidly improving, with new forms of media such as television and soon the color television becoming a prime source of entertainment in the average American household. This expanse in media is truly the beginning of the modern media driven society as we know it today.
Pop Art Society vs. Middle Age Society Although, on the surface, these two periods couldn’t appear more different, they do have many similarities. Wars were common elements through both periods, and both were driven by quests for power and attempts to force one sides’ ideology onto the other. Christianity was also a dominate force through both periods, yet religion itself was becoming less and less of the basis for civilization as a whole. Where the Pop Art period began to deviate from the historical influences was seen in the outliers; the people who chose to push the envelope and based their art more on social consciousness involved with making changes, pushing for equality rather than contributing to the norm.
Medieval Music
When thinking of music through the Middle Ages, the imagery of a woman bent over a harp or a man playing the flute may come to mind, and you would be right to imagine such. Although some instruments from the period still exist today, most are found with significantly evolved characteristics. European music of the period was largely influenced by the spread of Christianity. A typical example of the period is the style of Gregorian chant, a form of monophonic melody which is sung with the same tone throughout (Apel, 1960). Byzantine and Jewish religious chant are the basis for this early Christian form. The style does vary greatly in cadence and melody even throughout the same piece. As Gregorian chant developed into more elaborate polyphonic styles (a style containing two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody), the first Western music was born. One piece that became admired throughout Europe was Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, which has now become known as a masterpiece of medieval music. Messe de Nostre Dame was notably more modern in the fact that it had begun to incorporate more complex melodies and was written to include for four simultaneous voices. In the liturgy of the Mass, the pieces of the Ordinary are not performed consecutively, but rather separated with prayers and chants. Machaut’s unification of these items into one is the earliest instance of stylistically coherent music conceived as a unit. Although an abstract art idea at the time, it influenced composers throughout the ages to continue the pattern (Gombosi, 1950).

Pop Art Music The Pop Art period had a vast selection of music, ranging in instrument choice, vocal styles, and lyrical content. Blues music, a style that originated in African-American communities, had a large influence on other genres beginning to bloom, namely rock and roll. The phrase rocking and rolling originally depicted a ship’s movement on the ocean, but Cleveland-based disc jockey Alan Freed began using the term to describe the new musical style developed during the 1950s (Bordowitz, 2004). One of the most notable and successful rock and roll musicians of all time is Elvis Presley. Elvis was known for a range of genres, including gospel, county, and blues, but is notorious for the impact he had on the genre of rock and roll. One of Elvis’ more popular works of the time was Jailhouse Rock; both the song and musical film. The song had a variety of sounds including modern bass guitar, piano, and up-tempo rock lyrics. This style of music shows how much music had begun to change; music was now an outlet for fun and relaxation, rather than just a liturgical soundtrack. Rock and roll is still widespread today and laid the foundation for modern pop and even variations of rock such as soft rock. The legacy of rock and roll can be seen in the continued popularity of artists like Elvis and The Beatles 50 to 60 years after their beginnings in music. Rock and its influenced genres continue to be the soundtrack for important social movements as well.
Messe de Nostre Dame vs. Jailhouse Rock I couldn’t imagine two pieces of music being much more stylistically opposite than these two works. Machaut’s work was strictly liturgical and to the ear much less rhythmic than Elvis’ music. Although they are very different, and a clear sign of a vastly different society, both musical styles were abstract and new to the scene during their period. In the end, both artists were somewhat seen as musical mavericks of their time, and each remains a relevant part of history.

References
Apel, W (1960). Gregorian Chant. Indiana University Press.
Bordowitz, H (2004). Turning Points in Rock and Roll. Citadel.
Forgeng, J (1999). Daily Life in Medieval Europe. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Hoppin, R (1978). Medieval Music. W. W. Norton & Company.

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