Castles and Countryside

It is simply not known what dance went with what music.

—Ingrid Brainard, dance historian

Stories of knights and castles have a way of sparking our imaginations when we are young. It’s a little more difficult to form an idea of what really went on in those stone castles centuries ago. What did people do for entertainment when the men weren’t out on their horses fighting battles or the women inside creating tapestries? And if people in castles in fact danced for pleasure in front of those huge fireplaces, who played the music? And what did they play?

Well, for openers, there were many kinds of instruments, and many accomplished musicians by the later Middle Ages. Some of them knew how to write down their music in manuscript, and a few famous names are known to us, among them the 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-77). He composed a considerable amount of sacred music, but his secular works—like those of earlier aristocratic poet/musicians of northern France—often featured vocal lyrics about courtly love. One of Machaut’s poems that has come down to us is his Remède de Fortune written before 1342. Here is a charming excerpt in translation that describes a castle scene of dance and music:

What a sight when after the meal,
Ministrels came freely forward
With hair elaborately done and fancy dress.
There they played many a tune.
For gathered in a circle I caught sight of
Vielle, rebec, gittern,
The lute, which came from Arabia, “halved” psaltery,
Citole, and psaltery,
Harp, tabor, straight trumpets, nakers,
Portative organs, more than ten pairs of horns,
Bagpipes, one-handed flutes, smallpipes,
Doucaines, cymbals, small bells,
The tambourine, the transverse flute, as the Bohemians play,
And the great cornett from Germany,
Willow flutes, fife, pipe,
The Alsatian bagpipe, small trumpet,
Buisines, the harp-psaltery, monochord,
With its single string,
And the pan-pipes—all of these together.
And, to be sure, never before
Had such a melody
Been heard or attended to,
For in that little park I heard and noticed
Each of them according to the pitch
Of that instrument with no disharmony
Vielle, gittern, citole,
Harp, straight trumpet, horn, whistle,
Pipe, bladder pipe, smallpipe, nakers,
Tabor, and whatever one might play
With finger, plectrum, or bow.
After they had performed an estampie
The ladies and the rest of the company
Went off in pairs and threesomes,
Holding each other by the hand,
To a quite lovely room….

All that sounds lovely indeed! But what of those who had no beautiful chamber to retire to after dancing, and what of those who could not afford a generous number of minstrels to play for their dances? We can only wonder about peasant dances in the Middle Ages, since the illiterate populace would not be writing poems about their gatherings.  However, paintings—even those well into the Renaissance—suggest that both circle dances and couple dances were common among people less-well-off as well as for those who socialized in courtly castles, and that a bagpiper, or one musician playing both pipe and tabor, or a simple solo vielle fiddler might be enough to get people dancing for pleasure.

The links in the notes give glimpses of some peasant dancing occasions. However, it must be pointed out that some of the paintings shown on the internet with a label of “medieval” were actually done in the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages. Partly with the aid of such visual witness, scholars researching dances during the late Middle Ages have suggested that there seem to have been clear regional differences in peasant dances, but more similarities in the refined styles of knights and ladies in locations far apart—perhaps the result of professional traveling minstrels who took their skills to many locations.

For both courtly and country dances, however, musicians played from memory—as indicated in all the paintings from that time showing diverse scenes of people dancing. Just as people nowadays play popular songs by ear, so too medieval musicians learned popular tunes of their day, most of them with no name of “composer” attached. We assume that medieval instrumentalists also made up variations on the spot, keeping the fundamental structure to help dancers enjoy their physical movement patterns. The instruments used may have depended on whether they were playing inside or out of doors.

Some sources suggesting possible dance accompaniments heard in castles and in the countrysides will be given in the section on estampies.

itinerant musicians and guilds

The dance historian Carol Lee offers us summary information about the financial and organizational relationships of medieval musicians in town and urban settings:

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, musicians began to organize themselves into guilds from which their services were purchased by wealthy clients. In their capacity to provide the music for social dances of the upper class, musicians largely controlled the content and teaching of dance for centuries. Guilds, founded by royal decree, had the right to grant licenses for the teaching of dance….[and a master could take on two apprentices. Each apprentice had to demonstrate] a full knowledge of dance and music for dance….Finally, he was required to pay a fee that went not to the guild, but to the sovereign.

Details about one of the 14th century musicians’ guilds are provided in the article by Kay Brainerd Slocum from Early Music History. It offers such unusual information that the journal’s online extract is being cited here, providing an intriguing invitation to learn more:

Professional musicians first appeared in medieval Europe during the tenth century. These jongleurs, or minstrels, earned a precarious living by travelling alone or in small groups from village to village and castle to castle, singing, playing, dancing, performing magic tricks and exhibiting trained animals. These itinerant performers were often viewed as social outcasts, and were frequently denied legal protection as well as the sacraments of the church. With the revival of the European economy and the growth of towns during the twelfth century the opportunity for more stable living conditions emerged, and the minstrels began to organise themselves into brotherhoods or confraternities, eventually developing guilds of musicians. By forming corporations and thus voluntarily placing themselves under the power of rulers or civic authorities, the musicians could achieve a modicum of social acceptance and legal protection.

One of the landmark organizations for professional musicians was the formation in 1321 of the Confrérie of St. Julien des Menestriers in Paris. But describing what things were like for musicians before that guild, Nathan A. Daniels wrote a thesis about jongleurs and minstrels in which he observed:

For centuries, the Church had derided jongleurs as agents of the devil because of their associations with profane music and obscene bodily movement that inspired men to lustful behaviors. Because they had no practical use to society, they were forbidden sacraments and marginalized.

The bodily movements to which the Church objected apparently included not only dancing, but also acrobatic feats, juggling, pantomime, showing off trained bears and telling stories in an animated way. It seems that musicians became more acceptable to the Church when they became less talkative and more sedentary—something the medieval instrumentalists can be said to have had in common with many accompanists for dance in our own times!

Also, as Nathan Daniels pointed out, even the 13th century philosopher Thomas Aquinas went to great lengths to justify something we nowadays all accept: the value of play. Philosophically play came to be seen as something virtuous because it would replenish the soul and give rest and relaxation. Both dance and music-making came to be regarded in that category. It also became more recognized that both making instruments and playing them involved a great deal of skill and craft—accomplishments to be admired as refined arts.

And so, in the tradition of craftsmen and women who had other skills and organized for mutual benefit, the musicians formed that guild in Paris, the Confrérie of St. Julien des Menestriers. Even before that, like craftsmen in various trades, they had a street on the Right Bank in Paris named after them: the Rue des Jongleurs—verified in the city’s tax records as early as 1292.

When the guild was up and operating, however, most important for our interests were the rules. The total effect was to establish a monopoly and standards for all paid musical performances in Paris. Even minstrels outside the guild had to swear to obey its rules “or else be banished for a year and a day.”

As translated in Kay Slocum’s book Mevieval Civilization, the guild’s Rule #1 spelled out the basic exclusionary economic and artistic intent:

No trompeur of the city of Paris may enter into a contract at a feast for anyone except himself and his companion, or for any other who wish to bring tamboureurs, vielleurs, organeurs, and other jongleurs from other jongleries with them, taking anyone they wish, and receiving payment from them. They take inferior musicians and ignore the better players; even though they perform less well, the same salary is demanded. Because of this good people are deceived and the reputation and common profit of the profession are damaged.

Some of the other rules point up problems that have continued until present times. For instance: no substitute musicians for your engagement! (This is one complaint in relation to ballet orchestras even in modern times. See the account by San Francisco Ballet conductor Denis de Coteau indicated in the notes below.) The 1321 rules specified these exceptions: “illness, imprisonment, or other emergency.”

As with other craft guilds, an apprentice system was in effect. Aspiring musicians had to serve six years without pay (but their accommodations, food, and other basic necessities of life were provided). They were expected to master as many as ten instruments. As time went on, musicians had to audition to be accepted after their apprenticeship. In addition, if they wanted to become an elite “master” among those more likely to be hired for the cream of paying jobs, then they had to pass an exam showing their general musical knowledge, and to pay a special fee for such certification. All this underscored the guild’s purpose of insuring high standards of performance—especially in regard to dance music.

One rule warned apprentices whose tongues might be loosened up a bit too much at local taverns. It ordered, with exceptions for family members:

An apprentice minstrel who goes to a tavern should not discuss the details of his profession by word, signal, or custom, or engage any performer to play other than himself, except for his children by marriage or his daughters whose husbands are away in foreign countries separated from their wives. He must direct any inquiries to the guild headquarters with the words “Sir, the laws of my profession forbid me to engage anyone but myself, but if you seek minstrels or apprentices, go to the rue aus jongleurs (street of the jongleurs) and there you will find good ones.” Any infraction of the rule is to be punished by a fine imposed by the master of apprentices. If payment is not made, the apprentice will be banished from the profession for a year and a day or less time if he subsequently pays the fine.

All the statues were to be enforced by two or three elected “worthy representatives of the profession.” According to the custom then with craft unions, the chief enforcer was dubbed with the title “king of the minstrels.”

Unfortunately for us, the guild and performers before their time did not leave for posterity written examples of the music that musicians would play for dance occasions. Kay Slocum addressed this in relation to 13th century line dances:

Dances such as these were undoubtedly accompanied by instruments, but there is little manuscript evidence documenting instrumental music in the thirteenth century. However, literary references, theoretical treatises, manuscript illustration, and cathedral sculptures indicate that instruments were widely used, frequently providing the musical setting for singing and dancing. Trouvères and troubadours sang to instrumental accompaniment, jongleurs were expected to be proficient on a minimum of ten instruments, and peasants played instruments to accompany their rustic dances. Thus, information does exist indicating that instrumental music was a feature of life at every level of society, although very few actual pieces remain. This may have been because most music was performed by professional musicians, who probably improvised their compositions, rather than writing them down. Furthermore, music among rural peasants was undoubtedly passed from generation to generation by oral tradition.

So all this musical activity obviously had to do with essentially social dances, whether in castles or the countryside. In following sections we’ll turn to the music for movement and dance in performances, both religious and secular.


notes and explorations: 

quotations:  Ingrid Brainard is among the scholars who have given us information about the music and dance of the Middle Ages. The opening quote is from her section on medieval era of the entry under “Dance” in the New Grove.

Guillaume de Machaut, The Complete Poetry and Music¸vol. 2, including Le Remede de Fortune in French with English translation by R. Barton Palmer, (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2019). Includes vocal music printed in modern notation, and an introduction with biographical information about the poet/composer.  On p. 303 Machaut gives us the delightful picture of how a meal was set up, followed p. 305-307 by the dance scene, quoted above. This discusses the songs in Le Remede de Fortune and includes images of actual notated manuscript pages.

CDs:  Guillaume de Machaut: Sacred and Secular Music. 3CD set, Ensemble Giles Binshois, on Brilliant Classics label, 2011.

Machaut, Remede de Fortune, Ensemble Project Ars Nova on New Albion label, 2009. Performance of the vocal pieces notated in the book above. Not meant for dancing!

Kronos Quartet, Early Music on Nonesuch (1997) was used by the modern choreographer Paul Taylor for his 2007 Lines of Loss. Included was music by Machaut as well as some other older works and pieces by contemporary 20th century composers. Reviewing a live performance in San Francisco, Rachel Howard wrote in The Chronicle:

Like many of the best Taylor works, the subject of “Lines of Loss” seems so evanescent, and the staging so deceptively simple that you wonder how the dance can seem so distinct from all the other wonderful Taylor dances that have preceded it. The answer is in the music—an assemblage of elegiac selections…all on a recording by the Kronos Quartet—and Taylor’s responsiveness to it.

Commenting on the mix of medieval and modern on the CD, one amazon customer wrote that “Somehow the combination of medieval and early-modern pieces adds up to something that feels like it’s outside of time…. Adventurous but non-threatening. Outstanding.” And it worked well for Paul Taylor’s dance!

instruments: Case Western University has an unusual website to identify medieval, Renaissance and Baroque instruments by art images, along with brief audio samples and photographs. Assembled by Dr. Ross W. Duffin. Iowa State University website, about their Musica Antiqua, performances and reproduction instruments, with brief audio clips.

peasant dance and music:,online_chips:pieter+bruegel&usg=AI4_-kQD1vWnjJAKUexm5MfBVsXaK1UL-Q&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi6juWZ67XeAhUYIzQIHUd8CCYQ4lYILygD&biw=1708&bih=818&dpr=1.25  Link for paintings by 16th century father and son: Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter Bruegel the Younger. Both give us vivid sense of what peasant wedding dances were like, including the instruments. Though properly the timeframe comes under the Renaissance era, yet it is easy to assume that the rural traditions passed down survived a long time—including the use of bagpipes to accompany folk dances. Egg dance by solo woman, to music by a solo string player. The challenge was to dance among eggs without breaking them.

medieval guilds:

A single page description of the Paris guild can be found in the Burkholder-Grout-Palisca History of Western Music, p. 73, drawn from the Slocum article listed below.

Carol Lee’s Ballet in Western Culture, brief description of guilds, on pp. 8-9.

Kay Brainerd Slocum, “Confrérie, Bruderschaft and Guild: The Formation of Musicians’ Fraternal Organizations in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century Europe,” Early Music History 14 (1995). The article can be purchased online from Cambridge Core (Cambridge University Press, 2008) pp. 257-274. The quoted paragraph is from their online extract. On p. 268 author reported special exam for those who wanted to perform as masters at balls; they had to “perform beautifully the ‘airs de danse.’”

The rules for the Paris guild are quoted from Kay Slocum, Medieval Civilization (Belmont, CA.: Wadsworth, 2005) pp. 294-95. The final quote above about instruments is taken from p. 401. Though music is given only small coverage, yet the book as a whole provides an overview of many aspects of medieval life—including religion, the arts, building, learning, politics, rulers, and more. She chronicles specific events and the general cultural context that are good to keep in mind even as one is focusing on the nice subjects of music and dance.

In just a few years after the Paris guild was formed, as chronicled in Slocum’s book, the Hundred Year War between France and England started in 1337. Then the Black Death plague (which hit Paris in 1348) killed an estimated one third of the entire European population. There were unsuccessful peasant revolts in which many were killed by knights. There was some turmoil in the Church hierarchy, with popes apparently more obsessed with money than with helping solve social problems. And so the historian could conclude [p. 434] that “The fourteenth century was one of calamity and disaster, with famine, revolt, plague and war changing the face of European society forever.”

However, she went on to point out: “Artists, musicians and writers responded to the changing circumstances by focusing on the experience of human life in all its richness, as opposed to a life directed solely towards the salvation of the human soul.” One consequence of that was that wealthy patrons increasingly supported musicians who accompanied not only social dancing but also what developed in the Renaissance as extravagant performances involving both music and dance—as described in the second essay.

Nathan A. Daniels mounted his very interesting and informative academic paper online, written at The Johns Hopkins University: “From Jongleur to Minstrel: The Professionalization of Secular Musicians in Thirteenth-and Fourteenth-Century Paris.” He documents many sources in French, Latin, and English. The initial quotation here is from his p. 1, and some of the information that follows is paraphrased from his paper. Acknowledgement and thanks to Mr. Daniels for permission to quote from his thesis and use it as a reference. For those wishing to delve into this subject further, he identifies quite a few historical writings. Recommended especially for its discussion of the differentiation between highly skilled and less skilled musicians—and how they came to be regarded as “respectable” citizens instead of as social outcasts pursuing a shameful occupation!

For information about medieval musicians in other French cities besides Paris, Gretchen Peters spent 20 years researching mainly economic and social records for her book The Musical Sounds of Medieval French Cities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). She gives some examples of appallling treatment of some jongleurs as well as general attitudes on the part of the church and civic officers. Yet her conclusion [p. 227] was that “the image of the urban musician as itinerant outcast is marginal.” The author went on to comment:

The predominant image from the city records of France is that of a musician who was a permanent resident of the city, owned property, was often part of a confraternity or guild, and served civic obligations. 

Perhaps most surprising is her brief coverage of what she terms “Minstrel schools” [pp. 214-17], described as akin to our contemporary workshops with members of the International Guild of Musicians in Dance!  Peters reports that for “at least 100 years” minstrels from different countries would gather in rotating cities during Lent “to interact and learn from their colleagues.” 

A complaint not unique among conductors of ballet orchestras was expressed by San Francisco conductor Denis de Coteau in an interview some years ago, about substitute instrumentalists showing up to play a performance for which they had not attended the rehearsals! He managed to get new rules to address this problem.   See Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, pp. 127-32.

background information: Note the section about professional minstrels. However, for informal circle dances and so on, sometimes dancers themselves would provide their own music—singing or playing drums, or both.

A helpful book is Andrew Jotischky & Caroline Hull, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Medieval World (London & New York: Penguin Books, 2005).
Images of medieval castles.

purely for fun: A most surprising consideration of medieval knighthood via dance: two master breakdancers were invited to wear parts of armor and perform in the gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, to contemporary hip-hop music. Videos included in the article.

Hildegard’s Processionals

Because churches functioned as the main gathering places for people in medieval communities, special services of celebrations during the religious calendar became rather elaborate over time. The Play of Daniel (which will be covered in the next section) was one post-Christmas dramatic evocation of a Biblical story, drawing from some earlier traditions.

In addition, because of the survival of a few beautiful manuscripts done by hand calligraphy, we have the music for a different kind of presentation: the Ordo virtutum by the 12th-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Hers was an imaginative work, portraying abstract virtues in a dramatic way, using music of her own composition, with a text that invited physical movement, in the form of processionals as well as emotional gesture—which is an important component of what in later years would be secular theatrical dance, especially with pantomime.

Though she lived in what we call the Middle Ages, yet in many ways Hildegard seemed a renaissance woman because of her wide-ranging interests and accomplishments. She was the tenth child of a noble German family, and since it was the custom of the day, she was promised to a Benedictine monastery when she was only eight years old. This determined the rest of her entire life, which culminated in her becoming an abbess and going on to found an entirely new convent near Bingen (which is in the Rhine valley). In addition, Hildegard was able to travel quite some distances to preach outside her own community. Apparently she was critical of things she saw as corruption even within religious establishments, as documented in some of her surviving letters. There is also documentation that in 1148 the Pope himself read some of her works to his bishops, who approved!

Hildegard lived to be 81, and during her life she wrote several books on natural history and medicine. Feeling close to nature, she was particularly interested in botany, and considered all science to come from God. Her call was that people “wake up” to the wonder of existence on this earth.

As an inspired artist, the abbess wrote a great deal of liturgical poetry and music that bears her own stylistic stamp, quite different from the plainsong traditions of monks. In the realm of visual art, she either created or directed the depiction of some astonishing illuminated images drawn from her “visions.” She may have suffered from some medical condition (maybe migraines) but in any case, during her recoveries, she was quite clear about the images and their symbolic meanings. It is not known for sure who actually did the paintings, but they have been reproduced in published books available now.

Hildegard’s Ordo virtutum is considered the earliest surviving “morality play” not based on Biblical stories. To see a performance of this entire musical work, the Opus Arte DVD listed below is highly recommended. The set also includes a BBC film starring Patricia Routledge portraying the abbess in a biographical depiction. Additionally in the same set are images of Hildegard’s illuminations plus some enlightening lectures by religious and art scholars.

the story

Focusing on the musical play itself, the basic story is this: prophets and ancients are outdoors. An unhappy soul (the main character) is tempted by the Devil (who alone does not sing, but has a speaking part). With the help of the Virtues, the repentant soul overcomes some bad things and experiences a return to an holistic relation with the universe.

The Virtues are: Humility, Chastity, Charity, Victory, Hope, Contempt of the World (signifying not looking down on things, but rather not being unduly attached to anything). Then there is Knowledge of God, Mercy, Modesty, Obedience, Discipline, Discretion, Patience, Faith, Fear of God, Innocence, and Celestial Love. As depicted, each of these virtues presents a distinct character.

Even to list their names presents a daunting challenge about the choices that many people may have to make in their individual lives. And indeed, Hildegard’s outlook seems to have been a timeless one, acknowledging the interconnection of all things. She was particularly taken with symbolism now connected to mandalas, with the idea of the rope of the universe and the concept that when a person is in a “right” relationship with the universe spiritually, the universe is round and whole. When that relationship is broken, the ropes of the universe unravel.

performance aspects

In Ordo virtutum there are no specific directions about physical movement for the drama. However, the recommended DVD performance does include processionals, circling movements, various regroupings of the cast, a great deal of arm and hand movements, and–importantly—emotional facial expressions.

Of particular musical interest is the quality of the voices and the contours and pitch ranges of melodic lines. The DVD performance makes use of recorder, harp, and percussion to embellish the vocal settings. The use of a “drone” effect (a sustained pitch) can be heard in both instruments and voices, providing a sense of harmony and home base. Sometimes the voices are in unison, but there is also some doubling of the melodies at the octave below.

At the end is the exhortation to “Bend your knee to God that he may reach out to you,” and with the suggestion comes the sense that we have indeed been on a journey along with the lost-then-found soul. It seems that at the very heart of Hildegard’s teachings were two things: singing praise to God, and the doing of good works with compassion. The spiritual scholar Matthew Fox makes a further observation based on her writings:

All these blessed rings of creatures are “rejoicing in the joy of salvation,” they are “bringing forth the greatest joys in indescribable music through the works of those wonders of heavenly things that God brings about in his saints.” Moreover, they invite us to dance “a dance of exaltation.”

Whether the abbess and those under her care ever actually performed what we would call a dance is one of those questions to which we will never have an answer.

But with respect to formal dancing in church, there do seem to be indications that during the later Middle Ages in Europe in addition to “dancing in one’s spirit,” there were also some dances in physical reality. The historian Lynn Matluck Brooks has suggested:

By the twelfth century, plays illustrating religious themes were being performed in the churches of Italy, Germany, France, England, and Spain….As the plays evolved, they were often supplemented with processionals and dancing, with the dance roles usually assigned to such characters as shepherds or devils….

Several factors conspired to ensure that, with or without church approval, there was barely a religious event from which dance was absent….The church was the gathering place for the community, and dance was a frequent obvious choice for communal entertainment. Furthermore, because the Christian calendar had essentially been superimposed on pre-Christian celebrations, such ancient rituals as fertility dances and winter festivals continued to find their appropriate time for performance. Liturgical developments in the medieval period increasingly reduced public participation in the mass, so that other outlets for popular devotion were needed.

So it seems safe to say that for several centuries before ballet was developed, throughout Europe there definitely were precursors of theatrical dance, with churches as special settings for dramatic storytelling that had symbolic meaning—and with already a separation between performers who sang and danced and the congregation who were spectators. In addition, though we can’t be sure of exact details, it also seems that not only singing, but musical instruments at times accompanied the processionals and whatever dance might have been included within a service.


notes and explorations:

DVDs: Opus Arte 2003 DVD Hildegard and Ordo Virtutum. 2 DVD set with booklet. Includes Patricia Routledge in a fine performance (55 minutes) of BBC dramatized biographical documentary, plus three other documentaries—about her life and times, Hildegard’s art, and a lecture by two experts. Highly recommended performance of the play follows. (70 minutes).

other performances, online:  Ordo Virtutum in Basel 2012. Musicians from 15 countries participated.  2015 performance in Los Angeles church by Vocatrix.

There are a number of You Tube recorded performances of just Hildegard’s music. Too many to review here. This is quite a change from a few decades ago, when hers was an unknown name.

On You Tube there are also clips of some contemporary dancers who have set some of Hildegard’s music to their own choreography or improvisations. Some seem more successful than others; some seem pretty terrible, so none will be indicated here.


A Feather on the Breath of God, Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices on Hyperion, 1983. Became a best-seller and helped spark all the interest in the music and life of Hildegard von Bingen.

Hildegard von Bingen, 11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula. Anonymous 4 (a group of 4 women’s voices) on 2003 Harmonia mundi USA CD. Music for a non-dramatic service, with some by Hildegard and some from other sources. The unaccompanied voices are quite beautiful; sometimes in two parts. Text included.

Music for Paradise: The Best of Hildegard von Bingen.  A SONY Classical release; individual tracks available from amazon. Some of the tracks make use of instruments: flute, medieval fiddles and organistrum, and bells in Bamberg. Selections from performances by Sequentia. SONY and Sequentia also released the complete works of Hildegard on 9 discs, in 2017. Boxed set with booklet.

The Monk and the Abbess: Music of Hildegard von Bingen and Meredith Monk. Musica Sacra conducted by Richard Westenburg. 1996 BMG Music. Mixed men and women’s voices. Music of the 12th century abbess contrasted with 20th-century music by this American composer/choreographer. Monk has been particularly noted for her theatrical works in which she and others vocalize wordlessly yet convey clear and deep emotions. To learn more about Meredith Monk and The House Foundation for the Arts, go to

illuminated images of visions:

Some are modern portrayals, but the actual art attributed to Hildegard and her religious assistants is easy to spot. However, clarity varies with the websites involved.…16851.19885..20220…0.0..0.140.2287.0j18……0….1..gws-wiz-img…….0j0i24j0i30.npYmz8tzm_Y

further information:

For the extensive website of the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies, go to

Also see entry by Ian D. Bent and Marianne Pfau for Hildegard of Bingen in the New Grove v. 11, p. 493. Offers analytical comments about style of her music plus information about editions and sources.

According to the Burkholder-Grout-Palisca History of Western Music p. 64: “There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the Middle Ages.” And on p. 65: “Ordo virtutum is the earliest surviving musical drama not attached to the liturgy.”

Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen (Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2002 edition). A text with extraordinary reproductions of some of the visual art attributed to Hildegard von Bingen. He ends his own meditations by noting [p. 162] that Hildegard closed her book Scivias and her meditations about saints making music for the cosmos with a quote from Psalm 150 and its evocation of dance and musical exultation:

Praise him with the sound of trumpet;
Praise him with lyre and harp.
Praise him with timbrel and dance.
Praise him with strings and organ.
Praise him with cymbals sounding forth well.
Praise him with cymbals of jubilation.
Let every spirit praise the Lord.

 more about liturgical dance:

For an excellent brief consideration of liturgical dance, see the section on “Medieval Views” by Lynn Matluck Brooks in the entry about Christianity and Dance, IED  v. 2, pp. 164-66. The quotations above are from her article, and are pertinent to consider not only in regard to Hildegard’s morality play, but also to the portrayals in The Play of Daniel.

women composers:

This is perhaps as good a moment as any to consider the question of why Hildegard was the only medieval woman composer nowadays considered noteworthy and even somewhat famous. And going through time, just why is it that the group of essays following this one doesn’t include lots and lots of women composers for dance?

For openers, although at first Hildegard lived in a double monastery for both men and women, it is important to note that at the peak of her leadership, her later community included only women. It is easy to consider possible artistic side-effects of the larger male-dominated society in European institutions. But there were always amateur women musicians, ranging from those who sang beautiful lullabies to their babies, to those who  played instruments and shared music with their families and friends at home. After printing presses made it possible, both amateur and professional women singers and instrumentalists accounted for a great deal of the sales of published keyboard solos, vocal songs, and chamber music— written almost entirely by male composers.

By the 20th century there were women composers, and theatrical dance in the United States offered a particularly practical outlet for a few. Additionally, some women percussionists and especially pianists with particular talents for improvising, sight-reading, and memorizing repertoire, found careers as performers and accompanists for both studio training  classes and rehearsals with professional ballet and modern dance companies. For some brief information about a few, see the After-Words section of this website, under heading Women Collaborators in Modern Times.

* * *

The ability to compose music is not gender-specific, and one interesting description of the impetus to create music and the processes of constructing compositions is the book Listening Out Loud, by the late Elizabeth Swados (1951-2016) when she was only in her thirties. (New York: Harper & Row, 1988). During her career, she wrote for Broadway musicals, film, and TV, and her theatrical works included dance, often drawing on her Jewish heritage.  Recommended: chapter 10, “Writing as a Woman.” A good sample of her own style is available in a 1995 CD issued by Milan Records: Bible Women.

Thinking back long before the church-related music, one is reminded of Exodus 15:20

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand;
and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.

So it seems that from time immemorial women did make music for dancing. We just may not know their names, and that is why Hildegard is unique in this particular collection of essays. Going back once more to Matthew Fox, he had some thought-provoking comments related to the subject of women being recognized in the arts [p. 16]:

Hildegard’s extensive gifts of music and cosmic imagery are wonderful to behold precisely because the contribution of women in the arts and in religion has been so conveniently forgotten, repressed, or ridiculed in the centuries that have intervened since her time. She challenges women to be their full selves, to influence culture as well as home life, to express experience and not hold back. She is in this way a champion of a holistic culture, where women and men alike share their wisdom in mutuality.

The Play of Daniel

Beauvais Cathedral. Click on to many pictures available on the internet, and be amazed. (See link in endnotes.) Then wonder: If the past could speak to us directly, would we be able to see the 13th century Play of Daniel being performed  for the post-Christmas Feast of Fools by students in the beautiful Gothic cathedral just north of Paris in Beauvais, France?  The pageant, Ludus Danielis in Latin, was inscribed in a manuscript reliably dated between 1227 and 1234. How wonderful it would be to hear the singing of youths and to witness portrayals of the characters from the Biblical Book of Daniel, in that magnificent building….

But no! That may not be where it ever it took place. The large cathedral that can be visited today wasn’t even started being built until 1225, intended to be the tallest Gothic cathedral in France. Obviously such construction takes time, and unfortunately through the years there were several major collapses. At a certain point it was decided not to complete the original plan envisioned.

However, in view of the investigations by the medieval art and acoustics expert Andrew Tallon, perhaps we should not give up entirely on imagined visions of The Play of Daniel being performed in the larger cathedral-in-progress at some point in time. As he makes clear in his essay listed in the endnotes here, the smaller cathedral in use from the 10th to the 13th centuries also had its grand aspects—especially for the people alive then. Professor Tallon provides information plus questions about both of the cathedrals and about the performances of this particular liturgical musical play. After reading what he has discovered, maybe it would be more prudent to change our imagined visions and assume that the play did not appear full-blown all at once, but that it was performed and added to over a number of years.

* * *

Around the 12th century, there was what has been considered a little renascence in Europe, with the Church also encouraging artistic creation. So it is not surprising that among the oldest surviving musical manuscripts is Ludus Danielis, The Play of Daniel as originally performed as a musical drama by the students and masters of the Beauvais Cathedral school. It is intriguing to imagine how the youths might have taken to singing and acting this action-packed Biblical story with its royal personages, evil connivers, fiery oven, magical writing on the wall, miracles, and an angel taking the prophet Habakkuk by the hair to fly into the pit to deliver dinner to the hero Daniel in the lion’s den!

As far as we know, the first public performance of The Play of Daniel since the Middle Ages took place at the Cloisters in New York City in January 1958, with the addition of a new narration by the poet W. H. Auden, and with costumed members of the New York Pro Musica under the direction of Noah Greenberg giving a splendid evocation with their voices, instruments, and acting. Especially noteworthy was the sweet voice of counter-tenor Russell Oberlin. Fifty years later other musicians were assembled in the same setting to revive the work. Those of us who attended both performances can attest to the continuing magnetism of this religious drama from the past!

A recording was made of the 1958 performance, still available on CD. Additionally, a complete vocal and instrumental score was published with the narration by the poet W. H. Auden, and for the music, using modern notation transcribed by the Rev. Rembert Weakland directly from an original manuscript in the British Museum. Although the performance was filmed in black and white and shown on television, there is no DVD from the first performance in the Cloisters. The revival 50 years later was filmed in color, but has not been released on a public DVD yet. Fortunately, however, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which includes the Cloisters) has mounted several brief clips online, and these offer a sample of the flavor of the play as performed there. (For these and online films of complete performances by other groups, see endnotes.)

the plot

The story closely follows the Biblical legend found in the Book of Daniel, chapters 5 and 6. Although not an accurate historical account of kingly successions, according to this tale, the hero Daniel is portrayed as one among the Jews living in exile in Babylonia after the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.

At the beginning of the drama, Belshazzar is now on the throne—and how impressive he seems when sung by a bass! Also, how gracious is the queen’s entrance accompanied by finger cymbals and other delicate-sounding instruments. But  Belshazzar had hosted a feast during which he used the sacred vessels from the Jewish temple, for drinking table wine. A mysterious hand appears to write on the wall, and only Daniel is able to interpret the meaning: the king has been weighed in the balances, found wanting, and will find his kingdom divided. Subsequently, Belshazzar really is killed and Darius becomes king.

In the second act, we see how maliciously scheming are King Darius’s jealous advisers who seek to do away with Daniel ostensibly for petitioning to any god or person other than Darius. So Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den. Then there come the angel, and the prophet Habakkuk delivering dinner. Daniel does not get devoured, but the connivers do! And finally, the musical drama makes a connection with the later appearance of Jesus, appropriate for Christmastime.

performance decisions

In explaining the challenges of preparing a modern performance as faithful to the original as possible, Noah Greenberg reported that the historical manuscript had instructions making it clear which sections were for choir and which for soloists. But there were no directions for how specific instruments were to be used, or indications for tempos, dynamics, meter, or even the rhythms.

Obviously the most important element to be decided was the rhythmic structure, and in that regard, the transcriber elected to realize the parts according to common practices of rhythmic modes and chants known from the thirteenth century. As for instruments, the text itself does mention some: drums, kithara, harp, and strings. Noah Greenberg identified modern instruments used as equivalents of older ones: trumpet in C for straight trumpet; oboe for rebec; recorders; viola in place of bowed vielle; chimes; handbells; zither for psaltery; organ for portative organ; and guitar in place of minstrel’s harp.

In the Pro Musica edition, no polyphony or harmony was added, but the written melodies were doubled at both the unison and octave. Following medieval practices using bagpipes, the 20th century musicians also added bagpipe drones.

* * *

When everybody is seated and quiet, the narrator goes to the pulpit and begins reading W.H. Auden’s words:

Welcome, good people, watch and listen
To a play in praise of the prophet Daniel,
Beloved of the Lord. Long has he dwelt
In brick Babylon, built by a river,
Far from Jerusalem, his real home,
A son of Judah, suffering exile
Since Jehoakim turned from the true God
To worship idols in high places….

Belshazzar sits on the throne.
See, he approaches, his princes with him.

And at that, musicians begin their procession towards the throne, as they play trumpet, tambourine, soprano recorder, oboe, viola, hand bells, and small cymbals. The story is presented in singing, with the solo sections performed in flowing, expressive manner. The group unison parts are more apt to be in stricter meter and rhythm, especially in the processional entrances. There are many of these entrances in this musical play, often in the conductus tradition—music in a triple rhythm of what we know as a familiar poetic long-short pattern. It is inviting to imagine the effect the performers might have made as they progressed from the back of the cathedral to the focal point of action in front!

For the second part, with the new conquering king, there is another processional, and the translator offers this:

Behold King Darius
Approaching with his princes,
The noble with his nobles.

And his entire court
Resounds with joyousness,

And dances are there too.

We may wonder about how much physical movement was introduced into the drama as suggested by the words. But we will never know the answer to this question for sure: did those Beauvais students actually dance in the cathedrals? Two possibilities are suggested in links below: the professional Harp Concert, and the excellent student performance in Oklahoma. Both are worth watching, especially for the Harp Concert’s succinct introduction to the entire play.

Underlining how notable The Play of Daniel may be considered in the history of European theatrical music and dance is this observation by Luigi Bellingardi, from his liner notes for the New York Ensemble for Early Music CD:

Its spectacular effect is absolutely unique among medieval liturgical dramas, and is seen by many scholars as the point of arrival of a long process of evolution through time. Just around the corner are more complex works that are destined to mark the separation of the dramatic action from liturgical usage, paving the way for the transition towards a new type of medieval theatre, still edifying perhaps but no longer tied to an act of faith.


notes and explorations:

online film clips of the 2008 performance:  link to 2008 performance at the Cloisters. 10 minutes Daniel’s solo 8 minutes.

about New York productions:

Information about the musical preparations is from Noah Greenberg’s introduction to the music book The Play of Daniel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). Narration was written by W.H. Auden, and translation by Jean Misrahi from the Latin text is included. The edition is intended to be a practical one usable for other groups who wish to present performances. The text is presented in beautiful calligraphy that was done by Riki Levinson. The quotations at the end of this essay are from W. H. Auden’s narration for at the very beginning of the play, and from Jean Misrahi’s translation on p. 107.

The performance in 2008 at the Cloisters was staged by Drew Minter, with musical direction by Mary Anne Ballard. The program notes suggested that since 1958, there had been possibly hundreds of performances by other groups, and Ballard added:

Today’s production allows still another group of committed early musicians to experience the beauty of the work and to grapple with its interpretive questions, such as how to perform the musical pitches, which lack rhythmic values in their 13th-century notation. Just as the youth of Beauvais “invented” their play, so too have the musical grandchildren of Greenberg and Co. “found” their own arrangements of it, experimenting and improvising in medieval fashion. “A Hero Who Can Read the Writing on the Wall,” review by Anthony Tommasini, December 21, 2008. Noah Greenberg & Play of Daniel, essay by James Gollin. He documents the work of Noah Greenberg and patronage of Lincoln Kirstein.
With narrator’s introduction telling the story, performance adapted from the production originally conceived for the Cloisters, and presented at the Trinity Church Wall Street for several years as part of their Twelfth Night services. For details, see following review.  A most informative review of the performance at Trinity Church Wall Street,  from The New York Times of December 28, 2014, written by Anthony Tommasini.

Both Mary Anne Ballard and Drew Minter graciously sent personal emails to the author in April 2021, offering some further comments about the use of instruments for the later performances at the Cloisters and Trinity Church Wall Street. Ms. Ballard suggested an expanded view, drawing on visual art, and wrote:

If we also consider paintings and sculpture of the 12th and 13th centuries, we see many instruments arrayed around Christ or the Virgin Mary, or being played by King David, or the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse, or the shepherds in their fields on Christmas night, or angels flying above Biblical scenes. So, when we choose to array a veritable orchestra around our Kings and Daniel or if they walk in our processions, isn’t the presence of instrumentlists in accordance with the aesthetics of their time? Couldn’t we be justified in saying that a 12th century audience would have loved instruments to be included in the pageantry of the Ludus Danielis? They saw them represented in altarpieces, bas-reliefs, and stained glass windows of churches, after all.

Historical performance “evidence” aside, we modern performers also, as Drew Minter has said, find practical reasons to use instruments. For staging, it is very useful to have instrumentalists play tunes while the actors are moving from one place to another. And they help everyone remember what pitch to sing.

While we are always trying to imagine the first performance in the 12th century, we have to be content with the idea that we can only seek rather than know. What is fun about trying to figure out how to perform something where so many details are unknown (e.g.the rhythm), is that after you have learned as much as possible about music, art, poetry, religion, education, etc. of the period, you can unleash your creative imagination, trusting that your historically-informed intuition will lead you to a result that feels true.

I think of what we’re doing as learning to think like a medieval person, rather than exactly replicating a performance. I felt grateful in doing Daniel at The Cloisters, to have the feeling of briefly living in the world of 1200 A.D.

other performances online:  A 15-minute excerpt of performance in Copenhagen, with commentary by Andrew Lawrence-King. The Harp Consort and Il Corago. Perhaps the most lively and succinct introduction you could watch as far as physical movement is concerned, especially in the processionals. 2011. (See CD listing.)  A lovely 2014 performance at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Eugene Enrico conductor of choirs and musicians. There is an actual dancer, wearing a red dress. The instrumental musicians are sitting to the side, with music stands for reading their parts, and they give a fine performance.

Pro Musica recording:  Play of Daniel CD by New York Pro Musica now only limited availability; however it can be streamed online.  2-disc set along with New York Pro Musica performance of The Play of Herod.Liner notes include both Latin text and English translation. Track 1 is a 13th century estampie that was inserted by Noah Greenberg. Track 6 is a conductus for the queen, as is track 12. In general, it can be noticed that the sections for choirs have clearly measured music, while the expressive solos are more apt to be unmeasured.  a You Tube mounting of the above CD. Part II of the above CD mounting.

other CDs:

Dufay Collective conducted by William Lyons, 2008 on Harmonia mundi label.  Available for purchase as CD, or online by individual track.

Ludus Danielis: The Play of Daniel. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, performance by the Harp Consort under Andrew Lawrence King, 1998. Recorded in St. Bartholomew’s Church, Oxford. Instruments used: vielle, shawms, lute, bells, medieval harp, psaltery, organ, drone pipes, gittern. Recommended.

New York Ensemble for Early Music, directed by Frederick Renz, Daniel and the Lions: Ludus Danielis, on a fone disc recorded in Rome, 1986. Unfortunately out of print now, but well worth searching for a good used copy or purchase it streaming.  Now known as Early Music New York, the group continues its live performances of Daniel and the Lions.  For current information:

cathedral and dates: This is a drawing of what used to be the Beauvais Cathedral, 10th-13th centuries. The building suffered several fires over time, and what remains is not as large as the church was in its prime. These are photographs of the large Beauvais Cathedral in France as it is now; not as it was when the Play of Daniel was performed! This is a brief article with pictures, outlining the history of the building itself.

For an exploration discussing the possible dates of both the musical performances and the buildings, see the article by art professor and acoustics expert Andrew Tallon, “The Play of Daniel in the Cathedral of Beauvais” in Resounding Images: Medieval Intersection of Art, Music and Sound, edited by Susan Boynton and Diane J. Reilley (Turnhout, Belgium: 2015) pp. 205-220.  This is a PDF file of Professor Tallon’s report, from his website.  information about the late Andrew Tallon, who gained particular recognition for his laser scanning of Notre Dame Cathedral.

scholarly information:

Dunbar H. Ogden, editor, The Play of Daniel: Critical Essays  (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1996). Includes a complete transcription of the music into modern notation, by A. Marcel J. Zijlstra, and sample pages reproduced in black and white from the original manuscript, which must be quite beautiful. The calligraphy of both text and music is amazingly clear. The essays include one about the staging in the 12th century (by Dunbar H. Ogden); modern performances (by Fletcher Collins, Jr.); and about the music itself (by Audrey Ekdahl Davidson). The music is presented with the original Latin text, but there is also an English translation.

Noteworthy in the editor’s introduction is his description of a group from the Netherlands that performed for a gathering of 600 medieval scholars. He went on to comment that:

There is no such thing as one definitive performance of the music, the drama, or the dance. The very nature of performing art lies in its ever-changing surfaces. If the musician, the actor, or the dancer delivers an inner truth of the composition to the audience on a given day, then the performance is right. [p. 4]

And in his article on modern performances, Fletcher Collins, Jr. speaks of the 1958 performance at the Cloisters as a “triumphant moment” and suggests that “the explosive energy of Greenberg’s Daniel  established it as the bellwether of the medieval music-drama revival.” He then goes on to offer a brief but astounding chronicle of subsequent productions—including Greenberg’s version at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Mary Anne Ballard’s at the University of Pennsylvania, and multitudes of other performances of other versions, spanning the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel, Australia, and Hong Kong–up to the date of the book’s publication in 1997. Obviously this medieval musical play continues to speak to modern audiences both emotionally and musically!

One detailed book that helps to clarify the possible kings, empires, and symbolism of the Book of Daniel is Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (New York: Wings Books, 1981, pp. 596-622). On p. 597 he points out that “the book of Daniel is replete with anachronisms as far as it deals with the period of the Exile.” And goes on to suggest (p. 598) that “the writer was a man of Greek times, to whom the Exile was an event that had taken place four centuries earlier and concerning the fine details of which he was a bit uncertain.” The reason:

It was going to be the writer’s purpose to denounce the Seleucid Empire, which in the second century B.C. was persecuting Judaism ferociously. To avoid charges of rebellion and treason, the writer had to refrain from attacking the Seleucids directly. By putting the book into a period of past disaster, he could attack them indirectly. He could make Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar surrogate villains for Syria and the Seleucids and his readers would know what he meant while the overlords might have trouble proving it.

That history acknowledged, we can still enjoy The Play of Daniel as a drama based literally on the Biblical tale.

images: This is courtesy of The Harp Consort, images from the original manuscript in color.,_Danielis_ludus.jpg From the British Library collection.

Written Estampies

Now at last we come to some written instrumental medieval music for dance—in fact, the earliest surviving ones from Europe. Called estampie in French and istampitta in Italian, they are monophonic (single-line melodies).

There are only eight from the 13th-century French manuscripts, but this makes them all the more special. They are catchy, hummable, and make you want to dance.

Modern scholars including Pierre Aubry in France and Timothy J. McGee in Canada have notated these tunes in triple meter, and they most often have regular recurring rhythms and a relatively small range in pitch. The forms are simple too: distinct phrases called “puncta” that are each repeated with the same first and second endings (called “open” and “closed”). Additionally there would be an introduction and a coda (brief closing section).

The ten surviving Italian dances from the 14th century are more complex, with some chromaticism plus greater range in pitch and ornaments that suggest Turkish and Arabic styles. The repeated sections, cast in duple meter, are longer than the French examples and also have more diverse rhythms. It’s easy to hear these differences in a number of good CDs of performances for which the instrumentalists have made careful choices about the use of instrumentation—not indicated in the manuscripts.

To learn more about these dances there is an excellent book to consult: Medieval Instrumental Dances by Timothy J. McGee. The author, then at the University of Toronto, offers modern notation of all the written compositions (47 in total) thought or known to be instrumental dances from before the early 15th century. The book includes musical analysis covering meter, rhythm, pitch, and tempo, plus questions about matching dance movements to musical melodies.

There is much that cannot be known, but Professor McGee documented sources of information and the manuscripts themselves. Drawing on his own specialized experience, he offers musicians of today hints about how to perform and improvise appropriately on these materials. He makes a point of observing that medieval musicians (many of whom were illiterate in regard to notation) would have used a framework of melody and sectional form easily learned by ear, and then improvised their own variations on the spot.

In addition to the estampie types, the other manuscripts are thought to be for these forms of dances: ductia, nota, and saltarello. There are some with distinctive names, and there are notations for nine polyphonic dances (a musical term meaning with “many voices” but in this case all two-part).

Going back to source information, McGee cites the writings of Johannes de Grocheio, his De Musica from around 1300. Based on his research, McGee concludes that the physical dance itself was likely stately, perhaps one that evolved into the Renaissance basse danse (which, though aristocratic, was “low to the floor,” compared to other types that would involve more jumping and higher steps). The music historian Paul Nettl, writing in 1947, gave a similar opinion:

The Estampy, Italian’s ístampita,” Provencal’s “estampida,” is explained etymologically by the Frankish word “stampon.” Originally it was danced with stamping of feet, but later in the 14th century it was transformed into a quiet, paced form of dance….

On the whole our knowledge of medieval dancing is relatively small. For example we know little or nothing at all of the “Danse Royale” which is mentioned in a number of French manuscripts…in conjunction with the “estampie.”…

Apparently such a dance royale was a particularly dignified and solemn one, a royal form of stepped measure.

Curt Sachs, in his 1937 World History of the Dance suggested that because of the name, the early dance ancestry of the later estampie was surely a stamping dance. But by the time of the written manuscripts, he felt that:

The estampie must have been a quiet gliding dance….It must have been a forerunner of the gliding dances of the fifteenth century, the allemande and the basse danse. The music confirms this.

And Ingrid Brainard, in her encyclopedia entry on “Dance in the Middle Ages,” states that “On the basis of Johannes de Grocheo’s writings the relative speed for the estampie has been established as fairly sedate.”

Other writers and musicians, however, wonder: since the word estampie may have come from the word “to stamp,” therefore would the name ever indicate a brisk and lively dance even for the music written down in the surviving manuscripts? Listen to performances by different groups and see what you think! Which is this later medieval music like? Stompen? Or stante pedes, which translates as standing or stationary feet?

In any case, underscoring the appreciable place of the estampie in the history of European dance, Carol Lee wrote:

The estampie was momentous in the evolution of dance because it replaced the sung carole with instrumental music that had a beginning, middle, and end. The estampie further contrasted to a carole because it eventually found a frontal focal point; the estampie was directed to onlookers…..

Most important, however, is that the estampie was the seminal form of ballet as a Western theatrical dance. That is, its performance was directed toward appreciative viewers. Ballet has always been primarily performed for the delectation of others.


notes and explorations:


Timothy J. McGee, Medieval Instrumental Dances (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989) This is the first edition, recommended even if second-hand because it has a spiral binding which makes it more convenient to use when playing the music on an instrument. But obviously, the text itself is the same in both, and very well worthwhile reading. See p. 21 for his consideration of whether the estampie was a stately dance or not. The 2014 edition is in a regular paperback binding.

Pierre Aubry, Estampies et Danses Royales: Les Plus Anciens Textes de Musique Instrumentale au Moyen Age (Andesite Press, 2017 reprint of the work originally published in 1907 in Paris by Librairie Fishbacher). French, 12 pages of text followed by reproductions of manuscript pages followed by modern transcription of estampies and danses real followed by some musical analysis. 35 pages total. Because this work is in the public domain, it has been reissued by a number of companies, including a 1975 Minikoff Reprint available online. That one has quite clear reproductions of the music.

The quotation from Paul Nettl is from The Story of Dance Music (1947) pp. 39-40; 69-70.

Curt Sachs, pp. 292-93.

Ingrid Brainard quote from the IED, entry under Dance, paragraph 3.

The quotation from  Carol Lee was from her book Ballet in Western Culture, p. 18.
For a brief definition of the carole dance: “medieval European dance in a ring, chain, or linked circle, performed to the singing of the dancers [themselves].  An indefinite number of persons participated, linking arms and following the step of the leader. The origins of the carole are in ancient ring dances of May and midsummer festivals and, more remotely, in the ancient Greek choros, or circular, sung dance. Mentioned as early as the 7th century, the carole spread throughout Europe by the 12th century and declined during the 14th century.”


Istanpitta, vol. 2, New York Ensemble for Early Music, Lyrichord, 1996.  Instruments used: bagpipes, shawms, flutes, rebec, vielle, dulcimer, harp, hand drums, bells, clay drums, clavicytherium, organistrum, portative organ, nakers, side drum, harp, and slide trumpet. Directed by Frederick Renz. Performances include the use of paralleling a melody, changing instrumentation for alternating phrases, figuration as accompaniment, especially on stringed instruments like the lute.

A L’Estampida, The Dufay Collective, 2004 on Avie label. Includes clapping, vigorous percussion, contrasted with calm flute sound for other dances. Selections include saltarello dances—more lively, and metrically more like our modern 6/8 feel.

The Dufay Collective’s 1994 Chandos CD Dances in the Garden of Mirth can also be sampled and purchased online by track. Includes some selections of the Italian variety, starting with “Ghaetta.” In contrast to the French estampies, the Italian ones are in clear duple meters and from the very first are remarkable in the way the melodies do suggest either Turkish or Arabic music. The instruments used are: slide trumpet, recorder, pipe & tabor, percussion, vielle, rebec, gittern, shawm, flute, recorder, bagpipes, long-necked lute, harp, and organ.

The Hesperion XXI group under Jordi Savall has made many CDs of early music, including 2008 one on the Alia Vox label titled Estampies & Danses Royales: Le Manuscrit du Roi c. 1270-1320. Interesting because the timbres created by the various instrumental combinations are quite different from other groups—especially in putting the melody in lower range, for instance on a vielle. Liner notes include essay by David Fallows discussing challenges in deciphering original manuscripts and making decisions about instrumentation, tempo, general style—and even the pitches themselves.

notable book on notation

Capturing Music: The Story of Notation, by Thomas Forrest Kelly (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015). An extraordinary book that introduces the conceptual basis for various breakthroughs in notating European religious and secular vocal  music, tracing various methods that scholarly musicians invented for conveying the pitches of sound and its timing. Also introduces certain notable individuals—including with a wonderful painting depicting St. Gregory having musical directives from God being whispered in his ear by a dove, and being written down by a scribe hidden behind a curtain! Then there are Guido, Franco, Philippe de Vitry, and Machaut, all evoked as making beautiful creations to serve their various purposes or purely as vocal art. The reproduced images range from squiggles for religious chants to magnificently decorated manuscripts for multiple parts, and are supplemented by a CD with performances of some of them.

The author guides readers to at least understand the processes involved in this long-ago evolution towards  the basics of what we still use today—and tells us about the specific situations that led both scholarly monks and secular men of leisure to devise solutions to the challenges of representing sound visually on parchment. Along the way, Professor Kelly also considers aspects not included (such as quality and articulations), and asks basic  questions such as “how long is long” and “how short is short.” We learn where the five-lined staff came from, as well as shapes and groupings of notes, the concept of “perfection” in relation to rhythms, as well as the origin of Do [first called Ut] Re Mi—and so much more!

The examples are all vocal, but towards the end when multiple-voiced pieces are examined, the author suggests that some parts may well have been performed on instruments. No dance music here; no lullabies that mothers might have sung to their babies; no children’s play songs and chants; no peasant men’s work or drinking songs. But all in all, a fascinating exploration of how over centuries some elite educated men devised  ways of passing along music for religious ritual and also for entertainment in castles. Recommended for those who may wonder where the symbols on our printed sheets of music came from!

Also see Thomas Forrest Kelly’s little book Early Music: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). It includes chapters on Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music that has been handed down to us, plus chapters on performing challenges and contemporary organizations practicing and promoting early music. The author, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, is past president of Early Music America. For updated information on the organization:

In his succinct book, Professor Kelly confirms yet again that while there was probably a lot of music performed for dancers in the Middle Ages, only a handful of such instrumental pieces have come down to us in written manuscript.  He concludes his chapter on music from  many centuries ago by suggesting (p. 29):

Clearly the performance of medieval music is not a matter of reproducing what appears on the parchment but of finding a means of making it somehow come to life. The question of making it alive for modern hearers is an important challenge. The more interesting question—and the real matter of authenticity—is whether this modern performance would be recognizable and pleasurable to a medieval audience. That, alas, we will never know. We have modern audiences, and it is at least important to please them.

Le Jeu de Robin et Marion

With The Play of Robin and Marion  by the French poet/musician Adam de la Halle (ca. 1250-86), we now enter the realm of secular musical drama with dance. It is widely considered to be the earliest “pastourelle” play with music essentially all by one composer—though it may have been the case that this trouvère artist inserted some tunes that were already popular.

Although not much is known about Adam de la Halle’s life, it is thought that he wrote Robin and Marion for performances in Naples, possibly in 1280, for the court of Charles of Anjou. Yet upon hearing a performance today, one might well wonder if it was ever given in more informal town settings as well, for rural peasant audiences. There is much in the text that smacks of crude sexual innuendo, and perhaps in the acting, of what we call slapstick (though the actual use of sticks in the play is for a traditional stick dance by men). At least one historian has praised this work to the skies, saying it was:

..the fusion of courtly lyric, allegory and social criticism…a tour de force without parallel in any literature, with the exception of such non-dramatic works as the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer, the Decameron, Don Quixote, or Gargantua and Pantagruel.

* * *

Robin and Marion (no relation to England’s Robin Hood and Maid Marian) is in the tradition of the “pastourelle,” or pastoral play that had predictable characters and plot outlines. The story of this particular typical one goes like this:

Shepherd Robin loves shepherdess Marion.
Noble knight comes along on a horse and wants to seduce Marion.
She declines to be seduced because she loves Robin.
Knight goes away.
Knight returns looking for his falcon which has escaped.
He finds that Robin has caught it and might injure it.
Knight hits Robin and captures Marion after all.
Marion outwits knight, who leaves for good.
Robin rescues one of Marion’s little sheep from the mouth of a wolf.
Peasants gather, and everybody eats and dances.

There are three original manuscripts of this work existing.  Scholars have translated the text into modern English and transcribed the musical melodies into standard modern notation. For the dances, the text itself (in the French Old Picard vernacular) gives hints about what instruments should be used. Robin is told to fetch his bagpipes, and there are some “horns” and a drum called for, in order for everybody to dance a farandole (a traditional Provencal couple dance in 6/8 meter). In one recorded modern performance, there are also instrumental interludes, played on recorder, flute, shawms, vielles, lute, pipe, and tabor.

And so we’ll leave the peasant people to their picnic and see what happened later in towns and aristocratic European courts. 

notes and explorations:


The quote of praise is from Robert Falck’s entry on Adam de la Halle in the New Grove, V. v, p. 137, translated from N. R. Cartier, Le bossu désenchanté (Geneva, 1971).

Though scholars seem to agree that there isn’t much information about Adam de la Halle himself, yet some seem fairly certain that he at some point was in the retinue of the brother of Charles IX, who became king of Naples (where supposedly the musician/poet wrote the play—or maybe before he even went to Naples).

According to Richard Taruskin in Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) p.127, Le Jeu de Robin et Marion was written as a “sort of offering from his employer, the Count of Anjou (based in Sicily) to the king of Naples, before whom it was performed in 1283.” One finds differences of opinions and dates in various music histories.

book with music:

Shira I. Schwam-Baird, editor and translator, Adam de la Halle: Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, with music edited by Milton G. Scheuermann, Jr. (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1994). Includes the complete text, with scholarly introduction, the complete single-line melodies. Nice hardcover. The melodies have been set pretty much in 3/4 or 6/4 and have very simple rhythms, often poetic trochaic (long-short).

online performances: Mannes College Camerata, 1986. 20-minute version, sung in the Old French. Uses hurdy gurdy, tambourine, bagpipe. Paul Echols, director; Grant Herreid, music director. Dances at about 6 minutes. Sung, pipe, drum. At 16 minutes, with hurdy gurdy, several voices singing unison. Final dance, 18 minutes. Choreography, Dorothy Olsson. Staged with a “pastoral” backdrop. University of Southern California complete 53-minute performance, 2011, with some insertions of anonymous saltarellos and estampies. Play list included minute-by-minute. (Click on “Show More.”) Performance was given as part of Early Music America’s Young Performance Festival, in Boston. Directed by Adam Knight Gilbert and Rachelle Fox. Instruments used: recorder, shawn, bagpipes, hurdy gurdy, vielle, lute. Informal church setting. Student instrumentalists offer ensemble for processional and other parts.  A 4-minute excerpt of professionals at Ravenna festival, 2011. But good to see because of close-ups of instruments playing. Ensemble Micrologus. (See CD listing below.)


The Musicians of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (Basel, Switzerland) under Thomas Binkley recorded the sounds and music of their entire production in 1987, issued on a 1991 CD by the Early Music Institute of Indiana University on the FOCUS label. It is easy to imagine oneself outdoors with a lot of local peasants who informally laugh and applaud. And the knight would ride into the playing area (not a stage) on a real horse. All this in contradiction of the apparent real acting done for a higher-class audience in Naples. The recording begins with a lengthy singing of sacred music by a mixed chorus of men and women, suggesting that something is going on while the audience is gathering. There are instrumental interludes, and some places where the instruments would seem to introduce the tunes themselves before the vocalists sing them.

Tonus Peregrinus. Very appealing version on Naxos label, 2006.  Can be sampled online and ordered by individual tracks. The group offers a very different take on this musical play: old French sung very beautifully by a soprano and tenor; with a narrator on motets are interspersed (not from the original manuscript); and there are tasteful touches of instruments including bells, drum, fiddle, gittern, citore, harp, pipe and tabor, rebec, shawm, coconuts (for the horse sounds!), tambourine, bagpipes, cowhorns, portative organ, and trumpet.

Ensemble Micrologus CD available from amazon. Polyphonic singing is quite striking.

online images: images, of both manuscript and music in modern notation.

a performance edition:

The French composer Darius Milhaud arranged score commissioned by the Juilliard Opera Theater and published by E. B. Marks in 1951. The 1951 vocal score is still available online from amazon and other sellers. Milhaud’s instrumental arrangement is for voices, flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, and cello. Since 2019 the instrumental music (and grand right arrangements) are available from:  Audio only recording of American premiere of the Play of Robin and Marion, as arranged by French composer Darius Milhaud, with English translation by Roger Maren. Performed in 1952 by the Juilliard Opera Theater.

a previous modern revival:

Some surprising information about a 20th-century revival of Le Jeu de Robin et Marion by choreographer Michel Fokine in Russia was documented by Donald Sidney-Fryer in Volume II of his monumental study The Case of the Light Fantastic Toe (Phosphor Lantern Press, 2018) pp. 2362-63:

Fokine’s final major production for 1907 involved the creation of suitable dances for a revival from the very heart of the Middle Ages. Nikolai Drizen and Nikolai Yefreinov had hired both Benois and Fokine to help reconstruct for their Antique Theatre the celebrated and charming pastoral comedy Le Jeu de Robin et Marion (interspersed with dances and songs) by the innovative trouvère Adam de la Halle (c. 1230-c. 1286)….The result of this reconstruction, based on the surviving music…undoubtedly ranks as quite an important, and valiant, early modern attempt to resurrect an artistic construct that was more than six hundred years old by that date.