A History of Improvisation in the Medieval Music Revival

  • Leah Stuttard

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Western music from medieval sources, dated roughly before 1520, has been widely performed and recorded since the 1960s. This thesis focuses on one aspect of this medieval music revival: improvisation, or the spontaneous generation of musical material during performance. This topic is a source of conflict between those who believe the notation of medieval music is complete in itself without requiring any further additions to make it performable, and those for whom simply playing the notes as edited from a manuscript is not enough to restore medieval music to a living art. My research shows how improvisation is also emblematic of the way that the performance of medieval music has developed over the last 60 years. This thesis uses a mixed methodology. Musicological analysis of performances is complemented by thematic analysis of survey data from a self-selected group of medieval music enthusiasts and discussion and citation of interview material gathered from a wide range of English-and French-speaking performers. I discuss the background of the performances and outline how theories about historical music and its revival influenced musicians. This includes ideas about authenticity and about notated and oral transmission of music. I explore how different schools of thought have expressed different beliefs about this, leading to differing impacts on the ways musicians have worked. The words of my interviewees and survey participants shed light on the current state of understanding of the concept and practice of improvisation. The thesis concludes with three detailed case studies. These are focused on the pioneering ensemble Studio der frühen Musik and its director, Thomas Binkley; the lutenist Crawford Young; and the wind player Mara Winter. I reveal how improvisation has become an accepted and central practice in the performance of medieval music, matching the way in which musicological awareness has become ever more attuned to the presence of performer-controlled creativity during the Middle Ages. The Studio invested their creative labour in producing a new medieval musical model, one that was imbued with “Arabic” sounds and Arabo-Andalusian inspiration but did not improvise. Young devoted effort to exploring historically justifiable improvisation models, focusing particularly on the lute style of the fifteenth century where he felt there was enough evidence to make his own creativity believably medieval. His musical models were taken from existing repertoire as well as the technical manuals that explained music theory and counterpoint. His method included an emphasis on memory and memorisation, a practice of importance to music making during the Middle Ages. Winter’s approach embraced personal creativity on a broad scale. She eschewed the use of musical notation and relied on musical gestures that were based on knowledge of geographically appropriate folk music and time-appropriate music from elsewhere in Europe. She brought these together to make a new and specific, limited modal language of her own, acknowledging how personal this was to her and her ensemble, Moirai. This thesis reveals that improvisation in the medieval music revival, although initially impossible, has become more and more present in historical performing practices as musicians have built their confidence in the freshly created medieval musical languages. It highlights the paradox of and tensions inherent in creating a ‘new’ medieval musical idiom.
Date of Award21 Feb 2024
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorCatherine Haworth (Main Supervisor)

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