This little child his little book learning, As he sat in the school at his primere, He Alma redemptoris hearde sing, As children learned their antiphonere;…. (from the Prioress’ Tale, in Geoffrey Chaucers’ Canterbury Tales)
An Antiphon is a musical style which is used in the Liturgy and Divine Office. The word comes from the Greek and translates as “opposite voice” which describes the “responsorial” activity in the music. In the Mass, antiphon is used when the mass is sung, and during the responsorial psalm, also when sung. This is where most may recognize it’s use.
The concept of antiphon goes back to St. Ignatius of Antioch who in a vision saw angelic choirs singing back and forth. In the western empire chants were used which would develop into what we call Gregorian Chants today. Named after Gregory the Great, a 6th century pope, the chants themselves were probably part of a developmental process that lasted into the middle ages. Most may associate these chants with the monastic life or the liturgy, but they have found their way into our modern popular culture. Several modern bands, such as Garmarna, have incorporated chants into modern music.
Garmarna is a Swedish progressive rock band who remade the music of a 12th century abbess named Hildegard von Bingen. Using the lyrics and chants and interpreting them in a modern folk/rock/techno format, the band is one among several who have helped to bring a long overdue appreciation to the chants and Hildegard.
The pictures on this page show a few illuminated examples of sheet music from the middle ages. Often these books, (antiphonary) were large so that the whole choir could see from a distance. This is because the making of any books, let alone those used for music, was very costly and time consuming. A choir may only have one such book to sing from. The illumination tells of the care and respect people held for the written word. Like other medieval texts such as the books of hours, breviaries, and of course those that contained the Sacred Scriptures, these collections of sheet music have the decorations and gold leaf surrounding the words and graphs making them works of art.