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Neo-Medieval music

Neo-Medieval music is a term used to describe a variety of styles within modern popular music. A common characteristic of these styles is that they contain elements of Medieval music and early music in general. Music styles within neo-Medieval music vary from authentic performance interpretations of Medieval music (understood as Classical music) to crossover genres that blend Medieval instruments, such as bagpipe, shawm and hurdy-gurdy with electronic music and heavy metal. In many cases, it is more or less overlapping with styles such as folk rock, and Neofolk.

Bands specializing in neo-Medieval music are particularly plentiful in Germany, although the genre also enjoys some popularity in North America, The Czech Republic, France, Great Britain, Italy, Brazil and the Scandinavian countries.

History

It is difficult to point to an exact beginning of neo-Medieval music. One could argue that all Medieval-sounding tunes written after the actual Middle Ages are in some way neo-Medieval music; this definition would include music from as early as the Renaissance and onwards. Other examples of early neo-Medievalism in music would also include a number of Romantic composers such as Niels W. Gade, Edvard Grieg, and Felix Mendelssohn (who often used Medieval- and folk-style tunes in their music), as well as parts of the Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, and many movie soundtracks from the 20th century.

However, as a popular music term the birth of neo-Medieval music is closely connected with the folk rock and roots music movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In many countries in Europe musicians sought to find their cultural roots, reviving music that had largely died out as a result of centuries of industrialization, and decades of exposure to U.S. music styles like jazz and rock.

The founding of the German band Ougenweide in 1970 is particularly important in this respect. Ougenweide revived many distinctly German and European genres, such as the Minnesang, and other examples of courtly poetry and music. It is interesting to compare Ougenweide's approach to music with that of their contemporary kraut rock bands, especially Kraftwerk. Both sought to recreate German culture which they felt had been compromised by Nazism and World War II. But whereas Kraftwerk took music creation to an entirely new level, Ougenweide would revive ancient music and play types of instruments that, at least in Northern Europe, had been out of use for centuries.

In Great Britain, too, prog rock bands like Jethro Tull would often write songs with a Medieval touch to them. It was not until the late 1980s, however, that neo-medieval music would arise as an entire genre of its own, replete with a subculture following.

The Australian outfit Dead Can Dance who released most of their most famous works in the latter half of the 1980s was another early influence on the scene. Dead Can Dance had a far more pompous and symphonic sound than previous acts, and, although never considering themselves to be a Goth band, were mostly popular among Goths. This formed the precedence of neo-Medieval music being particular popular in the Goth scene.

It is also important to include the influence of heavy metal. With its modal scales and heavy reliance upon the use of open fifths, heavy metal shares a lot of characteristics with medieval and folk music, not to mention its visual affinity for Gothic settings.

1989 saw the formation of the German band Corvus Corax by two of its members, who were both on the run from the disintegrating East German regime. Throughout the 1990s Corvus Corax would go on to have a profound effect on the state of neo-Medieval music.

Corvus Corax, along with other bands, started the now immensely popular strategy of combining medieval music with electronic music.

Neo-Medieval music by country

Full article: see list of neo-Medieval artists

As already mentioned neo-Medieval music enjoys popularity in many countries. Most countries also have their own bands that differ slightly in style depending on nationality and individual artistic expression.

Germany

Germany is by far the most active country in the neo-Medieval scene. Nowhere else in the world are the artists so plentiful and the styles of music so diverse. The country contains such acts as Ioculatores (traditional Medieval music), In Extremo (Medieval metal), Saltatio Mortis, and more ambient oriented bands like Helium Vola, Qntal, Love Is Colder Than Death, and Estampie to mention a few. A particularly popular line-up is a variation of a traditional pipe-and-drum band, consisting mainly of modified bagpipes and a davuul drum, often backed up by shawms in a manner reminiscent of a Breton bagad.

Sweden

Sweden is home to the legendary folk rock band Hedningarna whose music contains a fair share of Medieval influences, not least in their choice of instruments; their songs often contain hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes and nyckelharpa. Whether the band is actually neo-Medieval or not may be a matter of debate. One could argue that they are merely infatuated with everything ancient. They have even been known to use Danish Bronze Age lurs, as well as playing gigs in castle ruins. However, their influence on the neo-Medieval scene in Scandinavia is arguably enormous. Garmarna is another important Swedish band in this context, as well as the Dead Cance/Qntal inspired act Arcana.

Denmark

Medieval music in Denmark, and to some extent the other Nordic countries as well, has almost always been synonymous with Nordic dancing ballads. This particular type of ballad depends on cooperation between the lead singer and his audience. The singer narrates a story in song, to which the audience dances and falls in at the repeated chorus line which often predicts the end of the story (which is usually tragic). A song may last 20+ minutes. This tradition has been alive to the present day in the Faroe Islands where it is entirely a cappella, though this does not necessarily mean that it did not include instruments in its heyday. In Denmark the lyrics of most of the ballads, being always in the vernacular, were recorded by the landed nobility in the 16th century, and the melodies in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because of this vernacular ballad tradition, Danish and other Scandinavian neo-Medieval music is almost devoid of the Latin lyrics of e.g. the German scene.

Probably the best-known neo-Medieval band in Denmark is Sorten Muld whose songs are primarily interpretations of the above mentioned dancing ballads. Although their music does contain hints of medieval instruments like hurdy-gurdy and nyckelharpa it relies heavily on trip-hop influences, and most of the Medieval elements are downplayed in favour of synthesizer sounds, double bass, and filtered breakbeats.

In recent years other Danish bands playing in a more international (and more aggressive!) Medieval style have sprung up. These include Virelai, Solhverv, Asynje, and Valravn. These bands may or may not integrate the ballad tradition in their largely instrumental music.

Italy

The well-known band Ataraxia from Italy has started creating music and live performances inspired by early (Medieval and Renaissance) music in the mid 80s. Their most significant albums inspired by this genre are Historiae (1998, CMI); Suenos (2001, CMI) and the coming Kremasta Nera (2007).

Norway

Norway is famous for its thriving metal culture, and it is mainly within metal genres that neo-Medieval music finds its outlet in a Norwegian context. Bands like Lumsk are known for incorporating Medieval and folk elements into their music. More traditional folk-oriented bands like and Gåte also exist. Many Norwegian bands, metal- or otherwise oriented, have a remarkable Neo-pagan slant.

Russia

Russian bands such as Moon Far Away produce local inspired medieval folk music. Drolls, a medieval folk band from Russian Karelia presents a broader approach to early music heritage.

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