Medieval Women’s Choir – Early Music Lives!

“Much of our repertoire is unmeasured music, with no notated rhythms. This is a bit intimidating at first, but we all learn to listen for and repeat nuanced shapes in the musical line and to follow the expressive gestures from the director… We occasionally learn a piece by rote, following the aural tradition of medieval music.”

– Choir Member


Choir Name: Medieval Women’s Choir
Location: Seattle, Washington
Style: Early music, including chant, 12th-15th century
Number of singers: 55
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What is unmeasured music?

Well, unmeasured music in the medieval sense is a melody in which the pitches are notated, but the rhythms are not. Early medieval notation does not contain any information concerning the relative length of notes—as far as we know, there was no way to show the difference between a longer note and a shorter note.

What does it look like?

There were various medieval notations in use at different times and places. When I make a modern transcription for use of the choir, I usually just use noteheads. Here are some examples:

Hildegard von Bingen, “O virtus sapientiae” from the Riesen Codex, Germany, 12th century.
And here’s one of my “notehead” editions. At the bottom of the second page is a second vocal part I created based on medieval improvisation practice. This is also a sacred refrain song from Notre Dame de Paris, 13th century

How has notation evolved over centuries?

The evolution of medieval notation largely reflects an effort to make it more rhythmically clear. By the 14th century a system of mensuration signs (signs indicating meter shift) had been developed, and that allowed composers to notate rhythms precisely. This raises a couple of big questions: Was rhythm applied to these earlier melodies in performance, even though there was no way to write it down? Or did the lack of a notation system for rhythm reflect the fact that it was not needed because the music was unmeasured? The answer may lie somewhere in between. The type of unmeasured music that most people are familiar with is Gregorian Chant.

Other than unmeasured music, what is something you do in rehearsals that surprises new members?  

Singing in modes! (In music theory, modes are alternative forms of scales compared to the Westernized Major scale). We have to learn and practice singing in the “church modes” as part of expertise and preparation for the music we sing.

Medieval Women’s Choir pictured at the Cathedral of St. James, Seattle. (2018).

What was a very special performance and what made it special? 

One of our most loved concerts was a staged performance of the Ordo Virtutum by Hildegard von Bingen There’s just something magical about bringing the music of the period to life with full costumes and staging.

Before her passing, Margriet had planned that the music for the 2015 spring concert, commemorating our 25th year, would be the Ordo Virtutum of Hildegard von Bingen.  It had been a long-time goal of Margriet for the choir to sing Hildegard’s masterwork, and while she wasn’t with us for the performance, her preparations and plans were carried out with Seattle’s Nancy Zylstra stepping in to direct the choir.  It was an emotional and powerful performance of an unmatched work.

– Choir Member

A turning point in the life of your choir? 

When our much loved Founding Director, Margriet Tindemans passed in 2014, the members had to make a decision about moving forward or disbanding. With great resolve, we decided to go forward, eventually hiring Eric Mentzel as our new Artistic Director in 2015. With the addition of Scott Kovacs, Managing Director, our leadership team is helping to revitalize the membership and re-establish the Medieval Women’s Choir as one of the flagship organizations in Seattle’s very active early music scene. 

How has the group come together in lieu of recent loss?

I think many of our members share a deep connection when we’re remembering people in our group that have passed. Whether our Founding Director, Margriet Tindemans, or more recent, founding member Sally Black, our singers will choose to dedicate a concert to those who have left us. Those concerts are an important time of support, community grief, and healing.

“We are a choir of women, a community of women who nurture each other personally and musically.  We’re connected through our mutual love of our unique repertoire – medieval music.”

– Choir Member

Here are some other examples of Medieval music:

Codex Calixtinus, Spain, 12th. century. This is an example of free organum. The short first piece, “Vox nostra resonat,” is an occasional song of praise. The piece at the bottom, “Dum esset” is an office responsory for the feast of St. James.
Laudario de Cortona, Italy, 14th century. The “lauda” is a sacred refrain song in Italian used for devotional services (not part of the liturgy).
Engelberg Codex, Germany, 14th century. This is a German notation called “Hufnagel Notation” (hoof-nail, or horseshoe nail) for obvious reasons!

Special thanks to Medieval Women’s Choir Director Eric Mentzel, Operations Manager Scott Kovacs and the choir members who made contributions to this article.

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