Listen on repeat: Exploring medieval refrain songs

Music professor Mary Channen Caldwell brings together over 400 devotional Latin refrain songs from the Middle Ages in her new book, the first to explore the medieval refrain in song outside of vernacular contexts.

While working on a directed study on medieval dance in graduate school, Mary Channen Caldwell, assistant professor of music, kept coming across references to Latin songs with refrains. In contemporary music, the refrain refers to a song’s repeated lines, or its chorus—think of the part that you somehow always remember and sing along to.

Mary Channen Caldwell and the cover of her book titled Devotional Refrain in Medieval Latin Song.

But the refrain in the repertoire that caught Caldwell’s attention is distinctive in a number of ways. “You can have the same refrain in different songs, for example,” Caldwell says, explaining that there is more to the medieval refrain than its association with dance. Her new book, “Devotional Refrains in Medieval Latin Song,” explores these possibilities, tracing how the Latin refrains and refrain songs were created, transmitted, and performed.

“Devotional Refrains in Medieval Latin Song” focuses on devotional songs that would have been part of the musical practices of the Latin-literate communities attached to churches, abbeys, and schools across medieval Europe. The book, which includes five chapters, as well as an introduction and conclusion, highlights the versatility of the Latin refrain as a devotional tool in these communities—and as an interpretive framework for modern-day scholars. Each chapter analyzes a specific aspect of the Latin refrain, from its relationship to medieval notions of time to the refrain’s role in the formation of devotional communities. To carry out her study, Caldwell compiled and studied over 400 vocal works from dozens of manuscripts located in archives in France, Italy, Ireland, and elsewhere.

The book considers songs chiefly from the 11th to the 16th century, first examining the relationship between the Latin refrain and perceptions of time in the Middle Ages. Another notable feature of the Latin refrain appears in the manuscripts themselves as inscriptions, rubrics, and marginalia. This is significant for both scholars studying medieval music and those trying to reconstruct medieval cultural traditions. Caldwell says, “One of the hardest things about studying medieval music is that we don’t know how it’s performed. We can make educated guesses—we can study the theoretical treatises and make interesting hypotheses—but at the end of the day, there’s a lot that we just don’t know.”

This story is by Duyen Nguyen. Read more at OMNIA.