Once you've read the material and clicked on the links, Assignment #7 will ask you six questions. (Link will open in a new tab.)
The Earliest Polyphonic Experiments
From the 900s onward there is some evidence that musicians were already experimenting with ways to combine more than one line at the same time. However, the earliest polyphonic passages that were written down in various sources tend to be very short and pretty weird.
For instance, here's one fragment that has been dated around the year 900.
Social Context: Paris in the Later Medieval Era
As we get into the 1100s and 1200s we start to see the growth of some Medieval cities. The city is of course an engine of social change - it has a much more complex economy that can support different trades. As people become more independent and take on new roles the culture also becomes more sophisticated.
Here is an illustration that's supposed to be Medieval Paris in the year 1389.
These cities start to build spectacular cathedrals at the center. Paris builds the Notre-Dame Cathedral, which took more than 100 years to complete. It was here at Notre-Dame that the first significant polyphonic compositions were created.
There were two choirmasters at Notre-Dame who developed this stuff. The first one was called Léonin and his successor was known as Pérotin.
We are going to listen to a Pérotin work called Viderunt omnes. It has four lines going at once. Let's just dip into this briefly and hear what it sounds like.
Pérotin, Viderunt omnes (first minute)
Once thing you might notice right away is that this music actually has a jaunty pulse to it. These polyphonic compositions at Notre-Dame were some of the first to specify the rhythm in the parts, because if you want this complex polyphonic structure to come out the right way you have to control time and keep the parts in sync.
The original Viderunt omnes chant
This piece is based on an old-school Gregorian Chant that would have been used around Christmas. The translation of the text says that "All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God."
The original version of this chant just flows like all of our other Gregorian Chant.
Cantus firmus technique
Pérotin constructs his piece using a method called cantus firmus technique. He takes the original Viderunt omnes chant and puts it in one of the voices, and then builds the other parts on top of that. "Cantus firmus" means "fixed voice" and it refers to any pre-existing line that you use as the foundation for a new piece.
In Notre-Dame-style polyphony the cantus firmus tends to run very slow. So rather letting the chant flow like it normally would, the part with the cantus firmus holds each note for a long time, stretching it out into a sort of drone, while the other parts bop around on top of it.
Let's listen to this again, and this time I'm going to put a copy of the original chant on the screen. The red cursor shows where we are in the chant. You'll see that sometimes we sit on one chant note for like 30 or 40 seconds before moving on. Also, the singers are singing the words in super-slow motion as well - the first thing they sing is "vi-" and then 40 seconds later they move on to "de-", and so on.
After a while Pérotin takes a break and lets the chant flow at normal speed. If you listen to the whole track you'll hear that it goes back and forth between the new polyphonic style and the old chant style.
There are two more bits of information I want to tell you about this piece!
The part that sings the cantus firmus was originally called the "tenor" - it's based on the verb "tenir," to hold. We now think of a tenor as just any high male voice, but in early polyphonic music the term refers specifically to the part that has pre-existing material in it.
Since this music is polyphonic and has rhythm, it is definitely no longer Gregorian Chant. The term for this kind of early polyphony from the Middle Ages is organum - so if you wanted to hear more stuff like this, that's a term you could search for.
Here is a complete recording of the piece.
and check out this guy....
Now it is time to do Assignment #7. Six questions. (Link will open in a new tab.)