Church Music 2: Medieval Polyphony

The first treatise to contain musical examples of musical notation, the Musica Enchiriadis c900 shows two melodies in parallel one fourth or fifth apart, to suit different voices, with the main chant tune in the upper voice with elaboration below but by c100 the process had been inverted. By  the 12th Century the polyphony (two ormore parallel melodies which harmonically accord) was becoming even more ornate.

The choir of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, completed in 1182, called for music to match its splendour. Here is an ear withness report from Bishop John Salisbury ((1120-1180) of Chartres (1176-80:

"When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the power of voices. Such is the facility of running up and down the scale, so wonderful the shortening or multiplying of notes, the repetition of the phrases, or their emphatic utterance: the treble and shrill notes so mingles with the tenor and bass that the ears lost their power of judging. When this goes to excess it is more fitted to excite lust than devotion, but if it is kept within the limits of moderation, it drives away care from the soul and the solicitudes of life, confers joy and peace and exultation in God, and transports the soul to the society of angels."

Note the complexities of the composition, the establishment of the four familiar 'voices' and the problematic borderline between devotion and depravity, a familiar theme throughout the history of church music.

Master Leo (Or Leonin c1150 1201) composed the first comprehensive body of polyphony in Western Europe, setting litrugies with which we are familiar today, notably the Mass and the Offices, taking traditional musical accompaniment and lengthening elaborations up to 20 times the original.

The next major figure was perotin (1160-1230) who made the break from exactly matching notes to words, giving scope for much greater elaboraiton and ornamentation whiich led  to the development of the Motet, a departure from the standard liturgy which often involved many languages (Latin and the vernacular) sung simultaneously, importng secular songs. WE know of the later development of polyphony from a treatise of Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361).

Further Listening:

Ecole de Notre Dame (Mass for Christmas Day), Ensemble Orgahnum/Peres HMA 1901 148

Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame, Ensemble Organum/Peres HMC 901590

Leonin: Sacred Music from 12th Century Paris 1/2, Red Byrd, Hyperion CDA 66944/67289