The origins of polyphonic music

For the first time in musical history, towards the end of the twelfth century one centre took the leadership in music: the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. It was to serve as a model for the whole of the Western Christian world. Although plainchant continued to be used there for liturgies, from the 1170s the cantors and canons (lf Notre Dame developed new styles and introduced major innovations, This great hull of composition became known as the Notre Dame School, Polyphony was increasingly practised in the abbeys and cathedrals of France at that time, but nowhere more intensely than at Notre Dame. Furthermore, it was most certainly there that the dimension of rhythm – the notation of music with a steady beat – was first introduced into musical composition. The music produced by the Notre Dame composers was very soon imitated, copied and sung in the great churches of France and also in the rest of Europe. The cathedral’s unprecedented musical pre-eminence is largely attributable to its brilliant musicians – above all the famous Magister Leoninus (or lignum; fl. c1160) and Perotinus (alias perotin; fl. c1180-1225) – but also to the city’s extraordinary renown at the beginning of the thirteenth century, when it was known as ‘Mater artium’ (Mother of the Arts), ‘Secunda Athena’ (Second Athens) and ‘Paris expert Paris’ (Paris without Equal). lts position as the cultural and intellectual capital of the West is partly explained by the eminence of its royal and ecclesiastical institutions, but above all by the immense success and renown of its University. Already in the early decades of the twelfth century Abelard and other eminent Parisian scholars had brought pupils flocking from all over Europe to the monastic schools of the Mont Ste Genevieve and the Left Bank (the part of Paris later known as the Latin Quarter), where they gained a good grounding not only in theology but very often in music as well, which explains the extraordinary dissemination throughout Europe of the Notre Dame repertoire.

The intellectual horizon of medieval man, whether king or peasant, pope or cleric, was religious. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, religious ideas were marvelously and vividly represented for people of the time through the Symbolism of Romanesque then Gothic art. The meanings of those Symbols are of course now lost for us in our modern rationalist and materialistic society, to which the Middle Ages appear So strange, so far removed from us and our way of thinking, The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period of great social and economic upheaval as well as important changes in mentality and Sensibility. Rational understanding, which was of growing importance, attempted to no-exist with and complement traditional understanding through mysticism and symbolism.

Christian neo-platonism led to the development of the current religious doctrine: the belief that everything visible and material can Ix related to a divine essence that is immaterial and invisible, as expressed in the theory of correspondences; correspondences, conferences between visible and invisible worlds, between the Old Testament and the New. These theories are explained in the texts of the philosopher Dionysius the Areopagite, a Greek martyr converted to Christianity by St Paul in the first century and known in France as St. Denis, and they were taken up again Icy the great philosophical Schools of the early Middle Ages. They clearly inspired the creators in the twelfth century of what came be known as Gothic art. Abbot Suger frequently referred to Dionysius’s theory of light with reference to the new Gothic choir he had built (completed in 1144) at the Royal Abbey of St Denis: in our precisely ordered universe, everything is bathed in divine light and reflects that light, that divine love. New architectural concepts should make that light visible. The liturgies and the music used for daily celebrations should also be a faithful reflection of that Gothic Spirit, that medieval idea of universal harmony, coherence and unity. The very bold musical creations that came into being from the end of the twelfth century at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, then under construction, are the reflection, the musical expression of the Gothic spirit, The repertoire of the Notre Dame School comprises three specific new genres: arcana is an arrangement of the whole or part of a Gregorian melody, which is drawn out into long held notes in the lower voice, while the tapper voice or voices are more mobile, creating long virtuosas melismas on each syllable of the text. Only the parts sung by the Soloists are polyphonic; the choral parts are monophonic. The organa of the Notre Dame School are impressive with their alternation of rhythmic and free parts, The motet combines the characteristic feature of arcanum (polyphony on a plainchant), and the conductors (the upper parts carry newly composed texts). This musical genre was to become dominant in the thirteenth century, with composers focussing most of their attentions on it, The motet may be sacred or secular, with differellt texts in the different voices, sometimes even in different languages (langue d’oil i.e. the medieval French dialect spoken in northern France, and Latin).

The conducted, unlike arcanum and the motet, has nothing to do with Gregorian chant. It uses newly composed music and poems, and the texts are often non-liturgical, or even Secular. Conductus may be monophonic or polyphonic, with up to four voices Singing the same text Simultaneously.

These important new genres gave rise to a whole body of theoretical writings, the first in the history of Western music to go beyond philosophical generalities and approach the problems of musical technique and interpretation. The theorists, all of them members of the clergy who were directly in contact with the cantors of Notre Dame, give a thorough and very precise explanation of the values of long and short notes and provide us with information on the conditions of performance, Of course much of their attention is concentrated on arcanum which, being specifically liturgical, was regarded as the most prestigious of the three genres. arcanum was sometimes performed with great solemnity during the Office: a few of the singers would leave the stalls, put on a cope and come before the great lectern Surmounted lay an eagle that stood in the centre of the choir. The voices were obviously male, a cappella and solo, although the tenor (i.e. the voice carrying the plainsong) was Sometimes taken by two cantors. We find precise information about the number of singers Benedicamus domino: 3-part arcanum, performed at different moments in the course of the Office. The Notre Dame repertoire includes many 2- or 3-part ‘Benedicamus Domino’ songs, which could also be Sung in monophony by the boys of the choir, in which case the whole choir would respond with the ‘Deo gratias’.

Deus misertus: 4-part conductus, Four-part chants were very recent, probably introduced by Perotinus. The three verses of the poem refer to episodes from the Old and the New Testaments.

Sursum corda 2-part conductus; an exhortation to sing in polyphony to the glory of God.
The presence of many musical terms in the text indicates that the author was probably also a singer, possibly one of the ‘machicoti’ of Notre Dame.

Descendit de Delis: 3-part arcanum for Matins on Christmas Day; probably sung in procession. The polyphonic sections Sung lay the ‘machicoti’ alternate impressively with the working at the cathedral in the twelfth century, Notre Dame had about two hundred clerics on its staff, including forty or so ‘clercs de matinee’, who formed the cathedral choir. Those Singers, who were engaged on a yearly basis, were often young and they received no stipend from the cathedral. Six of them formed a very small elite, known as the ‘machicoti’, specializing in the performance of polyphonic pieces. These six virtuoso cantors were responsible for singing all the solo parts and therefore the organa. Their Small number and the fact that singers in medieval times would usually memorize both texts and music possibly explain why so few manuscripts of arcanum have come down to us, The theorists give in detail the various methods that could be used by these specialized singers to embellish their solo parts, also mentioning the specific points in the arcanum at which embellishment was authorized. Unfortunately, the descriptions are in a Latin that is not always easy to understand or translate, but we do manage to glean a number of techniques, Such as the addition of notes and the vibration of the voice or voices at various key moments, sections in plainchant performed by the large choir. We find here the famous melissa ‘fabrice mundi’, which was highly developed in the Notre Dame tradition. Moreover, in the version we have chosen, this melisma is groped, i.e. it carries a text glossing that of the responsory Descendit de celis. It was this type of ‘grands répons’, treated in arcanum, that so impressed Perotinus’s contemporaries as well as many later generations.

Mundus vergens: apart conductus. The words describe France in the troubled period of the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. The events referred to could be any of various wars and conflicts of that time: those between Philip Augustus and the English kings Richard the Lionheart or John parkland; those leading up to the Battle of Bouvines (1214), when the French king won a decisive victory over an international coalition of the Holy Roman emperor, Otto IV, King John of England, and the French vassals of Dammartin, count of Boulogne; the Albigensian Crusade (from 1209); or the barons’ revolt against the young Louis IX (from 1227).

Olim sudor hercutis: l-part conductus with refrain; the author is Peter of Blois, a famous cleric and one of the great intellectuals of the twelfth century (d. 1212). He was notably secretary at the court of Henry II Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine, which was culturally the most brilliant and the most modern of that time. He is well known as the author of many Latin love poems, some of them quite erotic, in which he celebrates a lady by the name of Flora; but he also wrote religious texts showing rather strict moral standards, like those of Philip the Chancellor. In this poem he declares ironically that he is Stronger than Hercules: the Greek hero may have accomplished his twelve labours, but he succumbed to the beauty of lobe; Peter is, he claims, superior because he shuns love, Veni floris sub figura: 3-part conductus. The five verses of this mystical (or abstruse) poem praise the virtues of the clergy.

(from Diabolus in Musica – Paris expers Paris – Ecole de Notre Dame, 1170-1240)


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