The Beginnings Of Polyphonic Music

FROM the days of Gregory the Great (ending with the sixth century) until the year 1000, musical history is practically a blank so far as definite improvement in the art itself is concerned, but those four centuries were very busy ones for Christendom. Everything worth while in educational matters was done for and by the church. All progress in music was in the hands of monks, who taught those whom they deemed worthy. Society during these four centuries had not only to be reformed, but re-created, for the invasions of the Huns and the Vandals, under Alaric the Goth and Genseric, had destroyed the very foundations of the Roman social fabric.

One of the most potent forces that disturbed Europe during these centuries was the advent of the Arabs or Islamites, one of the ancient peoples, a study of whose civilization and character has been purposely delayed until this time. The Arabs, geographically isolated by natural boundaries, like the peoples of Egypt and ancient India, had a civilization all their own, and special characteristics and gifts. Their belief in one God, although sometimes obscured by the influence of the religious worship of nations believing in many gods, was revived in all its purity under the leadership of Mohammed during the latter half of the seventh century. While their music has in it something of the mysterious and romantic, it never elevated itself to the level of an art like that of the Hebrews, but was confined to folk-songs, religious songs and popular instrumental music.

Peoples who enjoy nature are usually also music-lovers, and many of them are musically endowed. This was true of the Arabs and is plainly manifest in their poetry, which, while not showing strong rhythmic traits, is lyrical and musical. While their plastic art is limited (partly because of religious restrictions), their decorations are fantastic and at times fascinating. They show great love for music and poetry, which are more susceptible of variety than sculpture. The philosophers of Arabia had for centuries been wise, great and learned men. Many of the Greek sages, and also many personages mentioned in the Bible (even Paul), went to Egypt or to Damascus in Asia Minor to obtain what they called “the Mysteries,” which simply meant higher learning. Universities such as those of Damascus and Bagdad were well-known seats of learning long before the Christian era. It is, therefore, not surprising that such a people should bring forth a man like Mohammed, the author of the Koran (the Mohammedan Bible) whose teachings embrace social as well as religious reforms.

At the close of the seventh century all northern Africa had been subjugated by the Mohammedans, and in 711 they crossed into Spain, drove out the ruling Goths, and established the kingdom of the Caliphs, or what we call the reign of the Moors in Europe. Oriental culture and learning came with them, and at Cordova, the capital of the new Moorish empire, there was established a university which soon took rank with the older ones. Here science was fostered, and learned men were protected, relieved from taxation and given govern-mental support. ‘As a consequence many Jewish scholars, with their followers, who were persecuted in most countries, sought and found a home in Spain.

To get a clear idea of what Moorish civilization in this early eighth century meant, we need but recall the general condition of Europe with its absence of roads and its lack of learned men except in the cloisters or monasteries. In the Moorish cities, on the contrary, were found paved streets, lighted and carpeted houses, and great libraries containing as many as 600,000 manuscripts. These Arabs were well versed in the science of chemistry; they had discovered alcohol, nitric and sulphuric acid, and the principle of specific gravity; they had invented the clock, and discovered how to regulate it with a pendulum; they had a good idea of the size of the earth; they invented that most intellectual of all games, chess; they introduced algebra and trigonometry, and knew how to manufacture cotton textiles for dress; they knew how to forge steel in a marvelous manner, for no armorer has ever been able to excel the Damascus blade in its combination of strength and pliability.

The Moors helped to make Europe acquainted with ancient Greek philosophy, and also had a powerful influence in the domain of architecture, as is shown in the Cathedral of Cordova and the Alhambra of Granada, which were erected in the early eighth century, and are still admired for their singular beauty. As the Koran forbade all kinds of symbolic representations, the Arab could gratify his taste for beauty, for art, only by using mathematical forms of construction for his ornamentation, which in architecture, and by courtesy also in music, are even today called “arabesques.” These latter are each constructed out of one certain figure, and so wonderfully contrived after the Arab manner of artistic structure that they become art-works. The same spirit of exuberant ornamentation prevailed in their music, but there it lacked the firm foundation necessary for a suitable starting-point.

They had a great love for the beautiful, for poetry, as did all the Orientals, their rich and flexible language affording abundant scope for a flowery style of expressing the ideas suggested by their fertile imaginations. Like the Greeks, they chanted poems at their banquets, their feasts and religious festivals. At their annual fairs the people came together from far and near, and held contests in elocution and in poetry, similar to those at some of the Greek and Roman games. They did not exhibit mammoth pumpkins, large ears of corn, or big apples, but instead had contests of mind; and selections from the very best literature, thus presented, were embroidered in gold upon silken banners which were hung in the most sacred places, such as the temple at Mecca. In the time of Mohammed seven such banners hung in that temple, and the great leader highly esteemed the honor conferred upon him, when one of the chapters of the Koran was deemed equal in eloquence and power to the great poems to which had been awarded the palm of excellence at the contests.

Their theoretical music-system, with its seventeen tones within the octave (progressing by one-third steps), was as complicated as that of the Greeks and Hindoos, though probably much simpler in actual practice, but their vocal melodies are decidedly different, being full of the ornamentation that we call Oriental, of which the following “Song of a Muezzin to the Rising Sun” is a fine example. Ferdinand David recorded this melody as exactly as our notation will admit, and also supplied a harmonic basis which here appears slightly contracted.

The similarity in character of this melody to that of the more ancient ones used in the synagogue is at once evident, even though it is more jubilant.

The Arab boat-songs and funeral chants are given a nasal intonation, which is deemed preferable to our manner of singing. The most prominent among their musical instruments is the Rebab or Rabab, a modification of the Serinda of the Hindoos. This instrument is played with a bow, is shaped somewhat like our violin, sometimes larger and sometimes smaller, but played like the violoncello; the “poet’s rebab” has but one string, whose varying tone furnishes an emotional basis for recitation, while the “singer’s rebab” has several strings used in accompanying the voice. It is generally considered the precursor of all our modern stringed instruments played with a bow. They also had a sort of mandolin with seven or more strings called Al’ud (from which are de-rived the Spanish word Laud, the Italian Liuto and the English Lute), and the psaltery of the Hebrews, but with metal strings which were struck with little hammers — one of the ancestors of our piano.

After their conquest of Spain the Moors made numerous attempts to cross the Pyrenees into France, hoping to establish their faith throughout Europe, but these were thwarted by the armies of Charlemagne (Roland) and Charles Martel. The character of their poetry, many of their customs and some of their musical instruments, nevertheless, came into European use in the twelfth century upon the return of the Crusaders from the Holy Land.

After deep and extensive investigation of all available material, music-historians agree that all ancient music was homophonic or monophonic. Since, however, the voices of men differ in compass from those of women and youths, their unison singing must have been in octaves. The Gregorian chant in its very name (cantus choralis) implies a similar practice.

To us of the present day, with our inherited harmonic sense, it seems perfectly natural to hear different sounds simultaneously. There are nowadays many people who upon hearing a melody can improvise an “alto” thereto. They practically illustrate our inherited sense of harmony. It is only in comparatively modern times that the art of sounding different tones together was realized and systematized. From the earliest attempts at using two distinct voices arose the form of musical practice called polyphony, in which every voice finally became equally important.

In a comparison of the monophonic style, monody, with the polyphonic style, polyphony, the former may be likened unto a single beautiful line full of more or less graceful curves, and the latter to a number of such lines which together form a beautiful, harmonious design in which proportion and form are clearly evident. The musical ear naturally seeks for agreeable combinations of sound, or what are called consonances.

Quotations from some writers of the early Christian era with regard to the simultaneous utterance of different sounds have been given in a previous chapter, but a chronicle of the time of Charlemagne, written about A.D. 800, definitely states that the French were taught by the Roman singers how to accompany a melody with a subordinate one, and that this was called the art of organizing, the Latin name for this practice being organum.

Another historian by the name of Hucbald, about the year 900, gives a similar account, and some of his personal efforts in this direction have been discovered. He gives examples of two kinds of organum, sacred and profane (i.e., secular) In the sacred organum the two, three or four voices moved in parallel fourths, fifths and octaves; Hucbald himself spéaks of the effect thus produced as “suavem concertum.”

Thesecular organum (also called diaphony) was similar to the practice in vogue in some of the early Christian churches when one singer sang a stationary tone, while another sang an improvised melody above it, thus forming a series of seconds, thirds and fourths.

The transition from theoretical rules to agreeable tone-effects was very slow, and it seems almost as if the monks and church musicians enjoyed Hucbald’s sacred organum, al-though they may have considered it a worthy penance for the ear, similar to bodily flagellation.

A most prominent character in early musical history, who lived around the year 1000, was a man by the name of Guido, who was born in Arezzo, a little town in Tuscany. As in those days there were no surnames, and people were designated according to the town from which they hailed, he is called Guido d’Arezzo. He was a church singing-teacher. For notation in his work he invented a staff of four lines (till then only two lines, for F-clef and C-clef, had been used), which became the accepted ecclesiastical staff, and placed the characters called neumes (which now began to look a little like our notes) upon and between the lines; in his treatises he also wrote on his new staff the pitch-names C, D, E, etc., in place of neumes or notes. He was therefore in a dual sense the father of our modern musical notation. His method of teaching sight-reading was famed for its supposed simplicity. He drilled his pupils in the singing of a hymn which had a notable effect upon our own (solfeggio) studies. Like the members of every other business or profession in the Middle Ages, singers had their special patron saint, St. John. Every singer, therefore, after his regular prayers, said an additional one to St. John, begging the saint to protect him against hoarseness; Guido, wise man that he was, set this prayer to music, knowing that students of singing would learn and practise it, especially as it would accomplish a double purpose. As may be seen from the following illustration the tune was a very simple one. Each line of the poem begins with a different pitch, C beginning the first line, D the next, E the next, then F, G and A.

The first syllable of each line gave the series ut, re, mi, fa, sod, la. (Ut was changed in later years to do, forming the familiar do, re, mi, fa, sol, la.) The last line of the hymn, consisting of the words Sancte Ioannes, furnished still later the letters s i for si. These six syllables were thus sung to the tones of the scale of C, omitting B. There was a distinct advantage in thus memorizing the scale, as it laid an excellent foundation for the study of intervals. Pope John the Sixth, about the year 1026, sent for Guido to come to him and explain this new method. Guido must have been a very thorough teacher, for he was apparently able to adapt his work to all kinds of students. For those who could not learn otherwise he made use of his hand for the exposition of his system, and he began with the Greek gamma (G) as ut at the tip of the thumb, and from this ut down the joints of the thumb, and then of the other fingers until he had used all of the joints and had to indicate the last tone above the tip of the middle finger. He did another wonderful thing, wonderful at least for those days, and that was the exposition of the relationship of keys and scales to one another. He virtually used the key of C, with its dominant key of G; he hesitated to use the subdominant key of F (including B-flat) in teaching; and he omitted the sharp, possibly because he was just a little afraid of its use. There were but six tones in his scale, C D E F G A, so he called it a hexachord, to distinguish it from the Greek tetrachord; he recognized, further, the scales G AB CD E and F G A B C D, all having the same form or succession of whole steps and half-steps. The augmented fourth, as we call it (F to B), was early named the accentus diabolus (the sound of the Devil), and was carefully avoided by church composers.

He called the initial tone of each scale ut, because in doing so the mi-fa always represented a half-step; and he named this process of transition “mutation.”

We see from this that he is the father of what we now call the “movable-do” system (the tonic of the scale always being do), in contradistinction to the “fixed-do” system in which the place of C, regardless of sharps or flats, is always called do, a method used in most Latin countries.

There are those who claim that Guido was not the inventor of all these devices in teaching, but all agree that he was a great teacher. That he deserved the title of master is evident from his work “De disciplina artis musicae,” wherein he proves himself not only a sound theorist but a practical teacher. He himself said, “I care only for that which is good for the Church, and tends to the advancement of our little ones.” In another place he says, “The musician must so arrange his song that it reflects the words; if the melody be for youth, it must be very cheerful; if it be for old age, it must be serious; while funeral music should be depressed, and festival music joyous.”

The musical theories taught and practised by this brilliant man must have been startling to the staid church fathers, as a departure from revered tradition, and it is not surprising that, in spite of almost universal praise of his work, through intrigue he was compelled to resign his office at the monastery of Pomposa, near Ravenna, and was even cast into prison, from which, however, he was released by Pope John IX (1024-35), one of his staunch admirers. His country-men of Tuscany have but lately recognized his greatness by the erection of statues at his birthplace and at Florence.

While these didactic reforms were taking place in Italy, efforts at part-singing were continually being made in the Netherlands and along the Rhine, as well as in France and England.

In time a fixed church melody, cantus firmus, was substituted for the stationary tone of the secular organum, and another melody, called discantus, improvised above it, note against note. The association of two such distinct melodies forms the real beginning of two-part counterpoint, and the singer who knew this art of improvisation was called a déchanteur.

About the year 1100 we find written rules published for the guidance of those who wanted to study this art of the discant; and of course, when rules are formulated about any art, it is evident that the art has already progressed considerably in practice.

As long as the voices went along in parallel or contrary motion, all singing the same words together (or at almost the same moment), it was not difficult for the singers to keep together; but soon a liberal use of all sorts of embellishments was made in the discantus. These embellishments were called by the French fleurettes (little flowers), and by the Italians (when this art took root among them) fioriture. It soon became necessary to have signs or characters ex-pressing duration of tone, or what we call notes. Such a musical notation was invented, codified and perfected gradually by various theorists and composers, prominent among whom were Johannes de Garlandia (the elder), who wrote the treatise “De musica mensurabili” some time in the second half of the twelfth century; he was followed by Franco (the elder) of Paris, and Franco (the younger) of Cologne, the former the author of the “Ars cantus mensurabilis,” the latter of a ” Compendium discantus.” From this last work it is evident that discant singing had considerable vogue along the Rhine, and that the practice of two voices singing tones of different duration was already well known early in the thirteenth century.

The next reformer was an Italian named Marchetto, of the city of Padua, who wrote a treatise on music, and who had begun to use what we nowadays call “modulation.” He was among the first to make use of the sharp, the flat having been in practical use for a long time. After him came Franco of Paris, where the first really important work was done in polyphonic music. The Parisian Franco also labored for the establishment of a mensural notation which he found necessary for the proper reading of his part-songs, and he is thought by many to have been its originator.

The younger Franco strongly advocated the use of mensural song, and his system was widely adopted. He also in-vented a manner of indicating the contents of the rhythmical measure by introducing the tempus perfectum (the three-beat measure), called perfectum because the number 3 represented the Holy Trinity. He was also the first to classify the real dissonances in harmony, as being the seconds and sevenths, and of course included the augmented fourth, which had been abhorred by the ancients and avoided by the early Christian musicians.

The laws of part-writing promulgated in his works are virtually those that govern modern writers. He rejected the parallel fourths and fifths of Hucbald, as Guido d’Arezzo had done, and advocated the movement of voices in opposite directions, what we term “contrary motion.”

We have seen that during the first eleven centuries of the Christian era, the development of music was in the hands of various men of different nations, whose work was very much the same, with here and there some individual showing an unusual invention that was speedily adopted by others. Discanting, which arose in France, spread rapidly among other nations, as had been the case with diaphony and the sacred organum.

Beginning with the twelfth century, however, there seems to be a rotation of nations whose composers really formed schools of music, as we call them, in which their pupils were educated, each student building upon the work of his master, and carrying the new art-practices into other lands.

The apex of such high endeavor shifted from France in the 12th and 13th centuries to Belgium in the 13th and 14th, and from there to the Netherlands, Germany and later to Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The French school of polyphony is the real beginning of counterpoint as an art, as well as a science. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, it was generally agreed among historians that the Belgians were responsible for its early development, but the researches of the celebrated Belgian scholar Coussemaker in the MSS. discovered in the medical library at Montpellier, France, have proved that a number of French contrapuntal composers existed as early as the eleventh century, and that they resided mostly in Paris.

Foremost among these, towards the close of the twelfth century, must be mentioned the Parisians Léonin and Perotin, organists and déchanteurs at the church of the Virgin Mary, the predecessor of Notre Dame. In their works are to be found examples of important devices of counterpoint which they had undoubtedly tested in practice. Some of their pupils, such as Odygnton (died 1230), evidently came from England, and these were in some measure responsible for the splendid polyphonic compositions of the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in that country. of which we have such a fine example in “Sumer is icumen in” (to be mentioned again later). At first their counterpoint was for two voices, the cantus firmus of the Church with an improvisation above it. As soon as this was a settled practice, it was but a step to three- and four-part counterpoint, which were first used in the Motet and in secular compositions. There was another custom indigenous to North France and England in the twelfth century, namely, the singing in three parts in what we call chords of the sixth, using thirds and fourths between the voices, the lowest voice producing what was described as a “false bass,” a fauxbourdon, although some historians claim that the lowest part was hummed, because “bourdonner” means “to hum.”

This new and improved part-leading was first employed in secular music; but though church musicians were bound by academic rules, it was not long before it also came into use in the church in singing the psalms and responses.

Three forms of composition were used by the early French writers: the Motet, the Rondeau and the Conduit.

The first of these, the Motet, was (I) a sacred composition used after certain portions of the Mass, repeating its text, but in which one voice had a different text whose sentiment was, however, related; or (2) a secular work in similar form — an effort at musical independence of the voices, an out-growth of which is to be found in operatic ensembles. This style of writing gradually disappeared from France to re-appear in the Netherlands some centuries later, and to reach its supreme development at the hands of Orlando di Lasso in Munich, and Palestrina in Rome. In Germany, in a changed form, it was brought to the highest expression by Bach, Handel and their successors.

The second form of composition, the Rondeau, was secular, and all the voices sang the same text. A fine example of this is found in a composition by Adam de la Halle, used as an illustration in many histories of music.

The third form, called the Conduit (Latin conductus), was a style of vocal music in which all the parts progressed simultaneously, so that the mensural notation was not required in writing it.

The early French masters seem to have been fond of pleasing harmonies, rather than given to melodic invention. Still, the intellectual devices of imitation, canon, and even double counterpoint, were evidently sedulously cultivated by them, even if they sometimes perpetrated voice-progressions which are at times as harsh to our ears as the organum and diaphony of their predecessors. The following example from one of Perotin’s works illustrates this.

The phrases marked 1a and 2a are imitated at 1b and 2b, and the voices still frequently form fourths, fifths and unisons, showing the influence of the organum.

A succeeding French master of note was Jean de Garlande (the younger), also an excellent teacher and. theorist, whose treatise on the rules of counterpoint (the first in which that term appears) is especially interesting because he supplied it with illustrations of his own, such as the following one.

Among the numerous disciples of the Paris school, many of whom settled in England and the Netherlands, must be mentioned Jean de Meurs [de Muris] of Normandy (1200-1270). He it is who gives a clear definition of the discant when he says, “In discant there are only two voices, one which we call the tenor, and the other, who sings above the tenor, which is called discant.” He is the first to define the three kinds of tempi in use in his day, as lively, moderate and slow. He also informs us that the use of several notes against one is quite customary among contemporaneous singers. He understood the art of that period very thoroughly, and was severe in his criticism of those who practised it without having a knowledge of its laws.

The last of this early French school was Jean de Machaut (1300-1372), a poet as well as a musician, who wrote a Mass for the coronation of Charles V, his patron. His work al-ready shows a blending of the French or Parisian style of counterpoint with the Florentine “Ars nova” (new art) of the fourteenth century. The “old art” (Ars antiqua) thereafter declined in France, but was revived by the Belgians and Netherlanders,