The English Polyphonic School

The English Polyphonic School is at once the least important and the most peculiar of all the schools of the Polyphonic Period. It is usually ignored by the writers on early music, not because there was no musical culture, but because there was not continuous and original development. English writers on this phase of musical development are too apt, through a pardonable pride of nationality, to exaggerate the value of British music, and in consulting such authorities, one should be careful to examine thoroughly all proofs of a dominant national school and discard such statements as are not perfectly authenticated. It is hardly the Englishman’s fault that he has had no definite culture which he may call genuinely English, for native composers have had more encouragement in England than usually falls to the lot of a creative musician. Indeed, England has always been a patron of the best in music, native or foreign, and no one nation has, as a whole, been more generous in appreciation; her treatment of Beethoven on his death-bed is a notable example of disinterested generosity. But in real, original, creative art England has had no great past; and especially is this true of the Polyphonic Period.

A Warlike People.

This is almost entirely due to her geographical position; there are many other reasons but they are almost all dependent on this one, and so must be treated in a subordinate sense. In her early days, England’s position served as a protection and kept intact her wealth of native Folk-music; but with the advent of the Romans and the spread of the knowledge of her natural wealth, came invasion after invasion. Since the first invasion, England has never been at peace; she has either been busily engaged in repelling the enemy from her own shores, or aiding in a conquest of some less fortunate foe. These wars and conquests not only served to cultivate a militant and restless spirit, but also produced a race of fighters from natural inclination. Look at the warlike Angles and Saxons, note the mixture of Romans, Normans, Dutch and Huguenots, all at the zenith of their fighting powers, and then cease to wonder that England’s greatness has been in the power to fight, to govern, to make conquests, rather than to cultivate art. England, when she reached the stage of conquering rather than defending, began to give, more than to acquire, and never reached the acquisitive stage until the present time with Elgar and the lesser lights of the new school, unless we except Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the realm of literature. England’s cathedrals are but the results of European cathedral building and the unity of Government and Church; had the Church and State always been separate, it is safe to say that England would have waited much longer for her cathedrals.

The Kindred Arts.

Literature was the only exception; and it is not necessary to seek for a further reason than the fact that Literature, as an art, always developed before Music. Art, in painting, was in the early days borrowed from other countries, and not until modern times did England acquire a national school of Painting; a noteworthy fact, for like Literature, such an art almost always precedes a national culture of Music. But these examples of the evolution of the kindred arts of Literature and Painting are encouraging rather than discouraging, for, having attained a high standard in these, England may now hope to develop a national culture of Music. In Music much the same conditions obtained as in Literature and Painting. With the exception of one or two isolated composers, and these trained in foreign schools, England always borrowed her music; note for example, Handel, Buononcini, Mendelssohn, to quote just a few noteworthy foreign composers. Each race as it conquered England brought its own music. St. Augustine sang a Gregorian chant as he entered Canterbury; the Normans and the Dutch had their own music; and Italian and German music long held the boards in England. Thus little time was spent in developing a native music, because the frequent wars and political troubles directed the strength into other channels than those of art; the proximity of a higher culture in Europe, and the tendencies of England’s foreign rulers, enabled them to import and subsist on foreign music when they should have been developing a native style. And finally, the isolation of England in the early days, later became an actual help to the acquirement of an alien style, because of the absolute necessity for students to live abroad to acquire musical learning.

Native Musical Life.

There was a certain amount of native musical life, but this did not tend to produce music along the conventional lines. Of Folk-music there was much, and the development, as a general rule, was aided rather than retarded by the conquests, though the combination of Folk-music of different nationalities does not usually tend to aid its unified evolution. The only real example of noteworthy writing, in the early polyphonic school, is the canon “Sumer is icumen in,” dated 1228, and attributed to an early English writer. There is no proof excepting the fact that the manuscript is in English, that the canon is of English origin; neither is there proof to the contrary. Single instances, however, do not prove the existence of an original school; and especially is this the case when that school, in its writings, far surpasses any other school of that period of which we know. In spite of the fact of the English text, and that this canon may be but one of many surviving the destruction of the English monasteries, impartial historians believe most strongly that the canon is of French origin, reset to English words and carried to England by a student of the Paris school. The Paris school was at its height at this time, and was the only school of such writing in the world; and while we have no other example of that school equal to this canon, yet it is easier to believe it to be French than English, for England had no such school at all. She had musicians (like Odington), but they were all pupils of the Paris school; and even had this work been produced in England, it would be safer to credit it to the Paris school, for the man who wrote it would, almost of necessity, have studied there. The only other way of accounting for it is to presume the date to be too early.

It is but fair to say that while this canon may owe its origin to the principles of the Gallo-Belgic school, it stands alone as an article of historical interest to the musician. Nowhere on the Continent has a work of equal importance of so early a date been brought to view. Mr. Wm. Chappell, the English antiquarian, brought to light several other productions of early English composers, including a hymn in English, scored for two voices, and another in Latin, for three voices. The manuscript has been definitely attributed to the middle of the 13th century. There can be little doubt that when so many monasteries, with their treasures of learning, were suppressed and their inmates scattered, in the time of Henry VIII, owing to the national change from the Romish faith, many valuable manuscripts that would today have the utmost interest to the musical historian were destroyed.

Whether this is purely English or not matters little, for it is a fine specimen and exemplifies Walter Odington’s rule for the construction of a Roundel, cited in a former lesson. This is more than a mere roundel, having not only a little Inversion and much Imitation, managed in a most ingenious manner, but also the whole canon is founded on a ground bass in two parts, themselves in canonic form. This bass consists of the regulation metrical form as seen at A and the following two measures, has one measure forming a connecting passage, thus bringing in the portion marked B which is the same as A only- a fifth higher; the whole forms a remarkable evidence of an early conception of the relation of the Tonic and Dominant, hardly to be believed. This metrical form is introduced, slightly changed and inverted, in the upper voices at A and B. The first voice states in all five melodies and the other voices follow at intervals of 4, 8, and 12 measures; in ending voice number two omits part of theme V, voice number three all of it and voice number four all of V and the imitation of the metrical bass.

Outside this one example, England produced little but moderately good polyphonic music in the form of. motets and madrigals, and in the time of Gibbons and Purcell, sonatas and operas. There were also anthems, the old plain chant and much Folk-music, but nothing that can be considered as important. The Folk-music is all that can claim originality, and that ranks favorably with the best examples of other nations and is, indeed, in advance of that of other nations considered more musical.

The Men of the Time.

While English music was not, at this period, very important, there were many composers whose names at least should be familiar. After the passing of the bards and minstrels, the monks controlled the composing of music until the dissolution of the monasteries, when it passed into the hands of the schoolmen of Cambridge and Oxford, where it remains today, though there are, at present, signs of an important awakening, presaging the passing of musical power from the hands of the conservative doctors of Oxford and Cambridge, to the present generation of younger and more talented writers. Walter Odington (1180-1250) was a pupil of the Paris school and a theorist of note, writing on the Mensural System as exploited in the French school. Robert DeHandlo (1326) was another theoretician who wrote on the same subject. John Dunstable (1400-1458) was contemporaneous with the men of the Gallo-Belgic school and did the same for English music in reforming it as the latter did for the foreign school. In recent years examples of his writings have been unearthed in the cathedral libraries of Trent and Bologna, as well as elsewhere, making it clear that in his lifetime he was regarded as one of the foremost composers of Europe. The theorist, Tinctoris, of the Netherlands school, considered in the next lesson, speaks of the “source and origin of the new art [Counterpoint] being among the English, the foremost of whom is John Dunstable.” A contemporary who was also well-known in Italy was John Hothby, who wrote several treatises on music. There were other musicians of prominence prior to the Reformation under Henry VIII, but we know little about them save their names. John Merbeeke (1515-1585) adapted the Gregorian chant to the English prayer book, which was published in 1550. Christopher Tye (1515-1580) was a teacher and wrote much church music; so also was Thomas Tallis (1515-1585), one of the most learned composers of his time, who set the choral portions in the service to music. He is noted for a celebrated canon in forty parts and for a hymn-tune, known as “Tallis” or “Evening Hymn,” which contains a canon between the soprano and tenor parts. William Byrd (1538-1623) was another noted composer of this school, being also famous as a writer of instrumental music. Queen Elizabeth granted to Tallis and Byrd the exclusive right to print music and to rule music paper. Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) wrote motets and madrigals and is known as a writer of both polyphonic and monophonic music. Henry Purcell (1658-1695) was the greatest composer of the English Polyphonic school, writing operas in the English and Italian style, songs, sonatas, motets and anthems. He seems to have been in many respects a very able writer and musician, but died too young to make any decided impression on his times.


From this it will be seen that while England had a musical people composed of a mixture of the most musical peoples of Europe, yet because of geographical position, political disturbances, religious troubles and wars, she was never able to produce a great and commanding school. She did not lack force, but it was directed into other, and for the time being, more important channels. Almost everything of an artistic nature was borrowed, or was a transplanted culture; and while the art of music never lacked men to cultivate it, yet these men were not of the calibre of the men employed in the other works of the nation, so that so far as the Polyphonic period is concerned, England is not important, and but for such men as Dunstable and Purcell and the canon “Sumer Is Icumen In,” England might be completely ignored in respect to her influence on polyphonic development.