Polyphonic Development and the Importance of the Polyphonic Era

In the Introduction attention was called to the fact that the labors of musicians to develop an art of music varied between the effort to make artistic use of the material of music, that is, to give it definite form, and to make it express the feelings of mankind; the first is in the line of construction, the second, content. The period we now take up was concerned most deeply, in its earlier stages, as we shall see, with finding adequate and logical principles of construction by which a musical composition of more or less length could be made from a simple musical idea and in which more than one voice could be used.

This period should be studied with the greatest thoroughness, and all possible examples of music of the composers representative of the period should be examined that one may gather a clear idea of the beginnings of composition and the development that shows from one generation to the next. These first groupings after the principles are matters of extreme interest to the musician when he compares the results in the music of the twentieth century.

The Polyphonic and Monophonic Styles

Students frequently express surprise that the complicated polyphonic or contrapuntal system, which began to take shape in the 11th century, should appear first, historically. The pupil in composition begins his studies with the harmonic or monophonic style and is afterwards inducted into the polyphonic style. Why did the musical art develop along polyphonic and not on the simpler lines ? It is intended that this lesson and those that follow shall show some of the influences that caused the line of development to move in a polyphonic and not in a monophonic direction. One thought is important to note. The elements of the simple, monophonic style were present in the music of the early centuries, in the people’s song, principally; since, however, it was the Church that determined the direction of artistic composition, the simple, natural principles of melody-making yielded precedence to a more highly organized, intellectual process. Before taking up the consideration of these matters it is well to get an understanding of the terms Monophony and ‘Polyphony.

There are two methods of giving harmonic support to a melody: by adding an accompaniment of chords, in simple or elaborated form, or by dividing the notes of the chords among three or more voices, which notes are sung or played simultaneously with the melody (an example is furnished by any simple air with accompaniment or a hymn-tune in four parts, in which the “air” or melody is in the soprano) ; this is Monophony, (monos-Greek for “one,” phone-“sound”) ; a second method is to add to the given melody other melodies, each independent in its movement up and down and in the duration of its successive sounds so far as concerns the movement and duration of the sounds in the given melody. This is Polyphony (poles, Greek for “many”).

Relation of Polyphonic to Modern Music

The exact relation of the Polyphonic Era to modern music has rarely been correctly estimated. Writers on this phase of the development of music are apt to lose themselves in wonder on noting the scientific growth of the art, and to express their great surprise that so peculiar an evolution should occur. This view of the question is totally inadequate. In order truly to estimate the value and influence of the period, it is necessary to inquire into the properties of the materials of musical construction which were developed, and the value of those materials as a foundation for the modern structure of music, apparently so different from the early forms but yet so intimately related to these forms.

Polyphonic music presents to the student so complex a form as to require the aid of material imagery in order to help the mind to a proper conception of it. Perhaps no more misleading idea has been advanced than that which makes use of the Gothic cathedral as an illustration of polyphonic form. It is true that in its multiplicity and yet interrelation of details the cathedral expresses one of the dominant ideas of polyphonic music; but here the likeness fails. A nicer perception of the subject may be gained by comparing polyphonic music to the foundation of a Gothic cathedral, strong and massive in construction, of utmost need to the permanence of the building, but entirely lost sight of in a general view of the whole structure; the importance of the comparison being the likeness of the complex and highly-developed superstructure to monophonic or modern music, seemingly so independent of what lies beneath, but in reality, dependent upon, and intimately connected with the established basis. Only in this way can we apprehend the real value of the polyphonic foundation to our superstructure of modern music; but for that foundation our modern music must have remained in its infancy for centuries to come. No freedom of artistic expression can be gained until absolute command of the material to be used has been obtained, and the principles thoroughly assimilated by the artist.

Polyphony and Monophony Contrasted

In the concrete, polyphonic music may be represented by a series of lines representing separate and distinct melodies; though a principal melody is always used, it is not supported by chords of harmonic structure but. by other melodies, or transpositions of the same melody, so used as to contrast with and support each other. Polyphonic music was essentially melodic, and, as has been very aptly stated, is to be thought of horizontally. Monophonic music might best be represented by one horizontal line supported at intervals by short, perpendicular lines. In this case the horizontal line represents the only distinct melody, and the perpendicular lines the subordinate or harmonic support or accompaniment.

The following example illustrates the process of using the same melody to furnish the principal idea and also the accompanying support, the latter being at the same time simply a transposition of the original melody.

Polyphonic Style. Each Fugue. Subject (or melody) enters in measure one; again, transposed to the fourth below in measure .three, and one octave below in measure ten. Enough is cited to show the horizontal structure of polyphonic music.

To present the idea more clearly and for the sake of contrast, a melody with accompaniment is shown in the next illustration, giving a single melody with the subordinate chord accompaniment, the chords in whole notes indicating the harmonic structure or basis.

Beethoven, Op. 24, Monophonic Style. Sonata for Violin and Piano. Melody enters in measure one with subordinate accompaniment.

Search for Structural Principles

While this question of the relation of polyphonic music to modern music may not apply to the first step in the development of the polyphonic style, yet it furnishes I preface to a discussion of the earliest stages of polyphonic evolution. The period preceding the year iooo A. D. was truly a period of fundamental research into the underlying principles of melodic and harmonic structure; but so crude and hesitating was the use of what was found that it is certain that polyphonic material was entirely misused until the birth of “measured music” dispelled this darkness by the enlightening influence of Proportion and Form. So many forms of musical growth, such as came in later years, were impossible without the mensural proportion, that is, music written so as to indicate duration, that this initial period gathered but a chaotic mass of musical material which was left undigested and unassimilated until the epoch of the Paris school.

Beginning of Polyphony in Greek Magadizing

The music of the Middle Ages has great interest for the historian and the student. It stands between our music and the music of the ancients; it drove its roots deep into the ancient time and extended its branches far into the contemporaneous epoch. It is the struggle between the two elements, the changes foreshadowed and apparent that give such interest to the history of music in the Middle Ages.

Polyphonic music was long in growing. To understand clearly, one must examine it from its very beginning in Greek magadizing, referred to in Lesson V. Music for many centuries was, in all its most important phases, entirely vocal. The ancients, probably because of the crude forms of their instruments, valued the human voice as the most suitable means of expressing the feelings through music, thus causing the peculiar phenomenon of the extremely late development of dissonances. While instruments can easily perform even the harshest of the dissonances, it is almost impossible for untrained voices to sing other than the more simple consonances. For this reason, the dependence on the voice as practically the only medium for the expression of musical ideas forced the cultivators of music to use the simple consonances of the octave, fourth and fifth. In its earliest stages music was entirely melodic and was limited to the use of one distinct melody, so that, no matter how many were singing, but one melody was employed. Soon arose the problem of accommodating the voices of boys and men to the same melody. It was manifestly impossible to have men and boys sing in unison, because of the difference in the compass of their voices; so the Greeks hit upon the plan of causing them to sing in octaves, a plan which science sanctioned, for had not Pythagoras proven that the octave, after the unison, was the most perfect consonance? This the Greeks called Magadizing. Why the Greeks, knowing as they did the other consonances, did not magadize in the fourth and fifth cannot be explained;. the only argument that can be advanced is, that their melodies were so limited in range that the voice of any man, whether tenor or bass, could without difficulty reach the highest or lowest tones of a melody in unison. While magadizing among the Greeks cannot be counted as a great advance toward the realm of polyphony and harmony, yet it was the first important step in the evolution, and as such, is important: So far, the voices singing simultaneously, though at a different pitch, and moving together in similar time values, followed monophonic methods.

Organum the Next Step

Further development did not take place until the destruction of Greek civilization had occurred and a sufficient lapse of time had allowed the Christian Church to establish itself: in a religious sense, in the hearts of the people, and in a permanent sense, by building churches and monasteries. In these monasteries we find the next great advance in magadizing, though now under the name of Diaphony or Organum. The musical learning of the time was painfully inadequate for the uses to which it was put. There remained in existence only a few of the Greek scientific scales, and those woefully distorted in form; no simple notation or musical literature; and in all probability, only a tradition in regard to the melodic construction and magadizing. Perhaps this was just as well, however, for the problem confronting these monks differed greatly from that solved by the Greeks. In the monasteries only men’s voices were used, and these without special regard to the compass. The problem was this: Given a melody to sing, using men’s voices of every range, from high tenor to low bass, without using independent parts. The difficulties were two in number: they had no conception of independent parts, and their melodies were of greater range than those of the Greeks, thus forbidding the practice of singing entirely in the octave or unison. The solution was reached in the following way, as indicated in the preceding lesson If the octave, unison, fourth and fifth were consonances, why not sing in the fourth and fifth as well as in the unison and octave? They had as yet no idea of singing two distinct melodies at the same time, but thought only of singing the same melody in the most consonant or agreeable manner. The result was music which sounded like the following example; while it was crude and harsh, it gave every monk opportunity to sing simultaneously the same melody, no matter what the range of his voice:

About the close of the ninth century, as we learned in Lesson VI, at the time of Otger or Odo, an abbot of Provence, in France, organizing had so developed as to be written for as many as four parts, using, however, only the perfect consonances, as the next example will show. In reality there are but two parts, as the two lower voices double the upper.

Secular Organum

The most remarkable advance is a form called Secular Organum, probably because of some relation to the Folk-song and the common Secular shown in people. This form showed the use not only of perfect consonances but of the imperfect consonance of the third; and, wonderful to relate, of a second, though only in a passing sense. That such a discord should be used is a remarkable commentary on the inherent sense of harmony which seemed to exist naturally, even at that early day. This form may have had its germ in the drone bass supplied by the bagpipe, which figured in the music of the people.

Example of Secular Organum showing use of third and second.

The Workers

Two men, as was shown in the preceding lesson, were instrumental in remarkably furthering this growth of music. Hucbald, of St. Amand, in Flanders, was born in 84o A. D. and died in 930. He was a friend of Otger of Provence, and it is through the latter that some of Hucbald’s work is preserved. Hucbald probably never wrote in organum of more than two parts, though mention is made of an organum credited to him and having in addition to the two voices, a third singing a pedal-point, or a bass on one single tone. His principal work is a manuscript on organum, a work of great reference value. Guido of Arezzo, born 990, died 1050, is of even more importance. Unlike Hucbald and Otger, he seems to have been more than a secluded monk, for he visited Rome and was a well known figure in the church. He was a most active teacher, and while his chief work was in developing notation, he nevertheless contributed important material in the form of organum, writing in as many as four parts, though in respect to the use of the less perfect consonances he was very little freer than Hucbald.

A short example, extracted from an iith century three-part composition, is given here as a specimen of the combinations and successions that were tolerated by the ears of the Middle Ages, and to show the tendency toward greater freedom in the direction of the motion of the parts, pointing toward those principles which later formed the science of Counterpoint.

Several interesting points may be seen in this barbarous composition: First, the imitation by the second tenor of the phrase given by the first tenor. This is evidently intentional, as this phrase occurs three times in the course of the composition and is imitated in the same way every time. This same phrase occurs near the end of the bass part (which is the theme or Cantus) and it may have been chosen for this very reason for use in the Discant parts. Secondly, the initial and final chords, viz.: root, fifth and octave are familiar to all students of Strict Counterpoint. Writers as late as Cherubini call this combination the best for beginning and ending Three-Part Counterpoint.

Development Determined by the Church

The Church and its beliefs were responsible for this singular yet not illogical development. Considering the peculiar monastic conditions, the evolution could not be expected to occur along lines which it would have taken had it been developed among the people and under the influence of the Folk-song. The learning of these monks was largely in church lore, and this, with a desire for a peculiar church music, led to the discarding of the natural and vivacious melodies and rhythms of the people, for the scientific and ascetic music and discipline of monastic religion. The one great advantage of this period to modern music was the constant association with the principal intervals of the scale; an association which may be partially responsible for our modern Tonic and Dominant harmonies. On the whole, this period represents the marking out of the lines of musical development for the eight centuries following, though the men responsible for this beginning could hardly have known or appreciated the impetus which was to be given polyphonic music by the invention of their simple) devices to accommodate voices of different compass and to secure concerted singing.