The Artistic and Educational Importance of the Polyphonic Music of Bach and Palestrina

By Rev. F. J. Kelly

The ordinary musician’s acquaintance with music in its different phases, is a very limited one. Music in its monophonic style, forms the greater part of this acquaintance. We shall see the meaning of the term “monophonic,” later on. The subject of polyphonic music or music of more than one melody, is almost a stranger in our midst. This latter style of music is rarely treated and still more rarely relished. To the lover of polyphonic music, this is an enigma. To him, the realization has been brought home, that polyphonic music is the support, the very backbone of the classic music of today. It is the very essence of the art and science of music. It is true, it is not the fault of polyphonic music that even the ordinary musician does not appreciate and value it, for that fault lies somewhere else. Still it is painful to the polyphonic lover to realize this. He knows and appreciates that vocal and instrumental polyphonic music are regarded, and are in reality, the most scientific, the most difficult, and the most artistic music written. What Milton, Shakespeare and Longfellow are to literature, what Michael Angelo and Raphael are to the art of painting, Palestrina, Bach and the other writers of polyphony are to the art of music. As the great painters, poets and scientists cannot be appreciated by the uninitiated, so it is not surprising to find the polyphonic style of music misunderstood and underestimated by those who esteem themselves well versed in the science and art of music. It is not a matter of taste, as some would have it, but rather of education, pure and simple. Polyphony in music is the art’s highest expression.

When considering harmonic support to a melody, we distinguish two very different styles of music. We can accompany a melody with chords, either simple chords, or in an elaborated form. Again, we can divide the notes of the chords into many voices, these notes being sung or played simultaneously with the notes of the melody. Such music, in which the melody appears but in one voice, and supported by harmonic tones in the other voices, is termed monophonic music. This is the music that is so very common to our ears, and which we cannot possibly mistake. In fact, it is so common, that some had led themselves to believe that it is the only form of music. Yet, we have another style of music, in which distinct melodies are added to a given melody, each melody entirely independent of every other melody, yet harmonizing most wonderfully with the leading melody. Each melody is distinct and independent in duration and movement. This is what is termed polyphonic music.

Music of One Melody and of Many

We find here then, the distinction or difference between monophonic and polyphonic music. In monophonic music, we find one melody assuming all importance to itself, supported and put in the foreground by harmonies, which harmonies have no individuality when taken alone. The peculiarity of the polyphonic style of music is the exact opposite. That portion of the music, which is monophonic style is merely the support of the chief melody, becomes a tissue of secondary melodies, hardly less important than the chief one, with which they harmonize most beautifully. In polyphony, each voice has something individual and interesting to do. Each voice is equally important, having absolutely nothing to do in making the chief melody more prominent, as in monophony.

Polyphony, which means literally many voices, was the very first attempt made, even before such a thing as harmony was thought of, to the building up of a musical art for more than one voice. Up to the time of the advent of polyphonic music, the art appeared in the form of one voice or unison, the Plain Chant melodies, and secular Greek music. The monotony of the unison music of the early church caused composers of that period to long for variety. To satisfy this longing, the first attempts were made in joining together two independent melodies, harmonizing with each other, thus giving pleasure to the ear. Here we have the very beginnings of the classic form of music, known as the fugue form, the most perfect, the most complete embodiment of polyphonic form. In the fugue, as all voices are of equal importance, the player is obliged to use the fingers with the utmost independence, in order to bring out the melody as it appears in each voice.

Each voice in the polyphonic style is a melody, thus this style of music is essentially melodic in all voices, and must be considered and thought of horizontally. Monophonic music, on the contrary, has but one melody, which is supported by chords harmonizing with it, and therefore might best be represented by one horizontal line denoting the melody, supported here and there by short perpendicular lines, representing the harmonic or subordinate support. The folk song is a very good example of the latter style of music. It has the appearance of a line of notes on top, namely the melody, with groups of other notes hanging down from it, here and there. A Bach fugue is a perfect example of polyphonic music, having the appearance of three, four or five interlacing lines of notes.

Although to the monk, Hucbald, must be given credit of having first thought of the beautiful structure of polyphonic music, yet in the sublime choral works of the great Palestrina, we have really the beginning of this style of music properly so-called. Among the different styles of figured music, the polyphonic compositions of this great genius occupy the place of honor. It became so much his own style, that polyphonic music was known by no other name than the Palestrina style of composition. He brought it to its highest state of perfection. His first melodies were taken from the Plain Chant of the early church.

Palestrina, the Sanctifier of Polyphony

The polyphonic music of Palestrina was the first figured music to be recognized in the service of the church. Before his advent, figured music was looked upon more as a pagan art. He secured its proper recognition as a Christian art in his great polyphonic compositions, and its right to a place alongside the unison chant in church service.

Polyphony then found its first really worthy expression in vocal music in the great compositions of Palestrina. He composed little or nothing of an instrumental character. Many years after, we find this style of music applied to instrumental form. This was the natural course, for polyphony itself, suggesting many voices, each voice signing its independent melody. Later on we find this style of music attempted to be played by one or two persons, instead of being sung by many.

Bach’s Instrumental Polyphony

In the Inventions, Preludes, Toccatas and Fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach, we have the first great examples of polyphonic instrumental music. Moreover, polyphonic music heretofore had been mostly, if not entirely ecclesiastical in character. In Bach’s works, it began to assume a secular character. What Palestrina was to ecclesiastical vocal music, Bach was to secular instrumental music. Bach’s works in the polyphonic style, have such depth and perfection of detail, that the student can go on studying them, and continually find new sources of delight. Bach composed a great Mass in B minor and numerous sacred cantatas, but his matchless fugues are the masterpieces of the musical world. They are the wonders among musical compositions. To follow the motive in one of Bach’s fugues, affords the keenest pleasure to a well-trained musical ear, a pleasure that is satisfied to the full when one arrives at the end of a fugue. It is true, that the ear sometimes has difficulty in following the motive, as it enters in the different voices, because of the intricately interwoven character of the fugue form. In the ordinary composition in monophonic form, we have but one melody upon which the ear is always riveted, without any distraction. In fact, the harmonies make the melody stand out prominently. It is composed like the lines of poetry, with a pause here and there, where the ear has a chance to rest as it were, before resuming. This is not the case with the fugue form, which is a continuous composition, form beginning to end, with melodies interwoven in such a way, as to demand strict attention on the part of the ear. Perhaps this is the reason that fugues are considered dry.

Artistic Economy of Material

Many of the compositions of the present day, in fact, many of the compositions of the great masters, contain superfluous tones that add nothing to the harmony of scheme of design. Such music may be beautiful, but as an art it is defective. In Bach’s compositions though, there is not a note, not a dot, that one could afford to sacrifice. The motive in his fugues does not merely enter in the different voices and dismiss, but it is developed to the very utmost, without any confusion of outline. Bach is supreme among all composers in this, even in his smaller compositions for two voices. In his grand polyphonic scores, each voice stands out prominently, the melodies interplay harmoniously forming one grad whole, the admiration of the player and the hearer. His compositions, although dating back several hundred years, are ever modern, ever interesting, and will always remain so. With Palestrina, he well always stand forth as the great musician of the ages, because of the fact that to them we owe that sublime form of music known as polyphonic music.