December 22, 2011

From chant to polyphony

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 2

Hildegard of Bingen: “A feather on the breath of God”. Gothic Voices/Christopher Page. Hyperion (link)

It’s ironic that the first featured composer in this history should be a woman, given the regrettable absence of women from the ranks of the “great”, or even the “reasonably well known”, composers. Hildegard (1098-1179) was a remarkable woman of her time: an abbess and visionary who corresponded with rulers and popes, toured Germany as a preacher, and produced numerous literary works on religion, medicine, and natural history. She has been an inspiration for feminists and the New Age movement, as well as the subject of four attempts at canonization in the two centuries after her death. In the 1150s, Hildegard collected several dozen of her poems in the work Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations), which survives today in two manuscripts that also provide monophonic musical notation. The compositions are mostly antiphons and responsories for the office, as well as some sequences for the mass and a few hymns. Hildegard’s music isn’t based on plainchant and makes use of a small number of melodic patterns that show up in many pieces; it also tends to have a high ambitus (the range of notes in a given piece), which gives it a soaring quality that matches well with the visionary nature of the poems. Hildegard’s fame as a composer is only a recent phenomenon: Gothic Voices’ hugely successful 1982 release was one of the first recordings of her music, though there have been many more since then. Her popularity may give the wrong impression that Hildegard was the only significant composer of her day; the reality of course is that she was just one among many others who weren’t so fortunate as to have their names and biographies preserved for future centuries.

Shining Light: Music from Aquitanian Monasteries. Sequentia. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (link)

So far, all the music we’ve heard in this history has been monophonic, but that’s not to say that this was the only sort of music that was being performed. When notating their chant, the Franks also indicated possibilities for harmonization, so it’s fair to say that some sort of polyphony was being practised; thus, the addition of drones to Beneventan chant and the use of instrumental accompaniment for some of Hildegard’s music may be speculation on the part of the performers, but it’s not wholly gratuitous. The 9th-century treatise Musica enchiriadis describes two basic forms of polyphony: drones are one, and the other is parallel doubling, in which the melody (the vox principalis) is accompanied by a transposition of itself by a fourth, fifth, or octave below (the vox organalis). For musicological reasons, it’s not possible to have perfect parallel doubling at a constant fourth or fifth, and so inevitably the vox organalis must differ from the vox principalis, leading to more complex free organum. The 12th century saw the development of melismatic organum, in which now the vox organalis is the higher voice and the original chant the lower, with the latter serving as a slow-moving drone (called the “tenor”) while the former sings in florid counterpoint, with many notes to each one of the drone’s. Manuscripts compiled at the Abbey of St Martial in Limoges (now in west-central France) in the first half of the 12th century provide some examples of melismatic organum.

Miracles of Compostela. Anonymous 4. Harmonia Mundi (link)

The other main source of polyphony from this period is the Book of St James, also called the Codex Calixtinus (it was supposedly commissioned by Pope Calixtus II in the 1120s), which is kept at the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela, Spain – or rather, was kept there, having been stolen in July 2011. This book contains numerous sermons, accounts of miracles, histories, and a kind of tourist guide for pilgrims travelling to the shrine; it also has an appendix containing twenty pieces of polyphony, including music for the liturgy of St James. We should note here something about present-day attempts to perform the music of this time. Although the Codex Calixtinus and the St Martial manuscripts are clearly notated in terms of the neumes, it can be difficult to determine how the two voices align, and determining the appropriate rhythm is also an issue. So any performance will require consideration from both musicians and scholars, and an acknowledgment that, however the music may sound to our ears, we’ll never know for certain how it was intended to be performed. These interpretative difficulties are highlighted by the trope Congaudeant catholici in the Codex Calixtinus; it has long been claimed to be the oldest known piece of three-part polyphony in Western music, but some scholars argue that it most certainly isn’t in three parts, instead being two two-part settings written together (sharing the same tenor). Anonymous 4 performs it on this recording as a three-part setting, so you can judge for yourself as to whether it “works” – in an aesthetic sense, if not in a historical one.

Magister Leoninus. Red Byrd; Cappella Amsterdam. Hyperion (link)

The action now moves to Paris, where in 1163 construction began on the cathedral of Notre-Dame; the University of Paris was also founded around this time. The composers at Notre-Dame aimed to create polyphony for the entire church year, and four large manuscripts exist today containing their music, although all four were not compiled until the mid-13th century or later. Unfortunately little is known about the composers themselves. An Englishman who studied at Notre-Dame in the late 13th century and whom history has given the name Anonymous IV (yes, that’s where the group got their name) wrote a treatise on music in which he made mention of Leoninus and Perotinus, but there is no corroboration of his information. True or not, the picture that has been accepted is one in which Leoninus, or Léonin, flourished from the 1150s to perhaps the end of the century, creating the Magnus liber organi (Great book of organum), with Perotinus, or Pérotin, revising his work and expanding on it at the end of the 12th century and beginning of the 13th. The music attributed to Leoninus comprises two styles, in which some syllables of the text are sung in highly melismatic organum and others are sung by the two voices note-for-note or thereabouts (a style called discant); in addition, certain passages are sung as plainchant by the choir. An essential innovation in this music is the appearance of clearly notated rhythm, usually triple metre where a long note alternates with a short. The use of regular rhythm may well have arisen for the simple reason that patterns are an aid to memorization – something greatly needed in these vast compositions that seem to mirror the great spaces of the cathedral for which they were written.

Perotin. Hilliard Ensemble. ECM New Series (link)

With Pérotin and his generation, the need for a strict rhythm became much greater, for now instead of just one voice above the organum there could be two or three, moving at a similar rate, and there had to be a way of ensuring everyone was where they should be. Pérotin’s compositions are thus much more intricate than anything heard before. And epic too: on this recording of the four-part organum Sederunt principes, it takes three minutes just to get through the first word. For all that this is complicated, monumental music, though, there’s still a great sense of clarity as well as a feeling of creative joy, of boundaries being pushed as new rhythms are employed and music is swapped between the individual voices. The appearance of the Gregorian chant sections in Pérotin’s organum can seem like a sudden gear-change on a time machine, as you realise how far we’ve come. This album features not only organum but also another genre of polyphony named conductus. Unlike organum, conductus wasn’t based on chant, in either its text or its music; instead, it was an entirely new composition that set a Latin poem, not necessarily a religious one (although those on this album are). Also unlike organum, conductus generally set just one note per syllable, and the voices moved together (there may be only one voice). Given that conductus was by its nature not based on pre-existing music and hence had no oral tradition by which one could learn a new piece, and given that in more complex polyphony there must be a clear guide to rhythm, there was now a great impetus for musicians to possess a means of fully symbolizing music. That development came about in the 13th century, and we’ll see what happened then when we return to polyphony in Part 5.

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1. Gregorian chant

Filed under A History of Classical Music, Classical