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Posts Tagged ‘polyphony

Composer Biography—Leonin (fl c1150-c1201)

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The Englishman known as Anonymous IV (nothing is known about him, not even his name) published an eponymous treatise in 1285 that told of two musicians creating polyphony for the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris: Leoninus and Perotinus. Latinized to sound more Catholic and snooty, their names were actually Leo and Pierre, but they were commonly known by their diminutive names, Leonin and Perotin (1160-1225, biography to come). If you’ve heard much Medieval polyphony, you’ve either heard their work or you’ve heard music that evolved from their work. It’s hard to talk about them separately, but I’m going to give it a try.

Leonin may have been the first composer to use the rhythmic modes, and he also possibly invented a notation system for them. You can learn more about rhythmic modes here: Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes.

Leonin served at the Cathedral of Paris in many capacities, beginning in the 1150s, before the building that stands there now was even begun (construction of Notre Dame started in 1163). Anonymous IV refers to Leonin as a “master,” which means that he held a Masters of Arts degree from the school that would become the University of Paris (in 1200).

Nothing at all is known about his childhood or family. He turns up at Notre Dame in the 1150s, and we can guess that, because he was a canon and a priest, he was around 30 at the time. He was also affiliated with the monastery of St. Victor, also in Paris. This is the same abbey where Peter Abelard (1079-1142) lectured before his unfortunate love affair with Heloise and ensuing castration in 1116 or 1117.

At any rate, Leonin was a poet who paraphrased the first eight books of the Bible in verse, and he did the same for several shorter works as well.

Anonymous IV called Leonin an excellent organist (meaning a singer or composer of organum rather than a keyboard player) and credits him with compiling a Magnus liber organi (“Great book of Polyphony”). The collection contained two-voice settings of the solo portions of the responsorial chants (Graduals, Alleluias, and Office Responsories) for the major feasts of the year. Elaborating the chants like this, showing the whole year’s music, was a vision as grand as that of the architects who designed Notre Dame Cathedral.

Leonin didn’t collect all that music alone, despite the suggestion by Anonymous IV that he did. At the very least, Leonin was a leading driver of the project, but it’s doubtful that any one person could have accomplished the deed. The original collection didn’t survive, and it isn’t certain whether there was music notation (as we know it) available for use at the time, so it may have been a collection of poems with some sort of code or annotation for how the music sounded. The repertory survives in two later manuscripts, in Wolfenbüttel, Germany and Florence, Italy. There’s no way to know how much of the music or poetry was actually written by Leonin, though.

Although the documentation is missing, Leonin was probably the composer who developed the contrast between melismatic plainchant writing (without rhythm or measurement) and discant (somewhat rhythmic) in two-part organa for Graduals and Alleluias, and in processional Office Responsories, that often proceeded from one style to the other. It was Leonin who developed the pattern of a slow plainchant-like melody in the tenor line (now called cantus firmus) that provides a foundation for an upper voice to affect runs and melodic sequences against. This dancing upper voice, called the duplum, demanded a new kind of documentation for the aforementioned rhythmic modes so that things would line up nicely and everyone could finish at the same time.

Leonin’s settings are impressive in their length, but they’re still shorter than those set by Perotin, who may have been his student. Many were recycled tunes, and because there are many variations on a theme that survive into today’s chant, it seems likely that a lot of music was transmitted orally and that musicians felt free to interpret, add, or change as they felt inclined. Building from a familiar foundation is a good way to go when you’ve got lots of people trying to memorize something.

Most music of the time was unison—monophony. Two discrete voices were a novelty in the 12th century, and it was Leonin who first documented the rules for this new form of music, now called polyphony, that would ultimately evolve into the chords and complex rhythms that we know today.

One of Leonin’s pieces, Viderunt omnes, was documented by Anonymous IV. It’s also in both the Wolfenbüttel manuscript and the Florence manuscript. It uses two voices and features two different styles of polyphony: organum and discant. The organum set one or two notes in the upper voice for every single note in the lower voice. The discant style is note-for-note in both parts, parallel melodies in synchronized rhythm. The intonation of the respond and most of the verse were sung polyphonically, probably by solo voices and the rest was sung in unison by the choir. In Viderunt omnes, all three styles (plainchant, organum, and discant) are on display.

The melismatic portions of Gregorian chant (the parts with multiple notes on a single syllable) is extracted to provide separate pieces, with the original note values of the chant slowed down, and the organum or discant in the upper part moving faster and superimposed against it. This is called clausulae and Is an element of organum.

Between 1150 and 1175, Leonin provided two-part organa for all of the Responsorial chants on major feasts, Responsories and their verses for Vespers and Matins, and the Graduals and Alleluias for Mass. His plan to write them all was subsequently rivaled only by the somewhat smaller cycle of three-part organa by Perotin (1160-1225, biography to come), and by the phenomenal publications of Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517) in the 16th century and William Byrd (1543-1623) in the 17th. Leonin’s new style of music was widely accepted across Europe.

Leonin’s Magnus Liber includes 13 pieces to be used for the Hours (Vespers, Compline, etc.) and 33 works for the Mass. Both sections begin with works for Christmas and continue into the liturgical year, providing not only items for the major feast days, but also works for various other occasions. The emphasis on the material for the Hours is placed on various Processional Responsories, and those from the Mass stress the Gradual and the Alleluia, the two chants already singled out as especially suitable for polyphonic treatment due to their soloistic character. All of the works in the Magnus Liber are for two voices and reflect the division into the two styles of organum and discantus.

These early motets (using the term loosely) were the first to put text to the melismatic upper voice of a clausulae—previously, the text was only written below the longer, slower tenor part. This important innovation was accompanied by a notational change from modal notation to syllabic notation for the upper voice or parts. Syllabic block notes took four forms: syllabic (simple conductus), duplum (organa dupla of the early Leonin period), modal (organa and clausulae of the Perotin period), and motet (the earliest motets). For the most part, this is too heavily technical for this biography, but maybe one day I’ll write a blog post on the subject. If you want to read more about music notation from the period, check out The History of Music Notation.

Some theorists think that Leonin derived the six rhythmic modes from his study of St. Augustine’s De musica, a treatise on metrics. He writes of three “long” notes tied together by a ligature and followed by three sets of two “short” notes—essentially each of the first three notes divided equally in two. The pattern evolves into sets of three counts, a long note being roughly equivalent to two short notes, so that the pattern of long-short-long-short can be counted out as six beats (in the modern sense of 6/8).

Leonin contributed a masterly use of flexible and variable rhythms, nearly always limited to the first rhythmic mode, which alternates long and short notes, with a lilt much like today’s 6/8 pattern. He breaks up the long and short notes into lesser values (called copulae, or links, by theorists of the day), which foreshadows what would come in the Baroque era (1600-1750) but baffled historians because contemporary theorists described them as being “between discant and organum and having the character of both.” That’s not very helpful, really. It’s like saying it’s a color that lies between navy blue and cyan.

Although Leonin played with melismas, they were short, only rarely containing a melodic leap larger than a third. They often contain glissando-like passages running through a whole octave or even more. Leonin’s melodic curve is broader than Perotin’s, which tend toward squarer rhythms and short motives. You’ll meet Perotin in my next post.

Nothing is known about where Leonin is buried, what he died of, or when. We can probably assume that he’s somewhere in Paris, as he spent very little time away from there. At least, he spent little time away that we know about.


“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Anness Publishing, Ltd., Wigston, 2012.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1978.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York 1981.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

“Music in the Medieval World,” by Albert Seay. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1965.

“The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600,” by Willi Apel. The Mediaevel Academy of America, Cambridge, 1961.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press at Berkeley, Berkeley, 1997.


Composer Biography: Antoine Brumel (c1460-c1515)

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Antoine Brumel was a French composer, and probably the first of the Franco-Flemish school to be from France. Most of the Franco-Flemish composers were from the lowlands area that is now Belgium and the Netherlands, once called Flanders.

When polyphony (independently composed lines rather than composed around chords) was a new thing, just evolving from homophony (unison chant), Brumel was the first to apply this new technique to the psalms that were sung at every Mass. Polyphony had gained in importance in the 13th and 14th centuries, but was mostly used for secular music. Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) was the first to write the Ordinaries of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the Ite, misse est) as polyphony, and slowly, the Propers (the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion, Marian antiphons, and later, the Tract) were added. Psalms were—and are—a common choice for text for the Ordinaries, so that Brumel was the first to do this is an important accomplishment.

It’s not known where Brumel was born, although some music historians say that he was born west of Chartres, possibly in the little town of Brunelles. This puts him in the Netherlands, but just across the border that would soon move to make him French.

His name is prominent among the handful of composers who rank after Josquin de Prez (c1440-1521) as the most eminent masters of the late 15th century and early 16th centuries. You’ve probably heard Brumel’s music—or music influenced by him—whether you know it or not.

Records show Brumel as a singer at Notre Dame in Chartres from 1483 until 1486. He became Master of the Innocents (children’s choirmaster) at St. Peter’s in Geneva in 1486 and stayed there until 1492. In 1497, he was installed as a canon at Laon Cathedral, and the following year, he took charge of the choirboys at Notre Dame in Paris. There he stayed until 1500.

For the next two years, Brumel was a singer at the Duke of Savoy’s Court in Chambery and from 1506 to 1510, he acted as maestro di cappel to Alfonso I d’Este (1476-1534) in Ferrara, replacing Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), who’d died of the plague the previous year. The post was meant to be for life, but that chapel was disbanded in 1510. Brumel stayed on in Italy as part of the Franco-Flemish musical invasion and he’s connected with both Faenza and Mantua, where he probably died in 1512 or thereabout, although there are stories of him dying in Ferrara as late as 1520.

He wrote at least one piece after he was dismissed from Alfonso I’s court, the Missa de beata virgine. In 1513, Brumel is mentioned in a treatise by Vincenzo Galilei (c1520-1591 and famous astronomer Gallileo’s father) as one of a group of composers who met with Pope Leo X (1475-1521). Because Vincenzo Galilei didn’t write his treatise for more than two decades after the event and hadn’t been there himself, it’s also possible that Brumel wasn’t there at all, one reason for his absence being that he was already dead by then.

Brumel was renowned on the musical scene during his lifetime and his music was performed far from where he lived. Josquin borrowed two voices from Brumel’s three-part motet and based his own piece, Missa Mater patris on it. Josquin’s Agnus Dei movement consists of the entire text from Brumel’s motet, plus two new voices. Josquin did this in some of his secular music as well, but it’s unusual to find Josquin using someone else’s work so literally right at the most climactic section of the Mass.

Brumel had a whole volume of his Masses published by Pandolfo Petrucci (1452-1512), like both Josquin and Obrecht, and his music appears peppered all over various manuscripts and collections of the period.

Musicological historian Glareanus said that Brumel excelled more through industry than natural gifts, but his music is truly lovely, so Glareanus was just a poor sport. You should listen for yourself and see what yObrechtou think. (Chanticleer put out an excellent album of Brumel’s music, which is how I first heard his works.)

Glareanus’ attitude might have been sour only because there was so much competition. Brumel was active at the same time as Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), Alexander Agricola (1446-1506, blog post to come), Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517, blog post to come), Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come), Josquin, Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518, blog post to come), and Jean Mouton (c1459-1522), who are considered the brightest lights in a particularly stellar time.

When Johannes Ockeghem died, Brumel was one of those called upon by Guillaume Cretin (c1460-1525, a poet) to compose a lamentation in Ockeghem’s honor.

Brumel was primarily a composer of sacred music, notably of Masses. There are twelve Masses and three Magnifacats that survive complete. His works can be divided into three stylistic groups: those with cantus firmus (the chant melody) underlying the tenor voice, those exhibiting greater rhythmic regularity and a closer relationship between text and melody in all parts, and those that are condensed and brief.

He also wrote 29 motets (a sacred version of the madrigal), many of which use cantus firmus, sometimes with an altered or completely different text (these were usually quotations from the Bible, so this straying was rare and notable), and are in a flowing and rhythmically interesting style. His Sicut lilium is one of these, and exhibits an attractive simplicity that suggests influence by Italian composers.

Sometimes Brumel embellishes and other times he simplifies the underlying chant melodies for his sacred pieces. He occasionally uses cantus firmus with the elongated notes in the tenor, and other times, it’s paraphrased in the superius (highest) voice only. In yet other pieces, the chant is paraphrased in both the tenor and the superius, and occasionally, it’s in all the voices, in imitation (see Johannes Ciconia for more about imitation).

Brumel excelled at a style called paraphrase, where the melody of the chant, instead of being in the tenor, is in the topmost voice. Guillaume Dufay was probably the first to use paraphrase in a Mass setting (listen to Ave regina coelorum, written between 1463 and 1474 for a good example), and other composers were quick to follow. Brumel also used bits of his own motets in his Masses, foreshadowing the parody technique (see Bartholomeo da Bologna for more about parody). By the 1470s or 1480s, Masses started appearing that had the paraphrase in more than one voice, such as those by Johannes Martini (c1440-c1498).

Brumel was an important part of the change from writing independent, parallel lines of polyphony (where a singer could get sick or die of the plague or something, and the piece still sounded good with the part missing) to writing dependent, chordal, and simultaneous lines (where all the singers had to show up for work or the piece fell apart). His earlier works (before 1500) use the cantus firmus or a similar style of polyphony. His later works (after 1500) line up into more chord-like progressions, which included less melodically independent lines that served mainly to fill in a part of the chord. (This is very common today, with the melody in the soprano line and the other parts forming chords that support the melody.)

Brumel also used the parody technique, made popular by Bartholomeo da Bologna, wherein the source material appears elaborately altered and in other voices than the tenor. He also used paired imitation, like Josquin did, but more freely than any previous composer.

He wrote quite a few motets, chansons, and some instrumental music. His earlier pieces have irregular lines and rhythmic complexity, like those of Ockeghem, and the later ones use the smooth imitative polyphony of Josquin’s style and homophonic textures of the Italian composers of the time, such as Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c1470-1535), who was in Ferrara at the same time as Brumel.

Brumel was notable for his cleverness, playing with melodies and accompaniment. For instance, the tenor line of his James que la ne peut ester chanson uses the opening phrase of “Je ne vis oncques” twice; first forward and then backward.

Brumel’s motet Regina coeli was a clear paraphrase of the Marian antiphon by the same name. It has the melody in the tenor, but it’s also found in the other voices. He uses the same paraphrase and chant permeation of the texture in his motet Lauda Sion, in which he wrote polyphony only for the odd-numbered verses.

Brumel’s Laudate Dominum is one of the earliest motet settings of a psalm that can be given an approximate date. Although printer Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) included Josquin’s psalm Memor esto in the same publication of 1514, Brumel’s piece can be traced back to 1507, the date on the Capella Sistina 42 manuscript.

Brumel and Josquin clearly had a healthy working relationship. Josquin based his own Mass on Brumel’s motet Mater Patris, and Brumel’s short and simple motet Sicut lilium has clear phrases that resemble Josquin’s Planxit autem David. Josquin wasn’t the only one to borrow from Brumel. Ockeghem’s Fors seulement l’attente has a tenor that is attributed both to Brumel and to Agricola, but is most likely from Brumel, based on dates.

Brumel’s secular works frequently use pre-existing melodies. His four part secular pieces have texts but those in three parts are purely instrumental. Most are chansons. You have to keep in mind that writing in four voices was a new thing. And writing in more voices was considerably rarer.

Brumel wrote a textless vocal piece in eight voices that is sung with each part in a different mode. (To learn about modes, read Musical Mode, Part 1s: Church Modes). Although the modes are simpler than modern key signatures and scales (no sharps at all and only one possible flat—B), it must have sounded like the various parts were being pushed and pulled by the other parts. This interesting concept didn’t catch on. (I didn’t find the name of this piece, but I’ll keep looking.)

Probably the pinnacle of Brumel’s accomplishment was a twelve-part Mass, Et ecce terrae motus. You have to realize what an achievement that was—most pieces at the time were written in two or three voices. Later, Thomas Tallis would write my favorite piece (Spem in alium) in 40 voices, a feat that couldn’t ever have been had Brumel and his peers not pushed the edges of tradition.

Brumel’s Missa de Beata Virgine and Josquin’s version of the same piece use different chants in their Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements—Brumel’s was based on Gregorian Mass IX and XVII respectively, and Josquin’s was based on IV. Brumel’s choice was from the Medicean edition of the chant, which is an interesting political tidbit. The Medici family was rich and powerful, as you probably already know. The rest of Brumel’s Masses use the same Mass movements as the chants they’re based on

It’s possible that Brumel wrote his Missa de Beata Virgine in competition with Josquin—you have to listen to both to decide who won for yourself. Generally speaking, Brumel’s Masses are conspicuous for their melodiousness and euphony and this particular work was his most popular during his lifetime, as recorded by Glareanus.

The rest of his Masses were in four voices. He often wrote simple note-against-note counterpoint, which is especially conspicuous in his Missa de Dringhs, (no one seems to know what that last word means, but it’s thought to be Greek. The Mass is in Latin). He used parallel thirds and sixths in the Benedictus movement and other pieces, so that may have been a popular sound (it’s strange sounding to modern ears) or just something he was experimenting with.

The Mass called O quam suavis is lost. It has only a few surviving movements, based on an antiphon by the same name. Another untitled Mass uses different source materials for each section. It was unusual for the chant from one part of the Ordinary of the Mass (the pieces that change with the days of the liturgical calendar) to be used in a polyphonic setting for another. This is probably where Brumel got the idea of setting a psalm to polyphony.

In his Mass Je n’ay dueil, which survives under the designation Missa Festiva, is based on Agricola’s chanson by the same name. Brumel’s Missa Pro defunctis is notable for being the first requiem Mass to include a polyphonic setting of the Dies Irae. It’s one of the earliest surviving requiems, with only Ockeghem’s being earlier.

One of Bumel’s distinctive styles is that he often used quick syllables to form chords, which anticipated the madrigal style that developed by the end of the 16th century. He was particularly fond of using this technique during the Credo sections of his Masses. Credos have the longest texts, which can make them very long, and using this style helped keep the movement the same length as the others in the Mass.

Quite a few notable composers wrote pieces commemorating Brumel after his death.

Jachet Brumel (no dates available), was an organist for the Ferrara court in 1543, and is presumed to have been Antoine’s son. I found no mention of a wife or other children.


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton, New York, 1994.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1974.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerard Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1959.

Composer Biography: Gherardello da Firenze (c1320/1325-c1362/1384)

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Also Gherardellus de Florentia, Ser Gherardello, and rarely, Niccolo di Francesco.

Gherardello da Firenze was an Italian composer during the flowering of 14th century polyphony. A contemporary of Francesco Landini, he was one of the first composers of the Italian ars nova (a term used to connect all the new techniques that were being developed in France, Belgium, and Italy).

He was probably born in or near Florence and he spent most of his life within 20 miles of there. Many of his contemporaries sought their fortune in the north, so it’s interesting that he stayed home. Not much is known about his private life, except that he wasn’t the only composer in the family. His brother Jacopo (dates unavailable) and his son Giovanni (dates unknown) were also composers, although none of their music survives.

The first mention of Gherardello is when he shows up in the records of the Florence Cathedral as a clerk, at Santa Reparata, in 1343. He soon became a chaplain there (from 1345-1361), and was rather notably there during the Black Death years (1348 was the worst of it in Florence).

He joined the Benedictine order at Vallombrosa in Tuscany (about 19 miles south-east of Florence) in 1351, presumably as a monk. Later, he went back to Florence and became a prior at San Remigio, a 400 year-old church that had been reconstructed in the previous century.

It’s interesting that early 14th century Italian songs show no French influence, as the next century would bring a much greater mix of the two sensibilities—almost a competition. The French didn’t make themselves known in Italian music until around 1365 in the works of the later Florentine composers, like Francesco Landini, and Johannes Ciconia).

Despite that, Gherardello’s Gloria and Credo show the influence of Guillaume Machaut’s French style. Gherardello was known for his liturgical compositions, but sadly, only two Mass movements have survived. In fact, very few of anyone’s Mass movements have survived from before 1400, partly due to the wars that raged and partly due to the paucity of parchment and standardized notation.

In the end, 16 of his works (10 madrigals, five ballate, and a caccia), are in the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come), along with a portrait of him. He was especially famous for the caccia, called Tosta che l’alba (more about that in a moment).

His works show up in other collections from the period, especially in Tuscany, that contain only or mostly secular songs. It’s interesting to note that a great number of otherwise ecclesiastical composers who wrote mostly monody also wrote secular polyphony, although motets (sacred madrigals) by Italian composers during this period are very rare.

Gherardello’s two Mass movements are for two voices, which was the most common arrangement at the time. All of his madrigals are in two voices, the five ballate are monophonic (unison), and his one caccia is for three voices.

Monody (unison voices) was out of style. Of the few documented composers of the time, only Lorenzo da Firenza (d. 1372, biography to come) and Gherardello continued the tradition of monophonic ballate. Each wrote five such pieces, the style of which is less florid than the two-voice madrigals that they wrote. Melismas (where the melody wiggles around on a single syllable) do occur, particularly on the first and penultimate syllables of poetic lines. When the intervening text is set syllabically, as is common in chant, the stylistic influence of the madrigal is unmistakable.

Gherardello wrote one of the best known (as evidenced by how many collections it appears in collections) hunting caccias, called Tosto che l’alba (As soon as the dawn). Tosta’s two upper voices move in canon (one sings a theme and the other repeats it), and the lower voice moves more slowly in cantus firmus (a chant-like song that provides a kind of “home” to the other, more wiggly parts).

Like all caccias, Tosto che l’alba is a hunt—a chase or catch. In this case, it literally describes a hunt, with musical imitations of calling the dogs and sounding the hunting horn. It’s both light-spirited and comic.

A sonnet lamenting Gherardello’s death was written by Simone Penuzzi (dates unavailable) in 1362 or 1363, but there are musical pieces that, if written by him, make it possible that Gherardello lived another 20 years after that.


“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hippin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.


Chords versus Polyphony

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It came up at rehearsal last night. The bass was having trouble because his note was strange and he couldn’t make it line up into a chord. The answer was simple: The music was based on a medieval song and it wasn’t a chord at all because chords hadn’t been invented yet.*

*The following history lesson pertains to European music. African, Asian, and New World music can be told in similar stories, but with some changes, like African was rhythm-based, Asian was pentatonic, and the New World was rhythmic and pentatonic.

In the beginning, there was monody. Monody is a single line of music: no harmony, no drone, not even rhythm. Gregorian chant, for instance, is usually monody. One person or a group sings a single line of music, everyone singing the same thing. If the notes have varied weights, lengths, and colors, it can be lovely. Hildegard von Bingen, my favorite composer, wrote a lot of this sort of thing.

But Hildegard didn’t invent it. Oh no. She built on about 4,000 years of tradition that came from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Israel, and Greece. All of those cultures have known songs (although the documentation situation is bleak because music notation didn’t really take off in the West until about the 8th century of the Common Era). But in the 900 years since Hildegard, all kinds of fancy things have happened.

For instance, around the end of the first millennium of the Common Era, someone noticed that in certain songs, one note stood out as dominant. In fact, it could be sung or plucked on a harp, lyre, or psaltery continuously while the melody was sung against it. And thus was harmony born.

But it wasn’t harmony like you think of today. It was a single note produced for the duration of a song. It didn’t move, although later drones did change if the mode of the song changed. (A mode is like a key signature that declares which notes occur to make a scale. It’s different, though, and I’ll save that discussion for another time.)

Suddenly, the melody was affected by the context each note had with the drone. Some combinations were prettier than others, but all had some sort of emotional impact. It was not a leap, then for the drone note to begin to move, and so began a new form of music, called organum, and later, conductus.

This new music had two discrete lines of melody: the tenor or cantus firmus, which slowly produced the melody of the chant and provided a sort of moving drone, and the duplum, which floated away from the melody and often exhibited some performance skills. Organum originated around the end of the first millennium of the Common Era. The tempo was thought to be the walking tempo of the monks entering the church up the long center aisle, but don’t be fooled—this was not rhythm. This was just tempo.

Conductus came around the 12th century, mostly in France, and allowed a more florid showing. Instead of the tenor part holding the ground (the cantus firmus), both lines of song could wander melodically around. And once that happened, the future opened up.

Conductus allowed complex melodies in more than one part. And if you can do two, you can do three or even four voices. Remember, chords weren’t invented yet, so each line was melodically interesting on its own. If one of your voices didn’t show up, no harm: the remaining voices sounded mighty fine on their own.

This gave rise to polyphony—multiple lines of melody—and the musical form called the motet. Now, the word motet comes from the French word “mot,” which means “word.” So you have to understand that the significant change here was the focus from the melody to the words.

It’s subtle, though, so let me help you. In chant, organum, and conductus, the words shaped musical accents, note duration, and sometimes the way the melody climbed or fell. The words were a sort of vehicle on which the music rode. But with polyphony and the invention of the motet, the words became the central character, and, for the first time, words that were not quotations from the Bible were documented.

If you think you don’t know what a motet is, guess again: Lots of familiar Christmas carols are based on them, such as “Deck the Hall.” That little “fa-la-la-la-la” bit is the give-away. The composer was using a kind of filler in secular music to mean something they weren’t willing to say outright. Lots of secular motets have this sort of device when the boy and girl disappear into the grassy meadow of a lovely spring day. It’s a euphemism for “frolicking ensued” and a raised eyebrow.

But to us, the interesting bit about motets is not the words. It’s the parallel lines of melody. You see, by the 13th century when motets were getting popular, people were rather likely to be run over by a cart, catch the plague, or otherwise take a leave of absence without warning. You couldn’t count on the same people showing up from one week to the next, so it was important that each melodic line stand on its own. If only one guy showed up on Sunday, the mass could still be sung. If two guys showed up, all the better. By the time you’ve got three or four, the music was getting pretty fabulous.

Now, during all this exploration of multiple lines, several other things developed. Rhythm, for instance, although it wasn’t a driving factor as it is in modern music. Rather, it provided a subtle connection so that the various sung parts could line up pleasantly. I talked about this a little in my blog post about the history of music notation. (

Once rhythm was part of the musical scene, the rules of harmony began to develop. There were new resting places in the form of longer notes where things lined up in all the parts. There were parts that moved in parallel, perhaps a few notes apart, perhaps in opposite directions and crossing in the middle. And these architectures invited a whole new set of rules for harmony.

Once we had harmony (where the music lined up among the various parts), we were just a breath away from having chords. You see, if you pass through the same three lined-up notes several times in a song, you start to think of those three lined-up notes as a sort of theme. And themes have meaning, either emotional or in a sort of musical color. And presto bingo, the chord was born.

Timed nicely with the development of music notation into what it looks like today, the new rules of harmony demanded the use of chords. For vocal music, this was truly significant, as it moved the melody out of ALL the parts and into only ONE of the voices, usually a high voice. The other parts provided the chord structure underneath. So it might have been interesting to sing the alto or tenor line in the 13th century, but by the end of the 15th, your part was mostly filler, fleshing out the chord. That makes it a lot harder to sing than a more melodic line. It especially makes it hard to practice on your own.

At the same time, keyboard music was taking its place center stage. For the keyboard, once chords were available, everything became possible—in the early days, the chords were abbreviated by number within a key signature, and by the time of the great Romantic masters, chords had expanded well beyond simple three-or four-note combinations to become grand elaborate augmented and diminished whatnots involving all two dozen of your fingers and a few of your toes.

And so, dear bass singer, that is why Chopin and Ciconia don’t sound much alike and why that wasn’t a chord.

Written by Melanie Spiller

April 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm