Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Polyphonic Music -- Earlier than imagined. . .


Earliest known piece of polyphonic music discovered

New research has uncovered the earliest known practical piece of polyphonic music, an example of the principles that laid the foundations of European musical tradition.  The earliest known practical example of polyphonic music – a piece of choral music written for more than one part – has been found in a British Library manuscript in London.

The inscription is believed to date back to the start of the 10th century and is the setting of a short chant dedicated to Boniface, patron Saint of Germany. It is the earliest practical example of a piece of polyphonic music – the term given to music that combines more than one independent melody – ever discovered.  Written using an early form of notation that predates the invention of the stave, it was inked into the space at the end of a manuscript of the Life of Bishop Maternianus of Reims.

The piece was discovered by Giovanni Varelli, a PhD student from St John’s College, University of Cambridge, while he was working on an internship at the British Library. He discovered the manuscript by chance, and was struck by the unusual form of the notation. Varelli specialises in early musical notation, and realised that it consisted of two vocal parts, each complementing the other.

Polyphony defined most European music up until the 20th century, but it is not clear exactly when it emerged. Treatises which lay out the theoretical basis for music with two independent vocal parts survive from the early Middle Ages, but until now the earliest known examples of a practical piece written specifically for more than one voice came from a collection known as The Winchester Troper, which dates back to the year 1000.  Varelli’s research suggests that the author of the newly-found piece – a short “antiphon” with a second voice providing a vocal accompaniment – was written around the year 900.

As well as its age, the piece is also significant because it deviates from the convention laid out in treatises at the time. This suggests that even at this embryonic stage, composers were experimenting with form and breaking the rules of polyphony almost at the same time as they were being written.  “What’s interesting here is that we are looking at the birth of polyphonic music and we are not seeing what we expected,” Varelli said.

Listen here:

and here:


Janis Williams said...

You have shared the Wittenberg Nightingale station on Live365 Internet Radio. I would like to share Musica Antiquior, also from Live365. The piece you shared is only one of many played on this station regularly

Readers, if you love this music, it is out there in cyberspace!

Padre Dave Poedel said...

On my browser, the first piece of music is absent. Anyone else have this?