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.