March 26, 2016

The Greatness of Chant and Polyphony

I have not, previously, composed a post on chant and polyphony, two musical forms which dominated Catholic (and Orthodox) Church music from the early Medieval period (750 or so) through the end of the Renaissance (1600 or so), roughly 900 years. As you might imagine, this immense period of time cannot be simply lumped into "Chant," and "Polyphony," but rather comprises a great many lesser and greater developments. The purpose of this post, so that it does not turn into some sort of minor "term" paper, is to introduce you to some of the more important figures and pieces that comprise the Chant and Polyphony traditions.

A better source than Wikipedia is the Grove Dictionary of Music (part of the Oxford reference works), which has an extensive entry on chant. Attempting to provide a complete history of chant is unnecessary and far beyond the scope of this post. However, to borrow a brief "overview" of chant:
In the broadest sense, the monophonic and, according to ancient tradition, unaccompanied music of Eastern and Western Christian liturgy. Commonly used narrowly to denote the chant repertories of Latin Christianity (particularly that of the Roman rite, with which sections 2–5 of this article will be primarily concerned)....
With the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine I (Edict of Milan, 313), the Church was now state-supported, its worship public, and its congregations large....The chanting of biblical psalms, recently popularized by Egyptian monasticism, was promoted instead. 
The 4th century also witnessed the emergence of regional urban and monastic liturgical usages or ‘rites’ featuring diverse implementations of daily common prayer and the Sunday Eucharist. A rapid multiplication of holy days soon resulted in the formation of annual cycles of worship superimposed on the existing daily and weekly cycles, developments that were complemented musically by the creation of local repertories of plainchant featuring settings both of fixed (‘Ordinary’) and variable (‘Proper’) texts. In some areas these included new hymns by such figures as St Ambrose (c. 339–97), St Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306–73), St Romanos (d c. 560), and St Sophronios (c. 560–638).
This liturgical diversification was counteracted by frequent borrowing between rites. Cenobitic monks created mixed rites combining urban and monastic types of psalmody, including the influential Divine Office established by St Benedict (c. 480–c. 547) and subsequently imitated throughout the Latin West.
So, we can see that chant was promoted in the church based upon chanting of psalms by Egyptian monks, and rapidly expanded into use for daily ritual. Many of the chants have survived to the modern day (and new ones have been composed), thus providing an extraordinary repertoire from which a modern chanter may select. Many works, as you might imagine, are anonymous or have spurious attributions. Below, I have placed a few links to videos of famous or beautiful chants, which I hope you will enjoy.

St. Hildegard of Bingen - A Doctor of the Church, born in 1089, St. Hildegard was a:
German Benedictine abbess, visionary, writer and composer. She is known for her literary, musical and scientific works, and for her religious and diplomatic activities. Her oeuvre includes recorded visions, medical and scientific works, hagiography and letters; also lyrical and dramatic poetry, which has survived with monophonic music.

St. Godric of Finchale - Born in 1069, Godric was an:
English saint and hermit. He reputedly composed some of the earliest metrical rhymed English songs to have survived with their music. 

Finally, in honor of this Easter weekend, here is a plainchant called "Pange Lingua," meaning Sing, my Tongue. It is traditionally sung on Holy Thursday, and is attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas.

In moving on to polyphony, it is better first to define the term, so that we may keep it it in mind as we move forward. According to the Grove Dictionary:
In connection with the technique of composition, the Latin terms polyphon(ic)us and polyphonia, and their modern derivatives, were first used to refer to ‘music in multiple parts’.
Contrast this to chant, above, which is usually in unison or for a single voice. While the term has come to mean any music for more than one voice, I will be focusing here on the late medieval (1100 to 1400)  and the Renaissance (1400 - 1600) time periods. While there are examples of polyphony from earlier than 1100, these are scattered examples, and late medieval time period is usually accepted as the beginning of polyphony.

Now, I would like to mention three "transitional" figured who developed early polyphony. First, Leonin, or as he is often called "Magister Leoninus," born around 1135. He was a:
Canon, poet, and composer. Evidence of his activities as canon of St Benoît and later of Notre Dame, Paris, priest, and poet are found in numerous archival documents....His magnus liber contained polyphonic settings of those portions of plainchant that were reserved for solo singers. The chants set were Vespers responsories, Mass graduals, and alleluias, and perhaps some processional antiphons.
The below is an example of the form called "organum duplum," which means, generally, that one additional voice is added to the tenor.
It is generally accepted that what we know of the compositions of Leonin comes to us through his likely-student, Perotin, born about 1200. Perotin was a:
Composer at Notre Dame, Paris. Like the older LÉONIN, he is known from remarks by the English theorist known as Anonymous IV (fl c. 1270), who implies that Pérotin took Léonin's liturgical chant settings (organa dupla) as a starting-point, revising them and supplementing them with pieces in a more modern idiom.
The below is obviously more complex that the Leonin piece above, as it has at least four parts. The Grove encyclopedia notes:
Anonymous IV goes on to name various compositions by Pérotin; they include two chant settings for four voices (organa quadrupla)—the graduals Viderunt and Sederunt—and two for three voices (organa tripla), as well as three conductus, for three, two, and one voice respectively.

Later polyphony became more varied, was composed throughout Europe and England, and has many more "known" composers. As with this blog post generally, an in-depth discussion of polyphony and its many composers is impossible with the space constraints. So, therefore, I will do my best to select some representative composers.

First, I would like to discuss Guillaume de Machaut, born around 1300. According to Grove, he was
[T]he first artistically important composer of polyphonic music to be known by name. His output holds a key position in the transition between the new ideas that took hold in the decade around 1300 and the music of the late Middle Ages; as a poet-musician he brought together the traditions of secular monophony and the new techniques of the Ars Nova. 
Machaut also composed one of the earliest complete polyphonic masses created by a single composer. As noted by Grove:
The four-part Mass represents the earliest instance of a Mass Ordinary setting (including the Ite Missa est) that is stylistically coherent and was also conceived as a unit. Research on the Ordinary melodies used and the mass foundation has confirmed that this composition can be linked to a Saturday Lady Mass instituted in Reims Cathedral in 1341.

Second, the composer Guillaume Du Fay, born about 1397. Grove remarks that:
He was acknowledged by his contemporaries as the leading composer of his day. He held positions in many of the musical centres of Europe and his music was copied and performed virtually everywhere that polyphony was practised.
 Or, in other words:
Throughout his life Du Fay was regarded as the leading composer of his age. Most of his career spanned a period of relative stylistic stability, and he was largely successful in incorporating new stylistic traits that came to the fore during his life....

Next up is the composer Josquin des Prez, born about 1450. According to Grove, he was a:
French composer. He was one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance, whose reputation stands on a level with those of Du Fay, Ockeghem, Palestrina, Lassus and Byrd. His music spans the transition between the sound-world of the late Middle Ages and that of the High Renaissance, and served as a model for much of the 16th century.

I would like to discuss two English composers next, namely Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Tallis was born about 1505, while Byrd was 1540. Both were Catholics in the Elizabethan court (a hazardous occupation), but both died in their bed due to the great respect afforded them by the nobility. Tallis was Byrd's teacher and business partner. Of Tallis, Grove notes:
Tallis’s compositional career spanned decades of unprecedented political and religious turbulence whose effect on English music was profound. Musical genres and styles declined, mutated or were invented afresh in response to the liturgical and doctrinal demands of the moment. From extended votive antiphons such as Salve intemerata to succinct Anglican service music, Tallis’s diverse output covers almost every musical genre used in the English church during the 16th century.
Byrd would become more famous than Tallis, even. It is noted that, at his death:
The ordinarily laconic Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal described him as ‘a Father of Musick’; to another contemporary admirer he was ‘Brittanicae Musicae Parens’. While Byrd’s versatility as a composer is often mentioned, and quite rightly, it is less often pointed out how much he indeed fathered for English music. With his motets, first of all, he achieved nothing less than the naturalization of the high Renaissance church style. The true power and expressiveness of imitative counterpoint had never been channelled in native composition before his motets of the 1575 Cantiones.
Both composers are still highly regarded and sung today. The two examples I give of Tallis are interesting in their difference - one lengthy, complex, piece in Latin called Spem in Alium (rather unfortunately featured in 50 Shades of Grey) - and the other a shorter piece in English.

Regarding Spem in Alium, it was composed at the behest of a known Catholic, the Duke of Norfolkn and performed at Henry FitzAlan's (the 19th Earl of Arundel) country residence. Of the composition and performance, it is said:
In Queen Elizabeth's time yere was a songe sen[t] into England in 30 parts (whence ye Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of ye world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice being very skilfull was felt to try whether he would undertake ye matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house, wch so farre surpassed ye other that the Duke, hearinge yt songe, tooke his chayne of Gold from his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him (wch songe was againe songe at ye Princes coronation).

While there are many, many, other famous and worthy composers who could be mentioned, this post now grows overly long. I think I will end with Giovanni Perluigi de Palestrina, born in roughly 1525. He is one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance. The Grove Dictionary states:
He ranks with Lassus and Byrd as one of the towering figures in the music of the late 16th century. He was primarily a prolific composer of masses and motets but was also an important madrigalist. Among the native Italian musicians of the 16th century who sought to assimilate the richly developed polyphonic techniques of their French and Flemish predecessors, none mastered these techniques more completely or subordinated them more effectively to the requirements of musical cogency. His success in reconciling the functional and aesthetic aims of Catholic church music in the post-Tridentine period earned him an enduring reputation as the ideal Catholic composer, as well as giving his style (or, more precisely, later generations’ selective view of it) an iconic stature as a model of perfect achievement.
He was prolific enough that attempting to even give a moderate selection of works would be a post unto itself. Grove states that, while an accurate list of his works has yet to be completed:
His output of 104 securely attributed masses is greater in quantity alone than that of any composer of his age. To this fundamental domain of sacred music can be added more than 300 motets, 68 offertories, at least 72 hymns, 35 Magnificat settings, 11 litanies and four or five sets of Lamentations. But he also composed more than 140 madrigals (including some very famous pieces) if his spiritual madrigals are counted alongside his settings of secular poetry.
Enjoy! And for those who got this far, thank you.

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