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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 5 Polyphony in Practice and Theory

Early Polyphonic Performance Practices and the Twelfth-Century Blossoming of Polyphonic Composition

CHAPTER 5 Polyphony in Practice and Theory
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


As we have seen, and as it is important to remember, there has never been a time in the recorded history of European music—or of any music, it seems—when polyphony was unknown. Descriptions of music-making in classical Greece and Rome are full of tantalizing suggestions about harmonic and contrapuntal practices, and music theory, all the way back to “Pythagoras,” is full of elaborate accounts of harmonic consonances. As soon as they were in possession of the means for writing their liturgical music down, moreover, the Franks illustrated sundry methods of harmonically amplifying that music. We have evidence of polyphonic performance practice for medieval chant as early as we have written evidence of the chant itself.

Polyphonic performance practices, even if we have only a sketchy idea of them, were surely applied (or at least available for application) to all the early genres of courtly and urban music encountered in the previous chapter as well. Reports of rustic part-singing are likewise tantalizing. Gerald de Barri, a Welsh churchman and historian who wrote under the name Giraldus Cambrensis, made a famous description of his countrymen’s singing in a volume completed in 1194:

They sing their tunes not in unison, but in parts with many simultaneous modes and phrases. Therefore, in a group of singers you will hear as many melodies as there you will see heads, yet they all accord in one consonant and properly constituted composition.1

Giraldus also commented with enthusiasm on the virtuosity of unlettered instrumentalists, harpers who played “with such smooth rapidity, such unequaled evenness, such mellifluous harmony throughout the varied tunes and the many intricacies of the part music”—harmony and polyphonic intricacies of which actual musical documents disclose nothing.

Since there is no period in which the known practices of European music did not include polyphony, polyphony cannot be said to have an origin in the European tradition. Written or not, it was always there. As with any other kind of music, its entry into written sources was not any sort of “event” in its history. (The event, as such, was in our history, the history of what we are able to know.) And by the same token, there is no point at which polyphony completely supplanted “monophony” in the history of Western music, especially if we recognize that monophony is only a style of notation, not necessarily a style of music.

Even if we take the strictest view of monophony, the view that equates it with liturgical chant that is unharmonized in accord with the preference of the Roman Catholic church, the history of its composition continues for centuries beyond the point at which we can afford the time in a book like this to go on tracking it. (Still, when a young researcher named Barbara Haggh discovered in the early 1980s that Guillaume Dufay, a major “Renaissance” composer, had composed elaborate chant offices in the middle of the fifteenth century, her findings made scholarly headlines—and rightly so, for it served as a forcible reminder that the march of musical genres and styles down through the ages in single file is something historians, not composers, have created.)2

Yet even granting all of this, we can still identify the extraordinary twelfth century as the one in which European musical practice took a decisive turn toward polyphonic composition. And if we are interested in isolating the fundamental distinguishing feature of what may be called “Western” music, this might as well be it. After this turning point, polyphonic composition in the West (not just polyphonic performance practice) would be indisputably, increasingly, and uniquely the norm. From now on, stylistic development and change would essentially mean the development and refinement of techniques for polyphonic composition.

Training in composition would henceforth be basically training in polyphony—in “harmony and counterpoint,” the controlled combination of different pitches in time—and such training would become increasingly “learned” or sophisticated. Combination, the creation of order and expressivity out of diversity or even clash, became the very definition of music (or, to be more precise, the primary musical metaphor). During the later Middle Ages, the early polyphonic age, music was often called the ars combinatoria or the discordia concors: the “art of combining things” or the “concord of discord.” The terms go back to the Musica enchiriadis. They not only underscore the new preoccupation with polyphony but also reconcile it with older notions of Musica as an all-embracing cosmic harmony. The word “harmony” was given a new context and a new meaning—the one that is still primary for us.

So the “polyphonic revolution,” while real, should not be mistaken for the beginning, or the invention, or the “discovery” of polyphony. It was, rather, the coalescing into compositional procedure of what had always been a performance option and its intensive cultivation. The great spur to this vastly accelerated development of compositional technique was not so much a change in taste or “aesthetics” as it was a change in educational philosophy. The twelfth century was the century in which the primary locus of education shifted first from monasteries to urban cathedral schools and thence to something new: secular universities. In the course of this shift, Paris emerged as the undisputed intellectual center of Europe.

The burgeoning of polyphonic composition followed exactly the same trajectory. Beginning in monasteries, it reached its first great, transfiguring culmination in the cathedral schools of Paris, and in a new form it radiated from that cosmopolitan center throughout Western Christendom, receiving a special ancillary cultivation in the universities. It was all a part of what cultural historians call the “renaissance of the twelfth century.”


(1) Giraldus Cambrensis, Descriptio Cambriae, trans. adapted from that of Ernest H. Sanders in F. W. Sternfeld, ed., A History of Western Music, Vol. I (New York: Praeger, 1973), p. 264, by comparison with that in Shai Burstyn, “Gerald of Wales and the Sumer Canon,” Journal of Musicology II (1983): 135, where the original Latin may also be found.

(2) Haggh wrote up her discovery in “The Celebration of the ‘Recollectio Festorum Beatae Mariae Virginis,’ 1457–1987,” International Musicological Society Congress Report XIV (Bologna, 1987), iii, pp. 559–71.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Polyphony in Practice and Theory." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Polyphony in Practice and Theory. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Polyphony in Practice and Theory." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-005.xml