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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 5 Polyphony in Practice and Theory
Richard Taruskin

As if the achievements with which he has already been credited—the invention of the staff, the operational rules of sight-singing—were not enough, Guido of Arezzo also made a decisive contribution to the development of contrapuntal technique. It was yet another of that brilliant monk’s many impressive contributions to the early rationalization of literate musical practice and its transformation into transmissible technique. In his Micrologus (“Little treatise”), a guide to the rudiments of music theory, Guido devoted one section to a very influential discussion of organum. The main emphasis was on obtaining maximum variety in interval succession (though the fourth is still recognized as the primary symphonia) and on fashioning a good occursus (a term Guido was in fact the first to use in connection with musical cadences).

The main innovation in Guido’s discussion—and it was crucial—was attitudinal rather than substantive, something that seeped from between the lines. Like the author of the Enchiriadis treatises, Guido illustrated his points with examples; but unlike the earlier writer he gave more than one solution to contrapuntal problems, between which the student was invited to choose ad libitum, “at pleasure.” Here, for example (Ex. 5-3), are two counterpoints to a psalm that produce the same occursus: in one case by direct leap to the final (occursus simplex), in the other by the use of a passing tone to smooth the way (occursus per intermissas).

Guido, John, and Discant

ex. 5-3 Guido d’Arezzo, Micrologus; Two counterpoints to Jherusalem

Note that for Guido the major second can be used as a secondary consonance (it was, after all, a “Pythagorean” interval), whereas, as he tells us, the perfect fifth was to be avoided as “hard-sounding.” So much for the “natural” basis of counterpoint! And Guido makes the rejection of the “natural” explicit. He does not claim that his methods follow “a certain natural law,” only that they are pleasing. And by allowing the reader to choose between his two cadences on the basis of personal preference (“taste”), and implicitly allowing that there may be other solutions for the student to discover (or invent), Guido is in fact taking an important step in the direction of what we would call an “art,” rather than a mere mechanical or technical procedure.

Another point Guido did not make explicit, but which was extremely influential nevertheless, was the fact that the pursuit of maximum variety of interval content implied a “parsimony principle,” a minimum of motion in the vox organalis. (Today’s counterpoint teachers still grade on the basis of “smoothness” of voice-leading, in fact.) Some of Guido’s examples resemble drones, though he never says as much. One example (Ex. 5-4), ostensibly intended as an illustration of the desirability of occasional voice-crossing, yields an actual drone that is maintained throughout the chant.

Guido, John, and Discant

ex. 5-4 Guido d’Arezzo, Micrologus; Counterpoint to Sexta hora

Guido’s Micrologus was the most frequently copied-out and widely disseminated book on music theory before the age of printing. Every monastery or cathedral library had a copy, and it was used in primary music instruction as late as the fifteenth century. We should not be surprised to discover its influence in the early centers of polyphonic composition that begin to leave documentary traces at about the same time, but which really flowered about a century later.

The earliest such trace is actually pre-Guidonian: a huge collection of polyphonic tropes from Winchester in a manuscript (the later of the so-called Winchester Tropers) copied over a ten-year period ending in 1006. As mentioned in chapter 3, the Winchester Tropers are notated in staffless neumes, showing that the Winchester cantors (or the monks of the nearby Abbey of St. Swithin, including the celebrated Wulfstan to whom the whole corpus has been attributed) sang their counterpoints by heart. We cannot decipher them with much precision, but their contours definitely accord with Guidonian preferences regarding voice-crossing and occursus. In fact, the implicit Guidonian predilection for contrary motion at cadences now begins to spread to other parts of the setting, so that the older concept of symphonia—parallel doubling—survives only sporadically. The contents of the Winchester organum manuscript mix the monastic repertory of St. Swithin (Responsories, processional antiphons) with the public repertory of the cathedral Mass (Kyries, Gloria tropes, tracts, sequences, and no fewer than fifty-three Alleluias).

The earliest fully legible practical source of composed polyphonic music is a late eleventh-century fragment from Chartres containing Alleluia verses and processional antiphons set in two-part, note-against-note (homorhythmic) counterpoint. There is virtually no parallel doubling; nor is there much note-repetition in the vox organalis, even when the original chant has a repeated note. Instead, there is pervasive contrary motion and ceaseless intervallic variety; this, or what we would call an “independent” voice line, was what the composer of the vox organalis was clearly striving for. (The word “independent,” of course, should be understood in relative terms: no line constructed in a style that is subject to so many harmonic constraints can ever be truly independent of the given melody—but this is just as true of later contrapuntal styles, including those still academically taught).

Most often cited from the Chartres fragment is the verse “Dicant nunc judei” from the Easter processional Christus resurgens (“Christ rising again”), an especially bold setting in which every interval from the unison to the octave except the seventh is employed, including both major and minor sixths (unrecognized as concords by theorists), and in which voice-crossing gives the vox organalis almost equal prominence with the vox princpalis (Ex. 5-5a). In another verse, “Angelus Domini” from the Easter Alleluia Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus (“Christ our paschal lamb is sacrificed”), different counterpoints are added to a repeated phrase in the vox principalis, and the occursus is made not to the unison but to the octave (Ex. 5-5b).

Guido, John, and Discant

ex. 5-5a From the Chartres fragment. “Dicant nunc judei”

Guido, John, and Discant

ex. 5-5b “Angelus Domini”

The style of counterpoint exemplified in the Chartres fragment strikingly resembles the one described (or prescribed) by John of Afflighem, a Flemish theorist of the early twelfth century whose treatise De musica was the only one to rival Guido’s Micrologus in distribution and authority. In the later twelfth century this style would become known as discantus or “descant.” The Latin word means literally “singing apart,” whence “singing in parts.” Music historians generally prefer “discant” to “descant” as an English equivalent; not being standard English, it can be more easily restricted in meaning to refer specifically and technically to medieval polyphony.

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. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-005003.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-005003.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-005003.xml