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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 5 Polyphony in Practice and Theory
Richard Taruskin

By the time the word discant became current, a new style of organum had arisen in contrast to it. This new style resembles some of Guido’s examples (which may have helped inspire it) in that one voice is relatively stationary while the other moves freely, creating a variety of intervals against the first. The great difference is that in the new style the dronelike voice is the vox principalis, and the vox organalis is the moving voice—or, as we now should call it, the melismatic voice, since it sings several notes against each syllable-carrying note of the original chant. Hand in hand with this difference went another just as big: the vox principalis is now the lower, not the upper voice.

What brought about these momentous practical departures? They amount virtually to standing the older polyphonic texture on its head: what was top is now bottom; what was mobile is now stationary, and vice versa. And perhaps most important from the listener’s perspective, what had been subordinate (namely, the added voice) is now dominant. In the new melismatic organum, the chant seems paradoxically to accompany its accompaniment.

In keeping with this changed perspective, a new terminology is warranted, one that will remove the apparent paradox. Instead of vox principalis, let us simply call the voice that sustains the long-held notes of the original chant the “holding part.” Since the Latin infinitive “to hold” is tenere, the chant-bearing part will henceforth be known as the tenor. The word actually begins appearing in this sense in the treatises of the thirteenth century, and though its meaning has varied over the years, it is still an important musical term today. This was its first meaning for polyphonic music—the voice that holds a preexistent melody out in long notes over which another voice sings a florid counterpoint. It was the relegation of the chant melody to the tenor that was the new event, for it inaugurated a texture—and a procedure—that would last for centuries. Indeed it is still practiced (or at least administered), under the thirteenth-century name cantus firmus or “fixed tune,” in academic counterpoint studies today. For a sample of the new texture see Fig. 5-2.

This composition is from a manuscript that dates from around 1100 and was long kept in the library of the biggest Aquitanian monastery, the Abbey of St. Martial at Limoges. Its Aquitanian origin and its association with St. Martial is already a clue to the new style’s why and wherefore, for we have encountered St. Martial before, as a center of trope and versus composition. The tenor in Fig. 5-2 is in fact a metrical versus composed to adorn the end of Christmas matins. What is melismatic organum then but an adornment of an adornment, a polyphonic gloss? It is a longissima melodia (to recall some terminology from chapter 2) sung not in place of an older chant, or in between its phrases, but (imagining two singers now) literally alongside it. “St. Martial”-style polyphony is thus a new kind of trope, simultaneous rather than prefatory, and a literal (that is, sonic) amplification of the liturgy.

Polyphony in Aquitanian Monastic Centers

fig. 5-2 Melismatic organum on the versus Jubilemus, exultemus from one of the twelfth-century “St. Martial” manuscripts (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Fonds Latins MS 1139, fol. 41).

“St. Martial” polyphony is found in four bound volumes comprising nine separate manuscripts, compiled between ca. 1100 and ca. 1150. (The quotes here are a reminder that the music was kept and used at St. Martial but not necessarily composed there.) The notation, like that of the contemporary chant, is specific as to pitch but not as to rhythm, reminding us once again that the music was composed, learned, and performed by oral methods. We, who must read these texts in order to sing the music the twelfth-century monks knew by heart, are more seriously handicapped by their rhythmic indeterminacy than we are in the case of chant, and for a fairly obvious reason. When two parts are sung simultaneously, the singers have to know how they “line up.” In particular, the singer of the holding part has to know when to change to the next note—or else the singer of the moving part has to know when to cue his colleague on the tenor.

All we have to go on today in guessing at what contemporary singers knew cold is the rough—the very rough—vertical alignment of the parts in the manuscript “score,” and the rule (already implied as far back as Musica enchiriadis) that the sustained part can move only when its motion will create a consonance against the faster-moving part. Applying these rules is not enough to arrive at a definitive text, assuming there was such a thing (which is a great deal to assume). Nor do we know if it is the tenor’s notes that are meant to be “equipollent” (that is, roughly equal in length, like spoken syllables), or those of the melismatic part, or neither.

Thus the notation in Fig. 5-2 is (by the standards today’s literate musicians are taught to demand) vague and insufficient for performance. The transcription of the beginning of the piece in Ex. 5-6 is entirely speculative. The transcriber, Carl Parrish, sums up the problem:

The number of notes in the upper part to those in the lower varies considerably—from one to fifteen, actually—so that an effort to keep the lower part [i.e., the original chant] uniform in pace would cause a great variety of speeds in the upper note groups. On the other hand, a uniform pace in the upper part would cause as much variety in the notes of the slower-moving tenor.5

Citing mutually exclusive solutions favored by equally respected specialists, Parrish comments that “both interpretations produce satisfactory musical results, although there is no way of knowing which, if either, corresponds to the manner originally intended.” In addition to the one to which Parrish called attention, there is the further problem of guessing exactly which notes of the tenor coincide with which notes of the melismatic voice at moments of change in the slower-moving part. For assured transcription or performance of this music, then, we would need to hear it sung by its “native” singers, and that is something we will never hear.

Polyphony in Aquitanian Monastic Centers

ex. 5-6 Transcription of the beginning of Jubilemus, exultemus (Fig. 5-2)

That has not stopped imaginative early-music performers from conjecturing a performance practice for this music, often very persuasively. As Leo Treitler, a specialist in early notation and polyphony, has justly observed, “the question for us is not ‘how must they have sung this music?’ but rather ‘how can we sing it?”’ In seeking an answer to “our” question, Prof. Treitler goes on, “it may be that analysis and performance can teach us what exact methods have so far withheld about the problems confronting the musicians of the twelfth century.”6

But whatever we learn from our own analyses and our own performances must obviously go far beyond the evidence of the sources into a realm where only artists dare tread, not historians. The speculative or conjectural performance of early music to delight modern audiences has provided an arena where artists and historians have been collaborating fruitfully, sometimes within the heads of a new breed of scholarly or musicologically-minded performer. But such performers know best of all that the historian cannot always helpfully advise the artist, and that the artist’s successes, though they may convince an audience that includes the historian, still cannot provide the latter with evidence.

Not all the polyphonic pieces in the St. Martial manuscripts present modern performers with such difficulties. Along with sustained-note organum settings like the one in Fig. 5-2, the St. Martial sources contain numerous versus and hymn settings in discant style, in which the two frequently crossing voices, if not precisely note-against-note, are at least rhythmically similar. In such settings it is not often possible to identify a preexisting tune or cantus firmus in either part; thus there is nothing in them to distinguish a vox principalis from a vox organalis. In such cases the two parts were in all likelihood conceived as a pair.

To say this is not necessarily to imply that the two-part texture was actually conceived as a unit, even if it was composed in one sitting. One voice might have been written first and then treated as an ersatz cantus firmus for the second; some theoretical discussions seem to imply as much. But in some settings the two voices are so intricately (and playfully!) interrelated that simultaneous conception of the whole texture seems a virtual certainty. One such is given in Ex. 5-7.

The texture here is “neume-against-neume” rather than note-against-note. (The slurs in the example show how the notes in the original notation were joined into neumatic groups or ligatures—literally, “bindings”—of two, three, four, or more.) The transcription, by Leo Treitler, follows the “isosyllabic” principle we encountered as an option in transcribing troubadour songs; every neume is assumed to last the same amount of time, represented in the transcription as a quarter note’s duration. At the beginning of the piece this duration also corresponds to the syllables, but the neumes in the decorative melismas that come at the ends of verses are treated in the same way.

Polyphony in Aquitanian Monastic CentersPolyphony in Aquitanian Monastic Centers

ex. 5-7 Versus sung as a prosulated Benedicamus Domino response at St. Martial and elsewhere (Paris, BN, LAT. 1139)

Notice the way the melismas “accelerate” through the piece from two-note to four-note to five-note patterns. (This seems to argue in favor of the isosyllabic scheme, in which ligatures actually gather speed as they grow in size.) Notice, too, the repetitive or sequential patterns into which the melismas are organized, and the way the voices complement one another’s contour by the use of contrary motion. This complementary relationship definitely betokens “whole-texture conception”: the individual lines have meaning only in terms of their complementation. For a third thing, notice the way in which the two voices exchange roles in the first two measures (=lines of the poem), but also notice the slight differences between them (ligature G–F in the first measure, upper part, answered in the second measure by a single G in the lower; the two-note ligature F–E in the first measure, lower part, answered in the second measure by a three-noter, E–F–E, in the upper) that insure variation within repetition, small irregularities within a larger regularity. Fascination with abstract patterning here produces a fascinating result.

Even though it uses a texture that was described by earlier writers such as Guido and John, while the cantus-firmus settings seem to be unprecedented, this composition is in fact a much more “modern” piece—and a much more “artistically” shaped product, as we understand the word—than the one in Fig. 5-2. Where a cantus firmus may happen to show up in the texture is less of a defining trait than its sheer presence or absence, and here we have a composition that seems to have been elaborated musically from scratch, out of sheer joy in pattern-making. “The spirit” of such music, Prof. Treitler has written, “is that of the magic square and the palindrome.”7 Such a spirit of playful creativity is more in keeping with modern understanding of the word “art” than are the functional amplifications of plainchant that we have been encountering up to now. All at once we seem to behold a planned and finished “artwork”—a fully shaped res facta, a “made thing,” as musicians would later call such works to distinguish them from ephemeral improvisations.

Yet we should resist the temptation to imagine that such works, because they are so meticulously worked out, had to be literally worked out on paper in advance. We are still dealing with the products of a predominantly oral culture, of which only a few specimens—the cream, presumably—ever found their way into writing. A piece like the one in Ex. 5-7 was in all likelihood composed by a singer—or more likely, by two singers—in the act of singing.

The regularities and symmetries—the voice exchanges, the complementation of contour, the melodic repetitions and sequences—may appear to us to suggest the shaping hand of an “author,” as “classical” musicians have come to understand the term. (That is to say, a creator who works apart from performers, out of “real time.”) But they are more likely just the opposite. Patterns like these are not abstract ideas but memory aids—which is why we use the word “catchy” to describe them. They bear witness to the process (and the fun) of creativity within an oral culture. Homo ludens and homo faber—“humanity at play” and “creative humanity”—were close allies in such a culture.


(5) Carl Parrish, The Notation of Medieval Music (New York: Norton, 1959), p. 65.

(6) Leo Treitler, “The Polyphony of St. Martial,” Journal of the American Musicological Society XVII (1964): 42.

(7) Treitler, “The Polyphony of St. Martial,” p. 38.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-005004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-005004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-005004.xml