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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 5 Polyphony in Practice and Theory
Richard Taruskin

What the rare written-down specimens could do was travel. The versus in Ex. 5-7 was a great favorite. It is found in three of the four “St. Martial” manuscripts containing polyphony, and it is found as a conductus in the other main source of early-to-mid-twelfth-century polyphonic composition. This other source is a magnificent copy of the Codex Calixtinus, more accurately known as the “Book of St. James” (Liber sancti Jacobi), a huge memorial potpourri dedicated to the apostle James the Greater, commissioned by Pope Callistus (Calixtus) II, who reigned from 1119 to 1124.

According to tradition, the body of St. James was miraculously translated, after his martyrdom in Judea, to Spain, where he had preached and where he is now venerated (under the name Sant’ Iago or Santiago) as patron saint. His relics are said to be housed in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, an Atlantic coastal town in the extreme northwest corner of Spain (above Portugal), built over his reputed gravesite in 1078. The copy of the Codex Calixtinus at Saint James’s own shrine, one of the great pilgrimage spots in late-medieval Europe, is of course an especially lavish one, and it is fitted out with many special features. One of these is an appendix of a dozen parchment leaves containing some two dozen polyphonic compositions, some specially written for the Office of St. James, others (like the one given in Ex. 5-7) borrowed from the common monastic repertory of southern and central France.

The appendix is now thought to have been compiled in the cathedral town of Vézelay by around 1170 and shipped or carried down as a gift to the shrine at Compostela. One of the reasons for associating the manuscript with a fairly northern point of origin is its use of the word conductus in place of versus for pieces like the one in Ex. 5-7. Another is the inclusion of standard Mass and Office items in polyphonic elaborations along with the more usual tropes and versus. These settings consist of six responsorial chants—four matins Responsories, a Gradual, and an Alleluia—from the special local liturgy of St. James, as given in chant form in an earlier part of the Codex. The polyphonic versions are in the sustained-tone organum style, with the original chant as the tenor and an especially florid counterpoint above it. As we shall see, this is cathedral, not monastic, polyphony.

The most florid of all the settings in the Codex Calixtinus is the Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor, familiar to us already as a chant. It was something of a favorite for polyphonic treatment in the twelfth century. An anonymous treatise of ca. 1100 called Ad organum faciendum (“How to do organum”) had already used it to demonstrate note-against-note discant in a rather dogged contrary motion (Ex. 5-8a). The example has its own historical significance because it is one of the earliest settings to give the vox organalis a higher tessitura than the original melody.

The placement of the counterpoint above the chant makes comparison with the melismatic setting of the same item in the Codex Calixtinus (Ex. 5-8b) particularly apt. Putting them side by side, one can easily imagine the one, or something like it, turning into the other over time (especially if one recalls the observations in chapter 1 about the gradual elaboration of “the old way of singing”), and finally getting written down as a “keeper.” Proceeding on the assumption that we are dealing with an embellished discant, the transcription in Ex. 5-8b has been spatially laid out so that the notes in the tenor come beneath notes in the vox organalis that form perfect consonances with it. This arrangement corresponds only loosely with the way in which the parts line up in the manuscript, it is true (see Fig. 5-3). But since the notation still conveys no specific information about duration, the manuscript alignment may not seem as reliable a guide to the actual counterpoint as the theoretical principles on which all writers agree. (Particularly important to the theorists, of course, is the principle of occursus, which the transcription does its bit to reinforce.)

The Codex Calixtinus

ex. 5-8a Cunctipotens genitor setting, from Ad organum faciendum

The Codex Calixtinus

ex. 5-8b Cunctipotens genitor setting, from Codex Calixtinus

Of course it could be argued just as logically that in the absence of a precise rhythmic notation, the manuscript alignment was the only possible—and therefore an indispensable—guide to the counterpoint. Yet a glance at Fig. 5-3 will suffice to show that the alignment was not a matter of great concern to the copyist. Even more basically, to argue that the alignment was meant to guide performance is to assume that the piece was transmitted primarily in writing, and that its performers read it off the page. The opposite assumption, that the piece was transmitted orally and performed from memory (with the notation having little more than the status of a souvenir or an art-object), accords better with what we know of medieval practice.

The most famous piece in the Codex Calixtinus appendix is famous for the wrong reason. It is a conductus, Congaudeant catholici (“Let all Catholics rejoice together”), that is furnished with two counterpoints, one in a fairly florid “organal” style, the other a simple discant. Although it is quite obvious that the two counterpoints were entered separately (the moderately fancy organal voice occupies a staff of its own, above the tenor; the note-against-note discant is entered, in red ink for contrast, directly on the staff containing the tenor), the piece was long taken to be a unique three-part polyphonic setting, supposedly the first of its kind (Fig. 5-4; Ex. 5-9). (Congaudeant catholici’s “rightful” claim to fame is the fact that it may be the earliest polyphonic piece to carry an attribution in its source; the Codex names “Magister Albertus Parisiensis” as composer, identifiable by his title as the Albertus who served as cantor at the cathedral of Notre Dame from around 1140 to 1177.)

The Codex Calixtinus

fig. 5-3 Cunctipotens genitor, as set melismatically in the Codex Calixtinus, a late twelfth-century French manuscript now kept at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The setting begins halfway through the first system and ends at the beginning of the fifth system.

The Codex Calixtinus

fig. 5-4 The conductus Congaudeant catholici as it appears in the Codex Calixtinus (fol. 214, the bottom half of the page).

The extremely high level of dissonance that resulted from performing the two settings simultaneously was not at first considered a deterrent. Careless reading of the medieval music theorists, together with equally incautious assumptions about the relationship of writing to composition, encouraged the belief that the harmonic style of early polyphony was entirely rationalistic, based on speculative numerology, and, from a practical—that is, aural—point of view, virtually haphazard. (It was thought, to be specific, that voices written in succession against a cantus firmus had to accord harmonically only with it, not with each other; both “written” and “in succession” are now acknowledged to be anachronistically limiting terms.)

What may in fact be the earliest surviving three-part polyphonic composition is a Christmas conductus, Verbum patris humanatur (“The word of the Father is made man”). It is found as a two-part discant setting in one of the Aquitanian manuscripts, and in three parts (of which one, the tenor of course, is common to both settings) in a small French manuscript of the late twelfth century now kept in the library of Cambridge University. The notation is still noncommittal with respect to rhythm. The transcription in Ex. 5-10 is “isosyllabic,” resulting in an implicit duple meter based on the accentual scansion of the text. The longer values on the exclamatory O’s and elsewhere are conjectural; they arise out of the same implicit (or perhaps it would be more honest to say “presumed”) musical pulse.

The Codex CalixtinusThe Codex Calixtinus

ex. 5-9 Congaudeant catholici transcribed as two separate two-part pieces, but aligned

The Codex Calixtinus

ex. 5-10 Verbum patris humanatur (twelfth-century conductus setting in three parts)

The basic “harmony of three voices” emerges here as octave (or unison) plus fifth. The octave-filled-by-fifth sonority includes every perfect consonance (or symphonia, to recall the old organum terminology). In places where imperfect consonances had been common before (especially the “precadential” position), we are now apt to find triads, or else a combination of fourth or fifth plus a seventh over the lowest voice that is justified by its characteristic approach to the concluding consonance by contrary motion—a harmonically amplified occursus.

The strategic placement of dissonance (or imperfect consonance) immediately before perfect consonance, and its “resolution” to the latter by contrary voice-leading, was henceforth regarded as the essential “function” of discant harmony and the definer of musical “motion.” It became the primary signal of “closure,” or phrase-ending in polyphonic music, the necessary determiner of cadences, and eventually the primary shaper of musical form. As befits something so important to musical structure and perception—to musical “language,” in effect—it was eventually standardized in practice, and particularly in teaching, as “laws of counterpoint.”

Still and all, the note-against-note harmony of the earliest surviving three-part discants, like Verbum patris humanatur, is the kind of harmony that is easily worked out in the act of “harmonizing”—that is, by ear—and depicts in writing, like a kind of snapshot, an informal oral practice of evident long standing, and with many descendants in today’s world. There is no telling how far back in time such practices may extend.

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. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-005005.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-005005.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-005005.xml