A defining moment in music happened 800 years ago. For the first time, humanity was introduced to polyphony. That development was nothing short of revolutionary – practically all “modern” music is polyphonic (i.e., they consist of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody). Before the 11th century, music was monophonic, the opposite of polyphony. The Gregorian chant, the mainstay of liturgical music in the middle ages, is a good example of monophonic music. This is what is sounds like:

Around the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century, polyphonic music was invented in France, the blending of two or more melodies played simultaneously. The principal pioneers were two Frenchmen, Léonin and his slightly later contemporary, Pérotin. They were the first known significant composers of polyphonic organum, a plainsong or chant accompanied by another voice sung below or above the melody. Both men lived and worked in Paris at the Notre Dame Cathedral. Their works as well as those of their anonymous contemporaries, has been grouped together as the School of Notre Dame.

Somewhat more is known about Pérotin than his predecessor. We know that Pérotin composed church music in organum form, and that he pioneered the styles of the three- and four-part polyphony. In fact, these works are among the only few of the genre known. A prominent feature of Pérotin’s compositions was the ‘tenor’ which is drawn from an existing melody from the liturgical repertoire such as Alleluia, Verse or Bendicamus. In all cases, the tenor literally ‘holds’ the melody of the Gregorian chant.

As an example of early polyphonic music, listen to Pérotin’s Alleluya Nativitas organum below. Written for three male voices, it contains many common aspects of organa composition, including the frequent interweaving of pleasant, agreeable melody (consonance) with its opposite (dissonance). The works of the Notre Dame School are preserved in the Magnus Liber, the “Great Book” of early polyphonic church music, considered as one of the greatest single achievement in the development of early polyphonic music.

Perotin, Alleluya Nativas. Ensemble Gilles Binchois, Dominique Vellard, dir. Le Chant des Cathédrales – Ecole de Notre Dame de Paris.

Further study
Carl Parrish and John F. Ohl, Masterpieces of Music before 1750, Dover Publications, New York, 2001 (first published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 1951).

Antiphon: In traditional Western Christian liturgy, an antiphon is a short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle.

Versicle: a short sentence said or sung by the minister in a church service, to which the congregation gives a response.

Organum: the earliest type of polyphonic music in which a plainsong or chant is accompanied by another voice sung below or above the chant melody. Organa exist for two to four voices.

Consonance: In music, intervals are traditionally considered either consonant or dissonant. Consonant intervals are usually described as pleasant and agreeable. Dissonant intervals are those that cause tension and desire to be resolved to consonant intervals. These descriptions relate to harmonious intervals.

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