P is for Polyphony

Jan Van Eyck, madrigals in the Ghent altarpiece. Close-up photo from wikimedia.

The Renaissance brought opportunities for new trade goods, new ideas, new things to look at. Domes! Linear perspective! Oil paintings you could only see through a magnifier! While other arts were exploding in complexity and innovation, music also took a few baby steps.

One Note at a Time in Church

Once upon a time, in the 13th century, there was secular music and liturgical music, and never the twain shall meet. A bard could wander around with a lute, singing in the dim banquet hall of the baron for his supper … see Xena, The Witcher, Galavant… No duets; no big sound.

Meanwhile, in the churches, there were plenty of choruses. But those monks–or nuns–only sang one note at a time. This was plainchant. As wikipedia explains:

Harmony was considered frivolous, impious, lascivious, and an obstruction to the audibility of the words. Instruments, as well tain modes, were actually forbidden in the church because of their association with secular music and pagan rites.


The perfect example would be those monks singing in “Holy Grail”… although you could also listen to more angelic, mystical versions by Hildegard von Bingen.

Plainchant, courtesy of Monty Python & the Holy Grail (Youtube).

With more people, the bards might have met up, or at least tried to create a song version with more than one person singing. The Greeks had figured out harmony mathematically, so once those ancient Greek texts started circulating, experiments could happen to put voices together. Or even those who couldn’t read had the ear, the talent, to describe what they wanted to friends.

One of the earliest types of polyphony was the round where three or four variations of a tune were combined together so that they sounded pleasing. The earliest written one was Sumer is acumen in, by W. de Wycombe. There’s a lot of choruses with the Cukoo! Cukoo!

Wycombe’s round, baby steps toward harmony. Photo from wikipedia.

Too Many Popes? Let’s Sing!

Even the monks might have noticed that singing more than one note at a time could create combinations that sounded more divine. Harmony crawled forward an inch with melismatic organum (say that three times fast!). Melismatic meant those notes where multiple notes are sung in a syllable–very common singing style, find a note, people! Organum allowed at least one other singer to sing underneath, usually the altos, who are expert at singing one note. They sang more than one note at the same time, and the world didn’t end! Hmmm…

Secular music was getting more playful, especially in France in Avignon, of all places. In the 14th centuries, the popes had a schism, meaning they couldn’t agree and two–no-three!–people decided they were running the known universe on earth as the Vicar of Christ. One pope went to Avignon while another stayed in Rome, and they both fumed. But in Avignon, the center of secular music fun, they started adding it in to church music.

Popes didn’t like that–even though it sounded great! Can you imagine singing in Notre Dame or Chartres? Those vaulted ceilings would make those harmonies take everyone to their knees. Even so, Pope John XXII banned harmonies from the liturgy. Party pooper. Pope Clement VI put it back. And soon there were more harmonic composers of religious music than you could shake a stick at.

Polyphony in choral church music. (Youtube)

As the Greek texts started popping back up in those dusty monastery trash heaps or during the sack of–er–liberation of libraries in Toledo and Constantinople, they rediscovered what the Greeks understood about harmony. The popes and the monarchs liked it. Elizabeth I even granted Thomas Tallis and William Byrd monopolies on using polyphony in their music. What did they do if someone else sang in harmony, I wonder? Put a bag over his head?

Alas My Love, Hear Are 20 More Verses

But then, of course, there were the madrigals. The chorales are being sung in church, mostly by men at this point unless it’s a convent. Boys’ choirs were used for the higher tones as well as counter-tenors which were also called castratos, and you don’t want to know.

In small groups, of course, women could sing. Bards now had groups, and the groups were called madrigals. Usually, the madrigals sang without instruments, anywhere from two to eight different voices. So they’d gotten very good at harmony. They came out Italy–Venice in particular, although some of the composers were northern European. The music style quickly spread across Europe and soon started to use instruments as well.

Musikalische Unterhaltung by Sebastiano Florigerio (1500-1543) from Mozartsroses

Certainly, everyone preferred to hear people who could sing well, but there was always Fred. Still, those long winter nights got pretty boring so singing in a group became full entertainment. Kind of like karaoke. Everyone gets to play, even Fred. Most everyone could figure out how to read music, or at least follow a tune, so being part of the madrigal singing was something everyone could do.

The Concert by Gerard Van Honthorst 1623, from mozartsroses

And if Fred still wanted to sing, maybe the soprano with the piercing voice and the lute could stand really close.

One of the most widely known madrigals song was Now is the month of maying which has an awful lot of fa-la-la-la-laing. It’ll take you right back to the Renaissance Faire, where the singers won’t go away until you give them a coin.

Twelve verses of fa-la-la-la-la? Madrigals! (Youtube)

The dam was about to burst. With all this polyphony and choral music spreading, the composers were about to come out of the woodwork. Claudio Monteverdi did most of his writing in Venice, and though he wrote chorals and tons of madrigal music, he also had this great idea. He would use music to tell stories–big stories–Greek myths like the story of Orpheus.

Monteverdi didn’t invent opera, but L’Orfeo is still the oldest opera still being performed. This would create an entirely new idea of how music could be used. Not just in church, or sung around the dinner table, but on stage! Mozart and Bach were right around the corner.

No wonder Monteverdi got his own marble tomb.

Monteverdi’s tomb in Fratri Church, Venice. Photo by kajmeister.

4 Replies to “P is for Polyphony”

  1. I was a sinner before I knew it, I guess. I thought it was a talent, rather, that I sort of instinctively could sing harmony — while, also, I had been assigned alto when in a choir at my public grade school. I loved harmony. And, now, I really enjoy multiple rhythms or time signatures. I’m only getting worse.

    1. OMG! I give you a standing ovation for that one! I didn’t even see it. My dad used to say “shake a stick at” so I was channeling him. He clearly punning at me from the afterworld. Love the comment.

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