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.

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