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Classical 101

Music History 101 Gets An Update: Oldest Known Polyphony


You may have seen an article floating around social media from the University of Cambridge with the heading: "Earliest known piece of polyphonic music discovered." It's no hoax, and for some of us it is quite exciting. Giovanni Varelli, a PhD student from the University of Cambridge and intern at the British Library discovered the manuscript, apparently, by chance. Thankfully, Varelli specializes in early music notation and realized the importance of the music which was found notated at the end of a manuscript detailing the Life of the Bishop Maternianus of Reims. The music consists of two vocal lines in campo aperto ("in open field"; written without a musical stave), setting a short chant dedicated to the patron saint of Germany, St. Boniface. Varelli's research gives a sturdy argument that the antiphon to Boniface was written nearly a century before the next known piece of polyphonic music which can be found in a manuscript known as the Winchester Troper. You can find it here: http://www.academia.edu/4670586/Two_Newly_Discovered_Tenth-Century_Organa So what is the Winchester Troper, what is polyphony, and why does this matter? Polyphony can be defined as two or more melodies which sound at the same time and are related by harmonic intervals. So, two or more voices that have their own melody and still sound 'good' together. Imagine if all of our music had only one voice or one instrument playing at a time. There would be no quartets, no symphonies, not even a singer with accompaniment. Polyphony was obviously a landmark development in Western music.

? Polyphony comes from something called organum which is described in a treatise from 875 CE called Musica Enchiriadis. Organum is simply two voices that move in intervals that are guided by very specific rules of harmony. Another style of polyphony that develops around this time is called discant. Discant and organum can be distinguished from one another with a simple rule: in organum the higher voice has about five or more notes for every note in the lower voice, whereas discant has more equal movement in both voices. The Winchester Troper -- Winchester for the Cathedral at which it was originally used, and Troper for the Medieval practice of adding tropes of new musical material to plainchant-- was previously considered one of the two oldest collections of two-part music in Europe. (The other is the Chartres Manuscript.) It is made up of two manuscripts that are thought to have been written around 1000 CE; one is held at the Bodleain Library at Oxford, the other in Corpus Christi, Cambridge. The organa notated in the Troper has been deciphered, studied, and even recorded by the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, directed by Mary Berry. You can listen to the Schola Gregoriana of Cambriadge and read more about the recording here: https://archive.org/details/wcd_christmas-in-royal-a_schola-gregoriana-of_flac_lossless_30237257 The newly-discovered polyphony found in the British Library, antiphon Sancte  Bonifati martyr and the antiphon Rex caelestium terrestrium, are considered two-part organa. Due to the specific notation found in the manuscript, forms known as Eastern Palaeofrankish neumes, along with an odd Latin inscription on the manuscript reading:“which is celebrated on December 1”,  Varelli was able to determine that the music was likely written near what is now north-west Germany, around Paderborn or Düsseldorf. (The Latin inscription narrows down which type of monastery would have been celebrating the specific saint's day on December 1st, which basically pin-points the region of origin.) 00000178-6a23-ddab-a97a-6a3ba68c0000 The manuscript was first cataloged at the British Library in the 18th century, but it was not understood or 'de-coded' until Varelli examined the notation and realized what it meant for our understanding of the history of polyphony. It just goes to show that finding historical artifacts is only one step towards actually understanding history.