In Praise of Polyphony (Music for Mondays)

You can blame this article and my good friend (and frequent YIMC commenter) James for this post. Seal and the immortal Stevie Ray Vaughn will have to step aside for a week, to make way for Palestrina, Clemens non Papa, Byrd, and 20th-century composer Eric Whitacre. This is music as it was meant to be, four hundred years ago. I could imagine Warren Jewell tapping his feet to this stuff, if it had a beat. 

We begin with the Nunc Dimittis, set to music by Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina (1525–1594).

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Next up, “Ego Flos Campi” by Jacob Clemens non Papa (1510?–1555?).

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Here’s “Vigillate” by William Byrd (1540?–1623).

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Finally, here is a 20th-century example of polyphony, Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque.”

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    With voices like these, who needs instruments? These selections are great!

  • Fan of Schall

    In the Church, with music, so many things come into play at once. Stone, art, sculpture, wood, marble, carvings, engineering, acoustics, the human voice, amazing musical instruments that could only be imagined by the human mind, harmony and notes written by amazing men. There is no better place to listen to music than a church built to the divine proportions. I offer up another suggestion for the music list for lent, Allegri's Miserere: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZL3POaATn8&feature;=related If you care to witness such an obvious example of the Holy Spirit working in a human being, please listen to the young boy's voice from 6:26-6:45.

  • Allison Salerno

    @Frank: The voice IS an instrument. (she said snarkily) I do love polyphony. One of my many new discoveries this year when I joined our church choir. Palestrina ROCKS!

  • Maria

    As the profanity of our world seeks to murder souls, it seems no accident that sacred music is making a comeback in our great Church. These selections were perfectly lovely. Thank you Fan of Schall for your suggestion. I often listen to Gregorian chant to ease my soul.

  • cathyf

    I generally dislike polyphony. It's boring, static, circular. Since there are no lyrics, it has no message beyond the notes. The only aspect where it even approaches interest is that it is generally difficult, so watching it has a certain circus-like drama like when you are waiting for the high-wire artist or the trapeze artist to make a mistake and go "splat" on the concrete.Compare it to truly good music: Mozart's Ave Verum which may be the most perfect piece of choral music ever written. Anything from Southern Harmony or Kentucky Harmony. Anything by Parker-Shaw — or just Alice Parker — Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal is incredibly hard to sing well, but actually worth the effort! Or Richard Proulx's Amazing Grace, preferably with a clarinet or oboe on the flute part.Polyphony, PHEH… "Daddy, daddy, I don't wanna go in circles anymore!" "Shuddup, kid, or I'll nail your other shoe to the floor!"

  • Allison Salerno

    @cathyf:Of course, reasonable folks will disagree on what is enjoyable music. But a few things. First, some context: Gregorian Chants – where everyone is on the same note- developed into Organum – where voices take the tune a set sequence higher than the others (which can sound pretty dissonant at times) – which led to Polyphony which led to all the other Great Western music you cherish. So hating polyphony is to me like hating a stage of human development (though there are times I could do without our son's teen years…) Also polyphony certainly DOES have lyrics. I am not sure what you might be thinking of…Blessings,Allison

  • cathyf

    By "no lyrics" I mean that there is no semantic content. You start with some sounds which correspond to words in a language which neither singer nor listener understand. Then you "rubber-band" the sounds where a single original syllable goes over multiple (sometimes a dozen) notes. Then you take the four voices which are not singing those "syllables" in any coordinated way and stack them atop each other. The result is that a listener has no way of knowing what the words are by listening to them.Language is a symbolic construct where people communicate meaning through use of mutually agree-upon conventions of certain "words" corresponding with certain "meanings." When you have the context where the listeners do not have any realistic chance of knowing what words make up the "lyrics" of the "song", then those sounds no longer function as words. "Ah-oh-ah-ah-oo…" means exactly the same thing as "doo-wah-doo-wah-doo-wah-ditty…" — nothing at all.

  • Allison Salerno

    @cathyf:So do you think we should not chant or sing in Latin then? I would respectfully disagree. Latin is the universal language of the Universal catholic church; it is the language that binds us together. I am not a traditionalist in that I think Masses should be continued to be offered in the local language of the people, but given the wide diversity of cultures and languages in the U.S. catholic church, singing in Latin could be the one thing that binds us all together culturally – whether one is Vietnamese, Ecuadorian, Nigerian etc. I attended a beautiful sacred music concert in January by a semi-pro choir singing Polyphony. The lyrics were provided in a program in both Latin and English. I closed my eyes through most of the concert and imagined I was listening to the sound of the heavenly cosmos.

  • cathyf

    No, I am not saying that we shouldn't sing in Latin — I'm saying that polyphony so abuses the syllables that it's not Latin. Suppose you go to an orchestra concert and they hand out a program that says "the name of the piece is The Sorrow of David and it's about David's repentance for having had Uriah the Hittite killed." They might even print one or more of the appropriate psalms that go along with that. In Latin or English or some other language. And of course in some particular translation. But you wouldn't take that literally and say that the violas or the kettle drum or the clarinets were actually speaking Latin or English or some other language.I'm saying that for some sound to be "in" a language, there has to be chance that the hearers of the sound can actually tell what words are intended by those sounds. Not so in any polyphony I've heard — or sung, and I've sung quite a lot. Latin hymns are different from polyphony. They have lyrics which are straightforward, understandable to the listeners — unless the choir is incompetent. There are often multiple translations of hymns into English, and some of them are great poetic works and others are schoolboy-translation dross. For example, as a general rule, any hymn by John Neale is probably better in English than the Latin hymn that it is derived from and shares a tune with. We judge the quality of the lyrics of any particular form of a hymn in whatever language it is in according to its own artistic integrity as a separate work of poetry and music. If somebody has to print the words in a program for the hearers to know what the words are, then the piece of music, as performed, does not actually have those words.

  • Allison Salerno

    @CathyfWow. Your knowledge of music far exceeds mine! I am so impressed at the depth of your experience and knowledge.I am intrigued also by your references to Kentucky Harmony and Southern Harmony. I googled this but didn't find too much. I remember well your wonderful guest blog about family roots in Kentucky.Perhaps a guest blog about this music?blessings to you.Allison

  • DF

    While the text in polyphony is often unintelligible to the listener, the faithful had sung those same texts to Gregorian melodies for 500 years. So, I think the appreciative listener is assumed to be quite familiar with the text.Reverberant accoustics and busy vocal lines make for a blurry, mysterious, maybe even sensational artistic effect. One thing is for certain: this music is a remarkable window allowing us to view the faith life of the Church at early times. It can be a concentrated dose of faith inspiration for a Sunday worshipper.

  • James

    If it's good enough for the Westminister Cathedral Choir it's good enough for me.

  • Allison Salerno

    To me, the Westminster Cathedral Choir sounds like what I imagine the cosmos sounds like when heaven welcomes a new soul.


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