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    "Chance discovery casts new light on origins of polyphonic music"

    News item "Chance discovery casts new light on origins of polyphonic music" in The Guardian, 12 December 2014. Ms discovered in the British Library: Two-part polyphonic work has been dated to ca. AD900. The article links to a performance of the work on YouTube that lasts about 1 minute. Unfortunately a reproduction of the ms was not included in the article. There's no indication of when the discovery was made so it's possible it has already been written up in a journal.

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    • 7 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • The "discovery" was briefly mentioned by Giovanni Varelli at the Cantus Planus meeting in Vienna in 2011 (text available here). The more detailed comments announced in note 3 of this presentation do not yet seem published.

      Although The Guardian stresses that the "unknown composer" broke the "fixed rules" of early-10th-century polyphony, the result does not sound that different from the examples in the Musica enchiriadis. What is different, though, is the notation used (diastematic neumes), which unfortunately is not reproduced. The Cantus Planus paper shows the type of notation, but not of the polyphonic example.



    • Dear Mr Meeùs,

      thank you for your comments on my finding.

      I thought of writing this message simply to let you know that I have published a full article in 2013 about the organum in the journal Early Music History, so well before the news came out in December 2014. I have made it available on my Academia.edu page: https://www.academia.edu/4670586/Two_Newly_Discovered_Tenth-Century_Organa . My CP paper, presented at the conference, dealt entirely (rather than a 'brief mention') about my discovery. The published version, instead, as you have rightly noticed, dealt with only one aspect of the notation in Harley 3019.

      I hope you would find my article interesting and I would be, of course, very glad to receive your comments on my analysis, which shows instead that the piece features a number of compositional procedures that clearly set this music apart from the examples in ME. My study revealed that the organum must have been composed, instead of improvised, for reasons that I explained at lenght. IF we were to consider it as a result of an 'improvisational practice', we would be dealing with one of the most refined at the time, which fact is in itself sufficiently remarkable for making this source a very important one for our knowledge of European music history.

      Finally, may I simply express my surprise in finding comments written without having engaged in the reading of my study (available since September 2013) and that statements as "the result does not sound that different from the examples in ME" should not belong in any competent assessment. If journalists do not do their job well, let us musicologist not imitate them.

      Best regards

    • @IohannesMN

      Let's not argue about dates, nor about who read (or published) what when, nor about journalism. I am not a regular reader of Early Music History (my main interests are elsewhere). Let me only say that I am most grateful today to have your paper in the academia.edu version of late 2014, which I have read with utmost interest.

      About my statement that the result on Youtube isn't that different from the examples in ME, let me confess that reading your notated examples did not really change my opinion. I now can see your point and, indeed, the differences between the Harley 3019 organum and those in ME point to different "compositional" procedures. But these do not make such an important difference in sound, to my ears at least. I admit however to be better at reading music than at hearing it.

      Your paper emits several interesting hypotheses (e.g. on notation) that would deserve further discussion, which I'll leave for another occasion. I'd like to concentrate here on the organa themselves and on the question whether they were "composed" or "improvised". You comment at length supposed compositional decisions (strong or weaker cadences, stressed words, etc.) and, in general, choices allegedly made by the composer. These comments are interesting, but not entirely convincing, in my opinion – precisely because they remain a matter of opinion.

      I will concentrate on your Table 2, where you give the intervals between the two voices. I think that you would have been better inspired to give the intervals in semitones, allowing to make the difference between major and minor thirds, which receive quite a different treatment. I reproduce your Table 2 below, with values in semitones added above your intervals (note that there is an error in your Table on the word quesumus, where your 4 should read 3).


      You write: "The employment of thirds in incipits is particularly significant, for it is not a common feature in early types of organum, where the unison is preferred." There are not so many early types of organum to which this could be compared: let's say that thirds are not employed in incipits in the few organa to which this could be compared. But you should also note that these thirds are all major. There are seven major thirds in all in this case, five of which resolve by a semitone up to a fourth (4→5), two others, on quesumus and on digneris, appear in a movement 2 4 0 (D-E in the VP and C-E in the VO). These two are identical also in the use of a punctum, but you nevertheless analyze them as quite different from each other. The treatment of major thirds in this piece appears to follow rather strict rules; as to minor thirds, they most often appear as passing notes, usually on held notes in the VO.

      Etc. SMT Discuss may not be the place for a detailed analysis of this piece. Let me only say that when you write that

      "the Harley 3019 scribe recorded a procedure of which the roots belonged to a previous musico-theoretical tradition, but at the same time broke away from it by exploring new compositional paths that may have been unexpected by contemporaries; hence the need for recording this organum in written form"

      you may be jumping to conclusions. This might as well be another more or less theoretical example, illustrating rules slightly different from those of the other few 9th- or 10th-century examples available. Your claim that this example required written form because it explored "unexpected" paths would be extremely difficult to support.

      But your discovery is interesting enough in itself. There is no need to present it as a unique case of composition breaking fixed rules: let's leave that to journalists.



    • Dear Mr Meùus,

      Thank you for your message. I will respond to each of your paragraphs:

      1- I believe dates are important, as is to note how well-spread has been the custom, by some colleagues, of basing observations only on what was written in the press and on personal reactions, rather than the ‘good old’ reading of scholarly papers. But I am glad that you had now access to my EMH piece.

      2- I concur it may not sound as ‘avant-garde’ as people might have expected, but sameness in how music sound is a very relative concept which depends mainly on the listener’s experience and expectations. To the man on the street Mozart and Mahler may not posses such ‘important difference in sound’. Our idea of ‘innovative’ is shaped by at least one century of revolutionary changes in musical composition. Our concept of ‘breaking with tradition’ are works by Schoenberg, Cage, Nono, Stockhausen. However, we always have to remind ourselves about the ‘otherness’ of a music that is 1100 years old; historicize, and contextualize it. Sound, incidentally, has never constituted a relevant parameter in my study, for we know so little about how polyphonic music was performed. (And, yes, I have some reservations about how the piece was performed, as I was not in Cambridge when the recording was made.)

      3- Thank you for your comments. Please, if you do not mind explaining what other interesting hypotheses about notation would be worth of discussion? As for my results: in music history there are facts that we know cannot be ‘right or wrong’ (and the older, the fewer), and facts that we do not know and, probably, never know. Any study worth of this name should get the first right, while proposing an solid ‘opinion’ to cover the second. Opinions may be more or less convincing, and I think this is the most exciting aspect of doing research. If everybody would limit themselves to facts we would be stuck, with no food for our intellect.

      4-5 - Thank you for noting the mistake in Table 2. Indeed, changing the observation point from tones to semitones opens up new perspectives to the analysis of the organum. I think it is clear that the passage you quoted about thirds is based on the few examples we know of and that I am simply stating the facts. But I do take the point of your interesting observations about intervals: if only one could write a book and not an article! (At that time I had, however, concerns about employing an analytical framework that is too involved with later categories.)

      6 - As for your last paragraph, I want to react with an example. If, say, two years ago a lecturer in music history had asked his students to talk about early polyphony, he would have marked high those that said that the earliest known examples of polyphony were about singing in parallel octaves, fourths, fifths or simply with a support of a held tone. After my discovery, if the very same lecturer would want his students to have a complete picture he should say that polyphonic singing in the tenth century (i.e. between ME/SE and Winchester or Guido’s Micrologus), according to surviving sources, was different than what we used to know until now. If we think that ME/SE were written only some fifty years earlier and that we are talking about the tenth century, then yes the London organum is different, and not just because it is ‘later’. And, yes, I will keep thinking that writing such piece at the end of a manuscript is what made the difference: not a music treatise, but a musical annotation for a practical performance. Its recording on parchment was not just a scribal exercise; it was a way to remind the singers about unconventional musical solutions. One does not write improvisation, by definition.

      In hopes that our exchange will remain as a testimony of how engaging the musicological debate is,

      Best regards 

    • Giovanni (if I may), let me first answer your 6th point; I may come back on the other points later.

      I did teach this kind of things during about the last ten years (I was teaching analysis rather than history, but we did speak of early organum) and, certainly, even ten years ago, I would not have marked high students who failed to mention early oblique organum. I hope that it was clear to you that when I said that your organum did not sound very different from the examples in ME, I was thinking particularly of the Rex coeli domine maris (your Figure 4), Te humiles famuli and Tu patris sempiternus examples.

      As to the notation of such a piece, let me stress that I remain puzzled. You say that "it was a way to remind the singers about unconventional musical solutions". But how do you conceive that? Was the notation intended to be read while singing? If so, why would the piece have been written at the back of a fascicle on the life of Maternianus of Reims, compressing the text and the music to fit what was left of a piece of parchment no wider than 14,5 cm (i.e. about 10 cm for the notation)?

      The main reasons for this notation appear to be (1) that this bit of expensive parchment was available and (2) that it was already ruled from top to bottom, with about 10 lines left free. The fact that the music notator added lines to reach a total of 13 to write the music, but eventually used only 7 of them, indicates that he had not fully planned his notation, despite your claim.

      You write that "One does not write improvisation, by definition." Is that true? The examples in the ME (or in Guido's Micrologus) may be considered notated "improvisations," to the extent, at least, that one may consider that the early organum was improvised — that the examples were written for theoretical purposes does not change that they exemplify a probably improvised practice. Besides, what is an improvisation, if it rests on such rules as illustrated by the ME (and other) examples?

      The freedom taken by your organum with respect to the last examples in ME appear to concern the initial major thirds exclusively; other intervals (including minor thirds) are not treated differently from the ME examples. The Vox Organalis has an overall ambitus of a major third, from C to E. The high limit may be dictated by the fact that the Vox Principalis does not reach higher than A, and the low limit is the application of the rule given in ME that you quote, that it should not go below the tetrardus (the 4th note of the graves tetrachord; but that in itself is problematic).

      You note that several phrases in the antiphon Sancte Bonifati martyr begin with "a typical third-mode intonation formula in a rising three-step movement (E–F–G)" (I would rather think this to be fourth mode, but never mind). I do not think that any other early organum example begins with such a mi-mode intonation. We therefore cannot imagine why your organum choses to counterpoint the initial E-F-G with C-C-D instead of, say, E-C-D. (It does that on quesumus | ut nos, but crossing a caesura.)

      To express it shortly (and to repeat myself), I do find your organum a fascinating example, but I am not entirely convinced that it expresses a mere compositional freedom, as you appear to believe. Once again, we have way too few 9th- or 10th-century examples, and more generally too little knowledge of functional principles at work in music at that time, to draw this kind of conclusion.




    • Dear Mr Meùus,

      No, of course, the notation was almost surely not intended to be read while singing. The annotation was planned (or ‘intended’, if you prefer) to record a piece that featured some unconventional musical solutions (re. phrases articulation and intervals) that could not be achieved by improvisation alone. We can legitimately consider it possible that the annotation was consulted before the celebration of the liturgical feast, possibly by the person in charge of the performance. Please, I should be glad to read another plausible explanation (which is not simply that someone woke up one day and thought of writing down the organum wherever he could). Do you think the scribe was copying an example from a music treatise, which tradition is now completely lost? It would be fascinating, but how could you demonstrate that? No, I would find it very unlikely.

      I reiterate: one does not write improvisation, by definition. One can only write examples of improvisational practices (music treatises), or a piece to be sung (music practice: the London organum), onto which there may still have been a certain freedom of execution.

      If you only look at intervals, yes, we are not talking about a completely different practice. But it is how and where these intervals are used: the placement of occursus as dependent on the choice of phrase articulation (connected to textual meaning), the drone under ‘te’, etc. are only a few examples of an intentionality that went beyond a mere improvisational practice.  

      Fourth mode? No, the antiphon begins with “a typical third-mode intonation formula”, E mode autenticus. I never said that 1) several phrases do this, nor that 2) it’s a typical formula for organa.

      Best regards

    • Dear M. Varelli,

      We opened this discussion on wrong bases, let's forget about these and concentrate on the core of the matter. Let me apologize once again for not having seen your Early Music History article from the start.

      You certainly know all this much better than I do. Let me therefore ask you whether I am mistaken to think that the only examples of 10th-century organa in oblique and/or contrary motion ("converging organum"), besides Sancte bonifati martyr, are the phrases from the sequence Rex coeli domine and from the hymn Te Deum (Tu patris sempiternus) in the Musica enchiriadis, and the sequence Benedicta sit from De organo (Paris, Latin 7202) that you reproduce as your figure 8? Is there anything else?

      Also, I see that you describe both Rex coeli domine and Benedicta sit as organa "at the fourth". Is that because their fragments in parallel motion are at the fourth? I would have thought that the expression denoted organa entirely in parallel fourths. Would you also describe Sancte bonifati martyr as an organum at the fourth?

      Thanks in advance.