Earliest known piece of polyphonic music discovered

December 17, 2014, University of Cambridge
The music was written around the year 900, and represents the earliest example of polyphonic music intended for practical use. Credit: MS Harley 3019. Reproduced with the permission of the British Library Board

New research has uncovered the earliest known practical piece of polyphonic music, an example of the principles that laid the foundations of European musical tradition.

The earliest known practical example of polyphonic music - a piece of choral music written for more than one part - has been found in a British Library manuscript in London.

The inscription is believed to date back to the start of the 10th century and is the setting of a short chant dedicated to Boniface, patron Saint of Germany. It is the earliest practical example of a piece of polyphonic music – the term given to music that combines more than one independent melody – ever discovered.

Written using an early form of notation that predates the invention of the stave, it was inked into the space at the end of a manuscript of the Life of Bishop Maternianus of Reims.

The piece was discovered by Giovanni Varelli, a PhD student from St John's College, University of Cambridge, while he was working on an internship at the British Library. He discovered the manuscript by chance, and was struck by the unusual form of the notation. Varelli specialises in early musical notation, and realised that it consisted of two vocal parts, each complementing the other.

Polyphony defined most European music up until the 20th century, but it is not clear exactly when it emerged. Treatises which lay out the theoretical basis for music with two independent vocal parts survive from the early Middle Ages, but until now the earliest known examples of a practical piece written specifically for more than one voice came from a collection known as The Winchester Troper, which dates back to the year 1000.

Varelli's research suggests that the author of the newly-found piece – a short "antiphon" with a second voice providing a vocal accompaniment – was writing around the year 900.

The video shows the piece being performed by Quintin Beer (left) and John Clapham (right), both music undergraduates at St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

As well as its age, the piece is also significant because it deviates from the convention laid out in treatises at the time. This suggests that even at this embryonic stage, composers were experimenting with form and breaking the rules of polyphony almost at the same time as they were being written.

"What's interesting here is that we are looking at the birth of polyphonic music and we are not seeing what we expected," Varelli said.

"Typically, polyphonic music is seen as having developed from a set of fixed rules and almost mechanical practice. This changes how we understand that development precisely because whoever wrote it was breaking those rules. It shows that music at this time was in a state of flux and development, the conventions were less rules to be followed, than a starting point from which one might explore new compositional paths."

The piece is technically known as an "organum", an early type of polyphonic music based on plainsong, in which an accompaniment was sung above or below the melody.

The fact that it was an early example of music for two parts had probably gone unnoticed because the author used a very early form of musical notation for the polyphonic piece, which would have been indecipherable to most modern readers. "When I tried to work out the melody I realised that the music written above was the same as the one outlined by the notation used for the chant and that this sort of 'diagram' was therefore a two-voice piece based on the antiphon for St Boniface", Varelli said. "The chant notation essentially gives the direction of the melody and when it goes up or down, the organum notation consistently agreed, giving us also the exact intervals for the chant."

Who wrote the music, and which monastic house it came from, remains a mystery, but through meticulous detective work Varelli has been able to pin its likely origins down to one of a number of ecclesiastical centres in what is now north-west Germany, somewhere around Paderborn or Düsseldorf.

This is partly because the type of plainchant notation – sometimes known as Eastern Palaeofrankish – was most used in Germany at that time. In addition, however, an unknown scribe had added a Latin inscription at the top of the page which when translated reads: "which is celebrated on December 1".

This odd comment, a reference to the Saint's Day for Maternianus, alludes to the fact that unlike most monastic houses, which celebrated Maternianus on April 30, a handful of communities in north-western Germany did so on December 1. Combined with the notation itself, this makes it likely that whoever wrote the music was based in that region.

"The music was added some time after the main saint's life was written," Varelli added. "The main text was written at the beginning of the 10th century, and on this basis, we can conservatively estimate that this addition was made some time in the very first decades of the same century".

"The rules being applied here laid the foundations for those that developed and governed the majority of western music history for the next thousand years. This discovery shows how they were evolving, and how they existed in a constant state of transformation, around the year 900."

Nicolas Bell, music curator at the British Library, said "This is an exciting discovery. When this manuscript was first catalogued in the eighteenth century, nobody was able to understand these unusual symbols. We are delighted that Giovanni Varelli has been able to decipher them and understand their importance to the history of music."

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4 / 5 (4) Dec 17, 2014
The notion that polyphony is some kind of recent innovation is patently absurd - it's one thing to trace the development of polyphony back through our cultural traditions, but quite another to ascribe innovation to it - we've discovered 50,000 year old bone flutes all tuned to each other, which only serve to underline the point that the rules of polyphony are implicit within those of harmony and rhythm itself. A similar - and directly related - conceit is reflected in the widespread belief that the rules of consonance and dissonance are culturally subjective, and acquired.

Explain to me how anyone could hear an octave and NOT perceive the two tones as being equivalent, and i'll be willing to believe harmony developed later, rather than being inborn. This equivalence is the physical root of consonance, and requires no innovation. Besides, people would have first noticed and applied these rules in impromptu choral activities, long before the development of any express music theory.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2014
I wonder what the audiences' reaction was to this musical innovation. Like the first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring?
5 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2014
MrVibrating: It is important to distinguish between heterophonic and truly polyphonic organization. Groupings of instruments in the same tuning do not necessarily imply a vertical structure based on stable chords. The vast majority of known music in the world is heterophonic (although that can be hard to see, because Western tonal music has displaced much of the world's indigenous music).

I think that "the widespread belief that the rules of consonance and dissonance are culturally subjective" is neither entirely true or entirely false. When you are dealing with inharmonic timbres, such as you find in Indonesian gamelan and some West African musics, the "rules" of harmony are quite different than when focusing solely on string or wind instruments. Octaves are a given, because they are easy to hear with any timbre. Fifths are nearly universal, although the value of the fifth can stray far from the 700 cents we are familiar with. But outside of that, there are no absolute standards.
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 19, 2014
Alfie asked, "I wonder what the audiences' reaction was to this musical innovation. Like the first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring?"

I seriously doubt that the piece was, in its time, innovative at all.

I suspect polyphonic music is much, much older than 900 AD, and I doubt that it was invented in Europe.

This early piece from 900 AD is not likely to have been the first polyphonic music in a notation understandable by moderns. It's merely the oldest surviving fragment. And I think polyphonic music without modern notational symbols is truly ancient.

Human brains seem to be wired to enjoy polyphonic music, and that wiring is old.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 19, 2014
@elbschwartz - Pythagoras's monochord is often described as the root of Western tonality, later Plato described the influences of the modes, and later still sparse counterpoint was allowed to accentuate the purity of heavenly cadences.

However this popular picture is simply looking back through rose-tinted tunnel vision goggles. Medieval scholars had more Greek than, say, Chinese, sources to draw upon, though we now know Eastern tonalities bloomed far earlier than the West's.

Javanese Slendro and Pelog forms, despite making unequal divisions into an octave, are nonetheless octave-derived, not by some accident but because the equivalence of octaves is physiological, not subjective. It's not some kind of 'qualia', as is commonly believed amongst even modern psychomusicologists - again, just consider the absurdities that would be implied if octave equivalence was absent in any population - not only is it universal, but intrinsic to all complex animals.

3 / 5 (2) Dec 19, 2014

Inharmonic timbres like didgeridoos' or whatever aren't really exercising tonal play at all; their inherent overtones are simply made-do with, and the musical forms focus on the temporal domain, instead of exploring the spatial domain as is possible with pure-tone harmonics.

What you haven't noticed, and isn't taught, is that octave equivalence is maximal consonance - IOW, all consonance & dissonance is but degrees of equivalence. The fifth is slightly less equivalent, the fourth even more inequivalent, and so on - tritones are very inequivalent. This percept is objective, not acquired or cultural, and quite distinct from the concept of "cultural consonance" - ie. that which is subjectively held to be sonorous, and does vary between cultures.

Every animal tested for octave equivalence has shown positive results. Our affinity for the harmonic series is not dependent upon tonotopic maps, but is, rather, far more fundamental, with corticothalmic loops being likely nuclei.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 19, 2014
Sorry to bang on, but elbschwartz is arguing from the textbook canon of ethnomusicology and these commonly-held misconceptions must be challenged...

Someone with no express musical training or ability will nonetheless instinctively switch up or down an octave in order to continue singing a melody that's exceeded their comfortable range. Likewise, when attempting to accompany another singer or recording whose range they cannot match.

It is thus impossible to believe that people haven't been similarly transposing, quite reflexively, by fifths and fourths and so on, and thus noticing and then continuing to exploit polyphonic harmonising, since the dawn of humanity.

The role of polyphony within the strictures of Western religious and philosophical cultural development is simply too blinkered a view to extrapolate much from with regards to the real history of the phenomenon.
3 / 5 (1) Dec 20, 2014
Vibrating, I'm inclined to believe both of you, and I think the conceptual understanding difference is coming from some philosophical-spatial gut feeling you each have.

That being said, I think the development of such complex notation lead to a harmonic focus and stability in the structure. I agree . I don't think the article is stating that it's the earliest polyphonic music, but the earliest known notation. Also, I think polyphony is not so much referred to as a phenomenon than as a technique - or family of techniques - which corroborates with your "blinkered...view"; one of my wishes is to hear all the music from all time as I'm sure there have been billions (if not more) of amazing, in tune, moments.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 20, 2014
Yes, phenomenon / technique or what-have-you, nonetheless the standard belief reiterated in most texts holds that polyphony became 'a thing' only within the confines of the development of Western tonality, whereas my point is simply that it's too fundamental and implicit a thing to be attributed or understood solely through the limited prism of history - prehistorically it must've arisen multiple times independently.

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