Thursday, January 22, 2015

Earliest Known Piece of Polyphonic Music Discovered

This news dates back over a month, but was just brought to my attention today. The website of the University of Cambridge published a report last December on the discovery of a manuscript fragment which contains the oldest known piece of polyphonic music. (Click the link above to read the complete article.)
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, ... (t)he 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 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....
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."
The complete text of the antiphon is: Sancte Bonifati, martyr inclyte Christi, te quaesumus ut nos tuis precibus semper gratiae Dei commendare digneris. (Saint Boniface, renowned martyr of Christ, we ask thee that by thy prayers, thou may ever deign to commend us to the grace of God.)

British Library MS Harley 3019, with the polyphonic antiphon Sancte Bonifati. Image from the original article.  
The video below shows the piece being performed by Quintin Beer (left) and John Clapham (right), both music undergraduates at St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

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