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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds With the upcoming of musical notation in late Carolingian times, the practice of polyphonic singing was developed in different parts of medieval Europe. These compositions for two, three, or four voices were called discantus or organum and were in both cases based on a liturgical chant melody.

Skip to 0 minutes and 38 seconds Polyphonic music is transmitted in sources from different parts of Europe starting from the ninth century

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds onwards: Werden, Germany; Winchester, England; Arezzo, Italy; Limoges, France; and finally Paris.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds This is an early example of polyphonic notation.

Skip to 1 minute and 7 seconds The reason of that musical evolution should not be searched in the artistic intention of medieval composers, but rather in the purpose of embellishing the liturgical chant during important festivities like Easter or Christmas. The embellishment thus emphasised the solemn character of these liturgical performances.

Skip to 1 minute and 38 seconds During the second half of the 13th century, a historical significant practice of polyphonic music was developed in the newly constructed cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This repertoire was copied in the different stages into the so-called Magnus Liber. In this collection, a new type of notation that was apt to fix rhythmic patterns was established. During this week, you shall learn to read and to transcribe that type of notation.

Skip to 2 minutes and 23 seconds In Paris, specific parts of the plainchant were put in a non-rhythmic polyphonic setting. Later, these parts were replaced by new passages specifically

Skip to 2 minutes and 37 seconds called clausula that used the rhythmic notation: the modal notation. During the period of the Notre Dame school, polyphonic versions of the same piece were reworked in different steps. The starting point is always a plainchant melody. [PLAINCHANT SINGING]

Skip to 3 minutes and 19 seconds Let’s take as example the mass chant Benedicta et Venerabilis, a gradual on which different melismatic clausulae on the syllable ‘go’ of ‘virgo’ were set by the musicians of Notre Dame. [SOLO SINGING ‘VIRGO’]

Skip to 4 minutes and 2 seconds [ORGANUM SINGING]

Skip to 5 minutes and 19 seconds With the new modal notation, a more complex type of polyphony was possible. Also three voice versions were released.

Skip to 5 minutes and 31 seconds [ORGANUM SINGING]

Skip to 7 minutes and 0 seconds In a further step of this reworking process, a new text was added to the upper voice. This voice was called motetus. A new genre was born. As you can see here in the motet, O Maria mater pia, which is based on the clausula ‘go’, the three voices being moulded after the older clausula setting. [PERFORMING ‘O MARIA MATER PIA’]

Cantus and discantus

In this video you will get some basic information about the historical development of polyphony in Western music history. You will also become acquainted with a new form of noting music: the modal notation.

Previously you explored how liturgical chant was noted down, starting from the late Carolingian times until the crucial transition from the neumes without lines to square notation. Let us now address the polyphony of the 12th and 13th centuries. A good example is the so-called Notre Dame school. The name stands for a group of musicians active in Paris between about 1150 and about 1250. They composed a large number of polyphonic settings of liturgical music.

The Ensemble Gilles Binchois under the direction of Dominique Vellard sings the monophonic Gradual Benedicta et Venerabilis. The video also presents two polyphonic clausulae Go and the motet O Maria mater pia from the manuscript Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 29.1, fol. 11r, 165r and 393r–v that are derived from the monophonic Gradual.

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From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel