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When did composers become chorus-conscious?

March 20, 2008

Manfred Bukofzer discusses the origins of polyphonic choral writing in this extract from Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (1950).

By “polyphonic writing” Bukofzer means music where the voices are not just doubling at the unison, octave, fourth or fifth, but not necessarily music where each voice has an independent melody. Bukofzer describes music like this as being in a “simple declamatory style” and concludes that this was “the typical idiom of choral polyphony as it was conceived at the time”. In other words he is discussing music that often has a homophonic or hymn-like texture. The period he focuses on most is c. 1420-1450.

My comments are in square brackets and I have omitted Bukofzer’s footnotes.

The Beginnings of Choral Polyphony

At what time did composers begin to write polyphonic music for chorus? This is a question not only of the traditions or code of performance, but also of the evolution of musical style. Composition for chorus requires a certain idiom; when and how was this idiom developed? To put it differently, one might ask: When did composers become chorus-conscious?

The first great achievements of polyphonic vocal writing, such as the organa quadrupla by Perotin and the motets of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, are often regarded as choral music to be sung by the church choir. This opinion, however, popular it may be, is quite at variance with the facts. We know definitely that medieval polyphonic music was written generally not for large groups, but for soloists. Besides internal evidence that indicates performance by them, thirteenth-century records of the Notre Dame archives show that only four singers were employed for polyphonic singing, who, incidentally, received twice as much salary as the other singers. The only type of choral singing generally practiced in the Middle Ages is that of the choir in unison. Gregorian chant had developed to a high degree of perfection the art of contrasting, in monophony, solo and choir singing. With the introduction of polyphony, only the sections which the chant had intended for soloists were recast for two or more voices, while the rest remained choral monophony……The situation remains essentially unchanged until the beginning of the fifteenth century……The difference between solo and choral performance, present in purely monophonic renditions of Gregorian chant, was at first weakened by the polyphonic settings, since the contrast between one solo singer and a choir group was replaced by opposing a group of solo singers to the choir. However, the substitution brought to light the new distinction between polyphony and monophony.

[Bukofzer argues that the final step toward polyphonic writing for chorus is taken by Guillaume Legrant in a Gloria and Credo dated 1426. The earliest evidence for choral polyphonic writing comes from the period c. 1425-1440 and is found in a group of Italian manuscripts.]

…we must regard Italy as the homeland of polyphonic choral music. It is here that composers of polyphony first became chorus-minded. This does not necessarily mean that they themselves were Italians; they were, on the contrary, mostly of Franco-Flemish descent. [ Bukofzer discusses some examples and also the contribution of English composers to the development of choral polyphony.]

Thus we have two trends side by side. One is the development of choral music from its beginnings about 1430 to the liturgical and chorus-conscious music of Okeghem, Obrecht, and Josquin, the polychoral extension of the choral idiom with Willaert and the Venetian School, and the synthesis in Palestrina and Lasso. The other is the soloist trend, which is particularly strong in the secular literature of the chanson and madrigal. Polyphonic choral music took its cue from and developed out of the Gregorian unison chorus; this explains why the first polyphonic choral music occurs in the church and why the secular compositions are slow in taking up the new fashion. The medieval church knew principally only the unison choir and the solo ensemble. The polyphonic choir was an idea foreign to the medieval tradition. The beginnings of choral polyphony coincide with the beginnings of the musical Renaissance.

Bukofzer, Manfred F., Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1951, pp. 176-189.

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