Thursday, May 26, 2005

History of Music Theory, Part Five

The first flowering of polyphony in Western Art Music came around the end of the 12th century with the Ars Antigua as represented by the Notre Dame school of composers. Magister Leoninus and his brilliant student Perotinus Magnus - commonly known as Leonin and Perotin - were the right men, with the right talent, in the right place, at the right time. In order for this first great leap to occur, mensural notation and diaphonic theoretical and proceedural concepts had to be worked out to a high level of sophistication. Everything in Reimann's "History of Music Theory" so far has been leading up to this: A highly developed and fascile form of organum.

There really is no substitute for actually listening to this music. If you would like more information about the Notre Dame school and Leonin and Perotin there is a great article on that subject posted at Goldberg that also has a discography that can lead you to some excellent recordings.

Though there is no arguing the fact that the Notre Dame composers made a fantastic contribution to the art of music, there is also evidence that there was a robust and vibrant popular music movement at the same time that was in some ways much more modern, or at least would seem so to our ears anyway. The earliest theoretical treatise that deals with popular forms in detail is Johannes de Grocheo's Theoria, which is dated around 1300 AD. Grocheo is a man after my own heart, as it seems he broke all the rules of his time and aimed his treatise not at the scholarly classes, but at the young, educated members of the secular upper classes. Grocheo only mentions as much as he feels he has to about the Church's musica ecclesiastica, but treats the contemporaneous musica vulgaris in great detail. Theoria gives the distinct impression that there was more than just a little cross pollenization going on between Church and popular music, and he actually has the audacity to dispense with the rigors of theory where it fails to describe popular practices. He describes everything from ballad-like songs to dances that evidently had vibrant rhythmic aspects to them. I found it interesting that most of these songs and dances were not in anything like the Church modes, but were rather in the keys (!) of A minor and C major, which was know as modus vulgaris at that time. This is the year 1300 we are talking about! I can't think of any better example of how far behind practice theory had gotten by this time. In some aspects, it would be centuries before theory would fully catch up.

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