Archive for polyphony

Madrigal and Word Painting

Posted in Music, Renaissance with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Madrigal was a form of non-religious (secular) Renaissance vocal music for two or more singers, which reached the peak of its popularity in the 16th century. In France, the equivalent form was known as chanson.

Unlike most sacred music of the time, madrigals were composed in the vernacular language (English, French, Italian, etc) rather than Latin. Composers generally used secular poetry as texts, and sometimes utilized word painting (see below) as a notable compositional device.

What to listen for:

  • Madrigal was sung in the vernacular, i.e. the common tongue, rather than Latin.
  • The use of word painting (it’s not in every madrigal, but it’s in a lot of them).
  • Madrigals are often (though not always) playful, lively, and clever in tone.
Word painting is a device used frequently in Renaissance vocal music, especially madrigalsalthough it certainly also appeared in church music—in which the musical events are designed to illustrate or reflect the text. (Examples below.) This practice is still very much alive in music today, although it used differently. Word painting is related to the concepts of tone painting and program music, in which instrumental music tells a story without text.

Recommended listening:

This piece a classic and clear example of word painting. Pay special attention to the way the words and phrases “ascending,” “descending,” “running down,” “two by two,” etc, are treated by the composer in this piece! To begin with, I suggest you listen and look at the score to perceive this on your own—but here’s a “cheat sheet” of notable moments.

I personally think this chanson (French madrigal) is completely fantastic, and it’s a great example of word painting and musical depiction. In this piece, titled “The Song of the Birds,” the singers imitate bird calls as a musical illustration of the content of the text. (Check out the music 3 minutes in!) Here’s a translation of the French lyrics into English:

Wake up sleeping heads! The God of Love calls you! The birds will work wonders this May Day to dispel your worries. Unplug your ears.

Everyone will be filled with joy, for the season is pleasant, and the song-thrush will make sweet, original music. Everyone will laugh and rejoice. The nightingale sets the woods ringing with twittering throat.

Flee regrets, tears, and cares! The season is pleasant. Away Mister Cuckoo, everyone regards you as a traitor. “Cuckoo” . . . treacherously laying eggs in each nest uninvited. Wake up sleeping heads! The God of Love calls you!

[Source for this translation]

Further reading:

Wikipedia article on madrigal


Posted in Medieval, Music with tags , , on January 30, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Organum is a genre of Medieval polyphonic music (music with two or more simultaneous, different voice parts) that reached the peak of its sophistication during the late 1100s-early 1200s in France. In organum, new music would be composed and sometimes improvised on top of the “fixed” music of older Gregorian chant.

At first there were just two parts — one for the chant and the other to provide harmony or, in later music, to provide a faster, melodic part that decorated the chant. As more voices were added and the rhythmic and harmony behind the music became more sophisticated, it evolved into new musical forms such as the motet.

What to listen for:

  • In organum, the chant is always in the “tenor” voice (this is different from the kind of singer—“tenor” is a Medieval term referring to the lowest voice part, basically, and could actually be an alto or bass singer).
  • A notable feature of most forms of organum is that the tenor voice is usually singing very long notes (the chant has been stretched out in time) while the upper voice(s) are singing much faster music, creating a sense of two different tempos happening simultaneously.
  • Like the chant on which it is based, organum is derived from a modal pitch system rather than the tonal system.

Recommended listening:

These two are from a useful playlist of Medieval music created by a YouTube user. Check out those video descriptions for more information.

Further reading:

Wikipedia article on organum


Posted in Medieval, Music, Renaissance with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Music by Orlando di Lassus

Music by Orlando di Lassus (click to view source)

The term polyphony can be used to describe a general style of music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods or, more broadly, to refer to any musical texture of more than one distinct, simultaneous melodic lines.

Polyphony emerged out of Medieval church music (chant) around the 12th century with the invention of organum (the earliest named composers of organum were Leonin and Perotin, both working at Notre Dame in Paris).

This form of music reached the peak of its popularity and sophistication in the Renaissance in the 16th century (Palestrina and Lassus, aka Lasso, are considered the defining composers of that period).

Polyphony may be found in motets, masses, and madrigals, the dominant genres of vocal ensemble music during the 14th-16th centuries.

What to listen for in Renaissance polyphony:

  • Polyphony utilizes mostly contrapuntal textures (often mixed with short passages of homophony, in which all the voices sing in the same rhythm but with different pitches), rather than melody-and-accompaniment type of textures (what we think of as “song”).
  • Each of the different voices have equal importance in the overall sound of the music. (This is in contrast to monophony, in which there is one melody which performers would sing simultaneously.)
  • Polyphony often involves canon, a compositional technique utilizing imitative counterpoint, where two or more voices perform the same, or very similar, melodies in a sequence of overlapping entrances. (Think “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”) Sometimes the melodies are transposed (i.e. starting on a different pitch) or otherwise altered.
  • The harmonic system used in this music was derived from the church modes (see chant for more info) and therefore sounds noticeably different from the tonal music of the Baroque and Classical periods.

Recommended listening:

See organum to hear the very earliest polyphony, which is stylistically and technically different than this later music.

Late Medieval polyphony:

Renaissance polyphony:

Further reading:

Wikipedia article on polyphony