Ordinary and Artificial Polyphony in the Middle Ages

  • Rudolf Flotzinger


The usual socio-historical picture proceeds from the assumption that at the beginning there was monophony to which in the 9th century polyphony was added and that this now separates Western artificial music from other cultures. This is backed not just by a developmental trend of thinking that can today no longer be upheld but also by the fact that over a long time the current situation can be traced only according to sources stemming from ecclesiastic environment. Also the statement that the so-called Gregorian chant was invariably and essentially monophonic (in the present-day sense of the word) cannot be borne out. On the contrary this monophony was highly artificial and subsequently idealized. Not only is the joint singing of men and women (or rather, of boys) in fact the singing in parallel octaves but the joint singing in different vocal techniques (like chest voice and falsetto) irrespective of the natural harmonics in itself creates a kind of parallel Organum in octaves and fifths. Undoubtedly people were for a long time unaware of this. In principle parallel singing is hence as old as music itself. Similar is the case of bourdon, although this cannot be explained through natural harmonics but merely in terms of use, i.e. of simultaneous singing, jerky bodily movements and playing on the instrument. With the combining of the two principles there obviously begin theoretical explanations of the Organum and these can be traced right from the 9th century onwards. Further arguments for the already early "pre-mediaeval organum" can be arrived at through analysis of the concept of "paraphonist", a kind of "parallel singer". These singers, who can be traced in the papal 'schola cantorum' from the 8th century onwards (as well as their technical singing skills) have been, as proved, imitated throughout the Middle Ages all over the area of influence of the Roman Church. Otherwise the popes would have been spreading their kinds of singing without an adequate singing style, which seems in itself highly improbable. On the contrary the monophony-polyphony polarization, which continues to shape contemporary musical thinking, is related to the understanding of the subsequent development of Western music. But if we dissociate ourselves from this, it is possible to present a more adequate account not only of other 'primitive' forms of polyphony (also outside Europe) and their partly independent trends of development but also (through rationalization) of specific Western qualities.


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How to Cite
FlotzingerR. (1993). Ordinary and Artificial Polyphony in the Middle Ages. Musicological Annual, 29(1), 7-19. https://doi.org/10.4312/mz.29.1.7-19