Chapter 3. MEDIEVAL MUSIC: THE DISCOVERY OF PART-WRITING

Table of Contents

Ecclesiastical Modes
Part Writing
Vocal Polyphony
The Madrigal
Palistrina
Tudor Composers

It will be remembered that the music described in the last chapter was all bare unison, and that the early Christian Church emphasised its simplicity by discouraging if not actually prohibiting the use of musical instruments. The " psalms and hymns and spiritual songs," not less than the ritual services of the Church were devised along single melodic lines without harmonisation and practically without accompaniment. Even the early use of the Church organ, which dates at least from the fifth century, does not traverse this statement, for the earliest organ was played with slides like a pitch pipe, and could have done no more than double the singing voice. The earliest mention of a keyboard dates from the eleventh century. Even then the keys were " from three to five inches broad," which does not allow scope for organ-playing. We now approach the most important discovery in the whole history of music:

the origin and development of combined part-singing by which different and independent voices are woven into a single texture of harmonic beauty. This is indeed the special characteristic of music as distinct from all other arts; there is nothing like it in poetry or painting or sculpture, they all operate either through contiguity in space or through succession in time: music can alone make its most intimate appeal through the combining and co-operating movement of simultaneous parts. The progress of this discovery, the chief contribution to music made by the Middle Ages, it will now be our business to describe.

Before we come to this we must determine one technical point which, though simple enough, needs a word of explanation. What is meant by saying that the early mediaeval music was " in the Ecclesiastical modes," not in our modern scales? What were the modes, and what is the distinction here implied?