Part Writing

Indeed this convergence is illustrated by the first piece of real part-writing which has come down to us: the famous rota " Sumer is i-cumen in," dated about 1240, and attributed to the Reading monk John of Fornsete. It is a canon, of considerable length, in four parts on a ground-bass of two. Apart from one or two crudities, which musical science prohibited later on, its part-writing is astonishingly sound and satisfying, and it can be heard with great pleasure at the present day. Its melody has all the character of a folk-song fresh, sweet, spontaneousit is written with a degree of skill and resource to which there is no parallel in musical history for over two hundred years. Its beauty and mastery of texture have been abundantly celebrated by critics, British and foreign: we may here dwell for a moment on two presuppositions which it implies. First, that if it comes from Reading, as our evidence attests, the practice of independent part-writing must have spread widely over England since the days of Gerald Barry: secondly, that though it has no known parallel but stands by itself as an isolated masterpiece, this must be due not to the actual event but to the imperfections of the record. No man could have composed it without great wealth of inheritance and tradition: many hands had gone to the forging of the tool with which he wrought, a style so finished and confident was not the work of a pioneer. Indeed Walter Map, the contemporary poet, tells us plainly that the form of canon or round was in current use during his time, and before men can arrive at canon-writing the methods of polyphony must already have been fairly well established.

W. P. Ker, in the first chapter of his volume on the Dark Ages, has drawn special attention to the changes in poetic literature which came about during the eleventh, twelfth; and thirteenth centuries: " The great historical fact," he says, " belonging to the close of the eleventh century, beside the Crusades, is the appearance of French and Provencal poetry, which is the beginning of modern literature "; and again, " poets of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries . . . are really part of modern literature; their vocabulary may be difficult but their poetical forms and devices, if they trouble the beginner at all, surprise him oftener by their familiar look than by their strangeness." Very much the same is true of music. The Reading rota is to us as truly a landmark as the verse of William of Poitou: it is the first voice in the development of our Western art which can still speak to us in friendly and familiar accents.

During these centuries the love of music widened and deepened. The Troubadours and Trouveres, one of the most famous of whom was our Richard I, spread from castle to castle their gift of courtly song, the Jongleurs carried to humble homes their more artless ditties; at least half a dozen of Chaucer's pilgrims can sing or play, even the grim-visaged Langland finds room in his multitude for the street-singer. Soon schools of composition began: Machault in France, Landini in Italy, both of the fourteenth century; the latter perhaps the earliest of celebrated organ-players: in the fifteenth appears dimly the great figure of John Dun-stable, as famous in his day as Bach or Beethoven, not only a composer who overtopped all his contemporaries, but a teacher to whom they came for guidance and instruction. The French poet Martin Ie Franc, writing about 1440, attributes the progress of the younger Flemish composers to the fact that they have adopted English methods:

Et ont pris de la contenance Angloise, et ensuivy Dunstable.