Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.
The New Music
Attending church in the 9th century was exhausting. There were no pews. Congregants stood for hours listening to a Latin service they couldn't understand. Even the music would have seemed dull compared to what you could hear in the streets, but one day a new musical technique was performed and interesting musical innovations became all the rage.
Early Sacred Music
In the early Medieval Period sacred music was monophonic, one melody sounding at a time. It most often consisted of a group of monks or nuns singing a chant in unison. By the 9th century, however, some church composers were developing polyphony, more than one melody sounding simultaneously. This was a new type of music and would have sounded daring and exciting at the time.
These first polyphonic compositions were very simple. They utilized parallel movement, with all voices moving up or down together at a specified interval, such as the fifth or the octave. This is called parallel organum, and it continued to gradually develop for the next two hundred years.
By the 11th century, the melodies were becoming more independent of each other. One melody, usually a chant, served as a foundation for a second melody to move in a quicker, more florid manner above it. This chant was called the cantus firmus which is Latin for fixed song. The cantus firmus is any preexisting melody that is used as the foundation for a polyphonic composition.
The Notre Dame School
In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris had a flourishing musical culture. Composers and musicians traveled there to study and learn the newest techniques in polyphonic writing. Two composers, Léonin and his successor, Perotin, were responsible for such developments as adding three or four voices to the cantus firmus and creating a codified rhythmic system. This rhythmic system was a collection of rhythm patterns that were repeated in various ways throughout a composition.
An excellent example of Perotin's use of cantus firmus is the Siderunt Principes. Composed circa 1199, it is organum quadruplum, or four voice polyphony. In this instance, the cantus firmus, taken from a chant, sustains very long notes while the other three voices move in varying rhythm patterns above it.
The use of the cantus firmus continued to expand in the 15th and 16th centuries. Even so, there were two notable changes. The first was that the cantus firmus no longer had to be the bottom voice. It could be employed in a middle voice, or even the top voice with some ornamentation added. Regina Caeli Laetare, by the English composer John Dunstable, is composed in this manner. In this particular piece, the cantus firmus is the top voice and is ornamented with additional notes not found in the original chant.
The second major change was the use of secular tunes as the cantus firmus. In the Medieval Period, chant was the only appropriate source of cantus firmus material. Now, popular music, such as folk songs and chansons, secular French songs, were used as well. The most famous example of this is L'Homme armé (The Armed Man), a popular French song of unknown origin. This melody was used as a cantus firmus in no fewer than 30 masses. The greatest composers of the day composed L'Homme armé masses, including Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez, and Giovanni da Palestrina.
The Baroque and Beyond
Polyphony using cantus firmus reached its peak in the Renaissance. The popularity of using a preexisting melody slowly dwindled as greater artistic freedom was sought. However, the cantus firmus did continue for a few more centuries in the chorale prelude. The chorale is a simple harmonization of a hymn tune. When a polyphonic work with a chorale cantus firmus is written for organ, it is a chorale prelude. Johann Sebastian Bach composed chorale preludes for organ, such as Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. In this work, the chorale melody is used as an ornamented cantus firmus in the top voice with two polyphonic voices beneath it.
Organists continued to use chorale cantus firmus into the 20th century, but the traditional polyphonic uses had virtually disappeared by the late 18th century. A handful of composers in the modern era, such as Olivier Messiaen and Peter Maxwell Davies, have been inspired by cantus firmus and the use of chant, but the cantus firmus has not been used widely in its original form.
Cantus firmus, Latin for fixed song, was first developed in the Medieval Period. Originally, it was a chant foundation above which another melody was composed. Gradually more melodies were added, the cantus firmus was ornamented with additional notes, and by the Renaissance, a very complex polyphony had evolved. Renaissance composers used melodies other than chant, including popular folk songs and chansons. In the Baroque Period, the cantus firmus became less widely used, and, by the 20th century, it was rarely employed except in organ music.
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