The origins of polyphony are assumed in the European vocal music of the late Medieval Era. The Notre Dame School of Polyphony refers to the group of composers working at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris from about 1160 to 1250, along with the music they produced. But, the only composers whose names have been recorded are Léonin and Pérotin, who were mentioned by an anonymous English student. The student provided many information on the style of the music and its composition principles. Pérotin is the first known composer whose four-voice-polyphone music has survived. But polyphony is not just referring to a style of music, it is also a principle of a single human's relation to something large like the world order by God or an entire nation. The music of polyphony was often seen as a symbol of the Trinity.
In the 16th century, polyphony dominated the Renaissance music, but was often criticized by the church for the lacking comprehensibility of the text. However, it is said that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina saved the style of polyphony from being banned by the church.
The exact date of Palestrina's birth is not known, although it is assumed around 1525. He grew up near Rome, but never visited the city until being listed as a chorister at the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica. Back then, he was highly influenced by the style of polyphony, which was mostly dominant in northern Europe. Palestrina started publishing his very first compositions in the 1550s and his work was received so well by the Catholic Church, that he was announced director of the Capella Giulia. During the next years, the composer was appointed to similar positions at churches in Rome and ended his career at St Peter's. After marrying a wealthy woman, Palestrina was financially independent and devoted most of his life to composing new melodies.
It is assumed, that Palestrina accomplished several hundred compositions including masses, offertories, and motets. But supposedly mostly his masses demonstrate the development of his compositional style. His works are known for their smooth and constant polyphony type. He achieved this by relegating dissonances to the weaker beats in a measure and this was one of the reasons why Palestrina became one of the leaders of European composers. This very dynamic 'Palestrina style' is until this day taught in Renaissance music classes.
At yovisto, you may enjoy the Scona Chamber Singers exploring the polyphony of the renaissance.
Refernces and Further Reading:
- Palestrina at the German National Library
- Joseph Jordania (2006). Who Asked the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech [PDF]
- Tuning and Intonation in Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Polyphony
- Camille Saint-Saëns - a Musical Renaissance Man
- Hildegard of Bingen - More than the 'Sybil of the Rhine'