EARLY MUSIC CONSORT OF LONDON
DAVID MUNROW, DIRECTOR
THE FIRST WORK OF MUSICAL ART?
THE FIRST MUSICAL MASTERPIECE!
I had originally written this post a few days ago, but I was not satisfied with it. Something was irritating me about it. It was a somewhat lengthy post about the omni-presence of music in all civilizations and how the music of the Notre Dame school in Paris—and Perotin’s accomplishment in particular—could be seen both as the conclusion of a long trajectory from ancient times and also as a brand new start. And while I think those things are true and interesting, it is not really what I wanted to say. I woke up in the middle of the night, just now, with this realization. And so this time I’ll say what I really should have said in the first place.
We know almost nothing about the life of Perotin, other than that he was held in the highest regard by his contemporaries at Notre Dame as a master composer and teacher—so much so that during his lifetime and for many generations after, he was referred to as Perotin Le Grand, Perotin the Great, or Magister Perotin (Perotin the Master.) We don’t know when he was born. We think he died early in the 13th century, around 1215.
The music that Perotin and his predecessor Leonin wrote is called ORGANUM. Organum is music that involves two or more simultaneously occurring voices, and is itself built upon an existing chant melody. By the time of Perotin’s life, there would have been literally thousands of chant melodies—monophonic, unmeasured, pure melodies which “clothed” biblical texts or other spiritual words. Depending upon the geographic location of the cathedrals in which these chants were created, certain styles of chant-writing had come into being—Ambrosian, Gallican, Mozarabic, and the one that most people have heard of, Gregorian. In the work of the Notre Dame composers, a second voice would be added to this chant melody. It was always a higher voice which often moved in parallel motion with the original voice.
This was organum. The important thing to remember is that one of the voices was a chant melody.
It only took a couple generations of the Notre Dame composers to expand from 2-part organum to 4-part organum. To our 21st century ears, the sound of four simultaneously-sounding parts is something that seems commonplace—our ears have heard multi-part music for many hundreds of years—ever since Perotin. But composing 3- and then 4-voice organum was a quantum leap forward, if you will, over all the music of all the centuries that had preceded it. From about 1100 A.D. on, this IS what made western music different than anything that had preceded it. It was an outstanding accomplishment. From it sprang all the music we know and love.
So, here is why “Viderunt Omnes” carries so much weight.
The language of Gregorian chant was Latin. By the middle of the middle ages—1000 A.D.—Latin had become the exclusive language of the clergy and the language of scholars. Therefore, the personal meaning that a typical “parishioner” would get from hearing a chant sung during a service would have been limited at best. The average congregation would have perhaps recognized that this or that chant was speaking about Mary or about God’s beneficence, but that is probably all.
As the writing of organum evolved, the voice that was added above the chant line took on a life of its own—IT became the sole interest. No longer was the centuries-old chant upon which it was written that important. Rather quickly—say, in 40 years or so, around 1150-1190—the chant line—that bottom voice—became simply a series of very long notes, and the voices written above it became everything.
Imagine, for the sake of illustration, the folk song Shenandoah.” The first few lines of that song go:
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.
Imagine, you are composing a 4-voice organum, and for your bottom line, you select “Shenandoah”—it is your chant. The first note is “OH” and it lasts, say for nearly a full minute—and then comes “SHEN” and it lasts just as long, followed by “AN” and “DO” and “AH”, all of which are very long. Meanwhile, above your long held syllables, you are creating a completely new composition which has nothing whatsoever to do with your original “Shenandoah” tune.
“Viderunt omnes” is Perotin’s masterpiece, and it works in this same way. “Vidernut omnes” had been a single-line, monophonic chant melody, sung by monks during services, in the 1000’s. Here is the Latin text and its English translation.
Viderunt omnes fines terræ
salutare Dei nostri.
Jubilate Deo, omnis terra.
Notum fecit Dominus salutare suum;
ante conspectum gentium
revelavit justitiam suam.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
in the sight of the heathen,
he has revealed his righteousness.
In Perotin’s work, this chant melody would become the bottom part, sung in very long, held notes. As you will hear, the first syllable—“VI”—lasts 50 seconds, followed by a very long “DER”, and so on. Meanwhile, Perotin is embroidering above that foundation a completely new and—to our ears and to the ears of 12th century congregants—beautiful composition.
It is really worth thinking about that with the introduction of organum—of increasing complexity—into the music of the Church, music lost all pretense of being the vehicle for spiritual messages. Even if a congregation had some minimal familiarity with a particular chant, that chant would now be unrecognizable because its notes would be held so long and would be of such secondary importance to the other voices being sung above it. In his way, music was now truly art for art’s sake.
Composers may have sincerely felt they were glorifying God. But their music had definitely become an end in itself, and from an outsider’s perspective, there would have been nothing to specifically connect these new works of art with the Church—other than the threadbare connection to chant itself. Music became art, composed within the aegis of the Church.
Apart from my high regard for Hildegard von Bingen’s music—which is a tad earlier than Perotin and nowhere near as complex—Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes would be the earliest masterpiece in western music, music of complexity and beauty. I listen to it often.
Once again, I apologize for the length of this post (but…it IS shorter than my original).
David Munrow’s suicide death in 1976 at the age of 34 was a tragedy of major proportions for the music world. He was the world’s preeminent authority on early music, an extremely gifted player and conductor who was blessed with amazing organizational skills as well. Fortunately, he left behind, a large discography of early music, from which this recording is taken.
The slides in this YouTube link are of the interior of Notre Dame cathedral, the majestic space where Perotin’s music would have first been performed.