Hear the Earliest Known Piece of Polyphonic Music: This Composition, Dating Back to 900 AD, Changed Western Music

Like dig­ging for fos­sils or pan­ning for gold, the research process can be a tedious affair. But for any researcher, long days of search­ing and read­ing will even­tu­al­ly result in dis­cov­ery. These are the moments schol­ars cher­ish. It’s the chance dis­cov­ery, how­ev­er rare, that makes the long hours and bleary late nights worth­while. And some finds can change an entire field. Such was the dis­cov­ery of St. John’s Col­lege PhD stu­dent Gio­van­ni Varel­li, who, in 2014, found what is now believed to be, writes Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty, “the ear­li­est known prac­ti­cal exam­ple of poly­phon­ic music,” that is, music con­sist­ing of two or more melod­ic lines work­ing togeth­er simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.

You can hear the short composition—written in praise of the patron saint of Ger­many, Saint Boniface—performed above by St. John’s under­grad­u­ates Quintin Beer and John Clapham. Pri­or to Varelli’s dis­cov­ery of this piece of music, the ear­li­est poly­phon­ic music was thought to date to the year 1000, from a col­lec­tion called The Win­ches­ter Trop­er. Varelli’s dis­cov­ery may date to 100 years ear­li­er, around the year 900, and was found at the end of a man­u­script of the Life of Bish­op Mater­ni­anus of Reims. One rea­son musi­col­o­gists had so far over­looked the piece, Varel­li says, is that “we are not see­ing what we expect­ed.”

Typ­i­cal­ly, poly­phon­ic music is seen as hav­ing devel­oped from a set of fixed rules and almost mechan­i­cal prac­tice. This changes how we under­stand that devel­op­ment pre­cise­ly because who­ev­er wrote it was break­ing those rules. It shows that music at this time was in a state of flux and devel­op­ment. 

Varelli’s spe­cial­iza­tion in ear­ly music nota­tion also pro­vid­ed him with the train­ing need­ed to rec­og­nize the piece, which was writ­ten using “an ear­ly form of nota­tion that pre­dates the inven­tion of the stave” (see the piece below). Accord­ing to British Library cura­tor Nico­las Bell, “when this man­u­script was first cat­a­logued in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, nobody was able to under­stand these unusu­al sym­bols.” Varelli’s dis­cov­ery shows a devi­a­tion from “the con­ven­tion laid out in trea­tis­es at the time” and points toward the devel­op­ment of a musi­cal tech­nique that “defined most Euro­pean music up until the 20th cen­tu­ry.”

Varel­li gives us a sense of how impor­tant this dis­cov­ery is to schol­ars of ear­ly music: “the rules being applied here laid the foun­da­tions for those that devel­oped and gov­erned the major­i­ty of west­ern music his­to­ry for the next thou­sand years. This dis­cov­ery shows how they were evolv­ing, and how they exist­ed in a con­stant state of trans­for­ma­tion, around the year 900.”

So there you have it. If you’re stuck in the dol­drums of a research project, wait­ing for the wind to pick up, don’t despair. The next rare arti­fact, trea­tise, or man­u­script may be wait­ing for some­one with exact­ly your spe­cial­ized insights to deci­pher its secrets.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear a 9,000 Year Old Flute—the World’s Old­est Playable Instrument—Get Played Again

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

Hear the World’s Old­est Instru­ment, the “Nean­derthal Flute,” Dat­ing Back Over 43,000 Years

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (8) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (8)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Grady Warren says:

    As true as this form is to orig­i­nal music, it by far not the ear­li­est form of mul­ti-voiced com­po­si­tion. Most orig­i­nal peo­ple, those who exist­ed before any­one knew, per­formed musi­cal dia­logue that had more than a sin­gle per­former and har­mo­nized these exchanges.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Yes, I think you’re absolute­ly right, Grady. This is the ear­li­est tran­scribed exam­ple in Euro­pean music. A huge find for musi­col­o­gists, but not by any means the orig­i­nal appear­ance of polypho­ny in human cul­ture.

  • Aaron says:

    In what lan­guage is this writ­ten?

    Thank you.

  • Amicus Veritatis says:

    Dear all,
    in my light­weight view this may be a piece of het­ero­phon­ic, not poly­phon­ic music. What do you think?
    Thanks a lot nev­er­the­less
    Yours Ami­cus

  • Rob says:

    How is the tem­po deter­mined? It is, to the mod­ern ear, fright­ful­ly slow.

  • Neil McGowan says:

    The nota­tion has no infor­ma­tion about the rhythm, note-length, speed or style of the music. Nor are the actu­al notes indi­cat­ed — only where the tune goes either up, or down, and by a fair­ly approx­i­mate­ly lev­el. This is fas­ci­nat­ing to know about — but the tran­scrip­tion, and per­for­mance, remains 95% sub­jec­tive guess­work.

  • W. Gerard Poole says:

    This would not qual­i­fy as what we call “polypho­ny”.

    What they are singing has been done all over the world ever since humans began to sing. The voic­es are spaced by nat­ur­al con­so­nances which occur with­out much reflec­tion by singers with dif­fer­ent ranges- men, women, chil­dren, and of course singing in actu­al uni­son, which sev­er­al sec­tions in this piece are as well. But even singing in 5ths and 4ths does not con­sti­tute polypho­ny either, that too has been done all over the world. They two gen­tle­men are singing the same basic melod­ic con­tour in nat­ur­al har­mo­ny- not two dis­tinct melodies.

    Sor­ry- hard­ly Earth-shat­ter­ing, and pret­ty bor­ing to boot.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.