Renaissance Polyphony

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Renaissance Polyphony:
The Foundation of Modern Western Music

Renaissance Polyphony:
The Foundation of Modern Western Music

The music of the Renaissance was essentially the beginning of all modern musical thought- the first to truly integrate various forms of harmony with definite structure. The music provided rapid and significant advancements in harmony within western music, evolving from the parallel lines of Ars Nova and culminating in the base ingredients for tonality and monodic chord analysis all in a relatively short period of two hundred years. The evolution of Renaissance polyphony expanded tonal harmony through the use of multiple voices and their interval relationships, established aural and music technicality conventions, and provided the groundwork for all tonality based western music.

The foundation of Renaissance polyphony can be found in the organum of the eleventh century and more specifically in the ars nova which came to prominence in the fourteenth century. Organum briefly appeared in the tenth century but was dismissed by the Catholic Church and did not become popular until the eleventh century. Organum was the first notable use of harmony in the western world and was the first genre to more than one voice part (in this case, two). Composers took melodies from Gregorian chant and extended them harmonically with parallel fifths and especially parallel fourths. The intervals of the perfect fourth, fifth, and octave were considered the only concords during this period and use of other intervals was considered cacophonous. Later organum used stepwise motion within the mode of the composition to reach the concord interval as well as to move in oblique motion to end in a unison. Organum from the Notre Dame school based out of Paris in the thirteenth century even created the first contrary motion, with one voice moving from unison upward a step and the other downward by a minor third to form a perfect fourth interval (Ferguson, 46-47).

From late organum the ideas of Ars Nova were established, becoming standardized and prevalent through the writings of composers and music theorists Marchetto of Padua and Phillip de Vitry. Vitry coined the term Ars Nova, which means “new art”, in a music theory essay in order to separate the concept from Ars Antiqua, a reference to music before harmony (Pirrotta). Ars Nova was founded upon three new principles, the first two of which are still felt today (in non-serialist music). The first is the concordance of third and sixth intervals, which became the basis for all modern tonal music. It was also during this period, particularly within the writings of Walter Odington, where the harmonious aspects of major and minor thirds were first theorized. The second principle is the minimal use of parallel fifths, fourths, and octaves. This ban on the use of parallel fifths and octaves is still prominent today. Finally, the third principle of Ars Nova is the allowance of small amounts of discord. Discord was used both for the purpose of creating small amounts of tension and release but mostly for passing motion between consonant intervals. Discord was not encouraged, however, and was permitted on the weaker beats of a piece only (Ferguson, 70-72).

As Ars Nova moved forward into the early Renaissance it began to expand harmonically to include more oblique and similar motion. This new concept is referred to as polyphony, or two or more voices moving in melodic independence. Though Ars Nova also had independent voice movement, the newer polyphony had differed in style and complexity. The new style of polyphony contained both more voices and more variety in its use of harmony between melody lines (more variety in the intervals between voices). The use of modes in music theory was beginning to shift as well, moving from the 12 modes used by the Greeks and in the Middle Ages to the 8 modes considered in modern tonality (Reese, 185). These were further...
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