Review Summary: Part III -- The chiming of the cathedral bells
Sometime in the early spring of 1163, construction began on a giant new cathedral situated right in the center of Paris, meant to represent the rapid explosion of culture and political influence that Parisian society was exerting on France and the West at large. The cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was given the name Notre-Dame de Paris (“Our Lady of Paris”), and its design took heavy inspiration from the style of architecture that emerged in Aquitaine earlier in the century, exemplified in the Basilica of Saint-Denis and later called French Gothic. Notre Dame’s construction took over a century to complete, but religious services at the cathedral began around 1183, after the consecration of its altar. With the introduction of masses came, fittingly, a revitalization of Parisian sacred music -- the grandeur of the Church and the expansion of Parisian influence seems to have inspired a desire to impart some nationalistic influences into the music of Notre Dame, and it is at this moment where the center of Western musical influence starts to shift significantly, from the papacy in Rome to the majesty of Paris.
Interchangeably called the “Notre Dame school” or the “Parisian school”, the music and musicians of late-12th century France have received most of their preservation via the documentation of the Université de Paris, which at the time was affiliated with Notre Dame and played a significant role in the instruction of liturgical music. Only two composers of the period are known by name: Léonin and Pérotin, memorialized in a 13th century treatise known as “Anonymous IV” (likely written by an Englishman who studied at the Université). Little concrete information is known about either one, but Anonymous IV credits Léonin with compiling a book of polyphonic arrangements called the Magnus Liber
(“Great Book”), as well as potentially writing a lot of the material in the collection. At the time, the primary style of polyphony was called “organum”, having originated in Rome and spread westward thanks to the standardization decrees of rulers like Charlemagne. Organum was written for two voices, and Leonin’s writing pushed the style to its performative limits: one voice, the “tenor”, would sing the chant on a drone, while the second voice, the “duplum”, would sing the same words but in a florid, melismatic style.
Pérotin is called “the best composer” of his time by Anonymous IV, which makes it all the more frustrating that almost nothing is known about him. Contrary to Léonin, he preferred to write in a note-against-note style of composing called “discant”, and in order to take advantage of the style, he would sometimes add extra voices to his arrangements, so as to add extra levels of contrast between these upper voices and the drone-like tenor. These third and fourth voices were dubbed the “triplum” and “quadruplum”, respectively. Eventually, perhaps after Pérotin’s death, composers at Notre Dame would take these techniques and pair them with brand new texts, independent of the traditional texts of Christian masses. A new style of polyphonic composition was thus introduced, called a “motet” (French for “word”), and from the motet emerged the type of music that grew to typify the Renaissance era of musical composition.
is the piece cited most often by music teachers when describing the new dimensions that Pérotin’s composing style opened up. This is partially because Léonin also wrote a setting for this hymn, and Pérotin’s writing mimics the structure of his almost exactly. But where Léonin’s two-part arrangement emphasizes consonance and beauty, Pérotin’s four-part arrangement is simply in its own league when it comes to sheer complexity. The emphasis is not in the elegance of the melody, but in the clustered harmonies that the four voices create -- the three upper voices trade off melodic fragments with one another in a style called “hocketing”, putting each voice constantly in a very similar register. Starting with a perfect fifth that is followed by a stack of perfect fourths, the writing evokes an ethereal, mystical tone that classical music wouldn’t fully explore harmonically for another 700 years. There are even, dare we mention it, moments of dissonance in the vocal arrangements, grounds for rejection at an earlier time but evidently fair game within the confines of the river Seine.
It is in France where a great portion of classical music development will continue over the coming centuries, which is unsurprising given how quickly Paris was becoming the cultural capital of the West. And with all its iconic imagery, Notre Dame is a fitting centerpiece for this development; one of the West’s great artistic achievements to date inspiring the progression of Western artistry as a whole makes perfect sense. This evokes a theme that is important to our narrative going forward: if we want to grapple with the history of music, we also must grapple with the history of art as a whole. The two are so interrelated that the events in one discipline naturally cause further events in another -- in the case of 12th century France, the grandiosity of Gothic architecture inspires a sweeping grandiosity in the compositions of the era, as if the composers were writing specifically for the acoustical space of Notre Dame itself. So when listening to the music from this period, picture the cathedral in its fullest majesty, when it was not a relic of a bygone era but the symbol of something fresh, vibrant and new.
Tonus Peregrinus (2005): https://open.spotify.com/track/22XFIeDpR94SMxdTYuCN0I?si=d3bdcc0792964fcc