Earliest known polyphonic music discovered in a British Library

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Cambridge, UK (Saturday, 02/10/2015, Gaudium Press) The sacred music of the Catholic Church can be divided in two branches: Gregorian chant and polyphonic music. The University of Cambridge has announced a remarkable discovery, reported in the New Liturgical Movement website: The discovery of the oldest piece of polyphonic music, which dates from the beginning of the tenth century and is dedicated to St. Boniface, patron of Germany.

Earliest known polyphonic music discovered in a British Library.jpg
The oldest polyphonic piece MS Harley 3019 Photo:
University of Cambridge

New research has uncovered the earliest known practical piece of polyphonic music, an example of the principles that laid the foundations of European musical tradition.

The earliest known practical example of polyphonic music – a piece of choral music written for more than one part – has been found in a British Library manuscript in London. The inscription is believed to date back to the start of the 10th century and is the setting of a short chant dedicated to Boniface, patron Saint of Germany. It is the earliest practical example of a piece of polyphonic music – the term given to music that combines more than one independent melody – ever discovered. Written using an early form of notation that predates the invention of the stave, it was inked into the space at the end of a manuscript of the Life of Bishop Maternianus of Reims.

The piece was discovered by Giovanni Varelli, a PhD student from St John’s College, University of Cambridge, while he was working on an internship at the British Library. He discovered the manuscript by chance, and was struck by the unusual form of the notation. Varelli specialises in early musical notation, and realised that it consisted of two vocal parts, each complementing the other.

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. Giovanni Varelli

– See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/earliest-known-piece-of-polyphonic-music-discovered#sthash.1gYd2lBN.dpuf

With infromation from Cambridge University

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