What Makes Polyphony Great?

Classical Polyphony in Catholic Worship, by Francis A. Brunner (Caecilia, 1957, December):

What nineteenth century idealists conceived to be the positive values of Palestrina they contrasted-favorably-with the negative of their own century. That they talked so often of the balance and· homogeneity of classical polyphonic art is perhaps an indication how little the Victorian era understood the Renaissance. The same musical expression which ·in sacred songs awed the nineteenth century, was also used in worldly chansons and madrigals. The objectivity of the music was not a stylistic feature but rather the result of factors the nineteenth century seemed not to understand.

What was this objectivity in reality. Not a style, not a technique. In the Palestrina period-·and the same holds good also for the century before and after Palestrina-what was decisive, it seems, was an adherence to a norm that subordinated the individual, and his will to express himself, to the needs of communal worship.

If Palestrina could remodel a bawdy street song into liturgical music, this was due, in part at least, to the common vocabulary in which both profane and sacred music were embedded. It was not until later that the break occurred, with the reduction to major. and minor tonalities, with homophony and isometry. The church modalities alone were merely features of the period, a merely historical item.

Of course these modes, especially when they did not employ the half-step leading tone, could contribute to the desired objectivity of the liturgical forms. But this is not an essential. The essential is something quite different. What is at the very bottom of this liturgical objectivity is the principle of subordination-subordination of creative fancy to the purposes of worship, subordination of individual strands in the web to the pattern of the whole. This it is that makes ancient classical music so extraordinarily contemporary.

This is not a false historism, for we refer not to the stylistic methods but to the liturgical attitude and its objective representation in a work of art. This it is which, in a sense, gives ancient classical polyphony·its perennial youth.

One Reply to “What Makes Polyphony Great?”

  1. Oh my, this great!

    An excellent defense of polyphony's liturgical suitability that transcends the historical accident of its connection the liturgy and also the "but it's so pretty" argument (not that either of those is bad).

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