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Earliest known piece of polyphonic music

British Library intern finds earliest known piece of polyphonic music

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An intern has discovered a beautiful inscription of the earliest known piece of polyphonic music, a choral piece written for two vocal parts, in a British Library manuscript dating from about 900 A.D.

Polyphonic music laid the foundation for later European music, says the University of Cambridge Research News. Though polyphony ruled European music until the 20 th century, experts are unsure when it emerged.

Polyphonic music pieces include more than one independent melody. Poly is a Greek word that means many or more than one, and phonic or phone means sound. This piece is a short chant of the type dedicated to St. Boniface, patron of Germany.

Giovnanni Varelli,  a Cambridge University Ph.D candidate in St. John’s College doing an internship at the British Library, came across the manuscript by chance. He specializes in early musical notation and was struck by the fact that piece consisted of two complementing vocal parts.

Here are St. John’s College undergraduates Quintin Beer and John Clapham performing the early 10 th century piece, known as an organum:

The composer wrote the music into a space at the end of a manuscript describing the life of Bishop Maternianus of Reims, France.  The notation does not include a musical staff, which hadn’t even been invented by the early 10 th century.

The piece Varelli brought to light is an organum, or plainsong in which accompaniment is above or below the melody. The composer is unknown. Varelli is unsure in which monastery the piece was written but speculates it may have been from around northwest Germany. He believes this because there is a notation “which is celebrated on December 1,” a reference to the Feast Day for Maternianus, which some German clerics of that time and locale celebrated the first of December.

The piece just discovered is significant not just for its early date but also because it is different than music described in treatises from that time, Cambridge Research News says.

“This suggests that even at this embryonic stage, composers were experimenting with form and breaking the rules of polyphony almost at the same time as they were being written,” Cambridge Research News writes.

Musicologists think of polyphonic music as somewhat rigid and set in specific patterns. But the composer of this earliest known polyphonic piece is already breaking rules. Varelli told Cambridge Research News that the piece shows music was in a state of flux then, and the conventions may have been less rules to be followed and more starting points to explore new compositional paths.

"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,” Varelli said.

Nicholas Bell, the musical curator at the British Library, said the discovery is exciting and important to understanding the early history of European music. He said when librarians cataloged the manuscript in the 1700s, they didn’t understand the musical notations.

“We are delighted that Giovanni Varelli has been able to decipher them and understand their importance to the history of music,” Bell said.

Prior to the discovery of this manuscript, the earliest known polyphonic piece was the Winchester Troper, written around 1,000 A.D. You can hear the chant “I See Heaven Open” from that work in this YouTube video, performed by Ensemble Scholastica:

Rebecca Bain, one of the performers in this recording, wrote in the YouTube description that the Winchester troper is a rare pre-12th century source that contains numerous polyphonic pieces. “Deciphering their notation has proven to be challenging,” she wrote, “since not only does the manuscript notate only the original voice of a piece (it was assumed that singers already knew the original melody), but the type of notation used does not indicate the melody with absolute precision.”

Musicologists have attempted modern transcriptions of the Winchester troper, wrote Bain, but they are interpretations and may not be exactly as the medieval musicians meant them to be.

By Mark Miller



mrtkpc's picture

Very interesting to hear music from so long ago. I bet if people from that time heard today's music, they'd call for an exorcist. 

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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