Before writing an essay on the development of counterpoint,
the definition of counterpoint within the musical setting should be
established. The Oxford Dictionary gives the definition1″The technique of setting, writing, or playing a
melody or melodies in conjunction with another, according to fixed
rules.” These ‘fixed rules’ are subject to change however, and it is
this change that has led to the development of counterpoint over the
centuries within the sphere of western classical music. Some of these points of development simply happened due to
innovations within music itself, either in the way it is scored or how it is
thought about, such as in the Ars Nova which will be the first point of
discussion in this essay. Other developments occurred due to cultural shifts
and the music is altered to fit the contemporary aesthetic such as the ‘new
counterpoint’ that occurred due to the Renaissance. The final point will discuss
how changes in the religious landscape alters the music of the time,
specifically the sacred music that alters in style to fit the separate
religious factions of Protestantism and Catholicism. 

 

One of the earlier and more drastic developments in
counterpoint is named the ‘Ars Nova’, or New Art. This development
occurred within the Medieval period around the 14th century with the French composer, Philippe
de Vitry (1291-1316), being 2″ named by one writer as the “inventor
of the new art””. This is due to a treatise thought to
be titled the ‘Ars Nova’ that was authored by Vitry. The term Ars Nova has since come to express the new style of
French Music introduced by Vitry in the 1310’s. The ‘New Art’ was greatly defined by
the two, major development of rhythmic notation. The
first of these developments was the use of duple note divisions as
well as the tradition triple divisions. These divisions
were referred to as imperfect and perfect respectively. This is due
to the triple divisions being reflective of the Holy Trinity which held great
importance in this still extremely religious society thus it
being considered perfect. The second of these rhythmical
developments was the division of the semibreve into two minims. This division of
what was previously the smallest note value enabled greater
flexibility within rhythms, new metres and even some of the first examples of
syncopation. Another important innovation of this time was
‘mensuration signs’. These were the predecessors of modern
time signatures and along with the other innovations in notation
created a very specific form of natation that allowed performers to accurately
recreate a piece as the composer intended whereas previously, such as in
earlier form of organum, the notations only gave relative pitches and
note lengths. This allowed pieces to become not only more
fixed and permanent but increase in complexity. An example
of this increase of complexity within the Ars Nova is the use of Isorhythm.
Isorhythm is where the tenor voice has one rhythmic pattern which it repeats
and may also repeat a melodic pattern in a similar way. Examples of this can be
seen in the motets of Vitry; yet his use of Isorhythm develops upon the way in
which the device is used in the motets of Notre Dame polyphony as 3″the rhythmic patterns are longer and more complex,
and the tenor tends to move more slowly in comparison to the upper voices that
it is heard less a melody than as a foundation for the entire polyphonic
structure.” Theorists of the time recognised the two repeating element of motet
tenors, the repeating sections of melody and rhythms that make up isorhythm,
and named the repeating rhythmic unit the talea and the repeating melodic
segment the color. Within motets, the talea and color could be the same length
but their lengths would often be different causing the tale and color to
overlap each other at different points to create some variety within a piece,
so the repetition of the talea could begin in the middle of the color. Voices
other than the tenor could also be isorhtythmic in nature, either entirely or
partially, often used to emphasise the repeated rhythmic patterns in the Tenor.

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Example 1:4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The motet ‘Hugo Princeps – Cum stuctura’ by Vitry (example
1) demonstrates the type of isorhythm typical of the Ars Nova. The talea in the
tenor can be seen between bars 1 and 15 with the color being much longer
lasting between bars 1 and 45 with the beginning of the talea and color
coinciding at bar 47 to begin the cycle again. Within this piece, the color is
repeated three times with each color containing three repetitions of the talea.
This use of the number three is extremely common in pieces of this time period
as it represents the ‘perfect triple’; the idea of the holy trinity represented
within a lot of the sacred music of the time. 
Another musical device popular in the Ars Nova that can be seen within
this piece is called Hocket. In French literally translating to hiccup, hocket
describes the way in which two voices alternate in rapid succession, one
resting whilst the other sings. Some uses of hocket can be seen in some 13h
century motets but is more often used in isorhythimic 14th century
works. Some pieces where themselves called hockets due to their extensive use
of this technique and these pieces were often untexted and could be performed
by instruments or voice.

The next major development in counterpoint came in the 15th
century with the Renaissance. This period is defined by a rediscovery of
ancient Greek and Roman learning alongside many new discoveries and advancements
that had wide reaching effects in all school of learning. This of course
affected the music of the time. With musicians traveling more between countries
and the invention of the printing press allowing copies of music to be spread
around the continent, the international style developed as composers and
performers could learn the styles and genres current in other regions.  This exchange of national styles, traditions
and genres taking elements largely from English, French and Italian traditions
developed an international style that set the 15th and 14th
century apart and underpinned most of the musical developments of this period.
Contrasting the development within the Ars Nova being mostly within rhythmic
notation, the development that occurred in the Renaissance was the new
counterpoint with more focus on harmonic development. This ‘new counterpoint’
was at the heart of the international style and was based on the use of
consonances: thirds, sixths perfect fifths and octaves whilst there was a very
tight control on dissonance. Dissonances were only allowed as passing tones and
occurring on unstressed beats and suspensions at cadences so that they are not
focused on. Consecutive octaves and fifths were also to be avoided a feature
common in many 14th century styles. This new approach to
counterpoint focuses on order and beauty, ideas that were common in renaissance
art. Yet this is an example of innovation in the renaissance rather than a
revival of ancient techniques, similar to the perspective style in painting.
This is due perhaps in part to early Christianity destroying ancient music due
to its connotations with pagan rituals so there examples remaining that could
influence renaissance musicians and scholars.  A great deal of contemporary influences to the
continental style in the first half of the fifteenth century came from English
music. This was due in part to the Hundred Years’ War as English nobility was
rather involved in and spent a lot of time on the continent and brought their
musicians with them. England also sought out trade and alliances with other
countries on the continent so many large cities in places such as modern-day
Belgium were brimming with English merchants and diplomats providing trade
routes, along which English music could travel. This again was helped with the
advent of the printing press allowing many copies of English music to be spread
throughout continental Europe. The widespread nature of English music and
musicians was not enough to create a large style shift on its own. The English
style itself was very distinctive and the continental composers noticed and
later adopted this. This was referred to by Martin Le Frank as, 5″the
contenance angloise, or English quality.” This ‘quality’ is the use of harmonic
thirds and sixths that resulted in a prominence in consonances and a lack of
dissonance that was adopted into the continental style of the new counterpoint.

 

The next change in the development of polyphony came with
another great social and cultural shift. This came in the form of the
protestant reformation, which began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther, a
professor of biblical theology, nailed his 95 theses to a church door. These
theses where informed by Luther’s humanist education, with humanism being the
theological and philosophical that gave merit to the human experience
contrasting the previous ideology that humans were worthless and thus blindly
followed scripture. With these influences, Luther’s views contradicted the
Catholic doctrine that focused on religious ritual and hard work for the
absolution of sin whilst he also pointed out the hypocrisy within the Catholic
Church. Those wealthy enough could purchase ‘Indulgences’ from the church,
which were supposedly meant to represent good deeds and help absolve people of
sin but they were, quite obviously, an excuse for corrupt leaders within
Catholicism to gain a great deal of wealth. Many people agreed with Luther and
he gained a substantial following which later developed into the Protestant
church and with this new church there came a change to the music that was used
in Mass. Luther had a great appreciation for music being a musician himself but
he felt that the congregation should be involved. This was impossible with the
difficult, harmonically complex choral music of the Catholic Church that was
often set to a Latin text that the great majority of the congregation could not
understand. As the teachings of the mass was given through song, a much larger
proportion of music was translated into the native language whilst a reduction
in the amount of the polyphony allowed these masses to be much more clearly
understood by the congregation. One of the styles of music that developed to
fit this niche was the Lutheran Choral. Less of a development in counterpoint,
the Lutheran Choral greatly simplified it as they consisted of a simple melody
sung in unison by the whole congregation without an accompaniment or any
harmonisation. Polyphonic choral settings did begin to develop however, but
rather than be used in mass they were to be used in schools and sung by choirs
in church. Some of these choral settings where used in mass with alternate
stanzas being sung in unison with the congregation to add some variety and
interest to services. A more advanced form of chorales developed known as
chorale motets. These added other voices both above and below the tenor chant
adding layers of more free polyphony almost mirroring the developments in early
polyphony but in a much more rapid and controlled manner.

 

In Conclusion, the developments discussed in this essay are
just snapshots of the extensive history of polyphony but they do provide
examples of the main driving forces behind many stages of the development of
polyphony. Developments occurring within sacred music caused by developments
and schisms in religious beliefs at the time; such as the development of
Lutheran Church Music in the reformation period. Other developments occurred due
to cultural and societal shifts such as the Renaissance, where the musical
style shifted to fit the aesthetics of the time. Finally, some developments occurred
due to innovations within the way music is written and received, such as what occurred
in the Ars Nova with developments in notation. Counterpoint is a musical
technique central to the creation of music and its development over time,
either increasing or decreasing in complexity, shaped the great works of each pivotal
developmental era and all the works that came after.  

1Oxford
University Press (2018)   https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/counterpoint – accessed 03/01/2018 

2
Burkholder J.P., Grout D.J. and Palisca C.V, (2014) A History of Western Music,
9th Edition: W.W. Norton and company, page 114

3
Burkholder J.P., Grout D.J. and Palisca C.V, (2014) A History of Western Music,
9th Edition: W.W. Norton and company, page 118

4 http://imslp.org/wiki/File:PMLP181058-Vitry_Hugo_princeps.pdf,
IMSLP- accessed 06/01/2018

5
Burkholder J.P., Grout D.J. and Palisca C.V, (2014) A History of Western Music,
9th Edition: W.W. Norton and company, page 167

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