In this chapter, we traced some of the fundamental principles of design in musical expression, as they were manifested in the Folk-music of the different nations. All music of this type was homophonic, i.e., a single melodic line, either entirely unaccompanied or with a slight amount of instrumental support. Hence however perfect in itself, it was necessarily limited in scope and in opportunity for organic development. Before music could become an independent art set free from reliance on poetry and could attain to a breadth of expression commensurate with the growth in other fields of art, there had to be established some principle of development, far
more extensive than could be found in Folk-music.
This principle of “Thematic Development”–the chief idiom of instrumental music–by which a motive or a theme is expanded into a large symphonic movement, was worked out in that type of music known as the Polyphonic or many-voiced; and Polyphonic music became, in turn, the point of departure for our modern system of harmony, with its methods of key relationship and of modulation. As we have stated in Chapter I, the principle of systematic repetition or imitation–first discovered and partially applied by the musicians of the early French School and by the Netherland masters–finally culminated in the celebrated vocal works (à Capella or unaccompanied) composed by Palestrina and his contemporaries for the Roman Catholic Liturgy. Up to this point, the whole texture of music had been conceived in connection with voices; but with the development of the organ, so admirably suited for polyphonic style, and the perfection of the family of stringed instruments, the principles of polyphony was carried over and applied to instrumental treatment. The composer who, through his constructive genius, most fully embodied these principles was John Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). We are now prepared to explain the characteristics of polyphonic music and then to analyze some typical examples from Bach and other polyphonic composers. The essential difference between homophonic and polyphonic style is implied by the terms themselves.
When there is but one melody, the skill of the composer and the attention of the listener is concentrated upon this single melodic line; and even if there be an accompaniment, it is so planned that the chief melody stands out in relief against it. The pre-eminence of this chief melody is seldom usurped, although the accompaniment often has interesting features of its own. As soon as we have more than one melody (whether there be two, three or still others) all these voice-parts may be of coequal importance and the musical fabric becomes an interwoven texture of a number of strands. The genius and the skill of the composer is now expended on securing life and interest for each of these voices–soprano, alto, tenor, bass–which seem to be braided together, and thus much more comprehensive attention is required of the listener. For instead of the single melody in the soprano, or upper voice, of the Folk-song, we now must listen consciously to the bass and to both of the inner voices. Too much emphasis cannot be laid upon the recommendation that, in appreciating music, the first task is to train the ear to a wide range of listening. These differences in style are often apparent just as a pattern of design–to be seen from the following examples:
We should not think of Bach without gratefully acknowledging the remarkable work of such pioneers as the Dutchman, Sweelinck (1562-1621), organist at Amsterdam; the Italian, Frescobaldi (1583-1644), organist at Rome, and–greatest of all, in his stimulating influence upon Bach–the Dane, Buxtehude (1636-1707), organist at Lübeck. Sweelinck and Frescobaldi may fairly be called the founders of the genuine Fugue and there is a romantic warmth in Buxtehude’s best work which makes it thoroughly modern in sentiment.
In connection with the statement that music has developed according to natural law, it is worth noting that the four-part chorus early became the standard for both vocal and instrumental groups for the simple reason that there exist two kinds of women’s voices–soprano and alto, and two of men’s voices–tenor and bass. Originally, the chief voice in the ecclesiastical chorus was the tenor (teneo), because the tenors sustained the melody. Below them were the basses (bassus, low); above the tenors came the altos (altus, high) and still higher the sopranos (sopra, above).]