The earliest known practical piece of polyphonic music has been discovered – and performed – in London.
The composition, which is believed have been written around the start of the 10th Century, was found in a manuscript at the British Library by Giovanni Varelli, a PhD student from St John’s College, the University of Cambridge said in a news release.
Varelli, who specializes in early musical notation, said he found the manuscript by chance and as struck by its unusual form — which deviates from rules laid out in other writings from the time period.
He noticed that it consisted of two vocal parts that complemented one another, but Varelli said this early example showed polyphonic music was already evolving even in its embryonic stage.
“What’s interesting here is that we are looking at the birth of polyphonic music and we are not seeing what we expected,” Varelli said.
Scholars typically believe that polyphonic music, which defined most European music through the end of the 19th Century, 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,” Varelli said. “It shows that music at this time was in a state of flux and development, the conventions were less rules to be followed, than a starting point from which one might explore new compositional paths.”
The plainsong chant notation directs the melody, which is accompanied by a second voice above or below the melody at exact intervals.
It’s not clear who wrote the composition – or where – but Varelli said clues contained in the manuscript suggest it originated in one of the ecclesiastical centers in what is now northwest Germany, near Düsseldorf, more than 1,000 years ago.
The finding is significant, said Nicolas Bell, music curator at the British Library.
“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,” Bell said. “This discovery shows how they were evolving, and how they existed in a constant state of transformation, around the year 900.”
Watch the song performed in this video posted online by St. John’s Website films: