Earliest Known Piece of Polyphonic Music Discovered

Mike Lawson • ChoralNews • January 3, 2015

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What is believed to be the earliest known practical example of polyphonic music –a piece of choral music written for more than one part – has been found in London in a British Library manuscript. The inscription is believed to date back to the start of the 10th century. It is written using an early form of notation that predates the invention of the stave. It was inked into a space at the end of a manuscript of the Life of Bishop Maternianus of Reims.

Giovanni Varelli, a PhD student from St John’s College, University of Cambridge, discovered the piece by chance while he was working on an internship at the British Library. He was struck by the unusual form of the notation.Varelli specializes in early music notation, and realized the piece consisted of two vocal parts.

Varelli’s research would suggest that the piece’s author was writing around the year 900. “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.

The author of the piece and which monastic house the piece came from remains a mystery, but Varelli’s meticulous research has been able to pin its likely origins down to one of a number of ecclesiastical centres in what is now north-west Germany, somewhere around Paderborn or Dusseldorf.

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