For a while now, I’ve been wrestling with how I should deal with early Medieval polyphony in my own mind (isn’t that something we all go through at some point?), and now it’s becoming imperative since I’m called upon to teach other people about it. The obvious question most people—including myself—have is, how could this music really be intelligible to the listener? You have three separate, complex poems being sung at the same time, and this is supposed to be intelligible to the hearer. Not only was one of the texts usually in Latin and the others in French or some other vernacular, but at periods the rhythm reached a complexity not seen again until Stravinsky. (Not my own assertion, but a widely recognized fact.)
So, with Person A singing his melody, his text underlay, his poem, and then Persons B and C doing the same thing on different notes, different texts, different rhythms, can you, the listener, really understand? This really bothers us modern listeners. Maybe Medievals just achieved a level of musical complexity that can’t be fathomed by the human brain.
I’ve pointed out before the Medievals’ concern wasn’t always to provide an audience with music. The goal was simply to sing the music. The performance was given to no one but those performing. The stage didn’t exist, only the ensemble. An audience was simply witnessing, vicariously enjoying, an act that they were not an integral or necessary part of.
But, if we’re being honest, early motets wouldn’t even have been fully understood by the singers themselves. It’s hard enough in rounds and canons to sing your part and have a sense for the whole. It is an exhilarating and mind-boggling experience even for musical minds. But a three or four-part Medieval motet is on an entirely different level of complexity. Polyphony is all about enjoying each melody for itself while realizing that it is never by itself and can never be understood until it is with its fellow melodies. Polyphony means understanding the whole and each part simultaneously. As I said, no human mind, either in the audience or in the singing ensemble, could possibly comprehend all melodies and their texts at once, enjoying them individually and communally, enjoying them as one ought to enjoy polyphony.
And then it struck me: that’s the point. No human mind can. Maybe the audience for this music is not any human at all. Maybe the composer’s intended audience is Divine. After all, isn’t that just Medieval? The art is only peripherally for us humans; primarily, it’s an offering to God, who alone can comprehend individuality and community simultaneously. Maybe the struggle to understand complex counterpoint is similar—in its exhilaration and its confusion—to understanding the Trinity. Can you understand each one without the three, and is an understanding of the whole being complete without an understanding of each person? And it’s incredible to me that humans could come up with art so complicated that they themselves cannot understand it apart from a sort of Trinitarian confusion.
Think about Gregory Nazianzus’ quote and consider how perfectly it could apply to the most complex motet or 8-part Bach chorales.
No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.
Composing counterpoint with that in mind seems either the most blasphemous or the highest of all our fashioning.
Maybe that’s why Muslims only chant.