The Book of Musical Knowledge: The History, Technique, and Appreciation of Music, Together with Lives of the Great Composers, for Music-Lovers, Students and Teachers

By Arthur Elson | Go to book overview
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V
THE SCHOOLS OF COUNTERPOINT

IT has already been stated that England held the lead in music for many centuries. The famous song "Sumer is icumen in," which sounds remarkably fresh and beautiful even to modern ears, probably dates back to the year 1215, if not earlier. This was a "six men's song," but two of the voices sang a drone bass. The other four, however, command interest; for they follow in one another's footsteps with the strict canonic imitation that is found in the songs known as "rounds."

Soon after the earliest English development came a French school. This must have been in the thirteenth century, for by 1325 we find Jean de Muris, in his "Speculum Musicæ," lamenting the departure of the good old times, and regretting that the composers had lost the inspiration shown in the preceding generation. This seems to be a common complaint; and it has a familiar ring even to-day.

These early schools were in part an outcome of the chanson -- not that of the Troubadours, but the people's song, that was popular through all of western Europe. Sometimes these part-songs were in the strict form shown by "Sumer is icumen in"; but more often they were fairly free in their part-writing. While the Troubadour music, when not in unison, has its melody in the upper part, in accordance with modern ideas, there grew up in early days the custom, already mentioned, of having the melody held by the tenor voice. The word "tenor" comes from the Latin tenere, to hold. The chief melody, taken by the tenor, was called the cantus firmus (fixed song), or often simply the cantus. A second part, added above this melody and sung with it, was called the discant. Other parts were added above or below these two, and called from their position either bass or alto -- words that meant "low" or "high." The term "treble," signifying a third part, was sometimes used for a voice above the discant. The word "soprano," meaning "above," was introduced later on, when the melody was given to the upper part.

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The Book of Musical Knowledge: The History, Technique, and Appreciation of Music, Together with Lives of the Great Composers, for Music-Lovers, Students and Teachers
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