Saturday morning quotes 6.18: Implied polyphony
Total immersion in polyphonic music of the sixteenth century may tend to skew one’s perceptions in terms of fitting into modern life. For instance, polyphony in the context of most modern music usually means digitally multi-tracked cacophony rather than the elegant intertwining of several strands to make a many faceted whole. Organists typically love to burst eardrums with later music that requires an elaborate chart and 30 minutes of adjusting stops before playing a 5-minute piece, but they always return to the densely polyphonic music of J.S. Bach when they want to impress one another. Even so, they have ten fingers, two feet, and multiple stops available to highlight the character of different voices in a fugue.
Lutenists have four fingers of the left hand and four fingers of the right hand and tactile contact with strings to achieve the same effect. How about a little respect?
Nevertheless, as players of stringed instruments possessing a more compact range, we find it necessary to understand and manage polyphonic music, even when it’s not entirely clear from the notation that polyphony is intended. This case applies to the better sort of music from the late 15th century through the 18th century: Nearly every instance of what appears to be a long monophonic string of notes has a latent or implied polyphonic character, and it is up to the performer to identify and realize it as such. Total immersion in 16th-century polyphony helps if one’s mind is open and one’s ears are alert to implied polyphonic passages, but it is baffling when recordings of even some of the most facile players demonstrate that a quite a bit more attention to detail is required.
Early and thorough grounding in polyphonic music, such as learning the duos from Mass movements intabulated by Fuenllana and Valderrabano, is a valuable aid to lutenists. But perhaps a good middle ground for guitarists discovering lute repertory is found in the music for solo stringed instruments by J.S. Bach. Our quotes are from an excellent paper by Stacey Davis, “Implied Polyphony in the Unaccompanied String Works of J.S. Bach: A Rule System for Discerning Melodic Strata“,from the Sixth International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, Keele, UK, August 2000, Proceedings edited by C. Woods, G.B. Luck, R. Brochard, F. Seddon, & J.A. Sloboda.
“One of the most striking and oft discussed characteristics of these pieces is their polyphonic structure. Although there are certainly movements within these sonatas that reflect the predilection of 18th century German composers for multiple stops in solo string music, the majority of these pieces are almost completely monophonic. Still, countless performers, pedagogues, and theorists maintain that there is a sense of polyphony in these movements, and that Bach created counterpoint by outlining multiple voices within a single instrumental line.”
“In a 1968 dissertation entitled Heinrich Biber and the Seventeenth Century Violin, Elias Dann made the following reference to Bach’s unaccompanied violin pieces.”
“Any superficial examination of these solos, the most polyphonic pieces ever written for the violin, will reveal so many single notes rather than double-stops or chords that the musician unacquainted with these works (a hypothetical one, if necessary), may well wonder where the polyphony is to be found . . . If these movements, in which only one tone at a time is sounded, are to be considered polyphonic, it becomes obvious immediately that no usual definition of polyphony, predicated upon the combination of several sustained parts, will suffice. Any attempt at a coherent analysis from the standpoint of melody alone soon raises more questions than it can possibly answer. Careful study would seem to suggest that either these movements are polyphonic or they cannot be explained at all (196-97).”
“From this and many other similar comments, it is apparent that a general consensus about the existence of this implied polyphony has been reached. There is, however, very little explanation of how this monophonic music is actually parsed into these different voices.”
“General principles of auditory stream segregation may help to explain some cases of this type of linear polyphony. In many ways, these principles coincide with the fundamental claim of Gestalt psychology. As Lerdahl and Jackendoff describe, this claim is that “perception, like other mental activity, is a dynamic process of organization, in which all elements of the perceptual field may be implicated in the organization of any particular part.”
“In creating melodies, composers have long realized the influence that these grouping principles have on perceptual coherence, especially the repetition rate and the frequency separation of tones. For instance, various studies have shown that much Western music is dominated by small melodic intervals, thereby reflecting the idea that notes closer together in frequency tend to produce stronger perceptual groupings.”
“In an interesting reference to the very style of music that Bach’s unaccompanied string pieces represent, Bregman states,
“Rapid alternations of high and low tones are sometimes found in music, but composers are aware that such alternations segregate the low notes from the high. Transitions between high and low registers were used by the composers of the Baroque period to create compound melodic lines – the impression that a single instruments, such as a violin or flute, was playing more than one line of melody at the same time. These alternations were not fast enough to cause compulsory segregation of the pitch ranges, so the experience was ambiguous between one and two streams. Perhaps this was why it was interesting.”
Playing a long string of notes with a “destination” point of view simply will not do, and in order to find the polyphony in a single line, it’s necessary to seek it out. By way of example, we offer a live recording (on a lute tuned in F) of a well-known prelude in D by Henry Purcell, originally for keyboard but arranged for lute in viel ton. Most keyboard players zip through this music as though they can’t wait to be done because it is considered to be a rudimentary didactic piece. Upon closer examination, Purcell’s genius for weaving many strands into a single line becomes apparent.