Oldest Duet Discovered
Now for some exciting news from the world of musicology. (That might have been first time anybody has ever used those words in that order.)
The oldest known piece of polyphonic music was recently found inked at the bottom of a 10th century manuscript in the British Library. Giovanni Varelli, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge was an intern at the library when he discovered the unusual notation of the music and then realized that he was looking at music written for two parts.
Polyphonic “many sounds” music is music written for more than one voice.
The notation of this music predates the use of the stave, and could have easily been missed. Most modern musicians may not have been able to discern that this piece was written for two voices because it is written in an extremely old form. Prior to the discovery of this piece, the earliest practical example of polyphonic music came from a collection called The Winchester Troper that dates back to the year 1000.
As Varelli studied the manuscript, he concluded that a the author was writing around the year 900. His research also indicates that the manuscript must have come from north-west Germany based on face that the unusual notation was most frequently used in Germany in that time. The top of the page also contains a reference to a holiday being celebrated on an atypical date, a practice also rather restricted to communities in the north-west German regions.
Beyond the excitement over the age of the music, this piece is musicologically significant because it is not written conventionally, based on our knowledge of European music at that point. This indicates that experimentation and rule-breaking occurred even at the earliest stages of this type of music, which is contrary to expectation. As Varelli put it, “What’s interesting here is that we are looking at the birth of polyphonic music and we are not seeing what we expected.”
Now that you are probably thoroughly curious, here is a video of two Cambridge undergraduates performing what is arguably one of the nerdiest karaoke duets ever.
And for you musicians out there who can’t sightsing transpositions from antiquated forms of musical notation, here is a transcription for you.
Source: University of Cambridge
Image Source: MS Harley 3019.