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From organum < ὄργανον.


  1. a type of medieval polyphony which builds upon an existing plainsong




From ὄργανον.



Extensive Definition

This article is about a style of music. For the musical instrument, see organum (musical instrument). For the experimental music group, see David Jackman
Organum (, though the stress is now sometimes incorrectly put on the second syllable, from Ancient Greek ὄργανον - organon "organ, instrument, tool" ) in general is a plainchant melody with at least one added voice to enhance the harmony, developed in the Middle Ages. Depending on the mode and form of the chant, a supporting bourdon may be sung on the same text, or the melody is followed in parallel motion (parallel organum) or a combination thereof. As no real independent second voice exists this is a form of heterophony. In its earliest stages, organum involved two musical voices: a Gregorian chant melody, and the same melody transposed by a consonant interval, usually a perfect fifth or fourth. In these cases often the composition began and ended on a unison, the added voice keeping to the initial tone until the first part has reached a fifth or fourth, from where both voices proceed in parallel harmony, with the reverse process at the end. Organum was originally improvised; while one singer performed a notated melody (the vox principalis), another singer—singing "by ear"—provided the unnotated second melody (the vox organalis). Over time, composers began to write added parts that were not just simple transpositions, and thus true polyphony was born.


Early organum

The first document to describe organum specifically, and give rules for its performance, was the Musica enchiriadis (c. 895), a treatise traditionally (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Hucbald of St. Amand. In its original conception, organum was never intended as polyphony in the modern sense; the added voice was intended as a reinforcement or harmonic enhancement of the plainchant at occasions of High Feasts of importance to further the splendour of the liturgy. The analogue evolution of sacred architecture and music is evident: during previous centuries monophonic Mass was celebrated in Abbatial churches, in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the newly consecrated cathedrals resounded with ever more complex forms of polyphony. Exactly what developments took place where and when in the evolution of polyphony is not always clear, though some landmarks remain visible in the treatises. As in these instances, it is hard to evaluate the relative importance of treatises, whether they describe the 'actual' practice or a deviation of it. As key-concept behind the creative outburst that manifested in the eleventh and twelfth century is the vertical and harmonic expansion of dimension, as the strongly resonant harmony of organum magnified the splendour of the celebration and heightened its solemnity.
The first embarkations in to organum are hidden in obscurity but most probably involve forms of parallel singing, possibly with a bourdon, not unlike practice in Eastern liturgies. Considering that the trained singers were imbibed in an oral tradition that was several centuries old, singing a small part of the chant repertory in straightforward heterophony of parallel harmony or other ways of 'singing by the ear' would come naturally. It is made clear in the Musica enchiriadis that octave doubling was acceptable, since such doubling was inevitable when men and boys sang together. The 9th-century treatise Scolica enchiriadis treats the subject in greater detail. For parallel singing, the original chant would be the upper voice, vox principalis; the vox organalis was at a parallel perfect interval below, usually a fourth. Thus the melody would be heard as the principal voice, the vox organalis as an accompaniment or harmonic reinforcement. This kind of organum is now usually called parallel organum, although terms such as sinfonia or diaphonia were used in early treatises.

Debate about origins

The Musica enchiriadis documented a practice which obviously had been in use for some time, although it has not been possible to establish even an approximate dating for the commencement of the practice, which may go back hundreds of years. Both of the Enchiriadis treatises are primarily works on the concept of a mathematical derivation of the gamut and the modes based on theories of conjunct and disjunct tetrachords (series of four pitches involving fixed tone and semitone relationships within them). To some extent it is probable that the treatment given to organum was a treatment designed to explain it in the terms of the evolving theory of the gamut (not least by the observation that parallel fourths outline tetrachords), and was not a descriptive or prescriptive manual of practical organum. For that, we can turn to Ad Organum faciendum, (Anonymous, c 1100) which is just such a manual: how to make organum. In letter-notation two organa are given as examples: Alleluia V.Iustus ut palma and Kyrie trope Cunctipotens, in two voices, predominantly puncta contra punctam, "note against note". The Kyrie chant is the lower part, the new part finds a different harmony for every note of the chant and the same applies to the Alleluia. It is also worth noting that strict parallel organum does not generally occur in either of these early treatises as an end in itself. The treatises begin from a premise of parallelism and then move on to suggest better ways of making the organum, involving boundary tones, and the vast majority of musical examples in the treatises in fact use intervals of 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, and 6ths (by inversion/octave doubling), to create a more artistic result. The aesthetic underpinning the use of these other intervals (usually to do with the concept of a "boundary tone" to preserve the modal integrity, or in order to avoid harmonic tritones or accidentals foreign to the mode) was explored in more detail by Guido d'Arezzo in his Micrologus of around AD 1020. Scholars have tended to describe this more varied organum as "free organum" (see below).
Scholarship has not yet established whether this early organum was chronologically derived from a more primitive strict parallelism, or from a kind of modally-constrained heterophony. The most pervasive examples of strict "parallel organum" in fact occur only in insular Germanic repertories of the 13th century onwards, and not in the very much earlier Enchiriadis treatises, the works of Guido, or in the various interpretations of the Winchester Troper (in which can be found passages which appear to be notated heterophony at the unison, although transcription problems confound absolute certainty in this).

Free organum

After parallel organum the next development to arise in the practice of organum is postulated to be that of free organum. The earliest examples of this style dating from around 1020-1050 (the Micrologus of Guido d'Arezzo and the Winchester Troper) utilise parallel motion and oblique motion (upper voice moving while the tenor holds one note), but the introduction of contrary motion (voices moving in opposite directions) as well as similar motion (voices moving in the same direction, but to different intervals) led to progressively freer musical lines — a prerequisite element of counterpoint. There exists a number of manuscript fragments of the later 11th century and into the 12th century which document the changing styles, from the works of Johannes Cotto (also referred to as John Cotton or Joannes of Liege) to the so-called Chartres fragments. Although free organum is mostly isochronous meaning that the two voices move in the same pace, there are examples of more than one note of the organal voice against one note in the tenor; another precursor of contrapuntal techniques. Previous techniques may be said to harmonically enhance and reinforce a single melodic line which is why it is essentially heterophony; free organum is a definite break with 'harmonically shadowing' chant as it places a new line in contrasting harmony with the chant in the lower voice.

Florid organum, melismatic organum

Organum as a musical genre reached its peak in the twelfth century with the development of two very different schools of organum composition: the St. Martial School of florid organum, which may have been centred around the monastery of St. Martial in Limoges, and the Notre Dame school of organum of Paris (see: rhythmic mode), which included composers such as Léonin and Pérotin which provided many new composition techniques. The motet that became the main 'object' of compositional creativity in the fourteenth century is rooted in the lifetime of Perotin and his works.
The basic principle of Florid Organum is that there are anywhere from two to six notes in the organal voice sung over a single sustained note in the tenor. St.Martial organum and Paris organum duplum follow from the same principle, but in a different form.
During the course of the twelfth century, the age of the Cathedrals, melismatic (or 'florid') organum developed in Aquitania, and is linked to St. Martial de Limoges. This form of organum is based on a plainchant melody that is sung in extended note-values in the lower voice, the length of which are determined by the length of the phrase in the organal part. The chant thus transforms into a succession of long held notes according to the original melody and comes to be called "tenor" from the Latin tenere meaning "to hold". The upper organal voice moves in extensive melisms on long protracted vowels. This newer style became known as "organum", "organum duplum", or "organum purum" and the older note-against-note style became known as "discantus style". The St. Martial organum is rhapsodic in character as rhythms are not yet organized according to the six rhythmic modes, for the introduction of which Leonin seems to deserve to be credited.
Medieval Music - Richard H. Hoppin
Antiquity and the Middle Ages - Edited By James McKinnon

Notre Dame school

Main article: Notre Dame school
Cultural and intellectual life flourished in Paris during the 12th century with the University of the Sorbonne having become a reputed institution that attracted many students, not all of them French. The construction of Notre Dame Cathedral on the Île de la Cité took place between 1163 and 1238 and this period coincides with the birth of the Paris Organum. Magister Cantus of the Notre Dame, Leonin compiled the 'Magnus Liber Organi de Gradali et Antiphonario'. Leonin wrote organa dupla based on existing chants like the Alleluia and the Gradual of the Mass and Responsory and Benedicamus Domino of Vespers for the major liturgical ceremonies in the yearly cycle. In hindsight, this proved to have been a major event. This was the first large-scale project attributable to a single composer. Not only is it a compilation for practical use during Mass and Office compassing the ecclesiastic year, the first of its kind; it also introduces the use of the rhythmic modes as a creative principle. Thus, when in a discussion of organum of the Paris School the word 'modal' or 'mode' is used, it refers to the rhythmic modes and specifically not to the musical modes that rule over melody. In Leonin's organa dupla the Gregorian chant is allotted to the tenor in the lower voice, in which he keeps to the tradition. The way the text is set to music in the original chant defines how it is 'organized'. Where the Gregorian chant is syllabic (no ligatures and is therefore non-modal) the organum created is organum purum: the tenor sustains each single note of the chant over which the organal voice, the duplum, drapes a new florid line, written mostly in ligatures and compound neumes. Starting from a consonant (at the opening: mostly the octave) the duplum in a long, drawn-out line plays a variation of dissonances and consonances, building up to a change of harmony at the end of a melism where another syllable is produced at a different pitch. Where the Gregorian chant is no longer syllabic but uses ligatures both voices proceed in a rhythmic mode. This section of discantus is concluded, if on the last syllable of a word or phrase, by a copula, in which the tenor sustains the last pitch and the duplum switches back to unmetered rhapsodic cadential lines, to conclude on a consonance. Thus in Organum duplum of Leonin these three compositional idioms alternate throughout the complete polyphonic setting , which is concluded in monophonic chant for the last phrase. Again, the way the text is set in the plainchant determines how often there will a section of organum purum, whether this will continue into discantus or whether a cadence is made before going on to the next word or phrase. Thus, recapitulating, three different styles in the organaliter section are alternated and linked according to the text, leaving the last part of the text to be sung choraliter in monophonic chant. The verse of the chant is worked out according to the same principles.
The relevant authors that write about Organum of the Notre Dame School, Anonymous IV, Ioh. de Garlandia, the St. Emmeram Anonymous and Franco of Cologne to name a few, are not always as clear as could be desired, nevertheless, a lot of information can be distilled from the comparative research of their writings. Organum purum is one of three styles of organum, which is used in section where the chant is syllabic thus where the tenor can not be modal. As soon as the chant uses ligatures, the tenor becomes modal and it will have become discant, which is the second form. The third form is copula (Lat. coming together) which in the words of Ioh. de Garlandia 'is between organum and discant' and according to Waite a bridge section between modal and non-modal sections. It seems that for most instances we can take Garlandia litterally where he says 'between' organum and discant. In organa dupla the copula is very similar to a short, cadential organum purum section but in organa tripla or conducti it is seen that irregular notation is used. Either the last notes of ligatures are affixed with a plica which divides the notes in smaller values, or a series of disjunct rests is used in jolting succession in both parts, creating what is also called hocket. These features also can be frequently found in two-part discantus on special cadences or a preparation of a cadence, where they are also referred to as 'copulae'. De Garlandia states simply: 'a copula is where are any number of lines are found' referring to the plicae or rest-signs. Thus organum duplum can be schematized as follows:
  • beginning of text set to organum: organaliter:
  • organum purum >> copula >>
  • discantus >> copula >>
  • organum purum >> copula >>
  • discantus >> copula >>
  • finis choraliter
Perotin "is the best composer of Discantus", according to Anonymous IV, an English student, writing ca.1275, who has provided at least a few morsels of factual information on Paris Organum and its composers. Perotin further developed discantus in three part Organum (Organum Triplum) where both organal voices are in discantus. Note that organum purum is not possible in three-part organa, the two upper voices need to both be organized according to the rhythmic modes. Perotin even went as far as composing two four-part organa (quadrupla), Viderunt omnes and Sederunt principes which were performed in Notre Dame in 1098 on New Year's Day and in 1099 on the feast of St. Stephen (a decree of Odon de Sully, Bishop of Paris, exists which stipulates the performance of 'organa tripla vel quadrupla') Apart from organa, Perotin extended the form of the Aquitanian Versus which was henceforth called conductus. Any conductus is a new composition on new texts and is always composed in the rhythmic modes. Perotin set several texts by Philippe le Chancelier, while some texts refer to contemporary events. Two-part conductus form the larger part, though conductus exist for one to four voices. Two, three and four part conductus are composed throughout in discantus style. As in organa tripla, handling three voices (or four) precludes the kind of rhythmic freedom found in dupla. In conductus the distinction is made between 'cum littera' and ' sine litera', texted sections and melismatic sections. The texted parts can sometimes go beyond the modal measure and then fall back in to regular mode in the melismatic discantus section, which is called cauda. Again according to Anonymous IV, Perotin wrote a number of replacement clausulae from organa dupla by Leonin. As the tenor in Leonin's organa dupla in discant sections proceeds always in the 5th mode (all longs in a rhythmic group ordine), Perotin, who was a generation removed from Leonin, saw fit to improve them by introducing different modes for the tenor and new melodic lines for the dupla, increasing the rhythmic organization and diversity of the section. However, in the largest compilation of Notre Dame repertoir (F) no less than 462 clausulae exist, many recurrences of the same clausulae in variant settings, according to Waite 'written in a variety of styles and with varying competence' A further innovation was the motellus, in which the upper part of a discant section is supplied with a new text, so that when the lower voice utters a single syllable, the upper part will pronounce several. This would have been the first instance of two different texts being sung in harmony. In turn, the motellus gave birth to the motet which is a poly-textual piece in discant, which obviously sparked a lot a creativity as it soon became a prolific form of composition.
The Organa that were created in Paris were disseminated throughout Europe. The three main sources are W1, St. Andrews, Wolfenbuttel 677,olim Helmstadt 628; the large and illuminated copy made in Florence, owned by Piero de Medici, the Pluteo 29.1 of the Bibliotheca Mediceo-Laurenziana (F), which is by far the most extensive copy of the repertory. Finally W2, Wolfenbuttel 1206, olim Helmstadt 1099, which was compiled the latest (and contains the greatest amount of motets).
There are arguments that support a relative freedom of rhythm in Organa dupla but others refute this, saying that the interpretation of the music should always be according to modal or Franconian principles. Two researchers, Apel and Waite, insisted upon a rigorously modal interpretation. Though Waite in his dissertation, notably in chapter 4: The notation of organum duplum' acknowledged that in in organum duplum and monophonic conducts are relative freedom may have been taken, he transcribed a selection of the Magnus Liber Organi of Leonin into strict modal rhythm. Apel argued that the rhythms in the piece, due to the rules of consonance is clearly non-modal. To this day, as behoofs scientists, debates on interpretation proceed as usual. However, Waite published 54 years ago and his point of vieuw has been superseded by ongoing research. "..but his (Waite) vieuw that the entire corpus (of the Magnus Liber Organi) should be transcribed according to the rhythmic modes is no longer accepted" (Peter Jeffery in the Notation Course Medieval Music 1100-1450 (music205), Princeton)
In the range of forms of compositions found in the later two manuscripts that contain the Notre Dame-repertory (F and W2) one class of distinction can be made: that which is (strictly) modal and that which is not. Organum duplum in its organum purum sections of syllabic setting, the cum littera sections in two-part conductus, copulae in general and monophonic conductus would be that part of the repertory which is not strictly modal. In monophonic song, be it chant or a conductus simplex by Perotin, there is no need to vary from the classical standards for declamation that were a rooted tradition at the time, going back to St. Augustine, De Musica. It has been firmly established by extensive research in chant traditions (Gregorian Semiology) that there is a fluency and varyancy in the rhythm of declamatory speech that should also govern chant performance. These principles extend to the not strictly modal sections or compositions, as a contrasting quality with musica mensurabilis.
As Parisian Organum is based on Gregorian chant, it is categorized under Ars Antiqua which is called thusly in contrast to the Ars Nova which embarked on new forms that were in every sense original and no longer based on Gregorian chant and as such consisted a breach with the musical practice of the ancients.


Further reading

  • Various articles, including "Organum," "Musica enchiriadis", "Hucbald", "St Martial" in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • 'Ad organum faciendum' (ca. 1100) Jay A. Huff, ed. and trans., Ad organum faciendum et Item de organo, Musical Theorists in Translation, vol. 8 Institute of Mediaeval Music, Brooklyn,NY [1963])
  • An Old St. Andrews Music Book (W1, the earlier ms. of Notre Dame Polyphony) J.H.Baxter, 1931
  • Magnus Liber Organi, (F) Pluteo 29.1, Bibliotheca Mediceo-Laurenziana, Firenze, facsimilé by Institute of Medieval Music, Brooklyn, NY, Medieval Manuscripts in Reproduction, vols. X and XI, ed. Luther Dittmer
  • Richard H. Hoppin, Medieval Music. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1978. ISBN 0-393-09090-6
  • William G. Waite, the rhythm of twelfth century polyphony, Yale UP 1954/1976, which apart from a selective transcription of the organa dupla by Leonin contains many quotations from the contemporary theorists in his dissertation preceding the transcription. Of particular interest is ' The notation of Organum Duplum, p. 106-127, from which quotes are taken.
  • 'Magnus Liber Organi, Parisian Liturgical Polyphony from the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries', 7 Vols. Les Editions de L'Oiseau-Lyre, Monaco, 1988-1993, general editor: Edward H. Roesner
  • The Organa of the Winchester Troper -- The Organa of the Winchester Troper: consonance, rhythm and the origins of organum (good bibliography here too)
  • Appendix to The Organa of the Winchester Troper -- Appendix to 'The Organa of the Winchester Troper': Musical transcriptions
  • Gustave Reese, "Music in the Middle Aages" W.W. Norton & Co., ISBN 0-393-09750-1
  • Donald J Grout & Claude V. Palisca "A History of Western Music" W.W. Norton & Co., ISBN 0-393-97527-4
  • Oliver Strunk "Source Readings In Music History W.W. Norton & Co., ISBN 0-393-09742-0
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