On Writing Polyphonic Music…

January 6th, 2017

www.phillipcooke.comIt’s reached that time of the year when I say to myself ‘the next piece I write is going to be polyphonic’ – it happens every year (funnily enough always around Easter time) and every year I labour at trying to do something and every year I duly fail. Why is it so difficult to write polyphonic music? Why do so many contemporary composers (mainly choral composers here, I guess…) just not bother to even try? Why is it important to even attempt to write polyphonic music? I guess there are lots of answers to those questions, some of which may take a little longer to answer then this medium allows. But the main answer, and I may be being a little flippant here, is that polyphonic music is just not in fashion at the moment. And it’s hard to do. But mainly the fashion bit.

Polyphony is basically a musical texture where each individual line or voice has equal importance, so you get a varied and busy musical texture with different melodies and voices coming in and out of focus as the music requires. It is the opposite of homophony where you basically have one melody and accompaniment, or a succession of moving chords or harmonies. Polyphony has been a staple part of musical life for as long as there has been music, but we associate it mainly with the ‘Golden Age’ of polyphonic music – the sixteenth century with the great names of Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria. But polyphony didn’t stop there – Bach was a dab hand at it, Beethoven could do it a bit, Brahms, Schoenberg, Strauss…you name it, they did it. And this was no different whether they were writing instrumental or choral music, and this carried on throughout the twentieth century until it, well, just sort of stopped.

And we have arguably reached the nadir of this problem in 2016 – where is the polyphonic choral music? Why did it stop?

It goes back to that fashion thing, at the moment much contemporary choral music is deeply in awe of all things American, well the sort of American music that comes from Morten Lauridsen, Eric Whitacre and subsequent generations of composers schooled in that language. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, much of it is very effective and quite pleasing to listen to – but it’s almost entirely homophonic. Maybe the fashion began earlier than this trans-Atlantic wave, maybe it began in the 1970s with the ‘Mystic Minimalists’ of John Tavener, Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki who pedalled a similar homophonic vein? Whatever the lineage, slow, static homophonic music has become a lingua franca for new choral music, whether from America, Eastern Europe or here in the UK.

It’s particularly odd in the UK because composers even a generation ago were writing sprightly polyphonic music with dexterity and verve – Leighton, Mathias, Tippett and certainly Britten (though a little earlier) were regularly writing much contrapuntal music. Britten couldn’t stop himself – a fugato here, an invention there a little canon to finish…he was always flexing his polyphonic muscles. Others were at it too – Walton, Berkeley, Rubbra – the list goes on.

I have to admit that the vast majority of my choral music is homophonic – I’ve only written one purely polyphonic piece (though quite a few larger pieces have polyphonic sections) and that was now eight years ago. I suffer from the same disease – it’s just too easy to write homophonic music – the outcome so greatly outweighs the effort needed to do so. It disappoints me. Every time I try to write something it either sounds like a bad version of Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G Minor or some mangled version of Byrd. What makes it worse is that I’ve spent so long with the music of Herbert Howells, who was one of the greatest British polyphonic composers – it makes me feel supremely guilty.

But I guess it is not all bad: much of James MacMillan’s choral music is polyphonic, same for Judith Bingham and Francis Pott’s Mass in Eight Parts is an essay in contemporary contrapuntal writing. Others are looking further afield for inspiration and returning to polyphonic models – perhaps things will change. In the meantime I’ll go back to the piano and see how far I get this Easter, don’t hold your breath.


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