In this week’s installment of SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC, we go wayyyy back in time. This is Viderunt omnes as composed by Pérotin, performed below by the Hilliard Ensemble (UK).
About the Composer:
Pérotin, sometimes referred to as Perotinus or Perotin the Great, is music history’s mystery man, a one-name wonder. His lifetime probably bridged the transition between the 12th and 13th centuries. He may have been French — but then, France did not exist as a nation at the time. What we do know about Pérotin is that he worked at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris — maybe as a singer, maybe as a teacher, maybe as a student, maybe as a priest… definitely as a composer. Pérotin and his predecessor at Notre-Dame, the composer Léonin, are widely considered to be the fathers of modern polyphony (more on this below). Due to the diligent note-taking of a music student at Notre-Dame during Pérotin’s tenure there, Pérotin is one of the few composers of early polyphonic music whose name and music are known today.
About the Piece:
Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes is the result of a long musical evolution. It began as unsung Latin text excerpted from Psalm 97, which was set to chant sometime in the 10th or 11th century. The Viderunt omnes chant was a type of chant called a gradual, sung towards the beginning of the Christmas Day mass. It was responsorial in style, meaning that it consisted of three sections — the first sung by the whole choir, the second by a soloist, and the third by the choir again. Further, responsorial chants made prolific use of melisma, the technique of singing multiple notes to a syllable. This resulted in a very ornate, monophonic chant:
Polyphony — the use of two or more independent musical voices to create harmony — emerged in ecclesiastical music as early as the 9th century, but was not studied or implemented with any true consistency until the rise of Notre-Dame school in the 12th century. We can think of this in architectural terms: like the sky-scraping Gothic style of the Notre-Dame cathedral itself, polyphony elaborated music vertically — not horizontally as with plainchant and its analog, Romanesque architecture.
The aforementioned Léonin spearheaded this movement. His version of the Viderunt omnes was called an organum duplum, consisting of a lower voice sustaining the notes of the original chant (above) while the upper voice soloist sang elaborate melismas over the sustained syllables:
Léonin’s version was pretty awesome, but when Pérotin came around, he thought he could do even better. The Viderunt omnes he composed was an organum quadruplum, made up of four independently moving voices. Yes, FOUR independent voices singing incredibly complex lines, composed at a time when musical notation was still in its infancy — i.e., the musicians would’ve had to learn this piece primarily by ear. Not impressed? Pitch pipes weren’t invented yet, either.
The amazing thing about Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes is its timelessness. It was written without notes and staves as we know them today, and yet it sounds like it could’ve been pulled off a Lord of the Rings soundtrack. It is beautiful and kinetic and mysterious, more than eight centuries after the fact. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!