Thirteenth-Century Polyphony:
A Quick Guide to Combinations and Cadences

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

    1. A scholarly caution

  2. Two-voice intervals and progressions

    1. A subtle continuum of tension
    2. Directed cadences
    3. Obliquely resolving sonorities
    4. Summary

  3. Multi-voice combinations

    1. The unit of stability: the complete trine (8/5 or 8/4)
    2. Mildly unstable combinations (5/3, 9/5, 7/4, 5/4, 5/2)
      1. The "split fifth" (5/3)
      2. Energetic quintal/quartal fusion (9/5, 7/4, 5/4, 5/2)
    3. Tenser cadential combinations
      1. Sixth combinations (6/3, 6/5, 6/5/3, 6/2, 6/4)
      2. Seventh combinations (7/3, 7/5, 7/5/3)
    4. Summary of combinations

  4. Directed cadences for three or four voices

    1. The versatile "split fifth" (5/3, 8/5/3)
    2. Mildly unstable quintal/quartal sonorities (9/5, 7/4, 5/4, 5/2)
    3. Sixth combinations (6/3, 6/5, 6/5/3, 6/2, 6/4)
    4. Seventh combinations (7/3, 7/5, 7/5/3)

  5. Multi-voice Obliquely Resolving Sonorities

    1. The "split fifth" unsplit (5/3, 8/5/3)
    2. Mildly unstable quintal/quartal sonorities (9/5, 7/4, 5/4, 5/2)
    3. Sixth combinations (6/3, 6/5, 6/5/3, 6/2, 6/4)
    4. Seventh Combinations (7/3, 7/5, 7/5/3)

  6. Concluding words

1. Introduction

European music of the 13th century presents a rich variety of vertical sonorities and cadences for three or four voices. One's enjoyment and understanding of this music - as a listener or performer - depends to a great extent upon becoming attuned to this dimension of the experience.

This guide is neither a full description of 13th-century style, nor a treatise on 13th-century theory. Rather, the more modest but not less important purpose is to help listeners and performers recognize and enjoy some of the patterns of this music.

Learning a musical style is rather like learning a new language: ear training and understanding should go hand in hand. If this guide helps to make the music of the great era from Perotin (fl. c. 1200) to Petrus de Cruce (active in the last decades of the 13th century) more accessible and enjoyable, it will have served its purpose.

1.1. A scholarly caution

Any attempt to describe or analyze medieval music must confront a basic obstacle: the lack of any known treatises from this period discussing multi-voice cadences. While the available treatises tell us a great deal about two-voice intervals and resolutions (Section 2), and include some priceless passages about multi-voice sonorities (Section 3), they leave undiscussed the matter of cadences for three or four voices (Section 4). Nor do they address the matter of oblique resolutions for multi-voice sonorities (Section 5).

Thus Sections 4 and 5 represent my own "extensions" to known medieval theory. The concept of a multi-voice cadence as a harmonious union of two-voice progressions joining in a greater whole seems to me consistent both with the nature of the music and with medieval philosophy. How familiar, strange, or felicitous this analysis might seem to medieval musicians and theorists remains an open question.

To Section 2 - Two-voice intervals and progressions.

To Early Music FAQ.

Margo Schulter
Sacramento, CA
6 October 1997