Everything needs a foundation. Trees only grow tall, their branches and leaves reaching toward the skies, because of the stability of their roots.
In the 13th century, composers began using a technique that became known as cantus firmus. A low melody of long notes was used to ground or “weight” the overall composition, allowing the other voices to unfold or “float” above. In addition to providing a structural element to the music, the grounding melody creates a foundation that influences the harmonic structure as well. By creating a progression of long notes, the composer has the freedom to improvise in the upper melodies, changing the tonal center frequently or slowly. The music can adapt to the text, carefully reflecting the emotions and the setting.
As this technique was refined and developed, the cantus firmus began to move among the vocal parts, giving all of the voices an opportunity to provide the foundational element in the music. Composers then began turning the low melody upside down, playing it backwards, and trying to “hide” is within the voices! Nevertheless, the cantus firmus still existed, it only required more attention, and a bit of imagination to find it.
Everything needs a foundation, roots, or structure. Dietrich Bonhoffer called God’s love the cantus firmus of the universe. Would you agree?
This week’s playlist includes Palestrina, Tallis, and Byrd: Italian and English composers of the Renaissance who laid the foundation for the embellishments in vocal music that Bach perfected in the 1700s.