Centres of Polyphony


Although the tradition of vocal polyphony is not represented very well in the historical sources of Germany, group singing is without a doubt one of the important elements of German traditional culture: “Viewed in terms of action, folk music lives not as a performance by a few musicians for many (as in concert halls), but in collective performance with a high degree of participation and interaction by all present” (Klusen, 1975). Most of the audience members are also performers: they sing, hum, sway, dance, or clap together. Most participants are only nominally interested in the origin and type of musical material. It is insignificant to them whether it is ‘art’ or ‘folk’ music, or derived from a subculture; whether it is composed for instruments or for voices; whether it is traditional or contemporary, or ‘inferior’ or ‘superior’ quality, already popular or freshly written, from an unknown or celebrated hand, or is transmitted orally or from printed or electronic media; and whether the text suits the situation or function at hand. The determining factor is whether the music or the dance provides the opportunity for performers and audience to participate in the immediate situation” (Schepping, 2000: 648).

There are a few hints about the presence of a polyphonic tradition in medieval Germany. In one of them, a monk from Salzburg, whose name was Hermann, in the second half of the 14th century wrote few polyphonic pieces based on drone polyphony, intending to create a new type of composition based on folk traditions, and in another similar case Oswald von Wolkenstein, who was also very much involved in traditional polyphonic traditions, used canonic polyphony in his compositions.
During the 1700s and 1800s the new pan-European harmonic system appeared, heavily based on the T-S-D (tonic-subdominant-dominant) progression, and during the 19th century this became popular throughout the European countries. The 1800s saw a great number of male choirs (LiedertafelI) forming in factories, schools etc.

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