Today’s performances of medieval polyphony have a lot in common with those of other ‘classical’ or ‘early’ music. Ensembles perform pieces written by known or lesser known composers, which the listener can revisit by listening to recordings or reading a score.
In the middle ages, however, the performance of compositions was only one of the ways available to singers for creating polyphonic music. The ability to improvise a second or third voice above a plainchant melody, called discantare super planum cantum (‘singing above the plainchant’) or cantare super librum (‘singing on the book’), was a crucial skill for a church musician in the middle ages, and singers were trained at this from an early age.
Niels’ project aims to expand our knowledge of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century polyphony, through music-historical scholarship as well as practical experiences. An in-depth investigation of the material remains of late medieval musical culture—compositions and theoretical writings about music—forms the basis for experiments with polyphonic improvisation above plainchants together with colleague-singers and students. The project has developed new ways of understanding late medieval polyphony, which are useful not only for teaching and analysis, but which may form a stimulus for contemporary performance practices of early music as well.