Nostalgia and Grace, by Carolyn Lee (page 8)

Parisian Polyphony

To relive in my mind the early era of polyphony, I went to Paris and Chartres, renewing a romance with the French Gothic cathedrals that had begun on my childhood tour. The French Gothic was loftier, darker, more mysterious and otherworldly than its English equivalent. I felt embraced by the English cathedrals, but awed by the French ones. Now, on my return visit to France, I wanted to stand beneath the vaults that had once resounded to a unique type of ritual music that ad heard on record some years before.

By the time the apse and the choir of the Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris were completed in 1182, this music, developed by the innovative Parisian choirmasters, was flourishing. It was based on fragments of Gregorian Chant, which were slowed down beyond recognition. Then, above the Chant were layered (at normal speed) in repetitive patterns within the same voice range (tenor-baritone). When four voices were employed the effect was particularly extraordinary. Everything dissolved in a pulsating ocean of sound that sometimes went on for twenty minutes before the melodic Chant resumed for an interlude.

I have never heard anything quite like this early Parisian polyphony. It moves the listener beyond the moorings of words-it is all composed on one syllable-into a vast sonorous space where time, and the mind, stand still.