Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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(Lat., from Gk. organon: ‘instrument’, ‘implement’, ‘tool’).

A type of medieval polyphony. Early meanings are connected with the organ, but later only with ‘consonant music’. While retaining the collective meaning of ‘polyphony’ in general, from the 12th century it was used specifically to refer to music with a sustained-note tenor (usually a pre-existing part) and more mobile upper part or parts.

1. Etymology, early usage.

2. 9th-century theory.

3. 10th- and 11th-century theory.

4. Practical sources: changes of style about 1100.

5. Organum and liturgical chant.

6. ‘Organum’ and ‘discant’: new terminology.

7. Florid organum of Aquitaine and Compostela manuscripts.

8. Parisian organum: the ‘Magnus liber’.

9. The style of Parisian organum.

10. The rhythmic interpretation of Parisian organum.

11. Organum of the 13th century and later.




1. Etymology, early usage.

The Greek word ‘organon’ (‘tool’, ‘means’, ‘organ of the body’) was also used for musical instruments, and for the various organs of speech of the human voice. Its first known usage specifically as ‘organ’ in the musical sense occurred in the first half of the 5th century ce in a commentary on the psalms by Hesychios of Jerusalem (PG, xxvii, 1341C). The Latin word ‘organum’ on the other hand was current in the restricted sense of ‘organ’ as early as c400 according to St Augustine, and this was its ‘true’ Latin meaning (Psalm commentary: PL, xxxvii, 1964). In Latin the primary word for ‘musical instrument’ in the general sense since classical times had been ‘instrumentum’.

In the biblical allegories of the church fathers the musical instruments referred to in the Bible were interpreted as ‘inner’ (i.e. vocal) instruments because the use of instruments in Christian worship was forbidden. The word ‘organum’ was also taken over and applied to that which was produced by instruments, and produced in particular by the human voice. Thereafter it was used not only for forms of verbal discourse (equivalent to ‘sermo’, ‘praedicatio’ and ‘evangelium’), but also for a song of spiritual praise (as a synonym for ‘canticum’ and ‘laus’), often in phrases such as ‘in hymnis et organis’. This usage persisted into the late Middle Ages, particularly in religious poetry. Consequently, there is no compelling reason for treating references to ‘organa’ or ‘cantica organica’ in the texts of sequences and tropes as allusions to instrumental performance or to polyphony. In the late 13th century the theorist Anonymous IV attested to the usage of ‘organum’ still for monophonic song, generally sacred (‘Quandoque simplex organum dicitur ut in simplicibus conductis’; ed. Reckow, i, p.70).

From the 9th century onwards the word existed as a technical term in the theory of polyphony. It came to be used equally for a ‘voice’ which was added to a pre-existent chant melody (vox principalis), or for a single note within such a voice (both of which were termed vox organalis), and also for the polyphonic fabric as a whole.

Scholars have drawn many analogies between early polyphony and musical instruments, their construction or manner of playing. It is to these analogies that the choice of the word ‘organum’ in the early Middle Ages has until recently generally been attributed. They have included the analogy between parallel movement of voices and the mixture rank of the organ (Husmann); between long-held notes and an instrumental drone (Waeltner); between the accompanimental role of the vox organalis with regard to the vox principalis and the accompanimental role of instruments with regard to singing; or between instrumental embellishment (which by its nature was wordless) and the melismatic vocal decoration which occurred in the vox organalis, especially after about 1100 (Eggebrecht). Other inferences from the term ‘organum’ have been that polyphony was instrumental in origin (Georgiades) and that it was intended for purely instrumental performance (Krüger).

Assumptions such as these may go some way to accounting for particular characteristics in early polyphony. At the same time, nowhere do they receive support in the literature of music theory itself as statements about terminology. The sole indication of a possible connection between musical instruments and terminology for polyphony occurs, in about 1100, in a vague attempt at etymological definition by Johannes Cotto (‘Affligemensis’), of which the Latin reads: ‘Qui canendi modus vulgariter organum dicitur, eo quod vox humana apte dissonans similitudinem exprimat instrumenti quod “organum” vocatur’ (‘A manner of singing commonly called “organum”, because the human voice, aptly dissonant, bears a likeness to an instrument which is called “organum”’: CSM, i, p.157). And this explanation, significantly, is ignored, even contradicted, by later theory.

On the other hand, a number of passages in early polyphonic theory can be taken to imply that the term ‘organum’ refers to the consonant relationship between vox principalis and vox organalis. Thus, in the central theoretical source, entitled Musica enchiriadis and dating from the second half of the 9th century, the vox organalis is also called the cantilena simphoniaca (ed. Schmid, p.48). This interpretation finds its strongest support, however, in a number of observations in the theoretical literature – all admittedly rather elliptical – on vertical sonority. In the Cologne organum treatise (c900), notes in the vox organalis that form a 3rd or 2nd with the vox principalis are ranked as ‘abusivum organum’ (ed. Waeltner, p.54). The author of the Paris organum treatise (10th century) went so far as to say that with such vertical sonorities legitimum organum ‘falls silent’, or that responsum organi ‘is lacking’ (ed. Waeltner, p.76). This does not mean that the creation of these sonorities is itself ‘improper’ or impossible – they are indeed expressly taught and demonstrated. It should be taken as conveying rather that such effects would be designated improper (i.e. contrary to proper word-usage) only as organum; in other words, that such (in themselves entirely legitimate) sonorities are not organum in the strict sense of the term. Logically then, the term ‘organum’ must at first have been reserved exclusively for consonant sonorities. Indeed, in the definitions of organum that occur in music theory up to the 12th century only 4ths and 5ths are mentioned as constituent intervals.

This conception of organum seems to be firmly associated with a specialized use, current from late classical times, of the adjective organicus. It comes through particularly clearly in expressions such as ‘organicum melos’ and, from the early Middle Ages onwards, ‘instrumentum organicum’. An organicum melos is a melos the pitches of which – whether monophonic or polyphonic, vocal or instrumental – are precisely measured. (It is in this sense, and not as evidence of polyphony, that a famous passage by John Scotus Erigena should be interpreted – see NOHM, ii, 1954, p.273.)

By analogy, an instrumentum organicum is a musical instrument which by virtue of its construction is capable of being exactly tuned, and thus lends itself to theoretical demonstration. Its pitches, each represented by one or more pipes, strings, keys or bells, exist in a consonant relationship to one another – as a result of the circle of 5ths, which forms the basis of tuning.

This conception of organicus probably derives from the Greek kataskeuē organikē of geometric construction. The organa in geometry were compasses and straight-edges which, in contrast to stencils with their imprecision, were considered scientifically reliable. It was on these grounds that the Greek adjective organikos had come to be used also in the abstract sense of ‘mathematically exact’ and ‘theoretically sound’ in geometrical theory as early as late classical times. The organa that lie behind the early medieval polyphonic term were thus in the last analysis not musical instruments at all: they were compasses and straight-edges as the guarantors of quadrivial order and exactitude. The term ‘organum’ can itself probably be seen as defining a prior condition for polyphony. This condition refers to the exact measurement of pitch which is so essential to the fitting together of parts, and at the same time expresses verbally the fact that consonance itself comes to audible reality as the ‘temperamentum modulationis’ (Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, iii, 20.3).

In the early medieval sources the word ‘diaphonia’ was also used, along with ‘organum’, to designate polyphony. This word is not to be taken as signifying dissonance. Much more likely, it conveyed – as did its successor ‘discantus’ from the 12th century onwards – the striking effect of ‘sounding apart’, in contrast to the ‘uniformis canor’ of a monophonic melody.

The term ‘discantus’ from the 12th century onwards stood, as a general rule, for note-against-note counterpoint. The term ‘organum’ itself did continue as a collective word for all types of polyphony (organum generale); but at the same time it took on a special meaning in the 12th century as the new type of sustained-note counterpoint – a type that was at first for two voices, and in which a melismatic upper voice was constructed above long-held plainchant notes (organum in speciali; see §6 below). From the latter part of the 13th century, ‘organum’ came to be used to describe plainchant setting in general (above all that of the Notre Dame composers), in contradistinction to the categories of motet and conductus.


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