I have been listening to and researching the music of the Notre Dame school over the past few weeks, the better to put together my Tu Es Petrus, which will be performed in that amazing building in May, as well as in Cadogan Hall the previous week. The focus of my research has been Perotin, whose is probably the first composer whose name has come down to us linked with specific pieces, thanks, ironically, to the writings of a person we know only as Anonymous IV. We are able to link four pieces to Perotin with as close to certainty as makes no difference, and it has been my great pleasure these weeks to explore them in depth, something, to my shame, I was meant to do at college, and probably did, but lacking the understanding and experience I currently possess.
The nearer we come to the present day the easier it is to imagine what figures of the past may have been thinking, what made them tick, but go back to Perotin’s day, the cusp of the 1200s, and you might as well be talking about an alien species. Of course, he slept and ate and all the rest, but his daily preoccupations would have been entirely different from our own, almost exclusively church-based for a start, and his extraordinary music was written to beautify and glorify existing chant, the better, in his mind, to extol the glories of his god and to give to his congregations that vision of heavenly beauty manifest elsewhere, for example in the architecture of Notre Dame itself.
I have written before that there are many composers who have made a difference, but probably only five or six who have wholly and cataclysmically changed the course of music itself, the way it is viewed. Perotin, in my opinion, is one of those composers, even with only four pieces properly to his name, and the enormity of his achievement is staggering, the beauty of it beguiling in a way strange to our modern ears, for his notions of consonance and dissonance, rhythm and structure are very different from our own. Yet this is not primitive music, even though it is the first manifestation of polyphonic music written in separate and independent parts. In fact, what is so deeply impressive about it is how Perotin is able to grasp the notions of form and formal articulation as understood centuries later by the likes of Haydn and Lutoslawski. Admittedly he is helped by using chant as a structural foundation, but, still, these pieces are over ten minutes long.
While my Tu Es Petrus uses the ideas and aesthetic of Perotin as its starting point, it does so from the liberty of a twenty-first century perspective. What has been a real surprise, however, is just how close the sound of Perotin’s music, eight centuries old, is to the free overlapping harmonies of my sketchings. Contemporary writers said, upon experiencing the extraordinary sound of his works, that it was as beautiful as the singing of sirens, and had the same power to drive the listener mad. Together with the music of his predecessor Leonin, Perotin kickstarted Classical music as we know it, and it spread far and fast. Although his music is now part of what is known as the ars antiqua, to differentiate it from the ars nova of a century later, its novelty must have been quite something. Despite its unnerving effect on some listeners it is amusing to see theorists of the early 1300s, only a century later, arguing that the newer writers were mere rowdy upstarts next to the solid and respected writers of old. That argument, it seems, never changes.