The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Understanding “Polyphony”

Polyphony, orchestra, French news, France news, Emmanuel Macron news, culture news, arts news, music news, World news, international news

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March 28, 2018 00:30 EDT

A glance at Europe’s musical history tells us that orchestrating polyphony is a lost and largely forgotten art.

French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to repatriate some pillaged African art to its geographical sources. Le Monde quotes the people charged with organizing this task, who affirm that “to be effective, we need to orchestrate the polyphony between those who encourage these repatriations and those who are blocking them.”

Here are two definitions for today’s 3D:


The art of taming the cacophony of divergent voices to produce an impression of harmony

Orchestrate the polyphony (metaphor):

Squaring the circle, achieve the impossible, particularly at a moment in history where achieving harmony is generally seen as a sign of weakness

Contextual note

The realism the project leaders express tells us a lot about the odds of success, which will depend on fulfilling a challenging condition: orchestrating polyphony. This literally means finding multiple points at which independent voices cross paths in complete harmony. A glance at Europe’s musical history (see below) tells us that orchestrating polyphony is a lost and largely forgotten art. The “greatest hits” of Josquin des Prez, William Byrd and Palestrina disappeared long ago from most people’s mental jukebox, whereas Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bizet and even the more abstract Wagner and Stravinsky are still remembered for their occasional hits.

During his visit to Africa in November 2017, President Macron said he wanted “the conditions to be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.” Politicians “want” many things that they don’t get — for example, a wall on the Mexican border. Macron hedged his bets by indicating a choice between temporary or permanent. This could mean “what we refuse to give back, we’re willing to lend.” The reasoning might be, “we need to keep the assets on our books.” Even museums have balance sheets.

The likelihood of orchestrating polyphony between those who want to keep the plunder in their modern, air-conditioned museums and those who wish to deport it back to its birthplace seems tenuous, at best. After all, the art of polyphony pretty much disappeared after the 17th century.

Historical note

Polyphony became a dominant musical style in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It required great skill to produce rich harmonies from divergent voices. This new standard of compositional discipline became the hallmark of what is now referred to as European classical music — from Monteverdi to Stravinsky and beyond.

But polyphony itself didn’t survive in a changing economy of European music and the transformed cultural landscape of the 17th century. The trend toward symphonic composition emerged, gradually becoming the norm. The symphonic concept featured a dominant melody supported by a rich harmonic background designed specifically to support the melodic theme, a subservient accompaniment rather than an independent voice. Bach and his contemporaries of the Baroque period still cherished the principle of polyphony, cultivating a sophisticated art of the fugue, essentially built on two (rather than many) independent voices. But the growing trend toward concertos and symphonies over the next two centuries imposed the principle of a single dominant voice in musical composition. Polyphony gave way to harmonized texture as the prefix poly- (many) gave way to sym- (united or yoked together).

We sometimes forget that the same age that spawned an ideology of political democracy in America and France adopted more resolutely hierarchical models for its cultural production, musical and literary. The full effects of democracy eventually led to the commoditizing of music and art. The marketplace of price tags replaced the formerly aristocratic marketplace of taste.

And so we find ourselves in a dilemma that no effort at polyphony is likely to solve: How to write down the declared value of stolen assets to be returned to their original cultures. Today’s owners of those assets have all heard the song by 20th-century composer George Gershwin, “They Can’t Take that Away from Me.

Linguistic note

The metaphor of orchestrating polyphony appears to be fairly common in French but also occurs in English. In an academic paper on narrative theory, Professor James Phelan, offers this reflection: “Other novels, such as those of Dostoevsky, which Bakhtin values above all others, orchestrate the polyphony so that no single dialect, and, thus, no single ideological position, emerges triumphant.” Multiple perspectives, no imposed voice. After Shakespeare, perhaps Dostoevsky was our last polyphonic writer.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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