“Viderunt Omnes”

This clip features Perotin’s 4-voice organum cum alio setting of the words “viderunt omnes.” The original chant, which appears as the sustained tenor, is slowed down to a veritable crawl here – it takes over three minutes just to intone the syllables “vi-de-runt om-nes.” In the earliest scraps of notated polyphony the chant appeared as the melody; it’s dramatic to hear what happened when this process was turned on its head and the chant was put in the lowest voice. This sort of organum isn’t at all about the intelligibility of the text, for the surface level activity of the composition consists of highly coordinated melismatic (wordless) activity in the three upper voices. A few things strike me when listening to this repertory:

– The modal rhythms (trochaic, to be precise) lend “Viderunt Omnes” a rhythmic consistency and patterned regularity unavailable to composers up until the development of this notational technology. It’s not inaccurate to say that this trochaic meter actually grooves.

– The periodicity of Viderunt is patent – it utilizes repetition to amazing effect. It’s no wonder that Steve Reich counts Perotin among his major influences.

– The three upper voices all function in the same range, frequently crossing over each other and weaving in and out of the texture. It reminds me of three birds racing through the air in play.

For more of this piece, see the Hilliard Ensemble performing a particularly juicy section (the conclusion, with final chant) here.

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