THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1322, when people were afraid of polyphonic music

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Music is scary.

 Polyphony (n): A style of musical composition employing two or more simultaneous but relatively independent melodic lines : counterpoint, according to Merriam-Webster. Also, a super-terrifying thing circa the 1300s. 

Humans are really something: We have an almost limitless ability to innovate new things—and simultaneously, to be frightened of those nifty new things we just came up with.

Take polyphonic music. One upon a time, music was rather monotonous—er. monophonous. Think: Gregorian chant, troubadour songs, and so on. And everyone was perfectly happy with this form of music because they didn’t know it could get any better (like you with your iPod in 2007). Then, in and around the 1100s, someone came up with a “melismatic organum”—which sounds either like something that’s been lodged in your throat or something vaguely pornographic. But all it means is that several pitches were allotted to a given syllable, which had never really happened before.

So far, so good.

And then all hell broke loose. Composers began toying with polyphony—what’s more, they started setting religious music to popular (secular) ballads, and having love poetry sung to the tone of scared music. This enraged the clergy. “Harmony was not only considered frivolous, impious, and lascivious, but an obstruction to the audibility of the words,” says the New World Encyclopedia, adding that “dissonant clashes of notes give a creepy feeling that was labeled as evil, fueling their argument against polyphony as being the devil’s music.”

No wonder then that, in 1322, Pope John XXII banned polyphony:

These composers, knowing nothing of the true foundation upon which they must build, are ignorant of the church modes, incapable of distinguishing between them, and cause great confusion. The great number of notes in their compositions conceals from us the plainchant melody, with its simple well-regulated rises and falls that indicate the character of the church mode. These musicians run without pausing. They intoxicate the ear without satisfying it; they dramatize the text with gestures; and, instead of promoting devotion, they prevent it by creating a sensuous and indecent atmosphere. . .

Pope John XXII: Lover of tall hats, hater of harmony.
Pope John XXII: Lover of tall hats, hater of harmony.

This worked—for a few years anyway. Until Clement VI, a bit of a rogue*, assumed the papacy in 1342 and specifically did not ban polyphony, meaning basically that it was A-OK with him. And the rest is musical history.

*This is not my personal editorial commentary. He claimed to have “lived as a sinner among sinners.” So, no letters, OK?