The Politics of Polyphony

Trio Sonata in G J.S.Bach (1685-1750) [HARPSICHORD]
Susan Addington (flute) and Amy Gano (oboe)

"Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus"


An ever popular exercise for people watchers is to compare what folks say with what they actually do. As true as that is for individuals, it’s also true for cultures. How they do Art, and specifically Music is an example to consider:

If you have multiple instruments/singers, there are broadly two ways to allocate them. You could be egalitarian — everybody gets a melodic/interesting part, and all the parts fit together to form a harmonious whole. Dixieland Jazz would be an example – multiple riots of melody forming a chaos of joy. This is called ‘polyphony’ – ‘multiple voices’.

The other approach is to assign one instrument the Leader role — ‘THE MELODY’, which demands all the listener’s attention — and the other players/singers get secondary and frequently boring parts. In other words, ‘Tune & Accompaniment’.

One simplified way of looking at Western History for the last millenium or so is that until about 1750 (the tipping point into the Enlightenment) the prevailing political model was a massive hierarchy: the Pope at the top, then the King, then the local Duke/Baron/whatever, and down the pecking order with most folks at the bottom of the food chain. Anything BUT ’egalitarian’. And what was the dominant style of music? Polyphony! All parts are equal!

Meanwhile, political power was slowly transfering from the Few at the top to the Many, with a tipping point roughly 1750. We see this in our own Constitution: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all [people] are created equal." As egalitarian as you can get! Meanwhile, which musical style became dominant? ’Tune & accompaniment’ – the musical equivalent of ‘emperor & serfs’! One part is ‘queen’, all the others are peasants!

The "Trio Sonata" is an excellent example of polyphonic writing in which everyone gets an equally important and interesting part, all of which weave together into a pleasing whole. And methinks it’s a much better metaphor of how the Body of Christ (and Society) are supposed to work than the Tune & Accompaniment — one person/instrument is primary and everyone else is secondary — the paradigm that has characterized music since about 1750. With a trio sonata it’s relatively easy to hear the separate voices, since each is played by a different instrument.

After all, what could be more 'egalitarian' than the Eternal Logos being born an 'illegitimate' child of nobodies in the middle of nowhere.