Listening for Part 3: Rounds, Descants, Polyphony

When composing our own pieces, we are directed to also look at a range of composition by other composers from an array of different time periods. For Part Three of the course that centers on the polyphony, my listening log includes rounds, catches, descants, as well as motets and madrigals and modern polyphonic pieces.


Most rounds are rooted in the folk tradition and as such, they are without a composer, although I managed to find some rounds by Purcell or Lawes. Most range between 16th and 17th century, but there are earlier Elizabethan rounds I found as well. There is even an earlier round – Sumer ist icumen in, which is considered the first of its kind. I have written about it separately here.


Known for their humorous and bawdy character, catches aren’t based on the traditional origins, but are written by composers for entertainment. I tried to include distinct ones, and as such, beside the drinking songs, there are catches based on cats, stories with explicit connotation, toilet humor and the merging of voices in vulgar ways.


In my research here, I have discussed the complicated history of the word descant. Here, I refer to descants as the hymn tune counter-melodies. I mostly listened to the ones composed in the 20th Century.

Renaissance motets

I fell in love with this polyphonic genre ever since my early music education. However, I used to only focus on Palestrina’s motets. Although I listened to some of them again, it was interesting to explore musica reservata, such as Lassus’s motets and what I call Gesualdo’s apologetic motets. I also never listened to the motets by the English composers, so this was also a great chance to do that.

Renaissance madrigals

Whereas my prior studies did involve motets, madrigals were mentioned minimally. Hence, it was very exciting for me to investigate this polyphonic genre. Largely, I listed the same composers as for the motets.

Modern polyphonic pieces

I didn’t know where to look for the more modern/contemporary polyphonic pieces to listen to, so I asked my tutor for suggestion. She gave me great compositions to start. From there, I added some more composers, but it was quite a hunt.

All compositions include my brief thoughts and analysis. Since rounds, catches and the hymn-tune descants are very rare as genres in the Continental Europe, these were stimulating for me to listen to. Looking at the renaissance motets and madrigals, especially those I didn’t get the opportunity to examine before, also changed the way I view Renaissance music and the polyphonic music in general. Finally, it was interesting to see how the almost extinct polyphonic genre survived into 20th and 21th Century. Along these lines, all of the pieces re-shaped my musical experience of the polyphony. For the reflections, you can click here.