By Loren Ludwig

Donald Rumsfeld once opined that it was the “unknown unknowns”—the stuff you don’t know that you don’t know—that make foreign policy so difficult. A similar problem confronts those fascinated by lacunae in Renaissance and baroque polyphonic music—compositions for which one or more polyphonic parts have been lost to the ravages of history. To those seeking to reconstruct missing parts, and thereby render incomplete pieces playable, a primary challenge is figuring out what, exactly, is unknown. Much can be inferred from surviving voices, particularly if the primary structural voices (often including the cantus and tenor) survive. In this current age of COVID-19, several recent online initiatives have appeared that invite musicians to reconstruct missing polyphonic voices of early works—an activity that seems perfect for the legions of performers and music scholars now sheltering in place indoors with no access to physical library collections.

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