Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Geisslerlieder and Flagellant Music

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During my research about music during the Black Plague in the 14th century, I’ve tripped over quite a few interesting tangents. Probably the most intriguing is that several groups thought that they could either cure the plague or prevent it by publicly self-flagellating. Crazy, eh?

Part of the reason for this movement was a superstitious and extreme belief in the Catholic religion. And the other part was that it was generally felt that the Catholic Church wasn’t doing enough to help believers. Pre-science, there was no way to know what was causing the plague, and evil spirits were just as likely an explanation as tiny organisms that destroy people’s innards.

Different strokes, eh? (See what I did there?)

A Little Flagellation History

Before you get all huffy that the Catholic Church was horribly cruel, they didn’t come up with the idea of flagellation, whether imposed as a punishment or as an act of personal worship. The Romans used flagellation as a prelude to crucifixion and the ancient Greeks used it as a test for manhood in Sparta. Whipping was a severe form of punishment for the ancient Jews, with only the death penalty more severe. Whipping as a punishment has slowly been outlawed around the globe; Saudi Arabia only made it illegal in 2020 and it’s still legal in a few places, such as Singapore and Syria. I’ll just leave that right there.

In Ancient Rome during the festival of Lupercalia, young men ran through the town wielding thongs of goat skin and women who wished to conceive took blows on their hands. Eunuch priests of Cybele in ancient Rome self-flagellated during certain festivals. Greco-Roman mystery cults employed ritual flagellation.

So it wasn’t a leap when, in the 13th century, Roman Catholic flagellants went from town to town, beating themselves and each other while preaching repentance. It’s a hobby that’s carried on to the present day.

Pope Clement VI approved self-flagellation as a method for preventing or curing the Black Plague in 1348. Later authorities often tried to suppress these demonstrations, but they kept popping up until the 16th century.

This is going to come as a surprise: Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, was a self-flagellant. So was Congregationalist writer Sarah Osborn (1714-1796), as were members of the Tractarian (or Oxford) movement within the Anglican Church in the 19th century. St. Therese of Lisieux practiced self-flagellation in the 19th century, while preaching that God smiled on people who fostered loving relationships and showed patience during difficult times.

Opus Dei, that cultish lay organization within Catholicism made famous by Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” were self-flagellants. Pope John Paul II (late 20th century) was a self-flagellant, and there are still some communities in Colombia, the Philippines, Mexico, Spain, and Peru where it’s common practice.

In Shi’a Islam, it’s no longer allowed to cut the body with knives or chains as a form of self-flagellation, so some adherents use blood donation and flailing to satisfy this urge. In some communities in the west, the rituals are coordinated with the Red Cross, so the blood doesn’t go to waste.

We can’t ignore the BDSM community. This sexual practice seems to date back (documented, anyway) to the 14th century. There’s art depicting sexual flagellation from the 1600s, and of course, there it is in fiction, starting with John Cleland’s “Fanny Hill,” in 1749, which set off a whole flurry of documents, both frivolous and academic. Ladies who offered this service advertised in the 18th century in London. Movies have contained scenes of flagellation (seldom self-flagellation) since 1905, although some of the earlier of these involve children being spanked, including kids from the Little Rascals series. By the 1940s, the violence is much less moderate. Even Star Trek had Captain Kirk receiving lashes from Nazis in S2:Ep21, in 1967. Of course, to switch back to the whole music theme (you thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you), there’s Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” These guys are singing from the Requiem and clubbing themselves with a plank: They’re singing the words on a psalm tone, which makes a nice rhythmic way to stay together, and they carry a blank banner.

I had a hard time finding specific groups that practiced self-flagellation—most reports seem to be about individuals. The few I found were Tractarians (Anglicans), White Penitents (Catholics), Benedictines (Catholics), the colonial Spanish Hermanos Penitentes (Catholics) in the Americas, Brothers of the Cross (Germany and the Low Countries), and a group of Roman Catholics just called Flagellants. Initially, the Catholic Church tolerated them, but the tide began to turn in the 12th and 13th century, and by the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, they were against it all together and made futile efforts to suppress it; it’s still being practiced today. There were Jews and Muslims doing this too, don’t forget. (I didn’t find evidence of eastern communities doing this. Perhaps it’s a One God phenomenon.)

Tools of the Trade

The main instrument of self-torture is a cattail whip, called a discipline. It’s a collection of knotted cords that the participant flings over his or her own shoulder. Fancy ones have little diamond-shaped metal or leather bits attached at the ends.

Italian Confraternities

Starting in the 10th century, lay people gathered together for religious reasons into groups called confraternities. They weren’t directly affiliated with the Church (the Catholic Church was pretty much the going concern—there were followers of other faiths living in the same towns, like Jews and Muslims, but they were the minority)—and offered a faith-based community for people who couldn’t afford to or weren’t interested in becoming monks, priests, or nuns. In fact, they were often very much the pillars of their communities and had busy and productive lives as part of the town’s economy.

Some confraternities were based on doing good acts (specifically the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy that are listed in the New Testament—Matthew 25: 31-46). In some communities, such as Bergamo, they collected money for dowries and to ransom captured soldiers, and they helped those affected by natural disasters. Others emphasized personal mortification of the flesh as a way to salvation, beating themselves bloody thinking that they or others would be saved because of it. These folks, called battuti or disciplinati in Italian, flagellated themselves at public gatherings or during religious processions.

As I mentioned, this started in the 10th century, but during the height of the plague years, convinced that the Catholic God was punishing His followers, they thought that mortifying their flesh would appease a grumpy God despite their personal failures. You’ve got to remember that the Church was selling indulgences and (sometimes fake) saints’ relics to forgive sins, and it was pretty commonly thought that virtue was transactional: Be bad, buy an indulgence, be forgiven.

Frankly, the fear brought to the population by the seeming randomness of the Black Plague caused them to turn to just about anything as a possible remedy. Flagellation was as likely a cure as anything else, and the church sanctioned this “work,” at least during the plague years.

I found scholars who think that the flagellation practice originated in Italy, spread through Switzerland to Germany and France, to Poland, Britain, and on to Scandinavia (although it’s hard to follow the trail anthropologically). Self-flagellation was particularly common in the 14th century, as mentioned, as a possible cure for the plague. And the Geisslerlieder were written down by clerics who found the practice both inspirational and terrifying. There’s the music at last!

On to the Music

Someone self-flagellating in private worship might punctuate the words of a prayer with a strike, but it was desirable for public groups to stay together. Thus arose the need for a whole new species of music.

Remember that during the 13th and 14th century, sacred music didn’t have rhythm—it was basically Gregorian chant. Although polyphony was starting to welcome some sort of regular beat (a tactus), it wasn’t really essential until the middle and end of the 15th century, and even then, it was performed by music specialists, not lay people or ordinary monks and nuns.

Geisslerlieder (the German for Flagellant Songs) were simple pieces, sung in the vernacular, not Latin. In this way, they were closer to secular music than to sacred. They were often call-and-response (like an antiphon). They were always sung, with instrumental accompaniment strictly prohibited. Remember that last bit when you’re listening to the examples below.

Some flagellant songs survived into the 17th century as folk songs, probably through the Minnesinger tradition, but I have some more research to do on this particular topic.

The first recorded Geisslerlieder are from 1258, when the breakdown of civil order resulting from wars, famine, and plague in Northern Italy sent the superstitious scurrying after some cure for their ills. In general, the songs pled with God for relief. Initially, it was nobility and merchants who participated, but as the movement spread outside of Italy, everyone got into the act. You could even sponsor someone to flagellate for your benefit. There’s transactional virtue again.

Very few songs have survived intact from that 13th century movement. There are several collections that include lyrics, but few melodies were preserved, possibly only one. Music notation wasn’t really a thing lots of people knew.

During the Black Death outbreak of 1349, there was a resurgence of interest in self-flagellation and the music that went with it. This time, more of it was preserved. Hugo Spechtshart of Reutlingen (1285-1360) transcribed a bunch of it, and his work is one of the earliest examples of collecting folk songs. His treatise was the Chronicon Hugonis sacerdotis de Flutelinga (1349). It contains largely monophonic verse and refrain, call-and-response-style. Interestingly, Hugo wrote variations among the verses sung by the leader, which was not at all common in sacred music but was common in secular music. This lends credence to the melodies being more like secular music than sacred. This 1349 resurgence of flagellants spread even further, reaching England, Poland, and Scandinavia.

Eventually, the movement was suppressed by the church. Imitators, such as those in Switzerland, used different texts with the familiar melodies to make bawdy drinking songs. They probably thumped their tankards on the table instead of swatting themselves with a switch, though.

In some flagellant songs the leader sang “kyrie-eleis” (not a typo) and the flagellants responded by repeating it. Here’s one of the ones with more interesting words:

The words mean (my translation): “Now the final journey is here, Christ enters Jerusalem. He leads from the cross in His hand, now the savior helps us.” I think it’s from the story of Christ carrying his cross through the town.

Here’s another:

This one means (according to Hoppen): “Now approaches the deluge of evil. Let us flee from burning Hell. Lucifer is an evil companion. Whomever he seizes, he besmears with pitch. Therefore, we want to shun him.” It’s thought that the flagellants prostrated themselves in the shape of the cross during the refrain. Rhymed couplets form the words and the music repeats (AABB) or alternating (ABAB).

Hugo Spechtshart of Reutlingen documented six songs: three processional or traveling songs, and three for a flagellation ceremony. One of the processional songs is 57 stanzas long!

Here’s ONE stanza of that long one:

According to Hoppin, this one means: “Mary, our Lady, Kyrie eleison. Who [is] in godly sight, Alleluia. Praise be to thee, Maria.”

I found some music and verses for the song that appears three times in the Listening Posts section in Reese, if you want to research that on your own.

The songs slightly followed the form of laudes (or lauda, as the plural should be), which were songs of worship that followed the call-and-response and vernacular hymn rules. Of course, they were monophonic (no harmonies), until polyphony became more popular in the 15th century. Melodically and structurally, they somewhat anticipate the Lutheran Chorale form, you know, the one Bach made so famous.

Listening Posts:

My French barely even qualifies as minimal, so I may have misunderstood what I read, but it’s possible that the only surviving piece is the “Maria Muoter reinu mait” from 1349. Someone with better French than me, please read a book by Claude Abromont and tell me about it.

If you go searching for music on YouTube, be forewarned. There’s a lot of heavy metal and doom band music out there (some by a band called Flagellant), including videos with disturbing content. I have only provided links to less disturbing videos. They might still bother you though—they’re about people beating themselves.

I’ve ordered another book (in German), so there may be a follow-up post.


“The New Grove Dictionary of Music,” ed. Stanley Sadie. Online.

“Medieval Music” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978.

“The Black Death; The Great Mortality of 1348.” By John Aberth. St. Martin’s, New York, 2005.

“Music from the Earliest Notation to the Sixteenth Century,” by Richard Taruskin. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1978.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton, New York, 1940.

Written by Melanie Spiller

September 21, 2020 at 8:56 am

Music During Times of Plague, Part I

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This topic turned out to be HUGE so I’ve broken into (at least) two sections:

  • Part I: General history of the plague, composers from England, Italy, and Belgium/Flanders
  • Part II: Composers from Germany/Austria, France, Russia/Poland, Czech Republic/Bohemia, and what was happening in other arts at the time. (I might break this down further if it gets out of hand once I start researching and writing it.)

As we face the seventh month of lockdown due to COVID-19, my thoughts rather naturally turn to the plague (which COVID-19 is not). A little research on the Internet turned out to be a whole other kind of rabbit hole, so before I get down to the interesting bits (the music), I need to give you a brief run-down.

Bubonic Plague (or the Black Death) has been around for a LOT longer than you probably think. The first DNA-proven incident was between 3500-3000 BCE (that’s right—5000 years ago), from a Swedish tomb that was excavated in 2018. In one form or another, it has circulated from China, Asia, Africa, Europe, back to China, back to India, the Middle East, and Europe, and through the New World and China, Europe, etc. Just round and round for 5000 years until the invention of antibiotics in the mid-20th century.

There were three major waves in “modern” times: The first wave was from 541-750 CE, spreading from Egypt to the Mediterranean (starting with the Plague of Justinian in Northwestern Europe); the second wave was from 1346-1840, spreading from China, through the Mediterranean and Europe (the Black Plague of 1346-1665 is considered unparalleled in human history, killing more than a billion people in Europe); and the third wave was between 1566 and the 1960s, again originating in China and spreading to India, killing 22.5 million people under British rule alone. Yes, the latter two waves do overlap.

In the 1890s, dead plague cells were used to create a vaccine, dramatically reducing the number of people who got sick, and in the 1940s, antibiotics were invented, reducing the number of deaths. Nonetheless, outbreaks continued to occur in developing countries: Roughly 40,000 cases were reported by WHO between 1987 and 2001, including 2850 deaths in 38 countries. Most deaths today are due to lack of treatment, around 200 people per year, mostly in remote African villages.

A Little Plague History

Between 1334 and 1403, plague was reported in China, all over Eurasia including Southern Russia, and in India, Constantinople (now in Turkey), and Italy.

Black Death arrived in England in 1348, reaching Scotland by 1350. The estimated death toll for the British Isles was 3.2 million. The rest of Europe went crazy. They began killing Jews in pogroms, burning homes and murdering the people as they ran out with clubs and axes, accusing Jews of having brought the plague to specifically kill Christians. (Funny, isn’t it, how the majority always thinks they’re the put-upon ones?) Burning Jewish communities alive in their own communities became the rage—it happened in Toulon, Savoy, Basel, and Freiburg, and in the Strasbourg massacre, 900 Jews were locked up and burned alive. Those who were willing to be baptized were given a reprieve, so it clearly wasn’t really about the plague.

Some of the murderous rage had to do with a change in power in the guilds from the master tradesmen to the patrician bourgeoisie—the uprising was a combination of fear of the illness and anger over social ills. (Sound familiar?) It took two papal bulls from Pope Clement VI to stop the violence against the Jews, claiming that the plague was the result of “an angry God striking at the Christian people for their sins,” not the Jews poisoning the wells or some such.

In 1351, the Black Death reached Russia, but the harsh Russian winter seems to have suppressed it a little. For ten years, it only showed up here and there in Europe, but by 1361, it was back, raging away until efforts to cure it started having an effect in 1374.

They tried all kinds of creative extreme remedies, such as eating cooked onions (!), ten-year-old treacle, arsenic, or crushed emeralds. They sat in the sewers and in very warm rooms, and they tried fumigating the house with smoldering herbs. Flagellants went on processions whipping themselves, thinking to save the innocent from punishment for their sins. It must have been a fun time, eh? In the 1360s, doctors discovered that popping the buboes (the inflammation of the lymph nodes) helped some patients recover.

In 1374, the Black Death re-emerged in Europe. In Sicily and Venice, they began to force ships to wait at sea for 30 days before coming ashore, to make sure that the plague was not with the men or their goods. By 1403, they began to think that 30 days was not enough, and they made them wait for 40 days—that’s where the word comes from: “quaranta giorni” or “quarantena.”

Through all of this strife and terror, they made music. What were they listening to, you ask? Let’s find out.

I’ll provide links to YouTube when they exist. If I can find CDs with recordings, I’ll name them, but I can’t copy tracks because I don’t want to violate copyright AND I think musicians should get paid for their work. There are some composers that I couldn’t find much at all on, whether it be their story or their music. I listed them anyway. Even so, it’s not a complete list.

England 1334-1403

Johannes Alanus (14th c, died c1373) (possibly also Johannes Aleyn or J. Alani and J. Alani Minimus) was possibly Edward III of England’s chaplain and a favorite of Queen Philippa of Hainault. His works in the Old Hall Manuscript include the motet Sub Arturo plebs/Fons citharizancium/In omnem terram, the lieds “Min frow, min frow” and “Min herze wil all zit frowen pflegen,” and a virelai called “S’en vos por moy pitie ne truis.”

  • CD:“Beneath the Northern Star” (Orlando Consort) includes Alleluia: Christo iubelemus, Sub Arturo plebs/fons citharizanium/In omnem terram
  • CD: “Music for the 100 Years War” (Binchois Consort) includes Sub Arturo plebs/fons citharizanium/In omnem terram

(Thomas) Byttering (fl. c1400-1420)has only six surviving compositions, all in the Old Hall Manuscript. Not much is known about him, although there was a canon at Hastings Castle between 1405 and 1408 and a rector in London in 1414 named Byteryng, and he could have been either or neither of them. His is the only offering of a Mass with the canon in all four voices in the Old Hall Manuscript.

John Dunstable (c1390-1453) (Dunstaple)was, with Leonel Power, one of the most prolific composers of his time—about 60 of his works survive. An epigraph after his death shows that he was also a mathematician and astronomer. He challenged and changed continental musical styles with new and unusual treatments of consonance and dissonance, and is largely responsible (so think some experts) for the new movement in polyphonic music to make every interval harmonic and every voice consonant with all the others. He used dissonance only as an ornament. This made a fundamental change from the Medieval style to the Renaissance: Medieval music emphasized the independence of superimposed individual melodies in each voice, and Renaissance shifted the emphasis to the “vertical” aspects of polyphony, dependent on melodic consonance rather than incidental consonance, which would all, one day, lead to the invention of chords and chordal composition. (Several VERY different interpretations of the same pieces follow.)

John Forest (1471-1538) was an English Franciscan friar and martyr, confessor to Queen Catherine of Aragon (Henry VIII’s first wife). While imprisoned for refusing to accept Henry VIII as the head of the church and awaiting a death sentence, Forest wrote a tract denouncing Henry VIII. He refused to swear the oath of loyalty demanded by Cromwell, so Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer worked to have him condemned for treason and heresy. Latimer preached a final sermon at the place of execution that urged Forest to recant, but he still didn’t. Forest was the only Catholic martyr to be burned at the stake during the English Reformation. Fuel for the pyre was said to have come from a statue of St. Derfel that had been prophesied to “one day set a forest on fire.” Oh, the irony.

  • CD: “Music for the 100 Years War” (Binchois Consort) includes Ascendit Christus super celos/Alma redemptoris mater and Guade martyr/Collandemus venerantes/Celestium contemplator

John Hanboys (c1320-c1380) may also be J. de Alto Bosco (fl. C1370) and was a music theorist and the author of a treatise on music notation called the Summa super musicum continuam et discretum. The only known source of the treatise is an early 15th century copy, but because of inconsistencies in the spelling of his name, it might not even have been the same person. It’s said that he wrote a volume of music, but it’s lost.

Roy Henry (fl. c1410) (also King Henry IV or V of England) wrote works that can be found in the Old Hall Manuscript. The music was most likely written between 1399 and 1413, when Henry IV would have been in his early 40s. By 1410, Henry IV was suffering from a disfiguring skin disease and struggling to retain his royal power, so some pieces were either written earlier or perhaps were falsely attributed to him. Henry V is thought to have been quite fond of music, taking his chapel choir with him on campaigns. Henry V reigned from 1413 to 1422. Only two pieces, a Gloria and a Sanctus from the Mass Ordinaries remain, both in three voices. Unusually, neither seems to be based on a chant—or perhaps the underlying chant was lost. I didn’t find any recordings.

Leonel Power (c1370/1385-1445), rather unusually, used intertwined (not independent) voices as descant. The cantus firmus is somewhat freer than other composers’, leaving out some notes or making skips to accommodate melodies in other lines. His work is strongly within the Ars subtilior style, enjoying a variety of meters and notational symbols.

Pycard (fl.c1410) has nine works in the Old Hall Manuscript, all strongly in the English style, although he may have been French. He uses the “usual” four-part style in his Gloria 26, but the text appears only in three voices, with an instrumental tenor. There’s an eight-minute introduction before the contratenor begins the canon, followed by the duplum a fourth above. Only the triplum has the complete text. In Gloria 27, Pycard wrote what might be the earliest example of simultaneous two-part canons (one in the tenor and countertenor and the other in the top two voices), with a free duplum producing the fifth voice. Pycard’s Gloria 35 is partly like Gloria 27, except the tenor and countertenor are now free, with only the two highest voices in canon. His works are in the Ars nova style and are particularly difficult to perform.

Queldryk (fl.c1400-15th c) has a Gloria in the Old Hall Manuscript that’s paired with John Tyes’ Credo (I found nothing on Tyes—or Dyes—beyond mentions that he’s in the Old Hall). It’s written in four voices—not pairs, but independent voices, with wildly varying isometric (matching rhythmic) organization; some are strictly isometric in all four voices, and others only match in the tenor and countertenor parts. Only two bits seem to come from known chants—the rest is freshly composed.

W. de Wycombe (fl.c1275-1279) (perhaps also de Wyc, Wicumbe, or Whichbury, or Willelmus de Winchecumbe, Willelmo de Wincheviumbe, William of Winchcomb) was a secular scribe employed briefly at a Herefordshire priory. Despite the fact that little is known about him, he left a collectarium (a book of introits), a precentor’s (layman who led the congregation in singing) workbook, two scrolls of music, a summary and treatise on music, a history that he added musical examples to, and other books, not to mention 40 settings of various pieces found in fragments here and there. Only one piece (from the Worcester Fragments—the Alleluia) is complete. It’s in four-part polyphony alternating with solo respond and verse sections. There’s another lengthy fragment in the Montpellier Codex. Occasionally, Sumer is acumen in, the earliest known English-language secular song to be written down, is attributed to Wycombe.

Italy 1334-1403

Bartolomeo da Bologna (fl1405-after 1427) wasn’t a prolific composer (only seven pieces survive), but he’s famous for inventing the parody as a type of music. Rather than a silly thing based on a serious one as it is in theater, a musical parody takes a secular piece and sets sacred texts to it. He wrote in the Ars subtilior style, which can be quite complex, but you can hear the influence of the more melodious Franco-Flemish style in his work, too.

Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-1360) has 29 pieces in the Squarcialupi Codex, placing him firmly in the very beginning of the Italian Ars nova period. He wrote a short music theory treatise called “Queste a l’arte del biscanto misurate,” which is largely about the music notation being developed in France. His “Non al suo amante piu Diana piacque” madrigal (featured in the links) was written in about 1350, one of the only known contemporaneous settings of Petrarch’s poetry.

Giovanni da Cascia (fl.1340) (also Jovannes de Cascia, or Giovanni da Firenze) is the earliest known composer of the Italian Ars nova. He was active in the Mastino Il della Scala courts (with Jacopo da Bologna, also in this list) in Verona and the Visconti court in Milan. He mostly wrote madrigals, cacce, and ballades (numbering 28 in all), which can be found in several sources in England and France. His portrait in the Squarcialupi Codex shows him in layman’s clothes, so he probably wasn’t a priest or cleric. He was fond of the hoquet device, which sounds like musical hiccups, and it’s clear that he wanted performers to improvise a fair bit. It’s possible that he and Maestro Piero, one of his great friends and also in this list, died of the Black Death.

Donato da Cascia (fl.c1350-1370) (also da Firenze and da Florentia) can be found in the Squarcialupi Codex in strictly secular works, even though he was a Benedictine priest. He wrote only for two voices (or rather, that’s all that’s been found and attributed to him), which was very much the epitome of the Italian Ars nova style. Usually, the upper part is the fancier of the two, and there’s occasional imitation (where the second voice repeats the melody, perhaps with different notes), and he’s somewhat humorous in his choice of texts.

Antonello da Caserta (late 14th-early 15th c)(also Anthonello de Casette, Antonellus Marot) is a bit of mystery. He was a monk, but it isn’t known to which order he belonged. He set his texts in both French and Italian, which makes scholars think that he was from northern Italy, and one of his texts was set to music by the great Guillaume Machaut. He used unusual mensuration signs that are found in few other manuscripts although he also used proportional rhythms in some ballades, which was more popular after his lifetime (perhaps he was an early adopter?). His works tend to be about courtly love.

Philippus de Caserta (also Philipoctu, Filipotto, or Filipoctus) fl.c1370-c1400) was an Ars subtilior composer and may have worked at for the antipope Clement VII, although he didn’t follow Clement to Avignon. Two of his pieces include fragments of text from Guillaume Machaut, and two of his own were borrowed by Johannes Ciconia. It’s possible that he wrote as many as five musical treatises (although it’s also possible that one was written by or co-written with Egidius de Francia) and there’s a piece (En remirant vo douce pourtraiture) in the Chantilly Codex.

Antonio da Cividale (Antonius de Civitate Austrie) (fl.c1392-1421) straddled the end of the Medieval period and the beginning of the Renaissance—there are very few surviving pieces from the early 15th century from Italy, so it’s wonderful to have them. He was a friar and wrote both sacred and secular music. Four Mass movements and six motets survive, and there are seven secular pieces, mostly in French. He was fond of musical tricks, such as writing a phrase to be sung first forward and then backward.

Andrea da Firenze (fl.c1375-c1415) (Andreas de Florentia, Andrea de’ Servi, Andrea degli Organi, Andrea di Giovanni, and Horghanista de Florentia) was a composer and organist working in the Italian Ars nova style. He was a Servite prior who built organs and hired Francesco Landini to consult on his first project, which was in his own monastery. The two of them took three days and copious amounts of wine to tune the instrument. <heh> Andrea got another commission to build organs for the Florence Cathedral, one in Rieti, and another (possibly) in Rome. All of the surviving pieces are ballatas (secular pieces)—there are 30 of them, mostly in the Squarcialupe Codex. He didn’t like a Benedictine monk named Gianni from L’Aquila because apparently, Gianni liked wine and money too much, so Andrea mocked him in a ballade it’s first in the list).

Ghirardello da Firenza (fl.c1375) (Gherardellus de Florentia, Ser Gherardello, and occasionally, Niccolo di Francesco) was an early composer in the Italian Ars nova style. He was a chaplain in Florence between 1345 and 1361, which was the worst of the Black Death period, and later he was a monk in San Remigio. His secular work can be found in the Squarcialupe Codex (16 pieces), and elsewhere, there are two Mass movements.

Lorenzo da Firenze (died 1372/1373) (Lorenzo Masini, Lorenzo Masi, Magister Laurentius de Florentia) was another member of the Ars nova movement, and he drew on the important poets of the day for texts, including Giovanni Boccaccio (The Decameron). He was a canon at San Lorenzo and probably studied with Landini there. He wrote 16 secular pieces that appear in the Squarcialupe Codex plus two Mass movements using the great innovations of the day such as melismas, imitation, part crossing, and ficta—including chromatic sections—heterophony, parallel fourths, and isorhythms. He was also one of the first Italians to use the new French music notation (neumes—for more on this, see my book or my blog).

Paolo da Firenze (c1355-c1436) (Paulo Tenorista, Magister Dominus Paulas Abbas de Florentia) was a composer and music theorist with quite a few attributed pieces. His portrait in the Squarcialupe Codex (which he supervised the compilation of) shows him to be a Benedictine monk, and later, he became an abbot in San Martin al Pino near Florence. All of his music seems to be vocal—13 madrigals and more than 40 ballate, along with two liturgical pieces—and at least one musical treatise, all in the Ars subtilior style. He used the Italian notation, rather than the new French style, although he borrowed from the French when it suited him.

Ugolino da Forli (c1380-1457) ( Ugolino da Orvieto or Urbevatano) was an Italian composer and music theorist (his Declaratio musicae disciplinae filled five books). Sadly, I didn’t find any music on recordings or YouTube, nor much about him in my usual sources.

Francesco Landini (c1325/1335-1397) (Franciscus caecus, Francesvo il Cieco, Francesco degli organi, and Ferancesco da Firenze) was the Big Cheese of the 14th century in Italy and beyond. He was so prolific (and well documented), that his works provide nearly a quarter of all Italian music that survives from that time. Landini was a blind musician and a scholar. He learned the organ from Jacopo da Bologna (earlier in this list) and was involved in politics and religious controversies as well as creating new music. He was buddies with the poets Francesco Petrarch and Franco Sacchetti, even featuring in Giovanni da Prato’s poem about Florence. Landini is often the link that connects other musicians from the period, so he must have been a likeable fellow. More importantly, he was a fine composer. I’m not going to make too deep a dive here, because you can read more about him in my blog and my book, and elsewhere on the Internet and in printed books. His music is easy to find on YouTube and Amazon.

Giovanni Mazzuoli (1360-1426) (Giovanni degli Organi) was an organist and composer, although many of his pieces are missing. The Squarcialupe Codex blocks out a whole section for him, but he either never delivered, or they never got around to drafting them in.

Bartolino da Padova (fl.c1365-c1405) wrote in the Italian Ars nova style. His work appears in the Squarcialupe Codex—37 pieces! There are a handful of pieces, including 11 madrigals, found in other places too. His work doesn’t seem to reflect French music that was so popular, but it occasionally (like in his La Fiera Testa) employs three languages: Italian, Latin, and French.

Grazioso da Padova (fl.c1391-15th c) (Gratiosus de Padua) didn’t leave a lot of work behind—only three fragments remain. There are three-voice Gloria and Sanctus (Mass) settings and a single ballata (Alta regina de virtutue ornate).

Matteo da Perugia (fl. 1400-1416) was the first magister cappellae of the Milan Cathedral. He seems to have written third lines to existing pieces, which caused some works to be erroneously attributed to him.

Niccolo da Perugia (c1370-1412) (Niccolo del Proposto) wrote in the style of the Italian Ars nova and was probably friends with poet Franco Sacchetti. Forty-one of his pieces have survived, all secular and all vocal, and mostly in the Squarcialupe Codex. One of his pieces, La fiera testa (in the list below), was probably written against the Visconti family during the war between Milan and Florence.

Maestro Piero (c1300-after 1350) (Magister Piero or just Piero) was one of the first trecento composers known by name. He was mostly known for his six madrigals, but he also wrote two cacce. He hung out with Giovanni da Cascia and Jacopo da Bologna (both on this list), and the three composed somewhat competitively, each setting the same madrigal text. It’s possible that he and Giovanni da Cascia died of the Black Death. Two of his works are in the Rossi Codex. His are probably the earliest canonic madrigals.

Nicolaus Ricci de Nuculla Campli (fl.1401-1425, d. after 1438) (also Ricci de Nucella Campli, Niccolo Ricci and Nucella). Some sources say that there’s only one known piece by Nucella, “De bon parole,” and others list “Un Fior Gentile” as well. He was part of the papal choir for Popes Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII, and also a priest and a scribe for Pope Innocent VII (during a schism, no less). His father lived to be 100 years old, which was pretty unusual at the time. It’s still unusual! He was part of the Ars subtilior movement

  • CD: Un fior Gentile (Micrologus) includes “Un Fior Gentile” and, according to Amazon, costs the ridiculous price of $902.81.
  • CD: Menando gli anni (Aquila Altera) contains “De bon parole.”

Vincenzo da Rimini (c1332-1373) (Magister Dominus Abess de Arimino, L’abate Vincencio da Imola, Prate Vincenco) appears in the Squarcialupe Codex six times. His madrigals are all in two voices, and his cacce are in three, which was representative of the time.

  • CD: SVSO in Italia Bella: Musique Dans les Cours et Cloitres de l’Italie du Nord (La Reverdie)

Andrea Stefani (fl.c1399-15th c) has works in the Lucca Codex including two ballate (Con tutta gentilezza and I senti’ matutino) and a madrigal (Morte m’a sciolt). He’s thought to have written five lauds, but the melodies are lost and only the text remains. There’s a will dated 1460 for him, and he no doubt lived longer than that. He lived in the Bianchi Gesuati monastery for 54 years and left his inheritance to them.

  • CD: Rose e Orticha: Music of the Trecento (Ensemble Syntagma) includes “Con tutto gentilezza”
  • CD: Ballate e Madrigali al tempo della Signoria di Paolo Guinigi (Cantilena Antigua/Concentus Lucensus) includes “Con tutto gentilezza” and “I senti’ matutina.”
  • CD: Tracce della tradizione orale in manoscritti Italiani del XIV, XV sec. (Pantrizia Bovi/Gilberte Casabianca) includes “I senti’ matutina.”
  • CD: Medieval and Renaissance Music (A Ricolta Bubu, Pavana publishers) includes “I senti’ matutina.”
  • CD: Canzoni e melodie (Toti Dal Monte, Rivoalto publishers) includes “I senti’ matutina.”

Zacara da Teramo (c1350-c1415) (Antonio “Zacara” da Teramo, Anonius Zacharius of Teramo, Antonius Berardi Andre de Teramo, Antonio Zacar, Zacar, Zaccara, Zacharie, Zachara, and Cacharius) is probably the Zacharias in the Old Hall Manuscript. He was most active around 1400, bridging the periods of Ars subtilior to the beginnings of the Renaissance. He must have been terribly short, as his nickname (Zacara) means a small thing of little value, and he produced nine ballate and a caccia, plus several Mass movements, plus a madrigal. He signed his own name as Antonio, and he appears in the Squarcialupe Codex and the Mancini Codex, and seems to be missing a few fingers and toes. He served at the anti-pope’s court during the Western Schism (1378-1417). His pieces occasionally had very dark –even satanic—texts.

Belgium 1334-1403

Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412) changed Italian music from soloistic polyphony to polyphony for multiple voices—like choruses and consorts. This smoothed some edges and simplified things, so that less lithe or trained voices could manage it. He wrote at least two theoretical treatises and much of his music is lost. Even so, there are 11 Mass sections, 11 motets, and 20 secular pieces in both French and Italian. It’s super easy to find music from him, so I’ll just make a short list.

Egardus (fl.c1370-after 1400) (Engardus or Johannes Echgaerd) was part of the Ars nova movement, and only three of his works have been identified. Of the three works (a canon and two Glorias), two were found in Northern Italian sources, and the third has strong Italian connections. I only found the one recording listed below, but I found a reference to his music from Kurt von Fischer and F. Alberto Gallo, called “Italian Sacred and Ceremonial Music: Polyphonic Music of the Fourteenth Century” (published in 1976 and 1987). I couldn’t find it online, but I suspect that it’s a discussion and not sheet music.

Thomas Fabri (c1380-1420) was probably choir master in Bruges. Only four of his works have been preserved: two are vocal parts in three voices; one is a Gloria; and the fourth is a ballade, probably for solo voice or solo instrument. Of the three offerings below, the “Ach” piece, a rondeau, is secular, and the “Sinceram” piece is an antiphon, meant for a church service.

Johannes de Limburgia (fl.140801431) (also Lymburgia also called Johannes Vinandi) worked in Liege and in Italy (possibly Venice, Vicenza, or Padua), and wrote motets about those cities. About 50 of his works survive as well as the Ordinaries of the Mass in the Trent Codices.

Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) wrote poetry that was as stunning as the music he wrote. His style marks the end of the Medieval age, as composers turned away from monody (one melodic line) to polyphony (multiple melodic lines). His subject matter also marked the coming change from bible stories to romance, metaphors, and allegories. He was a master of the Ars nova style, again, the beginning of change from sacred modal music to secular and scalar music. Check out his book “Roman de Fauvel,” an allegorical work of fiction (before the idea of “novels” existed) meant to reveal the vices of mankind in stories, poetry, and song. There are six books of his works (collected by Machaut himself) and many more in various manuscripts.

Next time, I’ll look at other art forms and some more countries.

Don’t forget to buy my book, “Musical Innovators” from


“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

“Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music,” by Manfred F. Bukofzer. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1950.

“Music from the Earliest Notation to the Sixteenth Century,” by Richard Taruskin. Oxford University Press, Oxfort, 2010.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

The Norton/Grove Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.

“Music in the Medieval World, by Albert Seay. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1965.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claud V. Palisca. W.W. Norton, New York, 2010.

**Grove Music Online** Alanus (England), Jacopo da Bologna (Italy)

**Progeny of Old Hall **Margaret Bent**

**“Un leggiadretto celo’ ed alter cose petrarchesche” Rivista Italiana de Musicologia **Pierluigi Petrobelli**

Written by Melanie Spiller

August 17, 2020 at 11:25 am

Composer Biography: Nicola Vicentino (1511-c.1576)

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Nicola Vicentino is probably one of the most interesting composers that you’ve never heard of. During a time of great experimentation partly caused by the Reformation and the creation of new religious orders, science expanded and came to the attention of much less academic people than usual. Science and studies were funded by patrons much as the arts were. Science took its first step away from the control of religious leaders.

Here are several impressive scientists who came to the fore during this period. You’ve probably heard of these fellows even if you didn’t study science or philosophy.

  • Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543, Poland, and Germany) was a mathematician and astronomer who said that the sun was at the center of the universe rather than the earth.
  • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642, Italy) was a polymath (astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher, and mathematician) who championed Copernicus’ ideas. This got him into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition. He is largely responsible for the change in scientific thinking from inexplicable quirks of nature to something that could be proved, often through the application of mathematics, and he laid the foundation for and applied what we now call inductive reasoning.
  • Johannes Kepler (1571-1630, Germany) was a mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer. He’s best known for his laws of planetary motion, and many later scientists (such as Isaac Newton, 1642-1727, England) based their theories on his work.
  • René Descartes (1596-1650, France and the Netherlands), was a philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. He’s the father of the Cartesian coordinate system (measurable places along a two-plane axis) and why we “solve for X” today. He conceived of superscripts for exponents and powers in the notation of math, and changed the focus from geometry to algebra as the foundation for all forms of mathematics.

The list could go on and on, but this is a blog about music, so I’ll control myself. My point is that a new and scientific approach to music was a natural development, very much a part of the times.

Nicola Vicentino (or Vicento) was an Italian composer and theorist who proposed reviving the chromatic and enharmonic scales of Greek music in his 1555 treatise L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica (“Ancient Music Adapted to Modern Practice”), which tried to revive the three genera of classical antiquity (diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic). Many of his contemporaries scoffed, but a number of his madrigals attained a high level of artistry. He might not have been understood in his own time, but we can understand him today.

He was born in Vicenza (about an hour west of Venice) in 1511. Nothing else is known about his family or early years.

He trained with Adrian Willaert (ca.1490-1562, Belgium and Italy) in Venice. He was the court music director and teacher for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este III (1509-1572, Italy) in Ferrara before 1539, and later served the cardinal in Rome and Siena.

With Vicente Lusitano (d. after 1561, Spain and Portugal), Vicentino debated the interpretation of chromatic genera, in 1551 and wrote his own theories into his L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica of 1555. The judges declared Vicentino the winner in the debate, by the way.

Also in 1555, Vicentino described his arcicembalo (also arcigravicembalo), which was a modified harpsichord with many extra keys and strings. He was interested in microtonality (the notes between the notes), and in 1561, he made an organ version, called an arciorgano.

He built himself an arcicembalo in 1560. It had 53 (or 31, depending on your sources) different pitches within a single octave. His theory was that with so many pitches in an octave, he could experiment in search of the miracles of ethos (emotional contagion and moral influence) that the ancient Greeks reported achieving with their music (which was microtonal).

In 1561, Vicentino built an arciorgano with six manuals and containing thirty-one keys to the octave. Luzzasco Luzzaschi (c1545-1607, Italy) claimed to have mastered both instruments, and the cities of both Rome and Milan each boasted that they housed an arciorgano.

It didn’t catch on.

In 1563-1565, Vicentino was maestro di cappella at Vicenza Cathedral. He became a priest in Milan in 1570. Little else is known about him.

Vincentino’s Theory

Because of his focus on chromaticism, Vicentino helped to free music from its adherence to the church modes that had been the rage for a thousand years, and he also experimented with early forms of harmony. His work contributed toward the development of the 17th century secunda prattica (also called the stile moderno, which is everything that came after Palestrina, basically) and to the equal temperament of more modern times.

The dim views held by his peers notwithstanding, a number of Vicentino’s madrigals reach a high level of artistry. And he wasn’t entirely alone. In the madrigals of Cipriano Rore (c1515-1565, Belgium and Italy) and Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613, Italy), chromaticism creates a special effect, startling because of its strangeness. By the end of the 16th century, as other composers adopted it for a wide range of uses, chromaticism had become part of the common musical language.

Vicentino’s teacher Adrian Willaert (1490-1562, Belgium and Italy) explored accidentals, and Vicentino’s title page on Book I of his madrigals (1546) declares that he’s written in the style of his teacher. Although they’re common in the 1546 book, most of Vicentino’s accidentals are quite “normal” by modern standards—such as raising the 7th degree in cadences. Book V (1572—the intervening books are lost) shows his more extreme side. He often uses rarely employed accidentals such as D-sharp, D-flat, and A-sharp. Even a melodic augmented third, E-flat to G-sharp, occurs. He goes even further from the old tonal system, represented by cadences based on triads built on D-sharp, F-sharp, B, D-flat, and A-flat.

He based his 1572 work L’aura ch’el verde lauro on a Petrarch sonnet and in it, he incorporated the Greek chromatic tetrachord, descending a minor third and two semi-tones, as a motive for imitation.

Dolce mio ben, published in Vicentino’s L’antica musica treatise shows his special notation for the microtones—a dot over a note raises it by a small interval. You have to be aware of what came before and what follows as well as the members of a chord to be able to do this. Microtones are indicated:

  • When notes appear to be written a half-step apart but the lower one is raised by a dot
  • When a note repeats but one is sharpened or flattened and the other one is natural
  • When a note repeats and one is sharpened and the other flattened, an ordinary whole step is indicated.
  • When the notes are adjacent on the scale, a large half-step is indicated
  • When the notes are a half-step apart and the higher note is raised by a dot, a small whole-step is indicated

Essentially, there are five steps between the notes of a major second. In the illustration, there’s a G, there’s a G raised by a microtone, and then there’s a G-sharp. In our times, a G-sharp and an A-flat are the same note; to Vicentino, an A-flat is a microtone higher than a G-sharp. Next, there’s the A-flat raised by a microtone, and finally, there’s an A. (In our times, there would be G, G-sharp, and A. Three steps. There are six steps in Vicentino’s world.)

Vicentino’s microtones require their own notation.

Vicentino says that a piece noted in this fashion may also be performed in other ways, such as by suppressing both the chromatic and enharmonic accidentals or only the enharmonic ones.

An excerpt from Vicentino’s Lantica

His theories met considerable opposition, in his own time and afterward, from theorists such as Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590, Italy), Giovanni Maria Artusi (c1540-1613, Italy), and Giovanni Battista Doni (c1593-1647, Italy). He was charged with ignorance even with regard to the true nature of the Greek genera, his special area of expertise. But he got the last laugh. His chromaticism pointed the way to the liberation of music from the diatonic restrictions of the modal system that had been in use for over a thousand years.

A handful of 16th century composers experimented with incomplete circles of fifths as another way of addressing chromatic issues. This required a radical change to the tuning systems, and produced some curious little pieces, in particular a motet-like piece by Matthias Greiter (c1495-1550, Germany and France) that transposed the beginning of a song called Fortuna desperata (“hopeless fortune”) twelve times by fifths in order to symbolize the rotation of Dame Fortune’s wheel.

The chromaticism of the madrigalists had a purpose: They were trying to communicate feelings. Vicentino and Greiter, on the other hand, may have been limiting themselves to pure research. After all, using the technology available to them, only unaccompanied voices, adjusting tuning in minute measures by ear, could perform these pieces.

Vicentino’s Compositions

Vicentino wrote mostly motets and madrigals and his madrigals exploit the microtones. Although the musical establishment was fairly unanimous in their opposition to his ideas, he was asked by the progressive fathers of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to write a chromatic Mass as a sample of liturgically acceptable polyphony.

One musical form of the time was a canzone da sonar, a type of madrigal especially favored by instrumental ensembles. One of the first to write instrumental ensemble canzones was Fiorenzo Maschera (1540-1584, Italy), which he put into a collection along with the works of others, including an imitative five-part canzone de sonar by Vicentino called La Bella (1572). Before Maschera’s collection of 1584, there few works of this type that have survived.

Vicentino was the earliest to write about the problem of double counterpoint, dealing with pairings of voices and setting up major and minor passages. Next up was Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590, Italy), a fairly famous theorist.

In addition to his theories, Vicentino wrote at least two volumes of madrigals and one of motets. He draws an exact parallel between speaking in public and singing, with tempo and dynamics changing to suit the text. His remarks on tempo are essential reading if you want to understand pre-Romantic singing, when strict tempos were essentially alien to the proper expression of the words. This attitude predominated throughout Europe, and some of the most interesting descriptions of Italian singing is by foreigners. Theorists like Michael Praetorius (1571-1621, Germany) wrote about the styles of Giulio Romolo Caccini (1551-1618, Italy) and Giovanni Battista Bovicelli (1550-1594, Italy) and referred to oratory and the expression of the sung text. Praetorius was convinced that a good natural voice was a basic requirement.

Vicentino died in Milan around 1576.


“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

“Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century,” by Richard Taruskin. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1979.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, London, 1973.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1959.

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 23, 2020 at 7:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The History of the Bow

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Bows are used to make strings sing and they come in many forms. I like to think that the bow that’s used on the vielle and the violin was inspired by the wheel on the hurdy-gurdy. You see, what they have in common is friction.

In a hurdy-gurdy, rosin (ground tree sap) is rubbed on the wheel, so that when the wheel pushes into the strings and turns against them, the strings respond by making a sound. Using rosined horse hair stretched out along the length of a stick to keep the tension up, you can achieve quite a lot of control over the quality of the sound that comes from a string as you draw the prepared bow across it.

Bows aren’t a new thing, but they didn’t develop from the musical instrument itself into the tool used on the musical instrument until fairly recently. A cave painting in the Trois Freres cave of southern France shows a bow, like the bow you’d shoot an arrow with, being used like a musical instrument in 13,000 BCE, a sort of jaw harp. The wooden bow could be flexed to varying degrees, which made the string along the open edge sound different notes when struck by a stick or twanged with the lips, teeth, or a finger.

This kind of bow seems to have crossed cultures, and there are still some folk cultures who use them. You can find them all over Africa, Asia, South America. The jaw harp qualifies as this sort of bow, although it’s been bent and stylized and even made from metal nowadays, depending on whether it was invented in China, the Appalachian US, or Europe.

But that’s not what this article is about. This is about a hair-strung bow used to scrape across at least one string in order to cause a sound. You have to imagine that one thing came from the other, though, based on the shape and the materials—and even the same name.


There are paintings and sculptures depicting plucked string instruments from ancient Egypt, India, Greece, and Turkey. The Arab world may have been the first to use a bow on those instruments in around the 10th century CE, but it’s more likely that they got the idea from traveling in Central Asia.

Sources are consistent in asserting that bows originated from the nomadic warriors of Central Asia (like the Huns and the Mongols) because they rode horses, so horsehair was plentiful. These warriors also excelled at the weapon that’s a bow, so how to hold the hair at high tension would have been obvious to them.

In the 10th century, a bow was applied to a lute, and that’s the oldest ancestor of the modern violin. As early as the 12th century. Fiddles developed a waist to allow greater access to the strings with the bow.

The crwth (pronounced “krooth”) is a bowed harp that looks a lot like a lyre with a central support bar. It’s Welsh. (They’re funny about vowels.) The simple crwth goes back to the Roman invasion of Celtic lands, and the bowed version to about the 11th century CE.

The vielle came into being in the 9th century and made the bow a prominent part of music-making in Europe ever after. They didn’t get it right at first, so a little engineering had to take place.

An essential step in bow development was the change from using rattan to using wood in Asia. By the time bows got to Europe, wood was the only material under consideration. Wood isn’t as easily bent as rattan so using wood created a structure that kept the hair from tangling with the stick or snapping it.

Some scholars ascribe the invention of the bow to Scandinavia and others to India—neither is correct. According to musicologist Curt Sachs (1881-1959, Germany, USA), the first mention is in 9th century Persia. In China, there was a bowed zither in the 9th or 10th century. In Europe, there were fiddles by the 10th century. Sachs estimates that the bow developed between 800-900 CE.

European fiddles are distinctly related to the fiddles of Kurdistan and Turkestan, and it appears that the Indian fiddles are too.

There’s a bowed lute in China called the hu ch’in. Hu” is what the Chinese called the Turkish Uighurs (a Turkish ethnic group living in a place that’s now part of China), so perhaps the Turks brought it with them to Europe before the 9th century. The hu ch’in was a small snakeskin-covered drum with a long stick attached and two strings stretched down the length of it, like the neck of a fiddle. It used a bow that was woven between the two strings so that it rubbed the underside of one string and the top of the other. The stings didn’t have a fret or soundboard. They were tuned to an open fifth and the notes were changed by shortening the strings with finger pressure. The bow was held underhand.

Quite some time and experimentation later, around 1700, the modern violin bow was pioneered by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713, Italy). It was short and not very flexible. Fifty years later, Giuseppi Tartini (1692-1770, Slovenia, Italy) made a longer and more flexible bow. Both held the hairs parallel to the bow with an angled end to the stick.

The Tourte bow was developed in the 19th century and is still used (by François Tourte, 1747-1835, France). In this bow, the hair and stick are parallel until the very end, but the stick has a slight inward bend to it. It’s definitely the most elastic and balanced bow so far.


The stick provides the rigid structure or backbone of the bow. Older bows curved slightly outward. Modern bows curve inward, allowing greater flexibility, speed, and expression. All different lengths were tried, and by 1700, the stick was lengthened, and fluted or cut into an octagon to facilitate flexibility. Modern violin bows are 29.5-inches long, with 25.5-inches of hair. Bows for the modern cello and double bass are shorter.

Until 1650 or so, the head of the bow was made of a bone carving that curved toward the hair with the tip pointing upward, like a spear, which is why it’s called a pike’s head. After 1650, the head became part of the stick, and was also often curved like a pike’s head. In the 18th century, the head continued its curve until it was at right angles to the stick.

Horse hair is firmly attached at the far end of the stick by a wedge that spreads the hair into a flat bundle. The hair is wrapped around a small block of wood and then wedged into place with a flat piece of material, such as wood, plastic (20th century or later only, of course), pearl, ivory, or metal. The whole arrangement is called the head or pike’s head.

In India, the hair was held in place at the head by a wedge of wood wrapped by a strip of cloth. There’s evidence of a similar device in Europe by the 12th century. In Italy, the hair was knotted at both ends of the stick as late as the 16th century. Then they made a groove in the frog—the bulkier end of the bow where it’s held—to wedge the hair into.

In the 17th century, the frog contained a piece of wire that extended down the stick. It adjusted the tension of the hair by means of a wire loop that hooked onto a series of iron teeth. This “dentated” bow didn’t last, although Swedish folk instruments still use the system. In the early 18th century, the teeth were replaced by the 4.5-inch screw that’s still used today. The head of the screw is turned to adjust the hair’s tension. The hair is held together at the frog by a little wedge.

The frog (and screw) end of the stick is held in the player’s hand. There are as many ways to hold the bow as there are instrument types, historical periods, and nationalities. I’ll discuss that in a minute.

The archetier (the name for a bow-maker) uses between 150 and two-hundred hairs per violin bow. Wider bows use more hairs.


One of the hardest parts about learning to play a stringed instrument is getting the bowing right. If the pressure is too light, it sounds like a goose is being murdered slowly. If it’s too heavy, the bow doesn’t glide across the strings and it’s like an audio-only version of a traffic jam. But don’t think that there’s only one way to play with a bow. There are numerous effects available in modern bowing (in order of popularity):

  • Plain: For legato (or connected) notes
  • Detaché: For notes of equal value that are bowed singly
  • Martelé: For a hammered effect, where the stroke is given unusual pressure and released suddenly
  • Sautillé: A short rapid stroke in the middle of the bow that bounces off the strings
  • Jeté or ricochet: “Throwing” the top third of the bow so that it bounces a series of rapid notes on the down-bow
  • Louré: A slow stroke with slight separation between slurred notes
  • Staccato: A series of martelé notes made in the same stroke
  • Viotti-stroke: Two detached and strongly marked notes, the first of which is unaccented on very little of the bow, and the second is accented and gets much more bow. Attributed to Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824, Italy).
  • Arpeggio, arpeggiando, arpeggiato: A bouncing stroke played on broken chords so that each bounce is on a different string and sounds a different note of the chord
  • Tremolo: Moving the bow rapidly back and forth on a single note
  • Sul ponticello: A nasal, brittle effect produced by bowing close to the bridge (a block or ridge that holds the strings away from the body of the instrument) instead of in the space between the bridge and the fingerboard
  • Sul tasto: A wispy effect produced by bowing lightly over the fingerboard instead of in the space between the fingerboard and the bridge
  • Col legno: Striking the strings with the stick instead of the hair
  • Ondulé: A form of tremulo, but between two strings instead of on one

There are more styles than this—too many to list—depending on what sort of instrument and music you’re playing.

Hand Positions

In the 12th century, the viol/vielle/rebec was held on one knee. The bow was held with the hand in a natural extension of the arm, palm outward, with the thumb on the frog. The forefinger rested on the stick and the third finger damped the hairs.

Folk fiddles, like the 12th century rebec, can be played on the knee or tucked under the chin like a modern violin. There are three types of folk bows: one that’s arched into a semi-circle, one that’s more like a crescent moon, and one that has the hairs parallel to the stick, like a modern violin’s bow.

Bows from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were either the semi-circle or parallel types.

The rebab from Mali is played with the instrument across the lap. It has a short bow in the crescent moon shape, and is held with the back of the hand outward and the thumb between the hair and the stick.

Modern bows are held with the thumb between the hair and the stick and the remaining fingers on the other side of the stick. The fourth and third fingers can apply pressure on the frog to help direct the bow.


The bow is called the archet in French, the Bogen in German, the arco or archetto in Italian, and the arco in Spanish.


“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000

“The Interpretation of Early Music,” by Robert Donington. W.W.Norton & Co., New York, 1985

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin LTD, London, 1949.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.


Written by Melanie Spiller

December 14, 2017 at 11:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Red Notes

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There’s a quirky little thing in Medieval and Renaissance music: Some of the notes were red instead of black. It’s possible that there were only two colors because the only inks that didn’t fade between then and now were red and black and that the colors have even less significance than historians have given them. It could be that the red notes (there are far fewer of the red notes than the black ones) were how ink faded when corrections were made at some later date. It could even be that there were lots of colors, and they all degenerated to red and black over the years.

Or it could be that they made the notes red on purpose. Here’s what the experts think.

In an early form of notation called heightened neumes because the little squiggles were placed on a staff defining the intervals between the notes, some manuscripts used red ink to draw the staff line that represented the C. (C is a relative term. Modern musicologists might think of it as the tonic, rather than the actual note C as tuned to A=440.) As music evolved into a melody and a drone, and then into a faux bourdon (a harmonizing line that ran parallel to the melody), composers needed a way for the performers to see—from a distance—that something special was happening.

So they used red notes for descants, for a signal that something interesting was happening rhythmically, that something should be sung or played up an octave, and to point out a special case, such as a ficta (sharp or flat note outside of the mode or key signature) or a repeat. It’s one of many good ideas that got dropped with the modern printing press.

When red notes weren’t available, “hollow” notes—white with black outlines—replaced them, and soon red notes weren’t used at all because the white notes were more convenient. Even so, red notes survived well into the 15th century in more elaborate manuscripts, especially in England.

Guido D’Arezzo (991/992-after 1033, Italy), who is credited with putting unheightened neumes on a series of staff lines, suggested that one staff line be made red to mark out the F notes and another made yellow for C. (If you play the harp, you’ll know that this system is still used on the strings—red for C and blue for F.)

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361, France) used red notes to indicate a change in rhythm in the manuscripts collected in Roman de Fauvel (14th century allegorical verse with a collection of music in it).

The “mannered” style of notation attributed to Philippus de Caserta (1350-1420, Italy) intermingled black and red notes as part of a more artistic presentation of the notes on the written page.

Sometimes composers used red ink to indicate that a certain passage was the opposite of whatever the prevailing notes were doing. This could have the effect of a hemiola, or a four-against-three kind of rhythm. (Go ahead, mark out threes in one hand and fours in the other. It’s a lot like patting your head and rubbing your belly, but it has an interesting pulling effect, if you can manage it.) In other works, the colored notes indicate triplet effects (three short notes against a single beat).

In the 14th and 15th centuries, chromatic music, musica ficta, and dividing intervals less than equally (called “imperfect” division and led to the discussion of “just” versus “mean” tuning) were called “color.” Sometimes these special notes indicated optional ornamentation. All of these types of notes were marked in red.

White notes (not filled in—hollow heads) were used for special purposes in the Italian trecento. In the first part of the 15th century, white notes replaced black ones for all the values, and in the latter half of that century, the semi-minim (a medium-length note of one beat) lost its tail and became black, and notes of shorter value—also black—appeared with increasing numbers of tails until the same divisions we have today (white for everything from a half note—minim—and longer, and black for the quarter note—semi-minim—and shorter).

In the 14th through the 16th century, coloring a note red meant that the performer lopped a third of the length right off: Red notes were quicker than black notes. Late in the 16th century, the formerly red notes were colored black and filled in and meant half rather than a third of the duration, and the longer notes were left open—they were “hollow.” We’re still using this system today (hollow notes are still longer than filled-in notes).

In isorhythmic music (repeating rhythmic patterns), the red notes indicated a series of repeated notes in the cantus firmus line. That’s the one called the “tenor,” where the chant is sung slowly while the other lines (usually higher in pitch) prance around, only lining up with the cantus firmus occasionally.

Through the 18th century, the red notes indicated wild ornamentation, either written or improvised. The improvised sections were dubbed “coloratura” in the 19th century to indicate the wildness and the notation. Now, there’s a whole singing voice named after it.

And that’s the story of red notes. If you have more—or differing—research. I’d love to hear about it.


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940

“The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900-1600,” by Willi Apel. The Mediaeval Academy of America, Cambridge, 1961

“Music in the Medieval World,” by Albert Seay. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1965

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960


Written by Melanie Spiller

October 23, 2017 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Music Notation Explorations: The Dasia System

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I’m obsessed with the history of music notation. I’ve got a whole shelf of books on the subject, and I’m always boring anyone whole listen and sketching on random scraps of paper and paper napkins.

Recently, I tripped over a form I hadn’t seen before, and on closer inspection, I find that it had been quietly hiding in the dark recesses of several of my own books! I’m determined to make it a secret no more, so here it is. The story of the Dasia system.

Guido D’Arezzo (990/991-after 1033) was a scholarly monk credited with creating Do-Re-Mi and putting the neumes that were being used to represent musical gestures on the staff. He’s kind of a big deal, in his own quiet way. In his Micrologia, Guido attributed the system of Daseia (that’s the plural form of Dasia) to Odo of Cluny (c878-942). Odo is credited for naming the notes after the letters in the alphabet, although he used ALL the letters, first the capitals and then the lower cases, and only found 52 notes in the scale, which was admittedly more than they thought they’d ever need at the time. Most instruments, even the organs of the time, didn’t go much further than the two octaves (or so) of a human singing voice.

The reason Guido attributed Dasia to Odo was that Dasia notation was discussed in the 9th century treatise Musica enchiriadis (occasionally attributed to French Odo of Cluny, and sometimes to Frankish Hucbald, c840-930, and also sometimes to German Abbot Hoger, d. 906). This treatise illustrated the earliest known forms of polyphony (multiple lines of melody meant to be sung simultaneously).

Unlike the systems for notating chant, which is monody (one line of melody, sung or played by all involved), Dasia was based on the tetrachord principle of Greek music theory (in its most basic form, two tetrachords—four notes each—plus a whole tone, equals an octave), and Greek symbols were used. The Dasia system is only a little bit different. (Mostly, it seems that the whole tones were piled at the top of the tetrachords. So two tetrachords plus a whole tone is an octave, but four tetrachords in a row plus two whole tones in a row at the top end are two octaves.)

The system covers a two-octave range of notes in a series of tetrachords (a tetrachord is four step-wise notes of a scale), each of which is granted one of four signs to represent the specific note. Three of the signs are based on the letter F (I didn’t find any explanation for why an F was used). The fourth sign is like the accent sign of Greek grammarians, called an acutus, and it signifies the half-step between it and the sign below it. This is just like the two pairs of white notes on the piano that don’t have black notes between them.

Here’s what it looks like on a modern five-line staff.


In this image, modern-shaped notes are on a modern staff to give you a point of reference. I used this image (from Wikipedia) so you can understand the principles.

In the first and lowest tetrachord, the signs are turned backward; in the second tetrachord, the most commonly used notes, the signs are forward; in the third tetrachord, the signs are upside-down; and in the fourth and highest, they’re turned both upside-down and backward. A different accent sign is used in each of the tetrachords so that you knew where you were in the scale—remember, they didn’t have a staff yet. The N stood for inclinum, the I for iota, the V (it looks like a lower-case N) for versum, and the cross for iota transfixum.

This is what the music written using this system looked like.

Dasian Polyphony

This is a bit of polyphony, in roughly parallel movement. Both lines (the clumps of symbols connected by lines on the right), were meant to be sung at the same time. You can see that the gesture of “up” and “down” was understood in terms of the notes relationship to each other, but marking off how great or small the interval was took the Dasia.

The words—lyrics—are all piled up neatly on the left. The Dasian tetrachords involved are in that nice vertical dividing box, and the melody is on the right, with certain syllables at relevant points pinned to their relevant places. You had to already know the words, pretty much, in order to read this, and the two singers sang different words from each other. It’s rather probable that it took a few tries for the singers to shape it into something they liked.

It’s like a new secret language, isn’t it?

The use of Dasia symbols was brief—less than 50 years and not widespread, mostly in Italy. By Guido’s time, neumes were in common usage, and that’s what evolved into modern notation.


  • “The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600,” by Willi Apel, The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953
  • “Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940
  • “Temperament, The Idea the Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle,” Stuart Isacoff, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001
  • “Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture, from Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer,” by Bruce W. Holsinger, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001
  • “The Notation of Medieval Music,” by Carl Parrish. Pendragon Press, New York, 1978
  • “Music in Medieval Manuscripts” by Nicolas Bell. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2001
  • “A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.
  • “Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.


Written by Melanie Spiller

October 10, 2017 at 9:21 am

Birdsong in My Stride

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I was housesitting, and the homeowners had a collection of daily reflections sitting on the tank of the toilet. I flipped through and decided that I liked the collection well enough to get one for myself (Mark Nepo’s “The Book of Awakening”). I don’t always remember to look in the book, and when I do, I often find the comments and discussion to be sufficient and think no more about it. This time was different.

The koan was: Of all the things that exist, we breathe and wake, and turn it into song.

The discussion was about being born a human and to think about what gifts that brings. It would be nice to be a bird or a tree or even a rock. They can do marvelous things. Or maybe their lack of human thought would be a nice respite. But think, for a moment, what it means to be a human rather than something else—and think what it means to be YOU, specifically. There are things you can do, and DO do, every single day, that no other being can do.

It’s kind of like counting blessings. When you list all the positive things that happen in a day, you start feeling better about your day, every day. In a while, it becomes a habit, to see all the golden sunsets, the birds soaring on a thermal, the well-crafted quilt or pie or computer, the way the laundry smells when it’s fresh out of the dryer.

I have several friends who suffer from depression. This koan made me think of them—how special each was, how much I love them for their strength, their humor, their tolerance of me and all my peculiarities. Could someone else be or do all those things? I doubt it.

Think for a minute about the many great gifts that you have and that you give every day. I often reflect on one friend’s ability to be part of a family. In her case, it’s not an easy thing—that’s why it’s so remarkable. It’s not just that her husband is indifferent to her much of the time, or that she has disabled children, or that her live-in sister is often difficult to be around. It’s that she has the fortitude to stay in the relationships. She could have scarpered. She could have refused the sister’s presence in her home. She could have demanded a divorce and buckets of money. She could have institutionalized the kids. But she stayed. And because she stayed, those four other humans have a decent life. Can’t she see how amazing that is? I couldn’t have done half of that.

Another friend has married a very nice fellow. Oh, some of her family doesn’t understand because he’s so different from how they are. But he adores her. He grows all cow-eyed and mushy when she walks into the room. He thinks she can do no wrong and boasts, all shy and embarrassed, about her many skills, gifts, and beauties. I know her because we share a hobby. She’s always prepared, she always arrives on time, she never asks for anything special, and she always does her best, and her best is pretty darned good. Everyone who knows her can find many things to appreciate. Her hugs and her big soft eyes that look at you with wit and humor are the best things, of course, but I suppose she can’t see those. Even her job is about helping others. Yet she suffers with thinking that she’s not enough.

Still another friend has a wonderful and heroic husband, the kind we all think of as the prototype for Prince Charming. And he chose HER. He chose her because she’s lovely, witty, clever, kind, and patient. She can’t see any of that. Sometimes her cheerfulness seems a bit false or her unwillingness to talk about herself or her current projects reveals her depression, but most of the time, she gets away with her secret. She’s another person whose job is all about helping other people.

One more friend, probably the most intelligent human I have ever met, suffers with this same kind of overwhelming sadness. She’s beautiful, wonderfully well-educated, has a great job that interests her, great friends, many hobbies, and a very quick wit. She’s the first to point out the beauty in something, the symmetry or similarity to some other thing (often pop- or movie-culture), and she makes you laugh so hard that the orange juice you drank yesterday comes out your nose. I admire her more than nearly everyone I’ve ever met (my parents and some of their friends are the only ones who can top her). And she thinks she’s nothing most of the time. She thinks that no one sees her because there have been a few blind fools crossing her path.

All of these women exhibit extreme cleverness, marvelous outside-of-the-box artsy-fartsy-ness. They make and maintain friendships, even with people like me, who tend to withdraw for no good reason (other than being introverted).

I’m not a sad person. I think I understand what my friends go through, but my times of sadness have been caused by something specific (like my mother’s death, or the end of a romance, job, or friendship), and in time, the darkness lifted or changed. I have a tendency to look for and find the silver linings in things. When I can’t find one, I feel desperate and keep looking until I do.

Thinking about this contrast makes me return to the koan. Is it uniquely human to suffer depression or to be permanently—or determinedly—happy?

On my walk this morning, I watched myself put one foot in front of the other. Do I choose to walk like this, the same pattern over and over? Why not put a foot to the side? Why not behind? What is it about that forward motion that’s so mesmerizing? I took a step to the side. I walked with my feet wide apart. I took some steps backward. I turned sideways and walked by crossing my feet grapevine-wise. (This is San Francisco. It wasn’t even REMOTELY a weird thing to do here. No one noticed.)

I thought about the uniquely human act of going for a walk that has nothing to do with getting food or shelter. My walks feel like they have purpose because they’re about health and meditation and writing scenes in my head, but what other animal sets aside an hour of every day for such self-indulgence?

Today, when I reached the bay, I came upon a goose couple with three little goslings, I stopped to watch. They were going for a walk too. They walked to the other side of the path and onto the berm. Then they turned around and walked back, just as I do every day. I walk to the ballpark, walk around the ballpark, walk back home up the hill. What I saw was just like that, those little goslings and their parents putting one foot in front of the other, coming to the turn-around, and heading home, one foot in front of the other.

I walked on and was about to warn a woman walking toward me to give the geese a wide berth (they can be aggressive, especially with the little ones around) when she cried out—”oh! The little ones! And I just saw a seal and her baby! What a beautiful day!”

Her joy made me think about that little koan again. Humans share those little happy moments, even with strangers. We share little triumphs, even little annoyances. Even when the news is bad, it makes my day a bit brighter to know that my friends or a stranger has shared in this uniquely human way, and that I can be counted on for sympathy, advice, indignation, or happiness, as appropriate. We are most human in our responses to the things life brings our way.

Today, I honor the uniquely human part of us all, and I especially honor those people who suffer from depression, especially the ones who suffer who haven’t yet told their friends. Tell them. Tell us. We will love you because that is what humans do in times of trouble. It’s also what we do in the happy times. We might not understand, but we will listen.

Of all the things that exist, we breathe and wake, and turn it into song.

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 2, 2016 at 12:55 pm

Posted in Thoughts

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Composer Biography: Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)

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Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was a French composer and harpsichordist, considered the first female composer of instrumental music. She certainly had a very long name!

Jacquet de la Guerre’s precocious talent as a musician was first mentioned in 1677 in the Paris newspaper Mercure Gallant, where she was described as a “wonder.” She sight-read difficult music, accompanied herself and other singers on the harpsichord, composed pieces and transposed at the whim of onlookers, and, according to the newspaper, she had already been doing this for four years when she was 10 years old. (My math has her at age 12 in 1677, but it’s still quite an accomplishment.) The next year, the same newspaper declared her “the marvel of the century.” (Mozart wouldn’t appear on the scene to be called such things until the 1750s.)

Her accomplishment is representative of the rise of amateur musicians among the French aristocracy. Previously, noblemen and noblewomen played only for each other’s pleasure, and hired professionals for more formal entertainments. The few women who succeeded as professionals were usually the daughters of prominent musicians, as was Jacquet de la Guerre.

She was the daughter of organ builder Claude Jacquet (dates unknown) and his wife Anne de la Touche (b.1632), also a musician from a musical family. She grew up in the Saint-Louis-en-I’lle, in Paris with three siblings, all of whom received an excellent musical education. It was unusual, at the time, to give daughters the same high-quality musical education as boys, so we are fortunate that her parents had foresight and the intellect to recognize that girls could accomplish as much as boys if given the chance.

Because of her evident talent, Jacquet de la Guerre was singled out for special favor by King Louis XIV (1638-1715), who placed her in the care of his mistress, Francoise Athenais de Rochechouart de Montemart (1640-1707), the marquise de Montespan. She was possibly tutored by Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719), the governess of Madame de Montespan’s children and later the king’s secret wife. She moved into the castle in 1673 and stayed there until she married. Louis XIV encouraged her career, providing audiences and allowing her to dedicate publications to him.

When she married, she stayed true to her family origins. She married organist and harpsichord teacher Marin de la Guerre (d. before 1704) in 1684 and moved back to Paris. Marin was son of Michel de La Guerre (c.1605-1679), who’d been the organist at the Sainte-Chapelle. Once back in Paris, Jacquet de la Guerre maintained her connections with the court without having to live there.

In 1687, she published a book of harpsichord pieces that included several suites of French dances, unmeasured preludes, chaconnes, and toccatas. She united the French and Italian styles, much as her contemporary Francois Couperin (1668-1733) did. In the same year, she published a ballet, Les jeux a l’honneur de la victoire (1685), which is lost.

She later wrote an opera, Cephale et Procris, which was a tragedy in five acts. It was performed in Paris at the Acadamie Royale de Musique in 1694. After its disappointing reception, or perhaps because she didn’t receive further commissions, she limited herself afterward to the cantata form. The opera was revived in 1989 by Jean-Claude Malgoire (b.1940) and Daniel Ogier (dates unavailable) in Saint-Etienne.

Several manuscripts from the 1690s have survived, including solo and trio sonatas. In 1695, she wrote solo and trio violin sonatas within five years of the first of those styles appearing in France. She published more music, including another volume of harpsichord piece and a set of solo violin sonatas (both in 1707).

Both her son (name and dates unknown) and her husband had died by 1704. Her son was thought to be quite talented on the harpsichord too, and made his debut at age eight. He was dead by age ten. After the deaths of her husband and son, Jacquet de la Guerre stayed in Paris giving concerts in her home, and at the Theatre de la Foire, for which she composed a few songs and at least one comic scene. All the great musicians and local music fans went to hear her. She was famous for her gift at improvisation and extemporaneous fantasias.

She found a champion in Sebastien de Brossard (1655-1730), a Paris-loving provincial ecclesiastic who collected and composed music. He performed her opera with the addition of a few of his own compositions at the Strasbourg Academie de la Musique.

Perhaps her most significant accomplishment, she published three volumes of cantatas as part of the first wave of cantata production. The first cantata collection in France appeared in 1706 (published by Jean-Baptiste Morin, 1677-1745, Nicolas Bernier, 1664-1734, and Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, 1667-1737), and Jacquet de la Guerre’s appeared in 1707, 1708, and 1711. Uniquely, her cantatas have texts from the Old Testament, and three of them tell stories of Biblical women (Esther, Susannah and the Elders, and Judith). The third volume of cantatas reflected French tastes and used mythology as its subject. One is written for soloist and symphony (violin or violins in unison and an optional flute in the second aire) in addition to the basso continuo.

She never left France but her music was known in Germany. She performed for Maximilian Emanuel II (1662-1726), Elector of Bavaria in 1712 when he visited Paris and he brought her works home with him. She dedicated her mythological cantatas to him.

She retired from public performance in 1717 and moved a little further out of the center of town. In 1721, she wrote a Te Deum to celebrate the recovery of Louis XV (1710-1774) from smallpox, a commission of real significance. Sadly, the music is lost.

Walther’s German Lexicon of 1732 includes a longer article on her than on François Couperin (1668-1733), her much more famous—at least into our times—contemporary. Although her rediscovery took longer than Francois Couperin’s, today, she is the most likely female composer from the period to be known to modern audiences.

Jacquet de la Guerre’s parents and her brother Nicolas died in the early 1710s. After her own death in 1729, a commemorative medal was struck in her honor. She was also included in the listing by Titon du Tillet (1677-1762) in his Parnasse francais of 1732, one of only seven musicians listed, and the only woman.


“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

“Women Making Music, The Western Art Traditions, 11-50-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.

“Women and Music, A History,” edited by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

Composer Biography: Francesca Caccini (1587-1638/40)

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Also Francesca Raffaelli, Signorini, Signorini-Malaspina, and La Cecchina

Francesca Caccini was an important Italian composer and singer of the late Italian Renaissance. The first female composer of opera of record, she was possibly the most prolific female composer of her time. She was among the earliest women to travel for her art, which later became common for professional musicians, much as it is today.

During her lifetime, her gifts as a singer, teacher, and composer were universally remembered as remarkable but reviews of her personality are mixed. One account calls her proud and restless, but she was a strong and intelligent woman, so it’s hard to know if that was merely misogyny or sour grapes, or perhaps she really was a bit haughty. Others refer to her as always gracious and generous with the loan of her manuscripts. For a number of years, she was involved in a feud with court poet Andrea Salvadori (1591-1634) over his alleged seduction of female singers, so she was clearly a woman prepared to stand up for others.

Born in Florence to a very musical family, she was the daughter, sister, and wife of singers and composers, and was immersed in a musical world from earliest childhood.

Her father, Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), was one of the creators of the “new music” (ars nova), which was dominated by solo singing and marked the beginning of the Baroque era. Both of his wives (Lucia and Margherita—dates for both unavailable, but the former was the mother of all of Giulio’s children) were also musicians, possibly students of Giulio. Both of Giulio’s daughters (Francesca and Settimia, 1591-c1661), a son (Pompeo, 1577-1624), and at least one granddaughter (Francesca’s Margherita, b.1622) were also musicians.

All of Giulio’s children received a literary education in addition to singing and composition. Records show that Francesca wrote poetry and played the harpsichord, lute, and harp. I found some sources that say it was a guitar instead of a lute, but that seems unlikely as that instrument wasn’t popular in Italy at the time (they were a big hit in Spain, but the Italians were more interested in the lute and would stay so until well into the Baroque era).

Francesca was one of “Le donne di Giulio Romano” (The ladies of Roman Giulio) who performed in Jacopo Peri’s (1561-1633) Euridice and in Giulio’s own Il rapimento di Cefalo in 1600. The group consisted of Francesca, her sister Settimia, her step-mother Margherita, some of Giulio’s pupils, Giulio himself, and his son Pompeo. Notice the ratio of women to men—this is going to come up again later when discussing Francesca’s compositions.

Sister Settimia (1591-c1661) made her first public appearance in 1600 or in 1602 in her father’s opera. She sang mostly with Giulio’s family consort until 1609 when she married Alessandro Ghivizzani (d.1632). She and her husband found work as composers and performers at various courts and were on friendly terms with the most famous composer of the time, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

The family travelled to France to sing for English King Henry IV (1553-1610) and Marie de Medici (1575-1642) in 1604 to 1605. Francesca received her first independent job offer from Marie to be a salaried court singer with a dowry of 1000 scudi. Letters from Giulio intimate that Grand Duke Ferdinand I (1549-1609) refused to release her from his service back home in Florence, so Francesca came back with her family in 1605, spending the autumn in Modena, where she was tutor to the Princess Giulia d’Este (1588-1645).

At a time when women were barred from singing in church, Francesca and her sister were soloists in the church of San Nicola in Pisa during Holy Week, directed by their father. Francesca soon gained a reputation for virtuosity and had students from among the nobility whom she trained for court performances. That she was a teacher to the high and mighty is indication of both her skill and her significance in musical circles.

In 1606, Giulio tried to negotiate a position for Francesca with Princess Margherita della Somaglia-Peretti (d.1613), sister-in-law of Cardinal Montalto (1571-1623) and Virginio Orsini (1572-1614) in Rome. The offer included both a salary and a dowry, along with the assumption that a suitable husband would be found. But negotiations dragged on, and in 1607, the deal was off and Francesca took a post at court in Florence, having been promised in marriage to Giovanni Battista Signorini (d.1625), whom she married later that year. Although Francesca signed letters with her married name, she remained Francesca Caccini in the Medici court records. There may have been some truth to the rumor of her being proud, eh? She was certainly independent and strong!

Francesca was more sought after as a performer than either of her siblings, and she had no trouble marrying well. With her dowry of 1000 scudi (about $50, roughly $3200 in today’s money), her husband (more on him in a minute) bought two adjoining houses in the via Valfonda near Sainte Maria Novella in 1610. They lived there until he died. They had one child, Margherita (b 1622), who grew up to become a singer and a nun.

The family dominated the polychoral singing of the Offices during Holy Week. Giulio and the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine (1565-1637) worked to ensure that Francesca didn’t outshine the group, but when Settima left for Mantua with her husband in 1611, the group disbanded. It was replaced by a group described in court diaries as “Francesca and her pupils” and they continued to perform chamber music for women’s voices until the late 1620s.

Court duties included singing the Office for Holy Week and singing at receptions given by the archduchess. She was also music tutor to the princesses, ladies in waiting, and at least one nun. In 1616, she was among those who traveled with Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici (1595-1666) to Rome, and there, she was cast as La Bellezza and Venus opposite her husband, who played Adonis.

In 1617, she and her husband toured Genoa, Savona, and Milan, winning the praise of Italian poet Gabriello Chiaberra (1552-1638, sometimes called Pindar).

By the 1620s, she was the highest-paid musician at court. Clearly a woman who could land on her feet, when Signorini died at the end of 1625, she soldiered on as a single mother on the strength of her well-established reputation. Francesca left the Medici payroll two years later when she married Lucca aristocrat and patron Tomaso Raffaelli (d.1630). Their marriage only lasted three years, when she was widowed again. This second marriage left her a wealthy landowner and mother to a son, Tomaso (b.1628).

After being quarantined in Lucca during the plague for three years, she returned to the Medici payroll in 1633. Between 1633 and 1637, she appeared often at the Grand Duchess’s court. She and her daughter Margherita (b.1522) performed as chamber singers during those years, and she composed and directed entertainments.

In 1637, Francesca forbade young Margherita from singing on stage at the Grand Duke’s command, because she feared that the 15-year-old’s chances of an honorable convent placement or suitable marriage contract might be at risk. She also feared that the social position of her son Tomaso would not only be tarnished, but that it would violate the terms of Raffaelli’s will. So Margherita entered the convent of San Firolamo in Florence instead of rising to shine her own light at court.

Court documents tell us that Francesca was still in Florence in 1638 and that she had probably died by 1645, when guardianship of her son, now a teenager, passed to his uncle, Girolamo Raffaelli (dates unavailable).


In 1607, Francesca’s first composition for the stage, a torneo called “La stiava,” was performed at court. This was a setting of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s (1568-1646, the grandnephew of the artist by the same name) poetry. Buonarroti was a family friend and the Medici court poet. Letters from her papa reveal that Francesca composed the piece by singing to the poetry, writing out what she’d sung, and then her father corrected her notation. The piece was written for castrati to sing, and according to court diarist Cesare Tinghi (fl. 1600-1625), it was pretty darned good. The piece was performed again in 1626, but sadly, none of the music survives. Giulio considered the commission—and likely income—for his entire household rather than specifically for Francesca, which probably accounts for the lack of credit for other pieces that she composed to Buonarroti‘s poetry. If we look closely at Giulio’s works, we may find hers tucked in there, too.

From an early age, Francesca composed incidental and improvisational music for herself and her students, but the next documented work after “La Stiava” was incidental music for the 1611 Carnival entertainment of the masked ball. She also set Buonarroti‘s rustic comedy “La Tancia” that same year and in 1615, she set Ferdinando Saracinelli’s (1587-c1640) balletto “Il ball delle Zingane.”

In 1618, her father published some of Francesca’s compositions in a book called “Il primo libro delle musiche,” which is how they came to be preserved until modern times. The collection is one of the largest and most varied collections of early monody. One of its most striking features is how it’s organized, grouping the music into four different tables of contents: by poetic form, by possible uses, by genres (such as motets, hymns, etc.), and a collection of homophonic ensembles (all one type of voice, like soprano) with a bass. There are 19 works set to sacred texts, seven of which were in Latin, and 17 secular works, four of which are duets for soprano and bass.

Nearly all the songs in the Primo libro are variations of other pieces, even the sonnets and madrigals. In the arias, Francesca sticks closely to the integrity of poetic lines and reserves ornaments for accented words, internal pauses, and penultimate syllables. She uses silence and pauses to break poetic lines into syntactical units.

Francesca carefully documented vocal ornaments, which was unusual for the time. She also unleashed the ornaments in secular music much more than in sacred. Her notation is finicky, especially regarding rhythm and the placement of syllables. She often displaced syllables placed on a short upbeat, which allowed her to document the rhythm of Italian speech with rare precision.

She may have written the poetry herself for 12 of the devotional pieces in Primo libro. The anthology represents the largest collection of early monadic music by a single composer up to that time. Despite this accomplishment, we have only one other piece from her, the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina about which you’ll hear in a moment.

During Carnival in 1619, Francesca’s setting of Buonarroti ‘s La fiera, a satirical comedy, was performed at court. It caused a scandal because it portrayed women in “unseemly” conditions, such as during pregnancy and labor, and it also affirmed capitalist and republican values over those of royalty.

In 1622, she collaborated with Giovanni Battista da Gagliano (1594-1651) in setting Jacopo Cicognini’s (1577-1631) Il martirio di Sante Agata, and it’s thought that the parts of Agatha and Eternita were played by her.

During his time in Rome with the Medici in 1623-1624, the poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) and her father Giulio compared the skills of Francesca and the singer-composer Adriana Basile (c1580-c1640). Marino said that Francesca’s musical understanding was deeper but that Basile had the better and more agile voice. Members of Marino’s academy wrote poems in praise of both women.

Francesca sang for Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644) in 1624. Later that year, her one surviving opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina was in rehearsal in Florence. It was performed in 1625 at the Villa Poggio Imperiale during Carnival in front of visiting Polish royalty, Prince Wlayislaw IV (1595-1648). The piece was commissioned by Archduchess Maria Maddelena (1589-1631) and allegorically explores women’s roles in the wielding of power via a plot that contrasts a good and androgynous sorceress with an evil and sexually alluring one. Francesca uses different musical textures for the two main characters, and as a whole, the music is rich and varied.

The piece was originally billed as a ballet, but it had all the trappings of an opera, including a prologue, symphonies, recitatives, arias, choruses, instrumental ritornellos, and elaborate staging and sets. There were dances performed to music sung by the chorus or to instrumental music that weren’t included in the published score.

The cast for La liberazione included six sopranos, two altos, seven tenors and one bass, an indication of the 17th century’s fondness for high voices. The number of natural male voices and the absence of castrati used in the performance was unusual for the time as castrati and counter-tenors (men singing in falsetto) were the rage. Accompaniment included continuo, recorders, several short five- and six-part choruses, a brief chorus for six sopranos, and a double chorus madrigal in eight parts. The work was revived in the late 20th century in Europe, Asia, and the US.

Maybe it’s time to revive the other pieces too.


“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

“Women and Music, A History,” edited by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.

“Women Making Music, the Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

The Faenza Codex (c1400)

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The Faenza Codex, or the Codex Bonadies as it’s sometimes called, is an Italian manuscript of the 15th century. It contains some of the oldest known keyboard music and some vocal pieces. It’s thought to contain some of the earliest pieces arranged for keyboard instruments (not composed for them).

The codex that was at the Biblioteca Comunale in Faenza (near Ravenna) until the middle of the 20th century was possibly an Italian copy from the early 15th century. There are facsimiles elsewhere in Italy and a few other places (described as “overseas” in one of my sources, which I don’t find terribly informative).

The Faenza Codex contains repertory from the papal court at Avignon and of the Aragonese and Navarese courts, including motets, ballades, rondeaux, and virelais, some in the complex Ars subtilior style.

The original collection contained keyboard intabulations (not notation, but numbers and letters expressing the locations of notes), and was copied in northern Italy in the first decades of the century. It may have been prepared by or for a church organist because the codex contains a lot of liturgical church music, including an arrangement of the Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor. The organ arrangement of the Kyrie is in a score, with the lower staff (for the left hand) confined to the plainsong melody—the tenor part—and the upper part (for the right hand) in florid counterpoint.

The codex is comprised of 96 pages of parchment in 10 fascicles of irregular structure (usually, after the pages are folded together, they’re trimmed to be even). Some of the pages contain keyboard arrangements of vocal works and liturgical cantus firmus settings (where the chant is sung slowly, usually in the tenor voice). There are also 22 pieces in white mensural notation (for more about notation, see The History of Music Notation) in the Bonadies copies, which include sections from the Mass Ordinary (the Kyrie Gloria, etc.), Magnificats, and some motets.

The collection was prepared within a single scriptorium by four scribes and copied between 1400 and 1420. In 1473 or 1474, part of the manuscript was erased (scraped clean) and rewritten by musician and music theorist, Johannes Bonadies (dates unavailable), who was a monk at the Carmalite monastery of San Paolo Ferrar. Bonadies added 22 polyphonic compositions from around 1467-1473, perhaps from Lucca, including Mass movements, Magnificat settings, motets, and a few secular works.


The Faenza Codex includes keyboard versions of Flemish composer Guillaume Machaut’s (c1300-1377) ballades and Italian organist and composer Francesco Landini’s (c1325-1397) madrigal and ballade, which provide some evidence that French and Italian styles were mingling by the end of the 14th century. There are also pieces by Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-c1386), and Bartolino da Padova (fl.c1345-c1405). The famous theorist Johannes Tinctoris (c1435-1511) has two pieces in there too, along with many compositions by the ever-prolific Anonymous. Most of those are secular pieces.

In many cases, the original voice parts are lost and all that remains is the keyboard version of the songs. Some of the keyboard versions are (presumably) similar to the original voice parts, but in others, only the tenor (cantus firmus) is the same. This variation can make the songs seem like a new piece.

Keyboard music was written on two six-line staves with bar lines. The lower staff was for the left-hand and provides the tenor of the original polyphony, occasionally transposed to suit the composition. The upper staff, for the right-hand, provides florid melodies, either completely free or in a highly decorated form of the original cantus, often with repeating motifs. If the polyphonic piece had a second and third part, they’re often ignored in favor of a new version.

It’s clear from the way the figuration is “broken” that much of the music was intended for the virginal (a limited keyboard compared to an organ). The codex also contains organ music for liturgical use—two Kyrie-Gloria pairs and a separate Kyrie, all on Mass IV plainchants (the Mass that contains the Kyrie Cunctipotens Genitor Deus).

In the 20th century, the manuscript was taken from Ferrara to Faenze, where it’s preserved in the library today. In 1958, it was rebound with a new cover. The original was lost and was replaced with a copy in 1959. The codex has recently been studied by recording artist Pedro Memelsdorff in his doctoral thesis of 2011, and a publication of that work (I didn’t find a date for publication) will include a facsimile of the manuscript.



“The History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

“Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century,” by Richard Turuskin. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Medieval West; Western Music in Context,” by Margot Fassler. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1959.