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Archive for February 2014

Composer Biography: Antoine Brumel (c1460-c1515)

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Antoine Brumel was a French composer, and probably the first of the Franco-Flemish school to be from France. Most of the Franco-Flemish composers were from the lowlands area that is now Belgium and the Netherlands, once called Flanders.

When polyphony (independently composed lines rather than composed around chords) was a new thing, just evolving from homophony (unison chant), Brumel was the first to apply this new technique to the psalms that were sung at every Mass. Polyphony had gained in importance in the 13th and 14th centuries, but was mostly used for secular music. Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) was the first to write the Ordinaries of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the Ite, misse est) as polyphony, and slowly, the Propers (the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion, Marian antiphons, and later, the Tract) were added. Psalms were—and are—a common choice for text for the Ordinaries, so that Brumel was the first to do this is an important accomplishment.

It’s not known where Brumel was born, although some music historians say that he was born west of Chartres, possibly in the little town of Brunelles. This puts him in the Netherlands, but just across the border that would soon move to make him French.

His name is prominent among the handful of composers who rank after Josquin de Prez (c1440-1521) as the most eminent masters of the late 15th century and early 16th centuries. You’ve probably heard Brumel’s music—or music influenced by him—whether you know it or not.

Records show Brumel as a singer at Notre Dame in Chartres from 1483 until 1486. He became Master of the Innocents (children’s choirmaster) at St. Peter’s in Geneva in 1486 and stayed there until 1492. In 1497, he was installed as a canon at Laon Cathedral, and the following year, he took charge of the choirboys at Notre Dame in Paris. There he stayed until 1500.

For the next two years, Brumel was a singer at the Duke of Savoy’s Court in Chambery and from 1506 to 1510, he acted as maestro di cappel to Alfonso I d’Este (1476-1534) in Ferrara, replacing Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), who’d died of the plague the previous year. The post was meant to be for life, but that chapel was disbanded in 1510. Brumel stayed on in Italy as part of the Franco-Flemish musical invasion and he’s connected with both Faenza and Mantua, where he probably died in 1512 or thereabout, although there are stories of him dying in Ferrara as late as 1520.

He wrote at least one piece after he was dismissed from Alfonso I’s court, the Missa de beata virgine. In 1513, Brumel is mentioned in a treatise by Vincenzo Galilei (c1520-1591 and famous astronomer Gallileo’s father) as one of a group of composers who met with Pope Leo X (1475-1521). Because Vincenzo Galilei didn’t write his treatise for more than two decades after the event and hadn’t been there himself, it’s also possible that Brumel wasn’t there at all, one reason for his absence being that he was already dead by then.

Brumel was renowned on the musical scene during his lifetime and his music was performed far from where he lived. Josquin borrowed two voices from Brumel’s three-part motet and based his own piece, Missa Mater patris on it. Josquin’s Agnus Dei movement consists of the entire text from Brumel’s motet, plus two new voices. Josquin did this in some of his secular music as well, but it’s unusual to find Josquin using someone else’s work so literally right at the most climactic section of the Mass.

Brumel had a whole volume of his Masses published by Pandolfo Petrucci (1452-1512), like both Josquin and Obrecht, and his music appears peppered all over various manuscripts and collections of the period.

Musicological historian Glareanus said that Brumel excelled more through industry than natural gifts, but his music is truly lovely, so Glareanus was just a poor sport. You should listen for yourself and see what yObrechtou think. (Chanticleer put out an excellent album of Brumel’s music, which is how I first heard his works.)

Glareanus’ attitude might have been sour only because there was so much competition. Brumel was active at the same time as Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), Alexander Agricola (1446-1506, blog post to come), Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517, blog post to come), Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come), Josquin, Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518, blog post to come), and Jean Mouton (c1459-1522), who are considered the brightest lights in a particularly stellar time.

When Johannes Ockeghem died, Brumel was one of those called upon by Guillaume Cretin (c1460-1525, a poet) to compose a lamentation in Ockeghem’s honor.

Brumel was primarily a composer of sacred music, notably of Masses. There are twelve Masses and three Magnifacats that survive complete. His works can be divided into three stylistic groups: those with cantus firmus (the chant melody) underlying the tenor voice, those exhibiting greater rhythmic regularity and a closer relationship between text and melody in all parts, and those that are condensed and brief.

He also wrote 29 motets (a sacred version of the madrigal), many of which use cantus firmus, sometimes with an altered or completely different text (these were usually quotations from the Bible, so this straying was rare and notable), and are in a flowing and rhythmically interesting style. His Sicut lilium is one of these, and exhibits an attractive simplicity that suggests influence by Italian composers.

Sometimes Brumel embellishes and other times he simplifies the underlying chant melodies for his sacred pieces. He occasionally uses cantus firmus with the elongated notes in the tenor, and other times, it’s paraphrased in the superius (highest) voice only. In yet other pieces, the chant is paraphrased in both the tenor and the superius, and occasionally, it’s in all the voices, in imitation (see Johannes Ciconia for more about imitation).

Brumel excelled at a style called paraphrase, where the melody of the chant, instead of being in the tenor, is in the topmost voice. Guillaume Dufay was probably the first to use paraphrase in a Mass setting (listen to Ave regina coelorum, written between 1463 and 1474 for a good example), and other composers were quick to follow. Brumel also used bits of his own motets in his Masses, foreshadowing the parody technique (see Bartholomeo da Bologna for more about parody). By the 1470s or 1480s, Masses started appearing that had the paraphrase in more than one voice, such as those by Johannes Martini (c1440-c1498).

Brumel was an important part of the change from writing independent, parallel lines of polyphony (where a singer could get sick or die of the plague or something, and the piece still sounded good with the part missing) to writing dependent, chordal, and simultaneous lines (where all the singers had to show up for work or the piece fell apart). His earlier works (before 1500) use the cantus firmus or a similar style of polyphony. His later works (after 1500) line up into more chord-like progressions, which included less melodically independent lines that served mainly to fill in a part of the chord. (This is very common today, with the melody in the soprano line and the other parts forming chords that support the melody.)

Brumel also used the parody technique, made popular by Bartholomeo da Bologna, wherein the source material appears elaborately altered and in other voices than the tenor. He also used paired imitation, like Josquin did, but more freely than any previous composer.

He wrote quite a few motets, chansons, and some instrumental music. His earlier pieces have irregular lines and rhythmic complexity, like those of Ockeghem, and the later ones use the smooth imitative polyphony of Josquin’s style and homophonic textures of the Italian composers of the time, such as Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c1470-1535), who was in Ferrara at the same time as Brumel.

Brumel was notable for his cleverness, playing with melodies and accompaniment. For instance, the tenor line of his James que la ne peut ester chanson uses the opening phrase of “Je ne vis oncques” twice; first forward and then backward.

Brumel’s motet Regina coeli was a clear paraphrase of the Marian antiphon by the same name. It has the melody in the tenor, but it’s also found in the other voices. He uses the same paraphrase and chant permeation of the texture in his motet Lauda Sion, in which he wrote polyphony only for the odd-numbered verses.

Brumel’s Laudate Dominum is one of the earliest motet settings of a psalm that can be given an approximate date. Although printer Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) included Josquin’s psalm Memor esto in the same publication of 1514, Brumel’s piece can be traced back to 1507, the date on the Capella Sistina 42 manuscript.

Brumel and Josquin clearly had a healthy working relationship. Josquin based his own Mass on Brumel’s motet Mater Patris, and Brumel’s short and simple motet Sicut lilium has clear phrases that resemble Josquin’s Planxit autem David. Josquin wasn’t the only one to borrow from Brumel. Ockeghem’s Fors seulement l’attente has a tenor that is attributed both to Brumel and to Agricola, but is most likely from Brumel, based on dates.

Brumel’s secular works frequently use pre-existing melodies. His four part secular pieces have texts but those in three parts are purely instrumental. Most are chansons. You have to keep in mind that writing in four voices was a new thing. And writing in more voices was considerably rarer.

Brumel wrote a textless vocal piece in eight voices that is sung with each part in a different mode. (To learn about modes, read Musical Mode, Part 1s: Church Modes). Although the modes are simpler than modern key signatures and scales (no sharps at all and only one possible flat—B), it must have sounded like the various parts were being pushed and pulled by the other parts. This interesting concept didn’t catch on. (I didn’t find the name of this piece, but I’ll keep looking.)

Probably the pinnacle of Brumel’s accomplishment was a twelve-part Mass, Et ecce terrae motus. You have to realize what an achievement that was—most pieces at the time were written in two or three voices. Later, Thomas Tallis would write my favorite piece (Spem in alium) in 40 voices, a feat that couldn’t ever have been had Brumel and his peers not pushed the edges of tradition.

Brumel’s Missa de Beata Virgine and Josquin’s version of the same piece use different chants in their Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements—Brumel’s was based on Gregorian Mass IX and XVII respectively, and Josquin’s was based on IV. Brumel’s choice was from the Medicean edition of the chant, which is an interesting political tidbit. The Medici family was rich and powerful, as you probably already know. The rest of Brumel’s Masses use the same Mass movements as the chants they’re based on

It’s possible that Brumel wrote his Missa de Beata Virgine in competition with Josquin—you have to listen to both to decide who won for yourself. Generally speaking, Brumel’s Masses are conspicuous for their melodiousness and euphony and this particular work was his most popular during his lifetime, as recorded by Glareanus.

The rest of his Masses were in four voices. He often wrote simple note-against-note counterpoint, which is especially conspicuous in his Missa de Dringhs, (no one seems to know what that last word means, but it’s thought to be Greek. The Mass is in Latin). He used parallel thirds and sixths in the Benedictus movement and other pieces, so that may have been a popular sound (it’s strange sounding to modern ears) or just something he was experimenting with.

The Mass called O quam suavis is lost. It has only a few surviving movements, based on an antiphon by the same name. Another untitled Mass uses different source materials for each section. It was unusual for the chant from one part of the Ordinary of the Mass (the pieces that change with the days of the liturgical calendar) to be used in a polyphonic setting for another. This is probably where Brumel got the idea of setting a psalm to polyphony.

In his Mass Je n’ay dueil, which survives under the designation Missa Festiva, is based on Agricola’s chanson by the same name. Brumel’s Missa Pro defunctis is notable for being the first requiem Mass to include a polyphonic setting of the Dies Irae. It’s one of the earliest surviving requiems, with only Ockeghem’s being earlier.

One of Bumel’s distinctive styles is that he often used quick syllables to form chords, which anticipated the madrigal style that developed by the end of the 16th century. He was particularly fond of using this technique during the Credo sections of his Masses. Credos have the longest texts, which can make them very long, and using this style helped keep the movement the same length as the others in the Mass.

Quite a few notable composers wrote pieces commemorating Brumel after his death.

Jachet Brumel (no dates available), was an organist for the Ferrara court in 1543, and is presumed to have been Antoine’s son. I found no mention of a wife or other children.


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

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1974.

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography: Zacara da Teramo (c1350-c1415)

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Also known as Antonio “Zacara” da Teramo, Antonius Zacharius of Teramo, Antonius Berardi, Andre de Teramo, Antonio Zacar, as well as  Zacar, Zaccara, Zacharie, Zachara, and Cacharius. He’s also possibly the Zacharias that’s mentioned in the Old Hall manuscript (the largest collection of British Medieval and Renaissance music from the 14th and 15th centuries). There are two other people by a similar name, one, called Magister Zacharias, who was a papal singer around 1400, and the other, a Nicolas Zacharie (Niccolo Zaccaria), who was from Brindisi and was a papal singer from 1420-1434. Both of these Zacks also wrote music.

Our Zacara da Terama was part of the third generation of the trecento, along with Johannes Ciconia and Bartolomeo da Bologna. He was a composer, a singer, and a papal secretary and he was one of the most active Italian composers around 1400. His style bridged the major periods of the trecento, from ars subtilior (a French style of music in the 14th century) to the beginnings of the musical Renaissance.

He was probably born in Teramo in northern Abruzzo (Naples), not far from the Adriatic coast. He still owned property there and in Rome when he died.

His short stature earned him the nickname Zacara, which means a small thing of little value. He never used the moniker himself, but signed his name Antonio. It’s not too hard to understand why he didn’t use it and it’s too bad that he ended up recorded for posterity by it. He may have been small, but he offered the world considerable value.

The Squarcialupi Codex (compiled 1410-1415, and blog post to come) includes an illustration of Zacara. It shows him as short and with only ten digits total between his hands and feet. This is also mentioned in an entry about him in an 18th century necrology. Whether this was a birth defect or the result of an accident isn’t documented.

Nothing is known about Zacara until 1390 when he turned up as the teacher at the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Sassia Rome. He was not a young man at the time of this appointment, but his age isn’t listed.

In 1391, he became secretary to Pope Boniface IX (c1350-1404). The letter of his appointment survives and indicates that he was a married layman was well as a singer in the papal chapel. He stayed in the papal court through three papacies, until 1415. The Western Schism was going on, and letters from Zacara and some not-so-subtle subversive political references in his music tell us that he may have been involved in the politicking of the time. It’s not known exactly when he left his post with the popes, but one piece of his includes text that make it clear that he left before the council of Pisa in 1409.

During the papal schisms of the 1400s, the anti-popes in Italy (some were at Avignon in France, other were in Milan and Florence) couldn’t afford to hire many chapel singers from France and the Netherlands where the really good musicians lived, so they took advantage of the neighboring towns, which is how little Zacara came to be a chapel musician. He’s recorded as a singer in Anti-Pope John XXIII’s chapel in 1412 and 1413.

He appears to have been an active composer all his life, in two major phases. In the early phase, he used the forms of ballata, much like Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-1386) or Francesco Landini (c1325-1397). In his later period, possibly about the last 15 years or so of his life, when he was in Rome, there’s a clear ars subtilior influence.

Both sacred and secular vocal music survives. There are several paired Mass movements, Glorias and Credos, in a Bologna manuscript that was compiled after his lifetime. There are seven songs of his in the Squarcialupi Codex and 12 in another, called the Mancini Codex, compiled around 1410. Three of his songs are in various other sources. There’s a big difference in style between the works found in the Squarcialupi and the Mancini codices that probably represent when they were written. The Squarcialupi Codex shows influence from lyrical mid-century Italian composers, such as Landini. The Mancini pieces have a more mannerist style, like that of the ars subtilior.

He liked unusual texts with a mixture of languages and bizarre, even Satanic overtones. His “Rosetta” ballate was extremely popular both as the basis for parody Mass movements (for more on parody, see Bartolomeo da Bologna) by himself and others, and for highly ornamented keyboard arrangements.

All but one of his ten surviving secular pieces are ballate in Italian. That one piece is a caccia. In addition to his Mass movements, he also wrote one Latin ballade and one madrigal, both sacred forms.

Mass movements attributed to Zacara are based on secular pieces that are more confidently attributable to him. His Credo is found in manuscripts in both Modena and Bologna. The Bologna copy is simple music, and the Modena manuscript had lavish embellishments.

His Gloria movement contains remnants of the ars nova style (a mostly French style from the 1400s). What’s particularly interesting is that this piece supplies a link between Italian and English repertories, one that would later be called an “Italian influence.” See Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543-1588) and On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player. Probably the most widely distributed piece from the period, Zacara’s Gloria made it to Germany, England, and Poland. It offers more independent part writing (see Chords Versus Polyphony) than French works of the time, and has subtle rhythms.

His Mass movements influenced other composers of the early 15th century, including Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412) and Bartolomeo da Bologna (fl1405-1427). Some of his innovations can be found in works by Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474). He may have been the first to use upper-voice divisi (where a single voice part was split into two or more parts—there had to be multiple singers or instruments per part).

Zacara’s pieces are longer than most other 14th century Mass movements. They use imitation (where one part replicates the melody from another part) extensively as well as hocketing (where the voices produce chirps of sound, like organized hiccups, a style that was popular only for the 13th and 14th century). Pairing his Mass movements with his secular works may provide the link between less unified movements from other composers from that same century and the cyclic Masses that developed by the 15th century.

Two separate documents describe Zacara as already dead in 1416, so he probably died in 1415.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography: Bartholus de Florentia (fl.1375-1405)

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Also known as Frate Bartholino, Frater Bartholomeus, scappucia Frate Baroino, Magister Frater Bartolinus de Padua, Bartolino da Padova, Bartolino da Padu, and Bartolo da Firenze.

Bartholus de Florentia is an obscure composer but for his one Credo movement, once attributed to Lorenzo da Firenza. He may have been the first Italian to compose a polyphonic Mass movement, but the documentation is so sparse, it’s hard to tell. He’s portrayed in the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come) having a tonsured head and wearing a Carmelite habit.

It’s possible that he was prior at the Carmelite abbey in Padua in 1380. In 1405, he was forced into exile to Florence. It seems that he’d written some unfavorable allusions regarding the political and moral behavior of the Visconti family that controlled Padua, so off he went.

The music collections of the time include only or mostly secular songs—there’s a surprising dearth of sacred music from the century. Ecclesiastical composers were focusing on secular polyphony, which is why only a handful of Mass movements survive. And even fewer complete Masses from a single composer survive. Bartholus wrote the Credo I mentioned earlier, but that’s the extent of his sacred output.

The Credo is in two voices, like the other movements from other composers, and both parts sing the text. On a few occasions, the voices sing phrases of text at different times, and alternate in singing successive phrases. The style is called “restrained madrigal” and includes short and unobtrusive melismas (where the melody wiggles around on an open syllable). Most of the time, though, the text is sung in unison.

Of the eleven madrigals and twenty-seven ballate that he wrote, most are in two voices with a handful in three. His style lacks the flow and clear-cut melodic lines that are characteristic of the Italian composers who came before him. But despite the lack of information regarding how such a thing could occur, his work seems strongly influenced by the French ars subtilior in its rhythmic complexity. What would become a French invasion of Italian musical circles had begun with Johannes Ciconia, but didn’t really become a game-changer until long after both were gone.

Just as I found very little about his life and family, I found nothing about his death or burial. I think that makes him MORE intriguing.


“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hippin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.

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