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Archive for March 2014

Composer Biography: Peter Philips (c1560-1628)

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(Also Peter Philipps, Peter Phillips, Pierre Philippe, Pietro Philippi, and Petrus Philippus)

Peter Philips, although he spent most of his life in Europe, was one of the biggest names in English music. He was an organist and a Catholic priest, and his work could be heard from Rome to London to Brussels, and beyond.

He was one of the great keyboard virtuosos of his time, and transcribed or arranged several Italian motets and madrigals by Orlando Lassus (1532-1594), Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (c1525-1594), and Giulio Caccini (1551-1618). Some of his keyboard works are found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and he wrote many sacred choral works as well.

He was possibly born in London, although there are stories that he came from Devonshire. Nothing is known about his family, but they weren’t particularly wealthy. They were particularly Catholic, and that would color Philips’ life.

When first we hear of him, Philips was a choirboy at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1574, serving under Sebastian Westcot (d.1582), who had also trained William Byrd 20 years earlier. Philips must have been close to Westcot, as he stayed at the older man’s house until Westcot died. He was named as a beneficiary in Westcot’s will.

He was possibly one of William Byrd’s students, along with Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) and Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), and John Bull (c1562-1628).

That same year (1582), Philips had to emigrate because he was Catholic. He landed in Flanders, Europe’s third biggest musical center (after Rome and Paris). He stayed for a bit, and then headed out for Rome, the center of both Catholicism and music. There, he was in the service of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589), with whom he stayed for three years. At the same time, he was organist at the English Jesuit College in Rome from 1582-1585.

In 1585, he met Thomas, third Baron Paget (c1544-1590) and became a court musician for him instead. The two left Rome, traveling over the next few years to Genoa, Madrid, Paris, Brussels, and finally Antwerp, where Philips settled in 1590, when Paget died.

After he settled, Philips married and gained a precarious living by teaching the virginal to children. In 1593, he went to Amsterdam to see and hear Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), whose reputation was already huge. On his way home from that exciting visit, he was denounced by another Englishman for conspiring to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. He was temporarily jailed at The Hague, where he composed both the pavan and galliard Doloroso that are in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (more on that later). He was soon freed for lack of proof.

When he returned to Brussels, Philips was employed as organist in the chapel of Albert VII, Archduke of Austria, who’d been appointed governor of the Low Countries in 1595, two years earlier.

After Philips’ wife and child died, he was ordained as a priest in 1601 or so, and became canon at Soignies in 1610. He also became a canon at Beithune in 1622 or 1623. These were meager livings, but at least he knew that he had a regular income.

In his new position at Albert VII’s court, he met the best musicians of the time, including Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), who visited the Low Countries between 1601 and 1608, and John Bull (c1562-1628), who had also fled England but for different reasons: he’d been charged with adultery.

Philips’ was close to fellow organist Peter Cornet (c1575-1633), who worked for the Archduchess Isabella, wife of Philips’ employer.

He wasn’t very well known in England during his lifetime, but he was famous in northern Europe as a fine organist and versatile composer. He’s considered second only to William Byrd as the most published English compose of his day. His music for keyboards and instrumental ensembles are in the traditional English style, and his Italian madrigals including some for double choir (in three books, collected from 1596-1603) and his motets (five books, from 1612-1628), show continental style and influence, especially Roman.

Philips was important in bringing the English musical style to the Continent and he was probably the most famous English composer of his day in Northern Europe.

Philips composed Masses, hundreds of motets (sacred madrigals), other sacred works, madrigals (secular motets), pieces for viols, and27 pieces for virginal. His religious music was entirely meant for Catholic use, unlike that of Catholics in England, who either composed for Anglican services or secretly composed for Catholic uses (see composer biographies on William Byrd and Thomas Tallis).

He produced three books of madrigals, two books of choral motets, three books of concertato motets (instrumental) of one-to-three voices with continuo accompaniment, a book of Litanies (a form of musical prayer in both Jewish and Christian traditions), and a book of bicinia (pedagogical music in two parts) with French texts.

His keyboard music was preserved in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.

His madrigals (secular vocal music) belong to a conservative Italian tradition, probably thanks to his training in Rome. He uses colorful textures and sonorities, although his instrumental motets show him keeping up with the latest trends and styles. His keyboard music includes transcriptions and reworking of well-known Italian madrigals, one of which is Giulo Romola Caccini’s (15510-1618) monody (chant) Amarilli.

His first set of Cantiones sacre (in five voices) was printed by Pierre Phalese the Younger (dates unknown) in 1612, followed in 1613 by a second set for double chorus. Later publications contained sacred works for two and three voices, as well as some for solo with basso continuo and a set of Litanies (musical prayer, petitions mostly) to the Blessed Virgin in four to nine voices, which appeared between 1613-1633 (there is one source that says that Philips died in 1633 rather than 1628, but it’s more likely that the pieces were published posthumously).

He put together one book, called Les Rossignols spirituels, that was an arrangement of popular melodies adapted to sacred texts, in 1616.

He used a lot of different techniques, like the imitation (see Composer Biography: Johannes Ciconia), in a variety of ways, exhibiting considerable freedom, and modifying and combining different forms with imagination and skill. Like Flemish composer Orlando Lassus (1532-1594), he often imitated a rhythmic pattern or a melodic contour throughout a piece.

Philips’ Alma Redemptoris Mater, a richly polyphonic work, opens with a motif that’s imitated by three voices and then inverted by the other two voices. After each voice has sung the motif once, that voice presents the motif in a new form, perhaps borrowing a motif from one of the other voices.

His Elegi abjectus, esse uses real imitation in the opening among three voices. A fourth voice offers a more tonal answer, and the alto sings freely, disregarding the motif altogether. The motif is presented without interruption by the tenor; the other three voices break the motif with silence.

Another piece, Ascendit Deus, is simpler, with broken major triads in some sections, bright melismas in others, and a rousing chordal final “alleluia” section. The setting for the words “et Dominus” uses imitation in all its forms: a real answer, a tonal answer, imitation by inversion, and imitation of rhythmic patterns.

Philips draws on chant for Pater Noster, which uses the old cantus firmus style (with the chant sung slowly in the tenor line while the other parts trip merrily around it) and for his Ave Maria, Regina coeli, and Salve Regina, which use the paraphrase technique. He particularly shows his expertise with madrigals in the Salve Regina.

His earliest surviving piece is a pavan dated 1580, that’s in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. It was the subject of many variations by Dutchman Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), and Thomas Morley (c1557-1602), and John Dowland (1563-1626), both British.

The compiler of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, Francis Tregian the Younger, also a Catholic, knew Philips from the court of Brussels in 1603. Tregian may have been responsible for importing Philips’ works to England.

Flemish composer Andreas Pevernage (c1542-1591) collected madrigals and dedicated one of his collections to Philips, who had five pieces in the book. The madrigal had taken such firm root in England by then that it was second only to Italy in output.

Philips died in 1628, probably in Brussels, and was buried there.


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

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

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

“The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” by Jeremy Noble, Gustave Reese, Lewis Lockwood, James Harr, Joseph Kerman, Robert Stevenson. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1984.

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

Instrument Biography: The Virginal

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If you’re interested in the Tudors, you’re already familiar with the sweet little instrument known as the virginal (or the virginals—the S doesn’t make it plural, it’s just that some people pronounce it that way). The virginal looked like an itty bitty upright piano and sounded like a harpsichord. It only had a couple of centuries of popularity, but some of the biggest names in music wrote songs for it.

The virginal is a chordophone, which means that the sound is made by the vibration of strings. It sounds funny to say it because of the keyboard, but the virginal is a member of the zither family. The family of chordophones includes bows (like jaw harps), lyres, harps, and lutes (which includes guitars and violins) on one side, and zithers on the other. The zither side of the family includes simple instruments, like an array of strings across a board like a psaltery, more complex struck-string instruments like hammered dulcimers or pianos, or the strings can be plucked like a harpsichord or virginal.

The virginal was a popular domestic instrument in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in England, and major composers like William Byrd (1543-1623) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) wrote a lot for it. The spinet version (more on that in a minute) was first popular in Italy in the 16th century and, by the 18th century, was a favorite all over Europe. One of my favorite painters, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), painted several portraits with virginals in them, including Young Lady Seated at a Virginal (c1670).

Where the idea for the virginal came from and who built the first virginal isn’t known. Musical inventors of the time were fooling around with keyboards and organs, plucked psalteries, and bowed stringed instruments, all of which were being expanded by families (for more on that, read my blog post Instrument Biography: The Vielle or Instrument Biography: The Recorder or even Instrument Biography: The Pipe Organ). The virginal probably existed by the end of the 14th century.

Germany and England were both influential in the development of the instrument, along with Italy to a lesser degree. Virginals weren’t really musically significant until the 16th century when, due to developments in music notation (for more on this, see the History of Music Notation) and chords (for more on this, see Chords versus Polyphony), their harmonic opportunities could be properly exploited.

The oldest dated spinet version of the virginal that has survived was built in 1493 by Alessandro Pasi (dates unavailable) in Modena. The oldest dated harpsichord is also Italian, completed in Rome in 1521 by Geronini di Bologna (dates unavailable), and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The same collection also has the most valuable spinet in existence, which is encrusted with nearly 2000 gems, built in 1577 by Annibale Rosso of Milan (dates unavailable). In 1867, that instrument was bought for $2000, which was a pretty hefty sum, roughly $33,000 in today’s money.

Posh versions aside, by the 16th century, everyone who was anyone had a virginal. Henry VIII had 32 virginals in his collection when inventory was taken in 1547. He also had three hybrid instruments that were part organ and part virginal. (For more about Henry VIII’s musical affinities, see my post On Their MP3 Player: Henry VIII.)

Henry’s very musical daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, played the virginal, and many people think that it got its name because she was “The Virgin Queen.” But the truth is that the virginal was already the most popular household instrument by Elizabethan England., and had its name long before Elizabeth was conceived, let alone crowned queen.

To show how ubiquitous it was, let me cite some examples. The virginal was mentioned in a proverb inscribed on the walls of Manor House, Leckingfield, Yorkshire, England in about 1500. The court organist at Budapest played the virginal to entertain the prince at mealtimes in 1501. Henry VIII bought five of them in 1530, and in 1549, the Innsbruck court bought one from an organ builder in Königsburg. By 1582, the orchestra of the Berlin court possessed four of them. In fact, by 1600, virginals were played throughout all of Europe.

Virginals were very popular domestic instruments in the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Flanders), England, Austria, and Germany. In England, they eventually gave way to the spinet and in Germany to the clavichord.

Virginal Structure

A virginal looks like a flat rectangular box with a keyboard cut out near the end of one long side. By definition, it has strings that run nearly parallel to the length of the keyboard. The virginal’s relative, the spinet, has strings that run diagonally away from the keyboard, and the harpsichord, another near relative, has strings that run perpendicular to the keyboard, directly away from the player.

The rectangular shape was the earliest and the longest-lived shape. Italian virginals included a wide variety of harp-shaped or polygonal designs with the keyboard protruding from the main body. Flemish models had a keyboard recessed into the box, which was either centered in one of the long sides or off to the left. The ones that had the keyboard off to the left were called spinetts (notice the double-T) and the ones that had the keyboard off to the right were called muselars. English virginals followed the Flemish design, with the keyboard off to the left.

There was also a double virginal that had two keyboards superimposed and played separately or coupled and played together. This was a Flemish development. The smaller of the two keyboards was called an ottavino, and it fitted like a drawer under the soundboard of the larger keyboard.

In the early models, the player placed the box on a table, or, more rarely, on their own lap. Later versions had their own stands. The boxes were small, perhaps five feet long, a foot and a half wide, and eight inches deep, and light enough that a musician could place it on the table without help.

Until late in the 17th century, the terms virginal and spinet (one T) were used interchangeably in the various countries of Europe. Both terms were used in England, but there, they described different instruments: the virginal had an oblong rectangular case and the spinet was approximately triangular or wing-shaped, with the keyboard at the the left of the strings, accommodating the long bass strings.

The 32 steel strings are plucked by plectra or quills rather than struck with a hammer like a piano. The strings are attached by a mechanical device to the keyboard.

Each key on the keyboard was attached at the far end to a small wooden rod or jack. The upper end of the jack had a hinged and movable wooden tongue that held the plectrum or quill. The plectrum projected horizontally with a hog’s bristle that served as a spring. The hog’s bristle held the wooden tongue in an upright position.

When the key was depressed, the jack rose and the plectrum plucked at the string above it. After the key was released, a lead weight in the bottom of the jack caused the key to fall back to its original position. The wooden tongue turned aside and the plectrum slid past the string so that the string wasn’t plucked a second time on the way down. A small patch of cloth was fixed to the upper end of the jack to dampen the sound.

The plectrum vibrated the string at the point of impact. In a plucked instrument, the whole string vibrates, which is the major difference between a virginal and a clavichord. In a clavichord, the string is divided so that two notes can be plucked on the same string on either side of a dividing node. That means that a clavichord can have twice as many notes with the same number of strings; a virginal has a single string for each note.

The keyboard could be off to either end of the rectangular box, in the middle, or two separate keyboards could be offset from one another. A spinet keyboard with a harp or pentagonal shape had the keyboard occupying most of the length of the rectangle because it housed more strings.

Remember back when I first started talking about the strings? I said that they ran NEARLY parallel to the keyboard. In truth, they’re at a slight angle, which means that the strings ended up being different lengths when strung from one short end of the box to the other. Lower notes, with longer strings, were harder to play than higher notes because the length of the string meant that the jack and wooden tongue mechanism had to move more weight.

The range of the instrument was limited to the number of strings the case could hold. To extend the range, the keyboard was moved to the narrow end of the soundboard. When they put the keyboard down at the narrow end like that, they had invented the harpsichord. Over time, the length of the keyboard and the number of strings increased until they’d invented the harpsichord you’d recognize today.

Virginals usually had only one register (only one type of sound, compared to organs, which could have many different sounds) and one keyboard (except for the aforementioned ottavinos). It was cheaper to make a virginal than a harpsichord and they were much easier to move. A virginal was louder than the clavichord so it could be used both as a solo instrument and in chamber music with other instruments. This made it as popular as both the harpsichord and the clavichord—it was like a combination of the two.

The tone was full and loud, and couldn’t be altered by varying the pressure on the keyboard. That’s what made the later invention of the piano so exciting—the piano could be played both loudly and softly—its full name is piano-forte, which means “soft-loud” in Italian.

The virginal had 32 metal strings (four octaves) that lay nearly parallel to the keyboard. Each string was longer than its neighbor, forming a triangle inside the case, with the long bass strings at the front. In Flemish virginals, the keyboard was placed either to the right or to the left of center of a long side, a feature that determined the timbre of the instrument. When placed to the right, the strings were plucked nearer their centers, producing a nasal tone that was described in 1730 as “grunting like pigs” by one critic. This form was called a muselar.

With the keyboard to the left, in the form called a spinett (with two Ts), the sound was brighter because the strings were plucked near one end, providing more resonance. It had a more flute-like sound than the muselar or the harpsichord, both of which are plucked near the end of the strings.

The double virginal (ottovino) was nicknamed “mother and child” and combined a large keyboard with a smaller one half the size. The smaller one was set in a recess between the soundboard and the bottom of the case, usually to the left of the larger keyboard. It could also be played on its own, but during performance, the child could be withdrawn and placed on top of the mother so that the mother keyboard played both instruments. The child sounded an octave higher than the mother. These instruments were built in the late 16th century.

The Flemish Ruckers family was famous for producing the mother and child version. The child, or ottavino, was placed over the strings of the larger instrument with the jack rail removed, so the jacks of the child instrument, which passed through a slot in the bottom of the ottavino, could activate the strings of the larger mother instrument. The jacks of the larger instrument activated the keys of the ottavino, so both instruments sounded together, giving a brighter sound.

Italian keyboards projected from the case, and the cases were often cypress wood, and quite delicate. Flemish keyboards had the keyboard recessed within a keywell, were often made of poplar, and were sturdier than the Italian instruments.

The earliest Italian virginals were hexagonal in shape, with the case following the lines of the strings and bridges. A few early Flemish examples were also hexagonal. After 1580, nearly all virginals were rectangular, although the Italian models often had an outer case like harpsichords. There are few surviving English virginals, and they look like Flemish instruments, with vaulted lids.

In the muselar version, plucking the string near the middle makes repeating a note difficult because the vibrating string prevents the plectrum from connecting again. Because of this, the muselar was better suited to chord-and-melody music, without complex left-hand parts. It could be provided with a stop called the harpsichordium, which consisted of lead hooks that were lightly applied against the ends of the bass strings so that the vibrating string produced a buzzing sound. Muselars were popular in the 16 and 17th centuries and their ubiquity has been compared to that of the upright piano in the early 20th century. But, like other forms of virginals, it fell into disuse in the 18th century.

Most virginals have between 32 and 45 notes, or four octaves. There were some Italian models with 54 notes, or five octaves.

They came in several sizes. The Dutch organist and harpsichordist Class Douwes (c1650-c1725) mentions instruments with strings from two and a half feet long to six feet long. The pitch difference between models offered by the Ruckers family corresponded to the musical intervals of a tone: a fourth, a fifth, an octave, and a ninth. Pitch assignments have been suggested based on scaling provided by Douwes.

Many virginals throughout Europe were plain wood, but many others were richly decorated. From the moldings on the case edges, through the jack rails, and name battens, they could be adorned with ivory, mother-of-pearl, marble, agate, tortoiseshell, semi-precious stones, and intricate painting.

Flemish virginals often had their soundboards painted with flowers, fruit, birds, caterpillars, moths, and even images of food, within blue scalloped borders and intricate blue arabesques. Many symbols are meant to suggest the Christian resurrection story.

The keys were in two tones, just like today’s keyboards. The natural keys (white keys on a piano) were covered in bone and the sharp keys (black keys on a piano) were of oak or chestnut. They might be left plain, or keys might be lavishly decorated with ivory, ebony, mother of pearl, or tortoiseshell.

Case exteriors were usually marbled, sometimes painted that way, and sometimes covered with marbleized paper. The inside was covered with elaborately block-printed papers. Sometimes the inside of the lid was painted with a scene, but more often, it was covered with papers printed with a Latin motto having to do with morality or music. Mottos were so often applied to the keywell batten that it’s often called the name batten.

Italian virginals didn’t have a standard form of decoration. The outer case was usually decorated in some way, but the actual instrument was often left plain. Cases might be decorated with grotesques (fantastic curly-cues and human forms), intricately painted classical scenes, or marquetry.

Soundboards were rarely painted. Soundboards of both Flemish and Italian virginals were pierced with a rose, sometimes two or three roses in the earlier models. The piercing served no acoustic function but was purely decorative. These decorations were a throwback to the rose in the medieval lute and were never carved integrally as part of the soundboard.

Italian soundboards were constructed by layering pierced parchment, so the final result looked like a gothic rose window or an inverted wedding cake. In Flemish instruments, the rose was usually cast lead that was gilded and often incorporated with the maker’s initials.

The Name

The name virginal has been erroneously connected with virginity and with the maiden queen Elizabeth. But Elizabeth was born in 1533, quite a few years after the first mention of a virginal. The term goes back to the 15th century, seen first in a poem during Henry VII’s reign (1485-1509, and Elizabeth’s grandfather) and nearly at the same time, in a manuscript in Cracow, written between 1459 and 1463, called the Liber virginti atrium by the Bohemian instrument maker Paulus Paulirinus (c1413-1471).

The word virginal is probably related to the Medieval Latin word virgo, meaning rod or branch. Virginals (with an S) is one variation, and like scissors or pants, is often used in the plural.

In Italian, the word is spinetto, from the Latin spina, meaning thorn. In Middle High German, they’re called Schachtbrett from Schacht or New High German Schaft, or rod, both meaning rod.

In French, the word is echiquier from a mistaken translation of the German word Schachtbrett. Echiquier may be where the term “jack” comes from, that describes part of the plucking mechanism lined up in little rows, like chessmen, which is at the root of the word “check” in echiquier.

A harpsichord could be called a virginal in England, a clavecin in France, and a clavicembalo in Italy. But remember, these are relatives of the virginal, not different forms.

Virginal Composers

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is probably the most famous collection of keyboard compositions, and contains nearly 300 pieces from English composers. It was compiled by a Catholic recusant (for more on recusants, see Composer Biography: William Byrd) called Francis Tregian (1574-1618), between 1609 and 1618. The most frequently represented composers are Byrd, John Bull (c1563-1628) and Giles Farnaby (c1566-1640). No one seems to know why it’s called the Fitzwilliam book, though. Perhaps it was a patron.

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is not necessarily meant only for the square form of harpsichord, and even within the square type, the term “virginal” was not limited to a single form. The use of the words spinet and virginal at the time were both vague and somewhat contradictory. The word harpsichord is commonly used for the grand piano-shaped elongated form, and virginal or spinet for the upright and square form. But the book was intended for all keyboard instruments, even organs.

The “Parthenia” was the first music ever printed for virginals. It contained 21 short pieces, including preludes and dances by William Byrd, John Bull (c1562-1628), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), appeared in late 1612 or early 1613.

Although he didn’t write much for the virginal, English madrigalist Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) wrote variations of “Go from My Window” in his Consort Lessons.

Italian Andrea Gabrieli (c1532-1585) wrote Capriccio sopra Il Pass’ e mezzo Antico for the virginal. It was markedly unlike his usual work.

Both William Byrd and Giles Farnaby (c1563-1640) composed their virginal pieces on “grounds” (a phrase that repeats throughout the song in the same voice—in the left hand on the virginal) and extended sets of variations, usually on popular songs, but sometimes on dance tunes or the notes of the hexachord (a six-tone scale, like a mode).

Virginal works grew increasingly complex, culminating with Spaniard Antonio de Cabezon (1510-1566). Cabezon was certainly in England with his master, Philip of Spain (1527-1598), for more than a year, during 1554-1555, when it is likely that he was known to composer John Blitheman (c1525-1591), who was organist at the court of Queen Mary.

The most important English virginal composers were William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Morley (1557-1602), Peter Philips (1561-1628), Giles Farnaby (c1565-1640), John Bull (c1562-1628), Thomas Weelkes (c1575-1623), Thomas Tomkins, (1572-1656), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). The repertory consists of dances (mostly pavanes and galliards), variations on popular tunes, preludes, fantasias, liturgical pieces (organ hymns and In nomine), and transcriptions of madrigals.

Other big names in virginal composition include:

  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), Italian
  • Giovanni Picchi (c1571-1643), Italian
  • Samuel Scheidt (c1587-1654), German
  • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), Dutch

Famous Makers

There were quite a few virginal makers, some of whom were also harpsichord or organ makers. There were three major centers of virginal making: Italy, Belgium, and England.

Andreas Ruckers (1579-c1640), for instance, was a member of a famous Flemish family of plucked string instrument makers that flourished in Antwerp from 1580-1670. They’re thought to have made the earliest harpsichords with two manuals (keyboards) and a single register (like an organ stop, that controls what kind of sound the instrument makes). The first of the outstanding Ruckers was Hans Ruckers (c1550-c1625), whose instruments had a beauty of tone that won them—and him—a lasting reputation throughout Europe. Some of Hans’ innovations sprang from his expertise as an organ tuner.

Lodewejck Grauwels (dates unavailable), was Flemish and from the late 17th century. I found no other details about him or his instruments.


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

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

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

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

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

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, Wigston, 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography: Johannes Martini (c1440-c1498)

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Also called Giovanni or Zohanne Martini. Martini isn’t an Italianate version of his name—there are Flemish Martinis and variants.

Johannes Martini is not only a Franco-Flemish composer who spent most of his career in Italy. He was such a big deal that the Power Families of the time, the Sforzas and the d’Estes, sought his expertise, and he was well respected by other top-flight composers of his day, such as Josquin des Prez and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come).

Ten of Martini’s Masses survive complete—an enormous number, considering how poor copying and dissemination were, and how few people had access to a printing press (invented in 1440)—as well as motets and many other sacred works, including a large number of homophonic (unison chant) psalm settings. His secular pieces had French and Italian texts, and there are others that were probably intended as instrumental ensemble music.

Martini was probably born in Armentieres, although some sources say he was born in Brabant. Both towns are still quite small and are about 150 miles apart in what is now France.

He received his early musical training in Flanders, like most of his generation of musicians, and he left for Italy when it was time to seek his fortune. He died in Ferrara in 1498 or thereabout.

Not much is known about his youth, but sometime before 1473, he became associated with the Duke of Ferrara, Italy. Duke Ercole I d’Este was building a musical academy that was meant to compete with other musical centers in Italy, and with Flanders and France as well.

In 1474, Martini turned up at the Sforza court chapel in Milan, engaged by Gaspar van Weebecke (c1445-1516) along with Josquin des Prez and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come), probably the other two biggest names of the time. Other Franco-Flemish composers were also at the Milan chapel, including Alexander Agricola (c1445-1506, blog post to come), as part of the movement from Flanders toward Italy as a musical center. The Sforza’s Milan chapel was the most renowned collection of musicians anywhere in Europe at the time.

But Martini didn’t stay long, returning to Ferrara later in 1474. It isn’t known why he didn’t stay, although with so many big names hanging out in Milan, it’s possible that he left to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. He maintained happy relationships with the other composers that he met there, though, so he didn’t go off in a huff.

Records show that in 1475, already in the service of Ercole I in Ferrara, Martini received a monthly wage increase. There’s no record of what his wages were, but the increase was a ducat over whatever he had previously been getting there. Martini was well-paid, receiving a house and a larger salary than other musicians in Ferrara.

He returned to Milan a few years later, as he’s listed in a pass for safe travel to leave Milan, along with other musicians after the assassination of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476) in 1476. Despite his excellent taste in music, Duke Sforza was a sadistic and malicious person, and was conspired against by three of his peers who’d been wronged in one way or another (land grabs, public whipping, and the deflowering of a sister). The public torture and executions of these noblemen and their servants left Milan in a rather unsavory state, and the Duke’s assembly of musicians headed out to less tumultuous cities.

Eventually it all calmed down, and Milan—and the Sforzas—rose again in musical industry. Sforza head musician Gaspar van Weerbecke (c1445-1516) was sent on a composer-recruiting trip to France and Flanders, and in 1489, Martini returned to Milan with Josquin des Prez and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come). These three were each paid 5 ducats a month, which was near the lowest rate of all the singers listed in the register. After 1492, the records stop mentioning Martini, which leads experts to assume that he was probably the first of the three to die.

Most of his time was spent in Ferrara, but he did travel a little, even beyond Milan. In 1486, Martini traveled to Hungary as part of a group installing Ercole I’s nephew as Archbishop of Esztergom. In 1487 and 1488, he made trips to Rome to negotiate benefices given to him by Ercole I.

He was a friend of a court organist in Innsbruck, Austria, one Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537). They probably knew each other through mutual friends from Milan in the 1470s and 1480s. Queen Consort Beatrice of Hungary (1457-1508) asked Martini to intercede on her behalf and convince Hofhaimer to leave the Innsbruck court and come to Hungary. By 1489, she became really insistent, because her own court organist died. Letters show that Ercole I promised Beatrice that he’d send Martini to Innsbruck when they got home to Ferrara. It’s not clear whether or not Martini went, but there are some Martini manuscripts in Munich that originated in Innsbruck. At any rate, Hofhaimer never left Innsbruck for Hungary. Beatrice gave up on getting him to come upon her husband’s death in 1490, when her political life overwhelmed such efforts.

But that wasn’t the last of Martini’s communication with the high and mighty. He was friend and mentor to Ercole I’s daughter, young Isabelle d’Este (1474-1539), and their letters from her first three years (1490-1493) in Mantua survive.

Isabella married Francesco Gonzaga (1466-1519) in 1490 at age 16, and her first letter from Martini arrived six months later. The letter says that her father wanted him to go to Mantua and instruct her in singing. Martini seems eager for the post, but begs for a couple of weeks’ delay so he can gather the necessary supplies. In a later letter, he sends a secular composition for her to practice. Isabella also received dance lessons, and, unlike most women in her circle, made the arts an essential part of her life rather than just superficial knowledge meant to impress suitors. In her study at the ducal palace, she had the song Prennez sur moi by Johannes Ockeghem (c1420-1497) worked out in marquetry, and many of the great artists of Italy were on terms of mutual respect with her, including Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Titian (c1499-1576), and writer Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529).

But I digress. Martini’s secular music was partialy published by Ottaviano Petricci (1466-1539), and other works, both sacred and secular survive. His surviving output includes 10 Masses and quite a few motets, psalms, hymns, and secular songs, including chansons.

He wrote more Masses than motets (the sacred version of a madrigal), which was more typical of Ockeghem’s generation than of Josquin’s. His musical style was also more conservative than Josquin’s.

In fact, Martini’s style refers back to the Burgundian School, especially in his Masses. There’s some stylistic similarity to Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), harkening to the Dutch school. It’s thought that Martini and Obrecht knew each other, or at least each others’ works. Obrecht was a guest in Ferrara in 1487 (Martini was in Rome for part of that year, so they might have missed each other), and his music is known to have circulated in Italy in the early 1480s.

Martini wrote some of the earliest examples of paraphrase Masses. Paraphrase is when the chant melody is in the highest voice, rather than as cantus firmus in the tenor. Martini’s Missa domenicalis and Missa ferialis, both tentatively dated to the 1470s, use paraphrase in the tenor voice, where cantus firmus usually is, but also use the same melodic material in other voices. The paraphrase technique was to become one of the predominant methods of Mass composition in the early 16th century.

Martini is the first composer known to have set psalms for double choir singing antiphonally, a style that would become famous under the direction of Adrian Willaert (c1490-1562) seventy years later, and is probably most profoundly famous as a key element in works of the Baroque, especially those of J.S. Bach (1685-1750). Nevertheless, the style of antiphonal double-choir psalms was strikingly innovative, but didn’t catch on in his own lifetime or even shortly afterward.

In addition to his contrapuntal Masses, Martini also wrote motets with skillful imitative devices. His Vesper psalms, written in collaboration with Johannes Brebis (late 15th century) for Ercole I, are all simple chants.

His Missa Cucu has a cantus firmus melody in the tenor, like so many other pieces, but other voices display a well-developed imitative style, including the descending minor-third song of the cuckoo bird.

Martini wrote a Salve Regina, a Magnificat Secudi Toni (in the second mode, hypo-Dorian), and an Ave Maris Stella, all in four voices. But he wasn’t just doing variations on themes. The Salve Regina uses the double cantus firmus technique, where the cantus firmus is repeated in canon by another voice, only transposed by a fourth or fifth. His Magnificat set the odd-numbered verses in polyphony, except for the opening word, which, like the even-numbered verses, is in plainchant. In those polyphonic verses, the cantus firmus moves from voice to voice. In his Ave Maris Stella, after a brief introduction in the altus and bass, who sing in contrary motion, the discantus and tenor paraphrase the plainsong, occasionally in imitation. Martini’s used of imitation in this piece is quite skillful.

Martini wrote another Magnificat in the third mode (Phrygian). There are also three Masses collected in a single book, each with a Gloria, Credo, and Sanctus only (missing the Kyrie, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est), that are based on Barbingant’s (fl. c1445-1460, no first name found) Der ploben swancz, and a Missa Ma couche rit, based on Ockeghem’s chanson by the same name, and a Missa Io ne tengo. In another book, there are three more Masses from Martini, including a Missa Cela sans plus and a Missa La Matrinella.

Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) printed several of Martini’s works, including both hymns and secular pieces. One of the secular pieces is the widely disseminated three-part La Martinella. That piece and 21 others are contained in a manuscript in Rome. Another is the Toujours bien, which is much like La Martinella in style. Also among them is a textless four-part canon, the canon appearing an octave below the melody in two voices and at a fifth below in the fourth.

More of Martini’s works are preserved in other manuscripts, including 17 secular pieces in the Banco rari, which is a library of rare books in Florence. The bulk of Martini’s secular music is in three parts, with texts in both Italian and French.

Martini wrote one of the most widely distributed works of the period, the aforementioned La Martinella. The piece unfolds in a series of phrases, most featuring imitation between two voices (usually superius and tenor), and the third voice rests or adds free counterpoint. The opening figure returns in various guises throughout, including in a varied inverted form at the midpoint.

He didn’t live a long life, but Johannes Martini certainly led a productive and interesting one. He’s thought to have died around 1498 in Ferrara.


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

“A History of Western Music,” by K. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude B. 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, 1988.

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

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

The Squarcialupi Codex (15th Century)

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The Squarcialupi Codex is one of the chief anthologies of the Italian trecento (c1325-c1425). It’s an illuminated manuscript that was compiled in Florence in the early 15th century and is the single largest source of secular music of the Italian ars nova (the beginning of modern music, with polyphony at the center of it). The manuscript is still in good condition all these centuries later and all of the pieces included are musically complete. About 150 pieces of the 354 included exist in this manuscript and nowhere else in contemporary collections.

This beautiful book is made up of 216 parchment folios. The pieces contained in it are arranged chronologically by composer (dated by the type of music notation used), with some pages left blank for later works. There’s an illuminated portrait of each composer at the beginning of his section, elegantly ornamented in reds, blues, and purples, with gold leaf making an occasional appearance. The remaining pages are also colorful, with the edges surrounding the music displaying flowers, instruments and animals, and people doing musical and pastoral things.

Sixteen of the folios are blank, intended for the music of Paolo da Firenze. They’re all labeled and his portrait is done, but the pages meant for music are empty. Common thinking is that Paolo’s music wasn’t ready when the manuscript was compiled because he was away from Florence until 1409. There’s another blank section for Giovanni Mazzuoli (c1360-1426), with no explanation forthcoming.

The biggest names of the Italian trecento are the composers included in this incredible collection. There are 354 pieces in all, including:

  • 146 pieces by Francesco Landini (c1325-1397)
  • 37 by Bartolino da Padova (fl. c1365-1405, blog post to come)
  • 36 by Niccolo da Perugia (fl. late 1300s)
  • 29 by Andrea da Firenze (d.1315)
  • 28 by Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-c1386)
  • 17 by Lorenzo da Firenze (d c1372)
  • 16 by Gherardello da Firenza (c1320-c1362)
  • 15 by Donato da Cascia (fl.c1350-1370)
  • 12 by Giovanni da Cascia (1270-1350)
  • 6 by Vincenzo da Rimini (mid-1300s)
  • 12 pieces from two unidentified composers

The pieces included are all secular, and are mainly ballatas and madrigals, with a few caccias for good measure, all composed between 1340 and 1415. They were probably copied by a single scribe, as the handwriting is much the same throughout.

All of the pieces are vocal and have Italian texts. Conspicuous by their absence are pieces by Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412), who spent the bulk of his productive lifetime in Padua and is probably the biggest name to come out of Italy during that period, and Italian Antonio Zacara da Teramo (c1350-c1415), whose compositions were rather innovative.

The anthology was compiled by Antonio Squarcialupi (1416-1480), who was an Italian organist and composer. He was a licensed butcher, but his talent on the organ earned him a post at the Florence Cathedral from 1432 until his death in 1480. You have to remember that the de Medici family was prominent during this period, and they could have had any organist they wanted. They chose Squarcialupi.

Antonio is known to have visited Naples and Siena. He was highly esteemed by his contemporaries, including Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474), with whom he exchanged letters. None of his own compositions survive—he was obsessively self-critical about them and he may have destroyed them himself.

The eponymous codex was probably compiled in Florence at the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, between 1410-1415. A family seal that hasn’t been identified is on the first folio and on the portrait page of Paolo da Firenza (c1355-1436); original theories were that Paoli had a part in compiling the collection or that he was part of the family that commissioned it. Recent findings about Paolo’s poor finances make this unlikely.

The Italian trecento has three distinctive developmental periods. You’ll notice that most of the composers in the codex are listed in the first two generations of big names.

First Generation:

  • Giovanni da Cascia (also Giovanni da Firenze) (1270-1350)
  • Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340-1386)
  • Bartolino da Padova (Padua, c1365-1405)
  • Grazioso da Padova (fl. 1391-1407)
  • Vincenzo da Rimini (fl. 1360s)
  • Piero (from Assisi, Milan, or Verona, fl.1340-1350)

Second Generation:

Third Generation:

  • Zacherie (papal singer from 1420-1432)
  • Matteo da Perugia (fl. 1400-1416)
  • Giovanni da Genova (Genoa, no dates available)
  • Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412, Belgian)
  • Antonello da Caserta (1355-1402)
  • Filippo da Caserta (c1350-c1436)
  • Corrado da Pistoia (fl. 1410)
  • Bartolomeo da Bologna (fl. 1405-1427)

The manuscript was inherited by Antonio’s nephew, and then by the estate of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici (1479-1516), the third son of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), who gave it to the Biblioteca Palatina in the early 16th century. At the end of the 18th century, it became part of the collection of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, where it remains.

Antonio Squarcialupi is eulogized on one of the original flyleaves.

If you want a copy for yourself, there are 988 handmade reproductions available through purveyors of ancient manuscripts and Incunabula. I’d imagine that they’re pretty expensive. You can save the money and take a video tour of the codex here:


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

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

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

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

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

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