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Archive for June 2014

Composer Biography: Juan de Anchieta (c1462-1523)

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Spanish music developed a great deal during the reign of Queen Isabella (1451-1504) and King Ferdinand (1452-1516). Isabella, in particular, was a great supporter of music and the other arts, and it was a love she fostered in her children, Prince Juan of Asturias (1478-1497), who played the flute, viol, and clavichord, and sang with a clear tenor voice, and the future (Mad) Queen Juana (1479-1555).

Ferdinand and Isabella had a very stable reign, as evidenced by their ability to fund Columbus’ journey to the New World and by the conquest of Grenada, through which they drove the last of the Moors from Spanish soil. (They also spent some time driving Jews out of Spain and out of their allies’ lands. Repercussions lasted and were still strongly felt during the time of Solomon Rossi (c1570-c1630) in Italy.) Isabella in particular supported music, employing 40 singers at a time, plus instrumentalists. Her son Juan enjoyed singing so much that instead of taking a siesta, he’d meet Anchieta and four or five choirboys at the palace to sing with them for a couple of hours. Juan was apparently a fine tenor.

The age was so good for music that, until the death of Ferdinand in 1516 (Isabella died in 1504), historians called it a Golden Age.

The royal court was at Aragon and was closely linked with Avignon (now part of France), site of the anti-popes and a lot of musical innovation during the later Middle Ages. Aragon and Catalan shared a common European-style musical culture as a result. The court at Barcelona, like those in Italy, was mostly served by Franco-Flemish musicians with only a few native Spaniards.

Castile had fewer foreigners holding court positions than did Barcelona, Aragon, Catalan, and Toledo, and four of the outstanding Spanish composers who thrived under the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, were Pedro Escobar (d. 1514), Francisco de Penalosa (c1470-1528), Juan del Encina (1468-1529, biography to come) and Juan de Anchieta.

Of the four, Anchieta was the least enterprising. He was a native Castilian and primarily a church composer. Along with the other three Castilians, he cultivated the Spanish counterpart of the frottola, called a villancico. This was a form of vernacular secular song frequently associated with rustic themes, akin to what we call a “carol” in modern times. Sacred versions were sung at Matins, a Divine Office held at midnight in monasteries. Most of Anchieta’s secular villancicos are lost. We only have four that can be positively attributed.

Anchieta was born in Urrestilla Spain, smack in the middle of Basque country, about 60 miles northwest of Pamplona and 230 miles south of Castile. Some sources say that he was born in Azpeitia, about a mile and a half north of Urrestilla. Either way, he was a nobleman’s son.

His mother was also of noble birth and was the great-aunt of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), who became the founder of the Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits. Loyola was beatified in 1609.

Anchieto worked as a royal musician for Ferdinand and Isabella as part of the a capilla flamenco. This group consisted of 14 singers and a few instrumentalists; their style contrasted strongly with the unison singing of the larger Spanish Royal Choir.

In 1506, during a state visit from Juana and her husband the Archduke Philip (1478-1506), Anchieto met Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518, Netherlandish). The future Queen Juana was particularly fond of de la Rue’s music, and he hung around to entertain her even after she was locked away in a convent. Anchieta was exposed to the new Netherland/Flemish polyphony both by de la Rue visiting Spain and when he traveled to Flanders himself in the service of Queen Juana.

Anchieta became chaplain and cantor to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1489. He sang in the Castilian royal chapel for most of his working life, becoming maestro de capilla to Prince Juan in 1493. He returned to the Queen’s service when Juan died in 1497. When Isabella died in 1504, Anchieto kept the post, working for Queen Juana (the Mad).

From 1500, Anchieta was also rector of the parish church at Azpeitia. In 1519, he retired from court to become the parish priest there. He became abbot of Arbos monastery in 1518, about 320 miles southeast from Azpeitia, on the Mediterranean Sea. He was also chaplain at Grenada Cathedral, nearly 600 miles distant from Arbos and 530 miles from Azpeitia. (I only found these posts listed in one source, so perhaps, because of the distances, they are suspect.)

In 1519, he was pensioned and excused from service at court by Charles V (1500-1558) because he was considered already old at 57. Anchieta retired to his native town of Azpeitia, where he died in 1523, spending his final years in a Franciscan convent that he founded himself.


It’s likely that much is lost, but what survives from Anchieta are two complete Masses, two Magnificats, one Salve Regina, four Passion settings, and a few motets, all for large choirs. They sound graceful and sonorous, with only a few clever or innovative devices. His sacred works are largely free of the complex counterpuntal devices favored by Franco-Flemish composers, instead, using plainsong and chordal writing (as opposed to polyphony).

His sacred music makes considerable use of Gregorian melodies. The Gloria of one Mass is based on the Gloria of Gregorian Mass XV. His Salve Regina breaks up into ten sections; the odd-numbered verses are chant, the even-numbered ones are polyphony, and all polyphonic verses are in four voices except the last, which is in five. In the polyphonic sections, the highest voice (the superius) paraphrases the chant rather than leaving it to the tenor voice. At the close of the first and last polyphonic sections, Anchieta introduces new voices, much like the Franco-Flemish masters did. There are sustained chordal sections in his work occasionally, interspersed with imitative passages and free polyphony. Like his northern contemporaries, he favored two voices where the voices are ten notes (an octave plus a third) apart, in parallels.

He also wrote four villancicos, one of which, Dos anades, was very popular during his lifetime.


“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 & Co., New York, 1994.

“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 & David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

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

Composer Biography: Byzantine Women Composers (8th and 9th Century)

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I was researching something else, and I came across the most wonderful CD. It was music by Byzantine composer Kassia, from the 9th century. And here I thought Hildegard was the first named composer! Apparently, she was only the first named composer in the West—Byzantium was naming them left and right, and Kassia is not only earlier, but she’s also a woman!

First, a little history about how Byzantium (which is a modern appellation, by the way. I’ll use it here as a convenience) came to be separate from the West in religion, culture, and language.

The Catholic papacy had a long tradition of eastern orientation, but in the 8th century, the Byzantines split off after the papacy refused to pay taxes to the Byzantine Empire. They also refused to destroy religious icons, because such destruction seemed too close to the Islamic policy banning religious images. There was more to it than iconoclastic differences and fear of Islam, but the result was a papacy vulnerable to the Lombards of Northern Italy, which ultimately led to an alliance with the Carolingian family in the form of Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father.

There was a lot of arguing about whether the Eucharistic bread actually became God’s body and so forth, but the great split between Eastern Orthodox Catholics and Roman Catholics happened when Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne (c742-814) as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Charlemagne was the first to be named Holy Roman Emperor since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier, when Justinian tried to bring Eastern (Byzantine) power further west and ended up dividing rule of the land into several pieces.

Not only the religions but also the cultures diverged wildly after this point. Byzantium used the Cyrillic alphabet, incorporated Indian and Arabian influences into music, architecture, and other art forms, and the language of the literate was Greek. Under Roman rule, Latin was the unifying language of the literate, music and other art forms took on what we now identify as distinctly European affects, and the Roman alphabet was used.

Byzantine music tends to be wildly ornamental, with lithe wriggling endings to long notes, quick turns and decorations in instrumental parts, and extremes of high and low voices. Roman music is more straightforward, requiring less virtuosity but with its own kind of serene beauty. Where church modes (see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes) developed in Roman Catholic lands involving a tuning based on a sequence of three whole tones, a half tone, and another whole tone, Byzantium retained the old Greek modes, which were based on a stricter, more mathematical splitting of string lengths into five pentatonic notes. (For those interested in temperament, this ends up being the difference between Just and Mean tones before they knew it was called that.)

Byzantium became the Ottoman Empire, after bunches of wars and other disruptions, around the 15th century. Even so, a sharp divide between the sound of eastern music and that of western still remains.

Now that you have some context, let’s take a listen to some Byzantine music and explore some composers’ biographies.


  • “Les Tres Riches Heures du Moyen Age, CD 1: Les Premieres hueres de l’Ere Chretienne.” Harmonia Mundi, 1995
  • Hesperion XXI, Montserrat Figueras, Gürsoy Dinçer, Lior Elmaleh, Jordi Savall, et al. “La Sublime Porte, Voix d’Istanbul 1430-1750.” Alia Vox 2011.
  • Peter Rabenser, Belinda Sykes, Jeremy Avis, Oni Wytars Ensemble. “From Byzantium to Andalusa, Medieval Music and Poetry.” Naxos 2006.
  • Soeur Marie Keyrouse, SBC. “Chants Sacres Melchites, Hymnes a la Vierge.” Harmonia Mundi France, 1994.
  • Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum. “Chant Mozarabe, Cathedrale de Tolede (15th Century).” Harmonia Mundi France 1995.
  • Sister Marie Keyrouz, SBC. “Byzantine Chant,” Harmonia Mundi France, 2008.


  • “The Early Middle Ages, Part 2 of 2,” by Professor Philip Daileader of the College of William and Mary. The Teaching Company’s “The Great Courses,” Chantily, 2004.
  • “Charlemagne, A Biography,” by Derek Wilson. Vintage Books, New York, 2005.
  • “Charlemagne,” by Roger Collins. Unversity of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2008.


Kassia (c805-before 865):

Kassia (also Kassiani, Ikasia, Cassie, and Cassianne), was a Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer. Her name is the feminine Greek form of the Latin name Cassius.

She was one of the first Medieval composers whose scores have survived. We have about 50 of her hymns, and 23 are included in Orthodox Church liturgical books that are still used today. The exact number of her compositions is difficult to assess, as many hymns are ascribed to different authors in various manuscripts or are identified as anonymous. About 790 of her attributed non-liturgical verses still exist.

Kassia was born between 805 and 810 in Constantinople into a wealthy family, and was said to be very beautiful and intelligent. Three reliable chroniclers claim that she participated in a Bride Show where the prospective groom gives a golden apple to the woman of his choice, from among all the potential brides lined up at a party. In this case, the prospective groom was the soon-to-be-emperor Theophilos (813-842). He chose Kassia, and when he quoted a Bible verse meant as a compliment (something about all sin coming from intelligent and beautiful women, a reference to Eve), she responded to it in kind (something about good things coming from women, a reference to the Virgin Mary). He felt rebuffed and chose someone else, but remained Kassia’s supporter until his death.

In 843, Kassia founded a convent in Constantinople near the Constantinian Walls. She was the abbey’s first abbess. The monastery had a close relationship with the nearby monastery of Stoudios, which would play a key role in re-editing the Byzantine liturgical books in the 9th and 10th centuries, and which is why her work survived.

Emperor Theophilos was bothered by the Eastern Orthodox veneration of icons. Despite being scourged with a lash as punishment, Kassia remained an outspoken icon defender. When the Theophilos died, the age of iconoclastic destruction also ended.

Kassia is notable for being one of very few women to write in their own names during the Middle Ages. Her most famous composition is the “Hymn of Kassiani” is still sung every Holy Wednesday. It has a large range and is considered to be one of the most difficult pieces of solo Byzantine chant. It’s a unison piece, sometimes with a vocal bass drone. Church attendees make an issue of going to church specifically to “listen to Kassiani.”

Other important works include the “Doxastichon” (for Vespers on Christmas Eve), numerous hymns honoring saints, the “Triodon” (sung during Lent) and the “Irmoi” (for Matins for Great Thursday), and her longest piece, “Canon for the Departed” (for requiem services).

Kassia briefly traveled to Italy and then settled in the Greek Island of Kasos, which is where she died sometime between 867 and 890. Kassia’s tomb and reliquary are in a church in Panaghia.

Her feast day is September 7th, and she’s often pictured on the icon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy (the first Sunday of Great Lent).

Recordings include:

  • VocaMe: “Kassia—Byzantine Hymns of the First Woman Composer,” 2009. Only works by Kassia, including Augustus. (This is the one I’m completely hooked on.)
  • Kronos Quartet: “Early Music,” 1997. Includes an instrumental version of “Using the Apostate Tyrant as His Tool.”
  • Sarband: “Sacred Women, Women as Composers and Performers of Medieval Chant,” 2001. Includes “Augustus.”
  • Deborah Kayser and Nick Tsiavos: “The Fallen Woman,” 2008. Includes the Kassiani Hymn. Search for this one on YouTube
  • Capella Romana and the English Chamber Choir: “Choral Settings of Kassiani and When Augustus Reigned,” 2011.


  • “The Byzantine World,” edited by Paul Stephenson, 2013.
  • “Byzantine Women, Varieties of Experience, 800-1200” edited by Lynda Garland. Ashgate, 2006.


Khosrovidukht (8th century)

Also Xosrociduxt.

One of the earliest known women musicians, Khosrovidukht was once thought to have been a member of the Armenian royal family, but experts are now uncertain. There are stories that her brother was abducted by Arabs and that she was taken to the fortress of Ani Kaakh (now called Kemah) for safekeeping. She stayed there as a hermit for 20 years.

She’s thought to be the composer of a sarakan, or canonical hymn, called “Zarmanaii e Ints” (How Wondrous it is”), which honors the memory of her brother, thought to have been assassinated in 737 for his conversion to Christianity. It’s a secular piece, but it was sanctioned for use in the Armenian Church.

Recordings include:


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


Sahakdukht (8th century)

Sahakdukht came from a musical Armenian family, and had a famous brother, music theorist Stephannos Syunetsi (dates unavailable—like hers).

She herself was a composer of hymns, and she was a poet and pedagogue. She lived in a cave near present-day Yerevan, and wrote ecclesiastical poems and liturgical chants. Only one survived, “Srbuhi Mariam” (St. Mary), a nine-stanza verse. Many of her works are Marian Hymns, and some may have helped to shape the genre. (In the Latin liturgy, the Marian hymns are my favorites. They’re often gentle and sweetly loving, and use metaphors that I find particularly pleasing.)

Sahakdukht is said to have taught lay musicians and clerical students who visited her cave. According to custom, she stayed seated behind a curtain during all interviews and visits. It must have been a very long and slow 20 years…

Recordings include:


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

Composer Biography: Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361)

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Also Philippe de Vitri and Philippus De Vitriaco

Philippe de Vitry was a French poet, composer, music theorist, administrator for the Duke of Bourbon and the King of France, church canon, and Bishop of Meaux. He was called the “flower and jewel of musicians” by his contemporaries, and is credited with inventing the “new art” version of music called Ars Nova (I’ll use Ars Nova with both initial capital letters for the movement and Ars nova in italics for the treatise throughout). The Ars Nova style has come to define French music from the 1310s to the 1370s.

De Vitry was an accomplished, innovative, and influential composer, possibly the author of the music theory treatise called Ars nova notandi that gives the era its name. He was widely acknowledged as the greatest musician of his day, with even the great poet Petrarch (1304-1374) writing a glowing tribute.

Various sources claim that de Vitry was born in Vitry-en-Artois near Arras (see also Composer Biography: Adam de la Halle for another great composer from Arras), or possibly in Champagne or Paris. He died in either Meaux or Paris. (For more about great composers from this region, read Composer Biography: Guillaume Machaut, because he was also born in this region fewer than ten years after de Vitry.)

De Vitry is thought to have studied at the University of Paris where he received a Master of Arts degree. He also studied at the Sorbonne and held numerous prebends (a stipend from a cathedral). But his main sphere of activity was the French court, where he was secretary and advisor to Charles IV (1316-1378), Philippe VI (1293-1350), and Jean II (1319-1364).

He was known as a leading intellectual. He was friends with the poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1474) and the famous mathematician, philosopher, and music theorist Nicole Oresme (c1320-1382).

He was a diplomat and a soldier, serving at the siege of Aiguillon in 1346. In 1351, he became Bishop of Meaux which is about 45 miles east of Paris. He held several canonries (an important member of a cathedral), including at Clermont, Beauvais, and Paris, also serving the antipope at Avignon starting with Clement VI (1291-1352).

He composed motets and other music, but the most important aspect of his work was the Ars nova treatise. Probably the most original part was the last ten chapters, where he wrote about mensural rhythm and notation. Music notation was in its infancy—the new styles of music, like polyphony, required more specific forms of notation than chant, organum, and conductus. (For more on these things, see The History of Music Notation, Chords versus Polyphony, and the Composer Biographies for Leonin and Perotin.)

De Vitry’s treatise presented new concepts for rhythm and notation. The two main most important features are the minim (which is now called a half-note) for which he established the notational symbol and imperfect mensuration (the division of note values into twos as well as threes, no matter how long or short the note).

The Ars nova treatise and the contemporaneous writings of music theorist Johannes de Muris (c1290-c1355) form the fundamental source of information on the development of the mensural system of notation. De Vitry pays particular attention to the relationships between the different levels of rhythmic time values, such as breve to long, semibreve to breve, and so on (these are early forms of notation that indicated very long and sort of long notes).

Unlike most medieval theorists, de Vitry was a composer of international and lasting reputation and of outstanding ability. His music shows a new lyricism and an effective use of the hocket device, which was a kind of musical exchange akin to hiccupping. The Roman de Fauvel (a 14th century allegorical poem in two lavish books, by French royal clerk Genvais de Bus and scribe Chaillou de Pesstain, and about which there will be more in a moment) contains six motets attributed to him. He discusses these motets in his own treatise, Ars nova (there will be more on that in a moment, too). Nine additional motets are found in the later Ivrea Codex (mid-to-late 14th century), illustrating the early use of isorhythm (a rhythmic pattern that repeats throughout the piece—a fixture in motet writing) as a constructive principle.

De Vitry is said to have had a vitriolic tongue and often verbally overwhelmed his opponents, such as an unidentified “Hugo” and poor Jehan de le Mote (dates unavailable), a poet musician from Hainaut, Belgium. There are 250 pages of dialog between the two, all in French poetry.

Another work pays homage to Pope Clement VI of Avignon (1291-1352) on his election in 1342, where de Vitry expresses how much he despises being at court. But he was unable to leave the busy life of officialdom, and Petrarch, whom he met at Avignon, poured out his own sympathetic dismay on learning that de Vitry had become Bishop of Meaux in 1350.

De Vitry wrote chansons and motets, although only a few have survived. They are conspicuously different from one another, each with its own distinctive structural idea, as if he were experimenting. It’s too bad that there aren’t several of each sort, though, as it would aid in studying both his thought process and the music of the period.

De Vitry’s motets are distinctive because of the notation using smaller note values. The notation system (semi-breves, breves, and minims) was probably a product of the College of Navarre in Paris (founded in 1305 to rival the Sorbonne). They were documented for the first time in his Ars nova treatise.

Ars nova notandi

As I’ve been saying, de Vitry was most famous for Ars nova notandi (1322), a treatise on music that lent its name to the music of the whole era. Although his authorship and the existence of the treatise itself have come into question, his music also survives elsewhere, showing his innovations, especially in music notation and particularly in mensural and rhythmic notation, for which he gets credit. Such innovations are particularly clear in the motets of the Roman de Fauvel.

His motets set the standard for the next hundred years, past the beginning of the Ars subtilior (1380-1420; see Composer Biographies on Paolo da Firenza and Zacara da Teramo for more on this era). In many ways, modern notation started with de Vitry’s Ars nova, separating for the first time from the old rhythmic modes (see Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes) that didn’t need mensuration in the same way. Modern time meters (like 3/4 time and 6/8 time) also originate from this era and are documented in the treatise. He’s credited with coming up with the idea of isorhythms, where the voice’s melodic line consists of repeating patterns of rhythms and pitches, but the patterns overlap with those of other voices rather than correspond—not chordal (vertical) relationships, but musical gestures and repeated patterns or melodies in a linear (horizontal) sense.

The Ars nova treatise listed the rules of the old and the new art form. De Vitry’s primary intent was to show new ways of notating motets using his own compositions as examples. He barely mentions polyphonic songs, but his late 14th century compositions that are polyphonic are the only Ars Nova works that continue the earlier traditions of form and notational precision.

The Ars nova treatise describes innovations in rhythmic notation that are attributed to both de Vitry and to Jehan des Murs (c1290-1355), a mathematician, astronomer, and music theorist. One innovation allowed duple (“imperfect”) division of note values along with the triple (“perfect”) division that was already popular. Another innovation divided the semi-breve, formerly the smallest note duration, into minims. Both of these innovations resulted in new meters and allowed greater rhythmic flexibility, including, for the first time, syncopation.

De Vitry wholeheartedly embraced the duple time that became the modern time-systems 9/8, 6/8, 3/4, and 2/4. In fact, we still use one of his key signatures, the capital C (for Common time), and our black notes (quarter notes) are successors to his red notes (about which there will be more in a moment), used to distinguish sections of notes with a different rhythm.

Everyone quickly adopted his ideas, although Jacobus of Liege (1260-1340), who wrote the huge musical encyclopedia Speculum musicae, advocated against it. Pope John XXII (1244-1334) issued a papal bull, not against the theory but against the practical results of the new art. He wanted to ensure that the sanctity of the Divine Office and that the tranquility of plainsong was maintained. The new pieces, he complained, were agitated by short notes and disturbed by hockets and the plainsong was made unrecognizable by the rhythmic treatment to which it is subjected. In fact, the pope condemned all such music, insisting that the only allowable polyphony be that with the simple addition of consonant harmonies, such as the octave, the fifth, and the fourth, and those few only on feast days. Most musicians thought that the simplicity was inadequate, though, and the bull was promulgated by 1324. That’s right. The Ars Nova movement was considered a menace!

In addition to the red notes, another innovation from de Vitry was the dot after a note to indicate both the lengthening of a note (as in modern notation), and to divide one group of notes from another as an aid in syncopation, a precursor to measure lines.

De Vitry meant his treatise to describe French music specifically, but it raises the question of the new styles in other countries. Italian music had already moved on, so the Ars Nova period doesn’t apply there. Spain and Northern Germany also resisted the new style. The English liked it and Poland accepted it, both influenced by Southern Germany. This difference is part of why it’s so hard to define when the Renaissance happened. Each nation had its own cultural preferences and influences, but by the Baroque era, everyone was on the same page—it only took 150 years or so.

Only two years after de Vitry’s treatise showed up, Marchetto de Padua (fl.1305-1319) published his own treatise, Pomerium, in 1318. This treatise described Italian forms of notation, including the same minim idea and comparing the French and Italian rhythmic methods. Marchettus dedicated Pomerium to Robert of Anjou (1309-1343), and de Vitry also dedicated a motet to him, so he was probably an important patron for musicians.

Roman de Fauvel

The Roman de Fauvel (1310-1320) is an allegorical poem by the French royal clerk Gervais de Bus (dates unknown) and Chaillou de Pesstain (even less is known about this fellow). It tells the story of a curry- (or fauve) colored horse that rises to prominence in the French royal court. The poem consists of 12 lavish manuscripts replete with poetry, 77 colorful miniatures, and 169 pieces of music that span the gamut of 13th and early 14th century genres.

Just for fun because I’m a bit of a word geek, it’s this collection that led to the expression “to curry Fauvel” which has been corrupted to “curry favor” in English, in reference to everyone, starting with popes and kings, currying (or pandering to) the sins represented by the letters in the horse’s name (Flattery, Avarice, Guile [which begins with a V in French], Variety [inconstancy, in French], Envy, and Cowardice {begins with an L in French]).

Gervais de Bus completed the first part of the poem (1226 lines) in 1310 and the second part (2054 lines) in 1314. By 1316, Chaillou de Pesstain completed collecting the music. These seem to have come from a variety of sources and include diverse musical styles. There are 34 motets and there are monophonic songs in even greater numbers. Most have Latin texts. Over 50 of the monophonic songs are liturgical chants. There are also some conductus pieces (see Composer Biography: Perotin for more on conductus).

Fauvel contains songs with French texts including four lais, four rondeaux, and nine ballades, two of which have the musical and poetic form of the virelai. Shorter entries with French texts include 15 refrains and 12 brief quotations of “sottes chansons” (foolish songs). Finally, a complete duplum (two-part conductus) with French text has been extracted from a motet and broken into 11 fragments, each of which is followed by text explaining it.

Much of de Vitry’s literary output is lost, but he probably wrote the poetic texts of his surviving motets. The earliest of these appear in the Roman de Fauvel, and some of the monophonic songs there may also be de Vitry’s.

In the Roman de Fauvel, de Vitry concentrates on religious or political subjects, attacking, for instance, an unidentified hypocritical “Hugo” who was an enemy of Robert of Anjou (1277-1343), King of Naples. He also wrote a piece in celebration of the election of Clement VI (1291-1352) as Pope in 1342.

His works in Fauvel depart from the modes, a kind of “new lyricism,” according to one source. There’s also hocketing (a way of alternating voices that sounds a lot like hiccupping) and full harmony on accented syllables, although it’s not full-on harmony as would come in the century after.

The most interesting aspect (to me, anyway) is that de Vitry used red notes in Fauvel to indicate a change in rhythm, indicating the difference between a cantus planus (without rhythm or regularity) and cantus mensurabilis (rhythmic and regular). He also used them to show that the rhythm was changing from three (triplum) to two (duplum), that the melody was to be sung up an octave, that a note should be altered by a half step (an accidental) to prevent a note from being a perfect fifth or fourth, and to change the meter to cut-time (twice as fast).

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

White notes 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 lost its tail and became black, and notes of shorter value—also black—appeared with increasing frequency until the same divisions we have today (white for everything from a half note—minim—and larger, and black for the quarter note—semi-minim—and smaller). (For more about this, see The History of Music Notation.)

The Robertsbridge Codex

Two of de Vitry’s motets are in the earliest known collection of keyboard music, the Robertsbridge Codex. It’s part of a collection that includes an old church registry at the Robertsbridge Abbey in Sussex, England. It’s probably as old as 1325 and is roughly contemporary with the Roman de Fauvel.

De Vitry’s motets were probably meant to be played on a small organ or an eschiquier (a small harpsichord). The only trouble was that the player had to read the music from two separate pages simultaneously. At the time, organ tablature involved writing the highest voice on a staff and the rest were in letters of the alphabet written below them. The highest part wasn’t just written out, though. It was colored in and surrounded with decorative figuration, a term that survives until today: it’s where we get the term “coloratura.”

In total, 14 motets are attributed to de Vitry, but only four have been authenticated with any certainty.

De Vitry’s original approach to composition established a hierarchic concept for voices, in which the sustained tenor had a clearly defined structural foundation. He combined the slow-moving and patterned tenor with a superstructure of two faster moving voices, which created increased melodic and contrapuntal flexibility. Of the 14 motets that can be ascribed to him, none has a chant-like tenor as cantus firmus (so it’s much like modern music in that way), and only one uses French texts. His structural use of isorhythm clearly influenced Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377). Machaut based some of his motets on de Vitry’s, as is made clear by the structural complexity that occasionally seems like an effort to outdo de Vitry.

Only one love song came from de Vitry during the age of chivalry. It’s a French motet, but the lost or unidentified ballades, lais, and rondeaux he is said to have written were concerned with love and in French.

He may be seldom performed any more, but pretty much everything else that came since is beholden to Philippe de Vitry—modern music notation grew from his ideas.


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