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Archive for December 2014

The Robertsbridge Codex (c1325)

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The Robertsbridge Codex is a rare little thing. It’s only a few pages in an otherwise obscure manuscript, but it’s noteworthy because it’s the first known collection of music meant specifically for keyboard instruments.

Here’s a page from the Codex. This is a photograph of a page in Carl Parrish’s book, so you might want to look online to get an image with better resolution.


The treasure currently resides in the British Library, in London and the tale of how such an important piece of music came to be in this obscure little place is a good one.

Robertsbridge is a village in East Sussex, England, about 10 miles north of Hastings (made famous in the Battle of Hastings in 1066). The Rother River passes through it. The town is thought to have developed around a 12th century Cistercian abbey, named by Richard I (1157-1199) in 1198 for his steward, one Robert de St. Martin (dates unavailable). It was settled by monks from the mother abbey in Boxley, in Kent, about an hour’s drive north, and was probably built roughly on the site of a war memorial and a spring known as St. Catherine’s well. The monks at Robertsbridge were known as the “white monks” because they wore tunics of undyed wool.

The site was probably originally a small chapel, but it received many gifts and endowments from such families as the Bodiams (who later had a castle nearby) and the Etchinghams (nearby landowners since before the Norman Conquest). As a result, they were able to build a new abbey about a mile east of the original site in about 1210.

The Robertsbridge abbot was sent, along with the abbot from nearby Boxley, to search for King Richard I (1157-1199), who was being held hostage in Bavaria after his return from the Crusades in 1192, and when they found him, they went back to England to raise his ransom. Later, these same two abbots were sent as agents for the Archbishop of Canterbury to see the pope about a quarrel with the monks at Canterbury. In 1212, 1221, and 1225, the abbot of Robertsbridge was again sent as the king’s emissary to Europe (first John then and Henry III twice), and the Henry III also paid the abbey a visit in 1225. The abbey had faded in fame by the 1400s and escaped the first suppression of the monasteries.

It survived until 1538, when it was dissolved under Henry VIII (1491-1597). It was surrendered by the abbot and eight monks—everyone else had long gone. After the dissolution, the abbey buildings were acquired by Sir William Sidney of Penshurst (1482?-1554), and it stayed in that family until 1720. The remains of the abbey survived for most of the 18th century but were then destroyed. All that remains today is the former abbot’s house, now a private residence.

The town flourished without the abbey, with some fine castles and good schools and such. Today, it’s the home of Heather Mills (b.1968), former wife of Beatle Sir Paul McCartney.

Robertsbridge came to fame when the eponymous codex was discovered among other records at Penshurst Place in Tonbridge, Kent (about half an hour’s drive south of London) in the mid-19th century. It was found in a bundle with an old register from the Robertsbridge Abbey. Originally, it was thought to be from as early as 1325, but later scholars determined that 1360 was more likely.

It’s an important document because it’s the earliest known collection of music written specifically for keyboards. It’s also the earliest preserved example of German organ tablature. It’s called “German” because it appears later only in Germany, slightly more developed, where it’s also known as the Ludolf Wilkin tablature, from 1432. This tablature was adopted exclusively for writing down organ music and was used until Samuel Scheidt’s (1587-1654) Tablatura Nova and Johann Ulrich Steigleder’s (1593-1635) Ricercar Tablaturen, replaced it in 1624. After this date, particularly in Northern Germany, many important sources of keyboard music are written in this notation.

It’s a little off topic, but Old German tablature, from the early 15th century to mid-16th century, used letters to identify the notes to be played, rather than neumes or mensural notation on the staff, in all the voices except the highest, which was in neumes that we would recognize as notation today. These highest parts were usually red in color and provided decorative musical figuration; it’s also where we get the term that survives until today in the modern word “coloratura.” Cool, eh?

This tablature also included the squared lower-case B, which resembles a lower-case H that represented B-natural (which nomenclature survived well past Johann Sebastian Bach’s time, where he called things H-moll for B-minor, as in the B Minor Mass) and an S for “sine,” which is Latin for “without,” and meant a rest, or silence.

Another cool thing is that the keyboard selections offered required all twelve keys of the modern octave. It’s the first evidence of this—things were modal and only contained eight notes to an octave before. (You can learn more about modes here: Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes.)

The Codex contains other things than music, although I didn’t find a source that said what exactly those other things are. There are only two musical sections, containing six pieces. Three are estampies, which is an Italian dance from the trecento, and had scholars convinced that the music came from Italy originally. Three songs are arrangements of motets, two of which are from the Roman de Fauvel. You can learn more about that in my post, Composer Biography: Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361). The Codex contains instrumental transcriptions of two of Vitry’s Fauvel motets (Firmissime/Adesto and Tribum, quem non abhorriuit), and another motet from Roman de Fauvel with organ accompaniment. There are also three Italian-style dances (estampies).

Now then. On to the music itself.

The Codex contains the end of a purely instrumental piece in the estampie form. There are two complete pieces in this form, the second of which is marked “Retroue.” There’s also an incomplete transcription of the hymn Flos vernalis. These may have been meant to be played on an organ, and a little later, Edward III (1312-1377) presented his captive, John II of France (1319-1364) with an eschiquier (an instrument that was the predecessor to the harpsichord) and a copy of the piece.

The Robertsbridge transcriber went a little heavy on ficta (accidentals, more often sharps than flats), to the point of inserting naturals to return the note to its original state rather than assuming the natural as the default. He also transposed one piece from the Fauvel motet up a step, forcing a single sharp into the key signature of the right hand. (The left hand had its own key signature and stayed as it was.) He also occasionally added notes where he thought the harmony was too thin.

It’s possible that the motets were included in the Robertsbridge Codex for political reasons as allegories for political events of the period, such as the public hanging of Philip the Fair’s (France, 1268-1314) unpopular chancellor Enguerrand de Marigny (1250-1315), or about some enemy of Robert of Anjou, King of Naples (1277-1343), or perhaps a celebration of the new Pope Clement IV (1190-1268).

All of the music is unattributed (late scholars have identified de Vitry as one source), and all is written in tablature. The estampies are written for two voices, often in parallel fifths and using the hocket technique (where one voice has artful rests that are filled in by another voice, like an exchange of hiccups).

It’s important to note that at this time (the 14th century), organ keys became narrower so that more could fit onto a keyboard table, and also accommodating a wider range of pitches (such as 12 notes to an octave) and sustained chords. This made it possible for a rhythmically fluid and complex decorative voice to unfold beyond the earlier isorhythmic pieces. Robertsbridge features an isorhythmic motet with a patterned scaffolding in the left hand as a foundation for a dramatic instrumental display played by the right hand. This became a pattern that we’re still using today.

The Rupertsbridge Codex marks the beginning of our modern sense of a slower or chordal left hand with a busy and ornamental right hand. Despite its quiet lack of fame, it’s really a very important document.


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

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

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

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

“The Notation of Medieval Music,” by Carl Parrish. Pendragon Press, New York, 1978.

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

“Music in Medieval Manuscripts,” by Nicolas Bell. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2001.

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

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

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


Written by Melanie Spiller

December 29, 2014 at 11:55 am

The Montpellier Codex (c1270)

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The Montpellier Codex is a French manuscript, possibly from Paris from c1270-1310. It’s the largest surviving collection of medieval motets in Europe and is kept at the Faculté de Médicine, at the Montpellier University library. Montpellier is a couple of hours drive north of the Spanish border near the Mediterranean Sea, halfway between Toulouse and Marseille.

The Codex is one of the most lavish and comprehensive motet books to survive from the 13th century. It was unearthed among other treasures at Notre Dame by Felix Danjou (1812-1866), the organist of Notre Dame. In 1865 in Paris, Edmond de Coussemaker (1805-1876), was the first to draw attention to it in his L’Art harmonique au xiie et xiiie siecles (Paris 1865). He would go on to reproduce and transcribe 50 of the pieces. It was also the subject of a pioneering study of isorhythms (where all parts share a rhythmic pattern) by the man who coined the word, German medievalist Friedrich Ludwig (1872-1930), in 1904.

It isn’t completely clear how the collection came into being. The most charming story is the one about Marie of Brabant (c1254-1321). Marie was a great patron of the arts and a relative of and friend to several trouvères. She and Philip III (the Bold, 1245-1285). were married in 1274 and she was crowned at Sainte Chapelle in Paris in 1275. Her coronation was heralded by women and maidens singing chansons and motets, possibly a carole or two (a carole, or carol, was a circle dance performed outside. Yup, the whole flowing tresses and ribbons and gauzy dresses thing).

Marie was estranged from Philip III early in their marriage through the machinations of the powerful chamberlain Pierre de la Broce (d. 1278). Pierre accused her of poisoning Philip’s oldest son from a previous marriage. It wasn’t long before a friend of the king’s implicated Pierre in the deed and Pierre was summarily hanged.

It’s possible that the Codex was a gift as part of Marie’s reconciliation with the king, as it contains a celebration of love and courtly pleasures, as well as of hunting, Philip’s favorite pastime. Another interesting twist is that if Marie was either patroness or recipient of the book, it’s evidence of women’s influence on composition, copying, and the design of beautiful books and music.

Most of the music contained within the Codex is anonymous, but a number of pieces can be matched with their composer either because they appear in other collections or by using stylistic similarity and some sleuth work. Identifiable composers include Perotin (c1160-c1220), Petrus de Cruce (c1260-c1300), Adam de la Halle (c1237-c1286), Guillaume d’Auvergne (c1180-1249), and Philippe le Chancelier (c1160-1236). One motet was copied from a polyphonic work by Willelmus de Winchecumbe (an Englishman, fl. 1270s). Most of the rest are presumed to be French.

Music of this period, if it wasn’t chant (monody, or a single line of music performed in unison), used a device called the cantus firmus. This was a version of a known chant, usually sung in one of the lower lines, in a slow and drawn-out way. The other line (usually just one, but sometimes two) was melodically more intricate, intersecting with the cantus firmus only occasionally. The singer of the cantus firmus was called the tenor, which in our times means a specific range of voice, usually the higher male voice, but in medieval times, “tenor” meant the voice everything else depended upon. Most of the cantus firmus parts in the Montpellier Codex are taken from the chants of Notre Dame. (There’s a whole other blog coming on that one.)

Few of the Codex’s motets are considered isorhythmic, as it was felt that Philippe de Vitry was the first to compose those in the early 14th century. Some theorists disagree based on elements contained in isorhythms. You can read the Philippe de Vitry blog for more about isorhythms.

The Montpellier Codex isn’t a small collection. It contains 400 folios (large pages folded to make four—or eight—smaller pages), gathered into eight fascicles (separately sewn sections), and containing 345 compositions, almost all of which are motets (religious polyphonic songs in Latin). The first six fascicles were gathered around 1280.

The music is gathered by type.

  • Fascicle I contains organa and conductus from the Notre Dame period. Sacred polyphony.
  • Fascicle II contains 17 four-voice motets.
  • Fascicle III contains 11 three-voice motets with Latin motetus (the voice above the cantus firmus) and French triplum (the third voice, the highest above the cantus firmus), as well as 4 two-voice Latin motets.
  • Fascicle IV contains 22 three-voice Latin motets.
  • Fascicle V contains 9 hockets (rhythmic technique unique to the medieval period) and 104 three-voice motets, which have, with few exceptions, French texts in both upper parts and Latin in the cantus firmus.
  • Fascicle VI contains 75 two-voice French motets.
  • Fascicle VII contains 39 three-voice motets of various kinds.
  • Fascicle VIII contains a conductus (two voices of a particular type) and 42 three-part motets.

Fascicle I’s organa (a particular type of two-voice music) are written in modal notation, which was peculiar to rhythmic notation (see my blog on Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes, for more on this), with ligatures (a type of two-note neume; you can read more about neumes in my blog The History of Music Notation) in the upper voices. Fascicles II to VI contain the most extensive collection of motets of the mid-13th century, written in pre-Franconian notation (an obscure kind of notation that I’ll talk about in a minute). The last two fascicles are clearly later additions: the handwriting is different and more decorative; the systematic arrangement found in the first four fascicles isn’t carried out; and the Franconian notation is used exclusively, along with some even later notation forms, such as those from Petrus de Cruce (c1260-1300).

Fascicle I contains six organa, two of which are by Perotin, a conductus, and three pieces in the hocket style (where one part spits out notes separated by rests and the other part supplies complementary notes or rests. Hockets were sometimes introduced near the end of Notre Dame clausulae—wiggly bits—but it was used here throughout the whole piece. It was a fashion that didn’t last more than 50 years, which is too bad, because it’s kind of fun). Fascicle I was written out as a score, with the parts aligned above one another. The remaining fascicles are written out with the upper parts in parallel columns and the instrumental tenor across the bottom of the page, a Notre Dame style of notation (see photo). This music was clearly for soloists, and other skilled musicians, such as clerics and scholars at the University of Paris.


Figure 1: This example shows the cantus firmus across the bottom and two higher voices side-by-side.

The rest of the codex consists mostly of motets, more than 200 in Fascicles II-VI alone.

The Fascicle VII and VIII are from the turn of the 14th century, when Johannes de Grocheio (c1255-c1320) was around. Grocheio put interesting bits into all voices, not limiting the flights of fancy to the higher voices and keeping the stodgy chant in the lower voice. On one piece (El mois de mai), the tenor line sings the cries of fruitsellers, and the other two voices embark on a somewhat Bacchanalian frat party. A song like this has some connection to the songs of the trouvère chansons, but more for content than style.

The Fascicle VII, which dates to c1300, is opened by a motet pair, probably by Petrus de Cruce (c1260-1300 and also called Pierre de la Croix). The motets take on such a unique style that another six are attributed to him because of similar features. They, like the Franconian pieces mentioned, take strong advantage of the stratification of rhythmic voices, to the limit that the notation of the period would allow. Petrus modified notation, in fact, to exaggerate the layering affect. Petrus invented the use of a dot (punctum) to mark off rhythmic sections, like modern measure lines. There can between two and seven “beats” between the dots. It’s not clear whether the music marched militarily on at a set pace or if it accommodated the more natural speech-like pattern, and the other parts would slow down if someone had a few extra beats or words between punctum. It’s at this point that rhythmic modes begin to fade in popularity and the repeating patterns are less important than the natural rhythms originating in the text.

The eighth fascicle dates from c1310.

Franconian notation doesn’t appear until Fascicle VII and VIII, forty years after Franco of Cologne (fl. mid-13th century) wrote his treatise on the subject, Ars cantus mensurabilis. The Montpellier Codex contains a wide repertory of notational styles, crossing a greater time span than other codices of the same period (such as the Codex Las Huelgas de Compostela, blog to come). The early fascicles (II-VI) have “uncertain ligature” styles, and later ones are Franconian (VII and VIII).

I want to point out how different part songs were in the 13th century from today. Modern notation lines everything up vertically. Every voice-line has five lines on the staff, is written in the same key signature as the other voices, and places one voice part above another with the highest voice at the top and the lowest voice at the bottom all on the same page, with measure lines helping to keep everyone together. In the 12th and 13th century, there were sometimes separate pages for each part, the staff had anywhere from four lines to a dozen, clefs moved depending on how the notes needed to be arranged so that there was minimal need for ledger lines, there not only weren’t measure lines, but sometimes the notes were all scrunched together to save space. Parts could be on separate pages, side-by-side in columns, or have the cantus firmus running across the bottom.

IMG_4161IMG_4162  IMG_4164

Figure 2: These are examples of a four-voice piece, with the highest voice on the left and the lowest on the right and “scrunched together.”

Known for its Franconian motets, where the voices are strictly stratified rhythmically according to pitch range, with the higher voices singing fastest and the lowest voices singing slowest. This is a refinement on the discoridia concors idea. For instance, in one example, Pucelete, the triplum is a merry frolic describing a loving woman, the tenor keeps an even tempo, and the lower voice is droopy and complains of lovesickness in slow notes. Franconian notation died out at the onset of the ars nova period.

The three-voice pieces in Fascicles VII and VIII have the triplum and motetus on facing pages with the tenor (cantus firmus) running along the bottom across both pages. Those in four voices have the two upper voices in two columns on one page and the lower voices in two columns on the facing page. It looks odd to our eyes—the cantus firmus part has just a sprinkling of notes across a staff with no bars, and the frequency of notes increases as the voices get higher. There are no bar lines in the modern sense, but you can see bars meant to indicate breaths. There’s no obvious way that the various parts would have stayed together, and even the clefs are not the same.

As I mentioned, most of the music is unattributed. The few that were acknowledged have only one or two facts associated with them.

  • Tassin (dates unknown): He provided the tenor of a motet and is mentioned in 1288 as a minister in the Court Chapel of Philip IV (1268-1314)
  • Jehannot de L’Escurel (d.1303), composer of monadic ballades, rondeaux, and virelais preserved in the Fauvel manuscript (14th century allegorical poem, covered in some detail in my blog post about Philip de Vitry). He was hanged in Paris in 1303 for the murders of pregnant women, rape, and etc. Yikes!

Many of the texts are in French rather than Latin, showing a new trend for writing in the vernacular. This includes a piece by Adam de la Halle (De ma dame vient). Some pieces, like de la Halle’s, harken to the loftiest class of trouvère chanson, with its tenor of the traditional type (cantus firmus), and borrowed from the Notre Dame organum.

The Montpellier Codex is one of only two locations for the motet Super te Ierusalem. In the Montpellier version, it’s in three voices. The other occurrence is in the Worcester fragments (blog post to come) and has a fourth voice without text, possibly meant for an instrument.


(All photos are of the pages in the Parrish book.)


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

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

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

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

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

“The Notation of Medieval Music,” by Carl Parrish. Pendragon Press, New York, 1978.

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

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

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

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

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