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Archive for March 2015

The Faenza Codex (c1400)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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