Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Composer Biography: Nicola Vicentino (1511-c.1576)

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Nicola Vicentino is probably one of the most interesting composers that you’ve never heard of. During a time of great experimentation partly caused by the Reformation and the creation of new religious orders, science expanded and came to the attention of much less academic people than usual. Science and studies were funded by patrons much as the arts were. Science took its first step away from the control of religious leaders.

Here are several impressive scientists who came to the fore during this period. You’ve probably heard of these fellows even if you didn’t study science or philosophy.

  • Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543, Poland, and Germany) was a mathematician and astronomer who said that the sun was at the center of the universe rather than the earth.
  • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642, Italy) was a polymath (astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher, and mathematician) who championed Copernicus’ ideas. This got him into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition. He is largely responsible for the change in scientific thinking from inexplicable quirks of nature to something that could be proved, often through the application of mathematics, and he laid the foundation for and applied what we now call inductive reasoning.
  • Johannes Kepler (1571-1630, Germany) was a mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer. He’s best known for his laws of planetary motion, and many later scientists (such as Isaac Newton, 1642-1727, England) based their theories on his work.
  • René Descartes (1596-1650, France and the Netherlands), was a philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. He’s the father of the Cartesian coordinate system (measurable places along a two-plane axis) and why we “solve for X” today. He conceived of superscripts for exponents and powers in the notation of math, and changed the focus from geometry to algebra as the foundation for all forms of mathematics.

The list could go on and on, but this is a blog about music, so I’ll control myself. My point is that a new and scientific approach to music was a natural development, very much a part of the times.

Nicola Vicentino (or Vicento) was an Italian composer and theorist who proposed reviving the chromatic and enharmonic scales of Greek music in his 1555 treatise L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica (“Ancient Music Adapted to Modern Practice”), which tried to revive the three genera of classical antiquity (diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic). Many of his contemporaries scoffed, but a number of his madrigals attained a high level of artistry. He might not have been understood in his own time, but we can understand him today.

He was born in Vicenza (about an hour west of Venice) in 1511. Nothing else is known about his family or early years.

He trained with Adrian Willaert (ca.1490-1562, Belgium and Italy) in Venice. He was the court music director and teacher for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este III (1509-1572, Italy) in Ferrara before 1539, and later served the cardinal in Rome and Siena.

With Vicente Lusitano (d. after 1561, Spain and Portugal), Vicentino debated the interpretation of chromatic genera, in 1551 and wrote his own theories into his L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica of 1555. The judges declared Vicentino the winner in the debate, by the way.

Also in 1555, Vicentino described his arcicembalo (also arcigravicembalo), which was a modified harpsichord with many extra keys and strings. He was interested in microtonality (the notes between the notes), and in 1561, he made an organ version, called an arciorgano.

He built himself an arcicembalo in 1560. It had 53 (or 31, depending on your sources) different pitches within a single octave. His theory was that with so many pitches in an octave, he could experiment in search of the miracles of ethos (emotional contagion and moral influence) that the ancient Greeks reported achieving with their music (which was microtonal).

In 1561, Vicentino built an arciorgano with six manuals and containing thirty-one keys to the octave. Luzzasco Luzzaschi (c1545-1607, Italy) claimed to have mastered both instruments, and the cities of both Rome and Milan each boasted that they housed an arciorgano.

It didn’t catch on.

In 1563-1565, Vicentino was maestro di cappella at Vicenza Cathedral. He became a priest in Milan in 1570. Little else is known about him.

Vincentino’s Theory

Because of his focus on chromaticism, Vicentino helped to free music from its adherence to the church modes that had been the rage for a thousand years, and he also experimented with early forms of harmony. His work contributed toward the development of the 17th century secunda prattica (also called the stile moderno, which is everything that came after Palestrina, basically) and to the equal temperament of more modern times.

The dim views held by his peers notwithstanding, a number of Vicentino’s madrigals reach a high level of artistry. And he wasn’t entirely alone. In the madrigals of Cipriano Rore (c1515-1565, Belgium and Italy) and Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613, Italy), chromaticism creates a special effect, startling because of its strangeness. By the end of the 16th century, as other composers adopted it for a wide range of uses, chromaticism had become part of the common musical language.

Vicentino’s teacher Adrian Willaert (1490-1562, Belgium and Italy) explored accidentals, and Vicentino’s title page on Book I of his madrigals (1546) declares that he’s written in the style of his teacher. Although they’re common in the 1546 book, most of Vicentino’s accidentals are quite “normal” by modern standards—such as raising the 7th degree in cadences. Book V (1572—the intervening books are lost) shows his more extreme side. He often uses rarely employed accidentals such as D-sharp, D-flat, and A-sharp. Even a melodic augmented third, E-flat to G-sharp, occurs. He goes even further from the old tonal system, represented by cadences based on triads built on D-sharp, F-sharp, B, D-flat, and A-flat.

He based his 1572 work L’aura ch’el verde lauro on a Petrarch sonnet and in it, he incorporated the Greek chromatic tetrachord, descending a minor third and two semi-tones, as a motive for imitation.

Dolce mio ben, published in Vicentino’s L’antica musica treatise shows his special notation for the microtones—a dot over a note raises it by a small interval. You have to be aware of what came before and what follows as well as the members of a chord to be able to do this. Microtones are indicated:

  • When notes appear to be written a half-step apart but the lower one is raised by a dot
  • When a note repeats but one is sharpened or flattened and the other one is natural
  • When a note repeats and one is sharpened and the other flattened, an ordinary whole step is indicated.
  • When the notes are adjacent on the scale, a large half-step is indicated
  • When the notes are a half-step apart and the higher note is raised by a dot, a small whole-step is indicated

Essentially, there are five steps between the notes of a major second. In the illustration, there’s a G, there’s a G raised by a microtone, and then there’s a G-sharp. In our times, a G-sharp and an A-flat are the same note; to Vicentino, an A-flat is a microtone higher than a G-sharp. Next, there’s the A-flat raised by a microtone, and finally, there’s an A. (In our times, there would be G, G-sharp, and A. Three steps. There are six steps in Vicentino’s world.)

Vicentino’s microtones require their own notation.

Vicentino says that a piece noted in this fashion may also be performed in other ways, such as by suppressing both the chromatic and enharmonic accidentals or only the enharmonic ones.

An excerpt from Vicentino’s Lantica

His theories met considerable opposition, in his own time and afterward, from theorists such as Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590, Italy), Giovanni Maria Artusi (c1540-1613, Italy), and Giovanni Battista Doni (c1593-1647, Italy). He was charged with ignorance even with regard to the true nature of the Greek genera, his special area of expertise. But he got the last laugh. His chromaticism pointed the way to the liberation of music from the diatonic restrictions of the modal system that had been in use for over a thousand years.

A handful of 16th century composers experimented with incomplete circles of fifths as another way of addressing chromatic issues. This required a radical change to the tuning systems, and produced some curious little pieces, in particular a motet-like piece by Matthias Greiter (c1495-1550, Germany and France) that transposed the beginning of a song called Fortuna desperata (“hopeless fortune”) twelve times by fifths in order to symbolize the rotation of Dame Fortune’s wheel.

The chromaticism of the madrigalists had a purpose: They were trying to communicate feelings. Vicentino and Greiter, on the other hand, may have been limiting themselves to pure research. After all, using the technology available to them, only unaccompanied voices, adjusting tuning in minute measures by ear, could perform these pieces.

Vicentino’s Compositions

Vicentino wrote mostly motets and madrigals and his madrigals exploit the microtones. Although the musical establishment was fairly unanimous in their opposition to his ideas, he was asked by the progressive fathers of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to write a chromatic Mass as a sample of liturgically acceptable polyphony.

One musical form of the time was a canzone da sonar, a type of madrigal especially favored by instrumental ensembles. One of the first to write instrumental ensemble canzones was Fiorenzo Maschera (1540-1584, Italy), which he put into a collection along with the works of others, including an imitative five-part canzone de sonar by Vicentino called La Bella (1572). Before Maschera’s collection of 1584, there few works of this type that have survived.

Vicentino was the earliest to write about the problem of double counterpoint, dealing with pairings of voices and setting up major and minor passages. Next up was Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590, Italy), a fairly famous theorist.

In addition to his theories, Vicentino wrote at least two volumes of madrigals and one of motets. He draws an exact parallel between speaking in public and singing, with tempo and dynamics changing to suit the text. His remarks on tempo are essential reading if you want to understand pre-Romantic singing, when strict tempos were essentially alien to the proper expression of the words. This attitude predominated throughout Europe, and some of the most interesting descriptions of Italian singing is by foreigners. Theorists like Michael Praetorius (1571-1621, Germany) wrote about the styles of Giulio Romolo Caccini (1551-1618, Italy) and Giovanni Battista Bovicelli (1550-1594, Italy) and referred to oratory and the expression of the sung text. Praetorius was convinced that a good natural voice was a basic requirement.

Vicentino died in Milan around 1576.


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

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

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

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1979.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, London, 1973.

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

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

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 23, 2020 at 7:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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