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Composer Biography: Adam de la Halle (c1237-c1288)

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Also Adam e la Hale, and Adam le Bossu (the hunchback), and Adam d’Arras.

Adam de la Halle is probably the most famous of the French trouvère composers and poets. (For more on the difference between troubadours and trouvères, see Composer Biography: Marcabru.) He was one of the last of the trouvères, and one of the few to use polyphony. This is exciting, because it meant that secular music was being done in multiple parts rather than unison, finally following liturgical music’s lead—and being documented.

Adam’s literary and musical works include chansons and jeux-partis (poetic debates), polyphonic rondels, motets in much the same style as liturgical polyphony, and a musical play (Jeu de Robin et Marion), which is considered the earliest surviving secular French musical play. He was the first vernacular poet-composer whose works were collected into a single manuscript, which shows the great esteem in which he was held then and now.

Adam was born in Arras, in northern France along the Scarpe River. The nickname of “hunchback” was probably a family name, as Adam explains that he wasn’t a hunchback himself. De la Halle was a common name (people didn’t have family names yet, and it was usual to take the name of your hometown as a disambiguator). His father, Henri de la Halle (dates unavailable), was a well-known citizen of Arras, and the nickname Le Bossu distinguished his family from other La Halle families.

Adam studied grammar, theology, and music at the nearby Cistercian abbey. He was destined for the priesthood, but renounced his intention and, in 1262, married a woman named Marie (dates unavailable), who appears in many of his songs. Sadly, the marriage didn’t last, and Adam went off to be educated at the University of Paris.

He returned to Arras in about 1270, but Adam and his father soon had a public argument with other citizens of Arras and had to go live in Douai, about a day’s ride away, for a short while. They returned, and Adam became a prominent member of the Confrerie des jongleurs et bourgeois d’Arras, the guild of performers, and the puy, Arras’ literary fraternity.

In 1271, Adam entered the service of Robert II, Count of Artois (1250-1302), and accompanied him when he went to Naples in 1283. Robert II was bringing troops to reinforce the efforts of his uncle, Charles of Anjou (1226-1285), after the disaster of the Sicilian Vespers (a rebellion that broke out at Easter in 1282 and unseated Charles’ family from ruling there).

Charles of Anjou had become Charles I, King of France, when his brother (Louis IX) died in 1270. He’d set up a proper court in Naples with musicians and the like, so he hired Adam away from Robert II. Adam stayed in Naples until 1288, when some think that Adam died (more on that at the end of this post).

Some of Adam’s more important works were written and performed at the Naples court, including Jeu de Robin et Marion, the earliest known French musical play. There will be more about that in a moment.

Adam wasn’t particularly distinguished as a musician, but he was a lyric and epic poet and a dramatist.

The total of Adam’s known works include 36 chansons, 46 rondels de carole (somewhat like a round), 18 jeux-partis (political debate), 14 polyphonic rondeaux (most in three parts), seven motets (five in three parts), one virelai, one ballette, one dit d’amour (a love ditty), and one congè (a song of departure). Most of his works are in the conductus style (for more on conductus, see Composer Biography: Leonin) and he was the only Frenchman of his time to use the polyphonic settings for the rondeau, virelai, and the ballade. His work spans the forms fixes used by polyphonic secular music for the next two centuries.

Adam’s early work wasn’t musical. He wrote a nice piece of theater, Le jeu Adan, also called Le jeu de la Feuillee (the Play of the Greensward) sometime around 1262. In this satirical drama, he introduces himself, his father, and the citizens of Arras with all their various peculiarities; it was intended to amuse his friends as he was leaving for Paris to pursue his studies.

Later, he wrote Le conge (The Departure), expressing his sorrow at leaving his wife and Arras, and there’s an unfinished chanson de geste called Le roi de Sicile in honor of Charles I, which he began writing in 1282, three years before Charles died. Another short piece, Le jeu du pelerin, is sometimes attributed to him. This one mocks his friends for forgetting him after he left Arras.

His shorter poetic works are meant to be accompanied by music. Both his music and literary works encompass virtually all genres of the time, and he is one of the few medieval musicians credited with both monophonic (chant) and polyphonic music. There are monophonic chansons and jeux partis, polyphonic motets and rondeaux, and three plays with musical inserts. The monophonic works continue the older tradition of the courtly lyrics and chanson de geste, and the three-voice rondeaux and the dramatic works are more progressive.

Adam was among the few 13th century composers to apply polyphonic techniques to the various contemporary types of secular music: ballade, rondeau, and virelai. The pieces are very appealing and, in some ways, anticipate 14th century developments.

Like his contemporaries and fellow trouvères Colin Muset (c1210-c1270) and Rutebeuf (c1245-1285), Adam wrote numerous polyphonic rondeaux, ballades, and virelais. He wrote a set of three-part rondeaux in the latter part of the 13th century, but apart from their isolation, these charming works had little in common with most 14th century rondeaux. They were all written in conductus style, note against note, with all three voices singing the same text, none of which held true for the 14th century rondeaux.

The manuscript copy of his works gives the title of “Li Rondel Adan” to a group of 16 pieces that are among the first polyphonic settings of dance songs. Most are rondeaux, although the forms and rhyme schemes are not completely standardized. One of the pieces has the form of a virelai and another is a ballade with an opening refrain.

Adam wrote his most famous piece, Jeu de Robin et Marion, in 1284 or thereabout, and it’s the earliest known French musical play on a secular subject.

The pastoral tale tells, with a great deal of earthy humor, how the maiden Marion resisted a charming knight and remained faithful to her beloved, Robin the shepherd. It’s based on an old chanson, Robin m’aime, Robin m’a and consists of dialog interspersed with refrains from popular songs. The melodies are probably local folk music, and are more fun and melodious than the more elaborate music of Adam’s songs and motets. Robin et Marion is thought by some historians to be the predecessor of the genre of comic opera.

Nearly all of the music in the play is sung by the characters of Robin and Marion, although a little is given to the knight who vainly pursues Marion and to Robin’s cousin Gautier. The music is simple, as befits a bawdy country comedy. Modal rhythms, particularly the first mode (for more on this, see Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes), had been deeply rooted in the Western musical consciousness for centuries already, and so you’ll hear them predominating here too.

Jeu de Robin et Marion was likely welcome entertainment for Charles I and the dispirited French court. Charles died in 1285 and Adam’s dedicated his final work, Le Roi de Secile, to his memory.

A tribute written in 1288 refers to Adam’s death, but he was also reported to be in England in 1306, among musicians at the knighting of Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward II, 1284-1327). It’s probable that Adam died in 1306 or thereabout, back in Naples, which is now part of Italy.

Renewed interest in medieval music in the 19th century led Edmond de Coussemaker (1805-1876), a pioneer in the study of medieval music, to publish Adam’s complete known works in 1872. Editions of other manuscripts and medieval song repertories followed in the 20th century. Recently, there’s been even more interest in medieval music, and the technology to disseminate it is now incredibly efficient.

Sources:

“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. Anness Publishing, Ltd., Wigston, 2012.

“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, Cambridge, 1978.

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

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

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

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

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.

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

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

“Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères, an Anthology and a History,” translations and introductions by Frederick Goldin. Peter Smith and Doubleday, Gloucester, 1983.

“Chanter M’Estuet, Songs of the Trouvères,” edited by Samuel N. Rosenberg. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1981.

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Composer Biography: Marcabru (c1099-1150)

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Marcabru was one of the most famous of the older generation of troubadours. What’s a troubadour, you ask? In the 11th through 14th century, there were four “flavors” of itinerant musician.

  • Troubadours (trobairitz): Poets and composers from the Occitan region of France, who made their way to Italy, Spain, and Greece. Their songs dealt mainly with themes of chivalry and courtly love. Most songs were intellectual and formulaic (so they could be easily adapted to the audience or situation), and many were humorous or vulgar. The movement died out around the time of the Black Death in 1348.
  • Trouvères: The Northern France version of troubadour, roughly contemporary with them. The first known was Chretien de Troyes (fl.1160-1180), and they continued to flourish until about 1300. These were usually aristocratic performers, for whom the creation and performance of music was part of the courtly tradition. There were even kings, queens, and countesses among their number.
  • Minnesingers (Minnesängers): The German version of troubadours, writing of love and courtly endeavors in Middle High German from the 12th through the 14th century. Some were aristocratic and others were impoverished. They died out in favor of the Meistersänger, who were mostly commoners, like minstrels (English) and jongleurs (French).
  • Minstrels and Jongleurs: The impoverished version of troubadours and trouvères in England and France, respectively. Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, such a person was known as a scop (shaper), who sang his own compositions to the accompaniment of a harp. They mostly told stories of distant places or of imaginary historical events, and often performed for royalty and high society. Their main unifying feature was traveling. Their popularity began to decline by the middle of the 15th century, although some form of itinerant musician has continued to the present day.

Marcabru was one of the earliest troubadours whose poems are known. Two biographies attached to collections of his poems tell different stories. Both are based on elements in Marcabru’s poetry rather than independent biographical information, so not much is known about him.

He was born in Gascony, France, probably around 1099. He wasn’t of aristocratic descent, unlike most troubadours. One biography, written long after his death, says that he was a foundling, left at the door of a rich man. Marcabru himself said that he was the son of a poor woman named Marcabruna. He was brought up by Aldric del Vilar (12th century lord of Vilar), which kind of gives credence to the foundling raised by a rich man story, and he learned to write poetry from Cercamon (fl c1135-1145, an early troubadour also from Gascony).

People called him Pan Perdut when he was a young man, and later began to call him Marcabru. When he became famous, people said that he wrote bad poetry and worse satires, and he spoke evil of both women and love. Despite his bad mouth, he had a great reputation among his successors.

One of Marcabru’s patrons was Guillaume X of Aquitaine (1099-1137). He was the son of Guillaume IX, thought to be the first troubadour (11 of his poems survive, although the music didn’t). Eleanor of Aquitaine (c1122-1204) was the daughter of Guillaume X (who wasn’t a troubadour himself) and was also a great patron of troubadours. Guillaume X’s support of Marcabru and other troubadours contributed to Eleanor’s becoming a patroness of troubadours by both tradition and inclination. As you know, she married Louis VII of France (1120-1180) in 1137, the year he became King of France. Louis was not sympathetic to the game of l’amour courtois as it was played further south, and the flirtatious habits of his wife ultimately led him to secure an annulment of their marriage in 1152. Eleanor promptly married a younger man, Henry of Anjou (1133-1189), who became Henry II of England two years later.

Only three important troubadour names from the period survive: Cercamon (fl 1135-1145), Jaufre Rudel (fl. mid-12th century), and Marcabru. Marcabru was probably Cercamon’s student, and they seem to have flourished at the same time. Marcabru certainly knew Jaufre, and mentions him in one of his poems. Jaufre took part in the second Crusade (1147-49) and died while on his pilgrimage.

Over 40 of Marcabru’s poems and four of his melodies survive. Lots and lots of music and even more poetry is lost, although approximately 2600 poems by more than 450 authors has been preserved. The music itself, sadly, didn’t survive because music notation hadn’t been invented yet (for more on that, see The History of Music Notation).

Biographical details in Marcabru’s works point to a period seeking work in Portugal and Barcelona that led to employment with Alfonso VII of Castile (1105-1157). In the 1140s, he was a propagandist for the Reconquiesta and in his famous poem with a Latin beginning Pax in nomine Domini (the rest is in Languedoc), he called Spain a “laundry where knights could go to have their souls cleansed by fighting the infidel.” In 1144, he returned to Provence, where he composed the song Cortazmen voill comensar (“dedicated men begin”) inspired by preparations for the second crusade.

Marcabru and his patron William X didn’t approve of the courtly love ideal of unattainable mistresses that would become so important in later troubadour music. Marcabru attacks it in his Dirai vos sense duptansa (“I shall tell you without delay”). It seems that he was a bit of a misogynist, as well.

He denounces the effeminacy and depravity of the courtly life and the conventions of courtly love. From this moral urgency and highly idiomatic style arises some of the most difficult poetry in the whole troubadour canon, the tobar clus (“closed form”), the so-called hermetic style.

But Marcabru’s moralizing lyrics are only one mark of his range. At the other end are the songs extolling true love, and his songs dramatizing a profoundly medieval view of “right order” are among the most civilized utterances in Provencal poetry, according to one source.

There are 43 chansons attributed to Marcabru, remarkable for the complexity of their texts, most of which discuss the niceties of courtly love. Only four of his melodies survive.

The troubadours sang their own songs, but there is a peculiar lack of evidence that they accompanied their songs on or played instruments. It’s possible, though, and it has a certain appeal to modern ears.

Troubadour melodies, using the works of others as well as Marcabru’s, are on a par with the poems in their ingenuity and diversity of their formal structures. Some melodies are continuous, with a different musical phrase for each line of text. Others repeat one or more melodic phrases in a variety of patterns that often have little to do with the structure and rhyme scheme of the poems.

The predominant influence on the melodic style was surely the music of the Church. The relationship is most obvious in settings of the rhymed poetry of hymns and verses, but in range, melodic direction, intervallic progressions, and cadential formulas, troubadour melodies scarcely differ from Gregorian chant in general. A surprising number adhere to the Church’s system of eight modes (for more on that, see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes).

The style is syllabic, with occasional ornamental figures of two to five notes. These figures tend to come near the close of phrases, where they emphasize rhymes and strengthen the cadential (end pattern) feeling. They serve a musical function rather than being associated with particular words. Variants of the same melody in different sources most frequently involve the ornamental figures, suggesting that the singers felt free to modify vocal ornaments or introduce new ones. They might even have varied the ornamentation from stanza to stanza, something that became popular in the Baroque period.

Ornament aside, singers were left to decide for themselves regarding the rhythms of the melodies. In plainchant, and all other contemporary monophonic song, the notation of troubadour melodies gives no indication of note values or durations. Musical scholars seem to be unanimous in accepting the hypothesis that secular songs were sung in the triple meters of the rhythmic modes (for more on this, see Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes), but they disagree as to how those meters should be adapted to specific texts.

Literary scholars, on the other hand, reject the use of triple meters whether the words are in Provencal, French, or Latin, because in none of those languages does versification depend on the regular alternation of strong and weak syllables—there aren’t any obvious poetic meters, in other words. The number of syllables in a line, the total number of lines, and the rhyming scheme were the only criteria for making succeeding stanzas of a poem correspond with the first. Constant variation of metrical patterns seems to be one of the subtlest techniques of troubadour verse.

The most frequent theme in Marcabru’s songs is the distinction between true love and false love—true love is joyful, intense, in harmony with the welfare of a community, and includes divine intentions, and false love is bitter, dissolute, self-regarding, and destructive. He denounces the courtly class for its preciousness and lust. Courtly love in the high courts was on the way to ruin, he says, because it’s infested with its own bastards. The women trick their husbands into raising the children of others, the men are cuckoo birds who lay their eggs in someone else’s nest, and the troubadours pander to this cupidity, being a vile crowd of liars and madmen who defame love and glorify lust.

In Marcabru’s songs, we meet the singer who takes a stand against the false lovers, whom he identifies as the other poets of the court. He goes on to distinguish the other sorts in the society he addresses; they become the characters whom future poets identify as their audience, besides the false lovers, there are the flatterers, slanderers, spies, the envious, the vulgar, and the true lovers, the last of whom will be the singer’s friends.

The poets who came after Marcabru retained the same sorts of designations, although they didn’t take up his religious values or his prophetic stance. They were concerned instead with defining the values of courtliness in terms of fictional love relations, and they stood before their audiences as constituents and spokesmen. The differences between their poetry and Marcabru’s reflect the differences of their poetic task and their performing attitude.

However, these differences are not so great as they may seem. What Marcabru means by true love is a secular experience, not a religious one. This kind of love is good because it’s involved in a larger life, the life of a society, one with a certain ethical and religious mandate.

His poems are erudite, often difficult, sometimes obscene, and are relentlessly critical of the lords and ladies of his time and their morality. He experimented with pastoral themes, which he uses to point out the futility of lust. One poem tells of how the speaker’s advances are rejected by a shepherdess on the basis of class; another tells of a man’s rebuffed attempts to seduce a woman whose husband was off at the crusades.

Marcabru was a powerful influence on later poets, not only on practitioners of the hermetic style, but also on others who chose from the wide variety of his poetic (and presumably musical) forms, or who took up his moral stance. But no one could recreate his irascible and exalted tone.

When he persisted in saying bad things about the lords of Gascony, they put him to death.

Sources:

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

“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, New York 1981.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

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

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.

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

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

“Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères, an Anthology and a History,” translations and introductions by Frederick Goldin. Peter Smith and Doubleday, Gloucester, 1983.

Composer Biography: Perotin (c1160-1230)

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Also Perotinus and Perotin the Great. Perotinus and Perotin are both diminutives of Pierre. There were five men named Pierre attached to Notre Dame during the same period, and although some can be eliminated because of their superior rank (you wouldn’t call a priest “Joe” or “Freddie” in public), it’s presumed that the one who was only a deacon (not a priest), is the one who made a great contribution to the art of music, and the one whose history is covered here.

Perotin was the most famous member of the Notre Dame School of polyphony, and along with Leonin, he was one of the last masters of the Ars Antigua style. Like Leonin, he earned the academic degree of Master of Arts at the school that would later become the University of Paris, and he was licensed to teach.

Little is known about the man himself, but his name appears in the treatise of Anonymous IV (whose dates and actual name aren’t known, only that he was a student visiting Paris from England) in 1285. This comprehensive treatise refers to Perotin as a “master” and he’s called “optimus discantor” in several manuscripts, meaning that he was the ultimate discant writer. (There’s more about discants in the blog post Composer Biography: Leonin (fl. c1150-c1201). Perotin was probably the most celebrated musician involved in the revision and re-notation of the Magnus Liber attributed to Leonin.

Perotin and his contemporaries created organa (plainchant with another voice or two floating above it) for two or three voices. A two-voice organum was called a duplum, a three-voice a triplum, and a four-voice—Perotin’s innovation—a quadruplum. The voices above the tenor were named in descending order, so the highest voice was the quadruplum, and so forth. The upper voices used the rhythmic modes, allowing exact coordination among them, and they moved in similar vocal ranges, crossing repeatedly (meaning that one voice starts high and ends low, and another starts low and ends high).

He was probably born around 1160 and died around 1220. His exact dates aren’t known, but are extrapolated based on evidence that he flourished in Paris between 1180 and 1205. Some of his dates are approximated from some late-12th century edicts by the Bishop of Paris, Eudes de Sully (d. 1208), that mention organum triplum and quadruplum regarding a “feast of the fools.” The bishop’s edicts are quite specific and suggest that Perotin’s organum quadruplum Viderunt omnes was written for Christmas 1198, and that Sederunt principes, also a quadruplum, was for St. Stephens Day in 1199, for the dedication of a new wing of the Notre Dame Cathedral that was just beginning construction.

Not everyone liked the new music. An Englishman, John of Salisbury (1120-1180), who would become Bishop of Chartres, taught at the University of Paris during the years that Leonin and Perotin were there, and attended many services at the Notre Dame School. He compared the duo of voices to the singing of sirens rather than men and equated it to birdsong. But, he warns, the beauty of it might be likely to incite lust rather than devotion. It must be moderately done, he insists, in order to transport the soul to the society of angels.

Perotin’s major achievements include the revision of Leonin’s collection of organa in the Magnus Liber, as I mentioned earlier, and the introduction of new elements of style and scoring. He used all the rhythmic modes, providing rhythmic interest in both voices of two-part writing (which was a new idea), and added more voices to produce music in three or four parts. The celebrated organa on the Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day Graduals (Viderunt and Sederunt) are four-part settings conceived on a monumental scale apt for the new Cathedral of Notre Dame and are rich in eloquent, imaginative, and delicate vocal writing. They are justly hailed as masterpieces of Gothic music. Sederunt principes and Viderunt omnes are the only known four-voice organa.

Perotin was also a composer of clausulae (rhythmic features at the ends of short phrases) that may have been used to shorten Leonin’s organa (where one voice slowly sings the plainchant and the other parts dance around it), and conductus (where the various voices sing at the same speed) in up to three parts. Perotin probably invented conductus based on Leonin’s organum.

He wrote many pieces with a phrase from one voice repeated in another. Using phrases this way emphasizes dissonances before resolving to the fifth and octave above the chant melody (called the tenor line), using harmonic tension to reinforce the consonance while sustaining the listener’s interest.

He also used a form called a rondellus, where three voices sang a sort of round, like this:

Triplum                 a b c

Duplum                c a b

Tenor                    b c a

Because all three voices in a rondellus are in the same vocal range, the listener hears the polyphony three times, with voice parts traded so the timbre changes each time. There are also rondellus-motets. Rondellus sections appear frequently in English versions of conductus from the later 13th century; Anonymous IV may have brought this form back with him when he finished his studies in Paris.

Where Leonin wrote primarily in the first rhythmic mode (long-short) for the upper voices and the fifth mode (long and a half, totaling the same duration as the long-short combination) in the tenor (cantus firmus), Perotin’s most important development was the use of all six rhythmic modes in the tenor line. This is earth shattering in that suddenly, all the voices are rhythmically interesting and there’s a rhythmic counterpoint for the first time. This is the parent of motet writing.

Early motets put text to the melismatic upper voice of conductus for the first time—upper voices had been either played on an instrument or sung on open vowel sounds. This important innovation led to a notational change for the upper voices. Previously, syllabic block notes (see The History of Music Notation for more on this) took only two forms: syllabic (simple conductus) and duplum (the organa dupla of the early Leonin period). Perotin’s innovations added two more: modal (for organa and clausulae of the Perotin period), and motet (the earliest motets).

Organum puts the main melody in the tenor (from the Latin tenere); a duplum organum creates a second voice with either a more melismatic version (with wiggly bits that diverge from the primary melody at a greater speed) of the tenor or a sort of opposite melody, creating counterpoint. With only two voices, the upper voice can wiggle around ecstatically while the tenor plods earnestly on, but when you add a third and fourth voice, rhythm becomes essential, if only to keep things together. That’s how conductus was born.

In Perotin’s time, the liturgical melody serving as the tenor line appears twice, the second time in half the values (or double—twice as fast) of the first appearance. Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) would do the same thing in the 14th century.

Conductus uses the same principles as organum, but sets a rhymed Latin poem to a repeated melody, much like the later hymn form that was particularly expanded upon by William Byrd (1543-1623) in England and Johann Sebastian Bach (1675-1750) and other Lutheran Germans in the 18th century.

Perotin is known to have collaborated with poet Philip the Chancellor (c1160-1236), whose Beata viscera he could not have set before about 1220 although some sources suggest that Perotin died around 1205. It isn’t known exactly where or when he died nor where he’s buried.

Sources:

“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. Anness Publishing, Ltd., Wigston, 2012.

“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, Cambridge, 1978.

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

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

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

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

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

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.

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

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

Composer Biography—Leonin (fl c1150-c1201)

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The Englishman known as Anonymous IV (nothing is known about him, not even his name) published an eponymous treatise in 1285 that told of two musicians creating polyphony for the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris: Leoninus and Perotinus. Latinized to sound more Catholic and snooty, their names were actually Leo and Pierre, but they were commonly known by their diminutive names, Leonin and Perotin (1160-1225, biography to come). If you’ve heard much Medieval polyphony, you’ve either heard their work or you’ve heard music that evolved from their work. It’s hard to talk about them separately, but I’m going to give it a try.

Leonin may have been the first composer to use the rhythmic modes, and he also possibly invented a notation system for them. You can learn more about rhythmic modes here: Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes.

Leonin served at the Cathedral of Paris in many capacities, beginning in the 1150s, before the building that stands there now was even begun (construction of Notre Dame started in 1163). Anonymous IV refers to Leonin as a “master,” which means that he held a Masters of Arts degree from the school that would become the University of Paris (in 1200).

Nothing at all is known about his childhood or family. He turns up at Notre Dame in the 1150s, and we can guess that, because he was a canon and a priest, he was around 30 at the time. He was also affiliated with the monastery of St. Victor, also in Paris. This is the same abbey where Peter Abelard (1079-1142) lectured before his unfortunate love affair with Heloise and ensuing castration in 1116 or 1117.

At any rate, Leonin was a poet who paraphrased the first eight books of the Bible in verse, and he did the same for several shorter works as well.

Anonymous IV called Leonin an excellent organist (meaning a singer or composer of organum rather than a keyboard player) and credits him with compiling a Magnus liber organi (“Great book of Polyphony”). The collection contained two-voice settings of the solo portions of the responsorial chants (Graduals, Alleluias, and Office Responsories) for the major feasts of the year. Elaborating the chants like this, showing the whole year’s music, was a vision as grand as that of the architects who designed Notre Dame Cathedral.

Leonin didn’t collect all that music alone, despite the suggestion by Anonymous IV that he did. At the very least, Leonin was a leading driver of the project, but it’s doubtful that any one person could have accomplished the deed. The original collection didn’t survive, and it isn’t certain whether there was music notation (as we know it) available for use at the time, so it may have been a collection of poems with some sort of code or annotation for how the music sounded. The repertory survives in two later manuscripts, in Wolfenbüttel, Germany and Florence, Italy. There’s no way to know how much of the music or poetry was actually written by Leonin, though.

Although the documentation is missing, Leonin was probably the composer who developed the contrast between melismatic plainchant writing (without rhythm or measurement) and discant (somewhat rhythmic) in two-part organa for Graduals and Alleluias, and in processional Office Responsories, that often proceeded from one style to the other. It was Leonin who developed the pattern of a slow plainchant-like melody in the tenor line (now called cantus firmus) that provides a foundation for an upper voice to affect runs and melodic sequences against. This dancing upper voice, called the duplum, demanded a new kind of documentation for the aforementioned rhythmic modes so that things would line up nicely and everyone could finish at the same time.

Leonin’s settings are impressive in their length, but they’re still shorter than those set by Perotin, who may have been his student. Many were recycled tunes, and because there are many variations on a theme that survive into today’s chant, it seems likely that a lot of music was transmitted orally and that musicians felt free to interpret, add, or change as they felt inclined. Building from a familiar foundation is a good way to go when you’ve got lots of people trying to memorize something.

Most music of the time was unison—monophony. Two discrete voices were a novelty in the 12th century, and it was Leonin who first documented the rules for this new form of music, now called polyphony, that would ultimately evolve into the chords and complex rhythms that we know today.

One of Leonin’s pieces, Viderunt omnes, was documented by Anonymous IV. It’s also in both the Wolfenbüttel manuscript and the Florence manuscript. It uses two voices and features two different styles of polyphony: organum and discant. The organum set one or two notes in the upper voice for every single note in the lower voice. The discant style is note-for-note in both parts, parallel melodies in synchronized rhythm. The intonation of the respond and most of the verse were sung polyphonically, probably by solo voices and the rest was sung in unison by the choir. In Viderunt omnes, all three styles (plainchant, organum, and discant) are on display.

The melismatic portions of Gregorian chant (the parts with multiple notes on a single syllable) is extracted to provide separate pieces, with the original note values of the chant slowed down, and the organum or discant in the upper part moving faster and superimposed against it. This is called clausulae and Is an element of organum.

Between 1150 and 1175, Leonin provided two-part organa for all of the Responsorial chants on major feasts, Responsories and their verses for Vespers and Matins, and the Graduals and Alleluias for Mass. His plan to write them all was subsequently rivaled only by the somewhat smaller cycle of three-part organa by Perotin (1160-1225, biography to come), and by the phenomenal publications of Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517) in the 16th century and William Byrd (1543-1623) in the 17th. Leonin’s new style of music was widely accepted across Europe.

Leonin’s Magnus Liber includes 13 pieces to be used for the Hours (Vespers, Compline, etc.) and 33 works for the Mass. Both sections begin with works for Christmas and continue into the liturgical year, providing not only items for the major feast days, but also works for various other occasions. The emphasis on the material for the Hours is placed on various Processional Responsories, and those from the Mass stress the Gradual and the Alleluia, the two chants already singled out as especially suitable for polyphonic treatment due to their soloistic character. All of the works in the Magnus Liber are for two voices and reflect the division into the two styles of organum and discantus.

These early motets (using the term loosely) were the first to put text to the melismatic upper voice of a clausulae—previously, the text was only written below the longer, slower tenor part. This important innovation was accompanied by a notational change from modal notation to syllabic notation for the upper voice or parts. Syllabic block notes took four forms: syllabic (simple conductus), duplum (organa dupla of the early Leonin period), modal (organa and clausulae of the Perotin period), and motet (the earliest motets). For the most part, this is too heavily technical for this biography, but maybe one day I’ll write a blog post on the subject. If you want to read more about music notation from the period, check out The History of Music Notation.

Some theorists think that Leonin derived the six rhythmic modes from his study of St. Augustine’s De musica, a treatise on metrics. He writes of three “long” notes tied together by a ligature and followed by three sets of two “short” notes—essentially each of the first three notes divided equally in two. The pattern evolves into sets of three counts, a long note being roughly equivalent to two short notes, so that the pattern of long-short-long-short can be counted out as six beats (in the modern sense of 6/8).

Leonin contributed a masterly use of flexible and variable rhythms, nearly always limited to the first rhythmic mode, which alternates long and short notes, with a lilt much like today’s 6/8 pattern. He breaks up the long and short notes into lesser values (called copulae, or links, by theorists of the day), which foreshadows what would come in the Baroque era (1600-1750) but baffled historians because contemporary theorists described them as being “between discant and organum and having the character of both.” That’s not very helpful, really. It’s like saying it’s a color that lies between navy blue and cyan.

Although Leonin played with melismas, they were short, only rarely containing a melodic leap larger than a third. They often contain glissando-like passages running through a whole octave or even more. Leonin’s melodic curve is broader than Perotin’s, which tend toward squarer rhythms and short motives. You’ll meet Perotin in my next post.

Nothing is known about where Leonin is buried, what he died of, or when. We can probably assume that he’s somewhere in Paris, as he spent very little time away from there. At least, he spent little time away that we know about.

Sources:

“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. Anness Publishing, Ltd., Wigston, 2012.

“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, Cambridge, 1978.

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

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

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

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

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.

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

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

Composer Biography: Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)

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Hans Leo Hassler was responsible for bringing Italian innovation to Germany during the somewhat dry spell that preceded Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). If it hadn’t been for his lieder and his interest in polychoral music, there would have been no B minor Mass. Does that seem too strong? Read on!

Like Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and others of the 17th century, Hassler wrote biblical motets of a rather large scale, which was a definite nod to the Venetian fashion. So much so, in fact, that one source said that Hassler out-Italianed the Italians. Not only that, but Hassler was considered the last great Lied composer of his century, a sound that remains distinctly German to this day.

Hassler was born in Nürnberg. His father was famous organist Isaak Hassler (c1530-1591), and he had two brothers who were also composers, Jakob (1569-1622) and Kaspar (1562-1618). Isaak taught all three of his sons to play the organ, and all would go on to make names for themselves. The three siblings were ennobled by Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) as a result of their awesomeness.

He worked for a time at the church or St. Moritz in Nürnberg and in 1600, became head of the town band. (In those days, important towns had their own bands that performed for state events as well as in the public squares and parks on the weekends.)

Hassler was the first German to study in Italy, and his style is tinged strongly by the Venetian element.

Hassler had heard the polychoral music that was popular in Venice through Leonhard Lechner (c1553-1606), who was an associate of Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594, biography to come) in Munich. These songs in multiple choirs intrigued him, and he visited Venice in 1585. While he was there, he studied with Andrea Gabrieli (1532-1586). Giovanni Gabrieli (c1554-1612), Andrea’s nephew, became Hassler’s friend and colleague.

After Andrea Gabrieli died in 1586, Hassler returned to Germany and was appointed court organist to Octavian II Fugger, of the great Augsburg banking family. Hassler’s fame spread rapidly and in 1602, he returned to Nürnberg as chief Kapellmeister of the town and with the reputation of a composer “whose like has not been found among the Germans up to this time.” In that same year, he was given the title of Imperial Chamber Organist in Prague, so he must have visited there periodically, although records are vague.

He was a Protestant, but he directed the Catholic music services in Augsburg and wrote a number of Masses for them. Some the texts of his Latin motets are of a Catholic nature, some are more Protestant in tone, and many were usable by both faiths.

His secular music was set to German words, and his sacred music is mostly Latin motets and Masses. At the time, Latin motets, particularly those by Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594) and Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jacob Handl, 1550-1591), were used in the Lutheran church. It was these works that paved the way to his connection with the Protestant court of Dresden, when he began writing Lutheran hymns. By 1608, he’d become chamber organist and music librarian to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden.

Hassler was a teacher to Melchior Franck (c1580-1639, Protestant composer), and when it was time to move on, he was succeeded as organist at Augsburg by Christian Erbach (c1570-1635, organist and composer). Hassler was a composer, organist, and a consultant to organ builders. In 1596, with 53 other organists, he examined a new instrument with 59 stops at the Schlosskirche, in Groningen. He used his fame as an organ-construction expert to develop a clockwork organ that was later sold to Emperor Rudlolf II (1552-1612).

In 1600, with his old friend Giovanni Gabrieli, Hassler composed a wedding motet for Georg Gruber, a Nürnberg merchant living in Venice. Hassler was the chief town musician for Nürnberg from 1601-1608, and achieved the title of Imperial Chamber Organist in 1602. While there, he was appointed to Emperor Rudolf II’s court.

In 1604, Hassler took a leave of absence and went to Ulm, where he married Cordula Claus. I didn’t find any family information about her nor did I find her dates. He seems to have been a businessman with many interests in addition to his music, and perhaps he met Cordula through his business dealings.

Hassler composed sacred music, including Masses, motets, psalms, and Lutheran chorales, and he composed secular music, including madrigals, canzonettes, instrumental dances, and keyboard ricercars. He was most famous for his German Lieder, which were often in the Italian style, and about which there will be more in a minute.

Hassler’s work is distinctive in that he borrowed from every conceivable source. He set two Italian texts into Italian-style motets, and he borrowed from such notable predecessors as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594). He let the qualities of the languages of the texts he chose influence and affect his melodies—German is weightier than lithe and limber Italian. (For more on this, consider reading The Sound of a Culture.)

His early works show the influence of Orlando de Lassus (c1532-1594), and his later ones reveal the deep impression made upon him by his studies in Italy. Like Michael Praetorius, he was a prolific composer of Latin and German sacred music, as well as secular and instrumental music. He was no innovator, but he coordinated and developed current styles and earned a lofty reputation for his practical approach and craftsmanship.

As the first German to go to Italy, it was his influence that made Italian music much more popular than German music in Germany, and started a trend for German musicians to finish their education in Italy. Italian musicians like Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594), had been working in Germany for years, but represented an older style of music, the refined Renaissance style of Italian polyphony. By Hassler’s time, new trends were emerging in Italy that would ultimately define the Baroque era. Hassler, and later Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), brought the concertato style, the polychoral idea, and the freely emotional expression of the Venetians to the German culture, representing the first non-German Baroque development of any importance.

Hassler’s secular music, including madrigals, canzonette, and songs for voices, ricercars, canzonas, introits, and toccatas for instruments show the character of the Gabrielis, but with more restraint.

In the Masses and motets of his maturity, his natural propensity for writing light, almost poplar, melodies (like the Lieder) and for very careful workmanship is coupled with a grace and fluidity derived from the madrigalian dance songs and a fondness for polychoral structures. The result is a sacred style that makes up in charm and sonority for what it lacks in profundity. Hassler incorporated polychoral techniques, textural contrast, and occasional chromaticism in his works.

Polychoral writing appeared in Italy as early as 1544—by the end of the century, writing for double and even triple choirs was common in Italy, and unlike his earlier pieces, Hassler’s later works attempt to capture the splendor and richness of the Venetian style. The Protestant composers who wrote in this German-Venetian style include Hassler, and Johannes Eccard (1563-1611), Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629), Georgius Otto (c1550-1618), Andreas Raselus (c1563-1602), Adam Gumpelzhaimer (1559-1625), and Philippus Dulichius (1562-1631). Giovanni Gabrieli was a real trend setter in this arena, and of course, no one topped Englishman Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585).

In his Italian secular music, Hassler shows his thorough familiarity with the up-to-date style of Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) and Luca Marenzio (c1553-1599). The specifically Venetian influence is felt most in Hassler’s double-choir madrigals and Lieder.

His “simpliciter” works are in four parts with the melody in the highest voice, but his “fugue-wise” pieces treat the successive phrases of the hymn in the motet style that would be followed throughout the 17th century and beyond. Hassler would be surpassed in both variety and probably in artistic achievement by Michael Praetorius, but Praetorius wouldn’t have done it—nor would Bach—without Hassler’s influence.

Hassler’s Lieder, however, were a different story, and not as derivative. In them, he incorporates the Italian madrigal elements, but for the most part, he put the melody in the top voice—not polyphony, but distinctly chordal music. (For more on this, see Chords versus Polyphony.) His melodies are distinctive and easily memorized. One love song that was popular was “Mein gmüth ist mir verwirret,” which he later adapted to the Passion chorale “O Haupt vol Blut und Wunden.”

His compositions were first published in 1590: a set of 24 four-part canzonette. His 1596 “New German Songs in the Manner of Madrigals” includes music in four to eight voices, all of it too chordal to be truly madrigalian and using his own texts. His collection of choral and instrumental works of 1601, “A Pleasure Garden of New German Songs, Ballets, Galliards, and Intradas” is also strongly chordal. This latter collection is thought to be his best work and contains 39 vocal and 11 instrumental pieces.

Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) borrowed one of Hassler’s pieces. It was his five-part Mein gmüth is mire verwirret (My Mind is Confounded), which has a religious text only in the superius (highest) voice. Bach used it in his St. Matthew’s Passion.

Hassler’s style of writing the melody in the highest voice profoundly influenced his younger German colleagues. The affect is clearly evident in the Lieder of such men as Melchior Franck (c1579-1539), Valentin Haussmann (c1560-1613), Christoph Demantiums (1567-1643), Johann Staden (1581-1634), and Hermann Schein (1586-1630). The last two belong to the Baroque period more than to the Renaissance, partially because of this Lieder influence.

Despite his Protestantism, Hassler wrote many Catholic Masses and directed the music for Catholic services in Augsburg. Hassler dedicated both his Cantiones sacrae and a book of Masses for four to eight voices to Octavio Fugger, his long-time Catholic patron. Due to the constancy of Catholic patrons and his own Protestant beliefs, Hassler’s compositions represent a blend of both religions’ musical styles and could often work in either church.

Hassler only wrote two pieces specifically meant for Lutheran services while in Augsburg, the Psalmen simpliciter, written in 1608, which was dedicated to the city of Augsburg. Psalmen und christliche Gesange was written in 1607 and dedicated to Elector Christian II of Saxony (1583-1611).

Hassler is considered, like Bach and Praetorius, to be one of the most important German composers. His works sounded fresh and unaffected, combining vocal and instrumental literature without continuo (an improvised bass line), or with continuo as an option. His sacred music introduced the Italian polychoral structures that would later influence many German composers, including Bach.

In 1608, Hassler moved to Dresden to be the chamber organist to the Elector Christian II of Saxony (1583-1611) and eventually became Kapellmeister there too. By this time, he had already contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1612. After he died, Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) were appointed to fill his spot as organist in Dresden.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

“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 Berkeley Press, Berkeley, 1997.

Composer Biography Ludwig Senfl (c1486-c1543)

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Ludwig Senfl is one of those composers that you really should have in your playlist. He was a Swiss-German composer who spent most of his composing years in Germany, and was instrumental in bringing the Franco-Flemish sensibility to Germany that had already taken France and Italy by storm.

A collection published in 1544 by Georg Rhau (1488-1548) included 11 of Senfl’s pieces that reflect the transition to Protestant sacred music after the great debate between Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johann Maier von Eck (1486-1583, a German Catholic defender and philosopher) in 1519.

Although he was a Catholic all of his life, Senfl sympathized with the Protestant argument and borrowed from Protestant musical sensibilities. His works were representative of the Protestant Reform movement in music, even though most of his work was for fellow Catholics.

Senfl was born in Basel, Switzerland and moved to Zurich when he was barely a toddler. I didn’t find anything about his parents or siblings, or why they made the move. He lived in Zurich from 1488 until 1496, when he joined the Hofkapelle of Maximilian I in Augsburg, Germany. Except for a brief visit in 1504, he doesn’t seem to have gone back to Switzerland. If you’re doing the math, that’s a pretty young age to leave home forever. I also didn’t find out if he ever married, but he was a priest for a while, so perhaps he was disinclined to take a wife.

Little Ludwig left home to become a choirboy in Maximilian I’s (1459-1519) court. He was promoted to be a singer in the Imperial Chapel in 1507 and succeeded Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517) as imperial chamber composer ten years later. The chapel was dissolved when Maximilian died in 1519.

Senfl, by then a grown man of considerable accomplishment, found work temporarily in Passau (in southern Bavaria), and in 1523, became “first musician” of the Munich court. Although staunchly Catholic, he admired Martin Luther (1483-1546) and sympathized with the Reformation efforts. He maintained a lively correspondence with Protestant Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1490-1568) for many years, and it’s through these letters that we have most of the information about Senfl’s personal life.

Senfl traveled with Maximilian to Vienna in 1497, and again between 1500 and 1504, when he studied at a special school for boys whose voices had changed. This was also part of his training to be a priest.

While he was in Vienna on the second trip, he was lucky enough to study with Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), serving as Isaac’s copyist from 1509. He copied much of Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus (which is a collection of 375 Gregorian chant-based polyphonic motets) and completed it after Isaac’s death in 1513. That’s when Senfl became the official court composer.

In 1518, Senfl lost a toe in a hunting accident, which put him out of commission for nearly a year. When Maximilian died in 1519, Senfl (along with all the other court musicians) was unemployed. Maximilian’s successor, Charles V, refused to pay Senfl the stipend he was promised upon Maximilian’s death, and Senfl fell on hard times. He traveled extensively looking for work, continuing to write music in his spare time.

Although he never became a Protestant, Senfl attended the Diet of Worms (about the Protestant revolution) in 1521, and was sympathetic to Luther. His intelligent receptivity to new ideas got him examined by the Inquisition and as a result, he voluntarily gave up his priesthood. He maintained correspondence with both staunch Lutheran Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1490-1568) and with Martin Luther (1483-1546), starting in 1530. Luther, by the way, liked Senfl’s work. He also liked Josquin des Prez (c1440-1521), Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518) and Heinrich Finck (c1444-1527).

In 1523, he finally found regular work again at the Bavarian court chapel in Munich for Duke Wilhelm (1493-1550). This was a place with high musical standards, and a place that was tolerant of Protestants and their sympathizers. Senfl would stay there the rest of his life.

Within his lifetime, he won the praise of musicians throughout German-speaking Europe, and examples of his work appeared in numerous treatises. Those German-speaking areas that stayed Catholic produced few composers during the 16th century, and those few didn’t contribute new elements or innovations to the music of the Catholic Church.

Senfl is the most significant representative of the Netherlands/German style of motet and Lied composition in German-speaking regions during the Reformation. His work was eclectic in content and purpose, both in its secular and sacred forms. His melodies were enduring and maintained their popularity in Germany more than a century after his death.

He modeled much of his work on the Franco-Flemish composers of the previous generation, particularly Josquin. He used many already archaic features, such as cantus firmus (the practice of having the chant on which the polyphony is based sung slowly in one voice while the other voices wind around it) and isorhythms (repeating rhythmic patterns).

He wrote seven complete Masses, eight Magnificats, numerous Latin motets, German Lieder, four-voice Latin odes, and a few instrumental pieces. These form both the climax of the old German music and a highpoint of the new style at the beginning of the Reformation, which led to the virtuosity that would be Bach. Most of Senfl’s sacred texts were written for his Protestant patron and friend Duke Albrecht.

His German Lieder were secular songs, and he had a talent for writing highly singable melodic passages in parallel imperfect intervals (thirds and sixths), which was a kind of homage to the old-style of organum (these were usually parallel fourths, which is considered a “perfect” interval). The character of these songs varies widely, from simple settings of cantus firmus to contrapuntal powerhouses (where the voices move in opposite directions from each other—one up the scale and another down it, for instance), such as canons (like rounds) and quodlibets (cheerful popular tunes). His texts included courtly love songs, folksongs, comic ditties, and satire, and many of them became the basis for the Tenorlied (using a Lied melody as a sort of cantus firmus) that was popular in the early 16th century.

Senfl’s taste in technique and subject didn’t lead to a lot of innovation, but he did experiment. For instance, he wrote one piece where he disregarded polyphony and melody altogether and made the singers produce onomatopoeic bell sounds.

Senfl’s reputation stems mainly from the 250 German secular songs that he wrote. They illustrate every imaginable approach to the traditional German song melodies, from simple chordal harmonization to masterly canonic pieces with sharply contrasted counterpoint in the non-canonic parts. His Latin odes, with the tune in the descant (highest voice) set in a simple homophonic manner (like a chant), represent the style that later became common to German Protestant settings.

The quodlibet was Senfl’s specialty. In these, two or three different song tunes were combined in a dazzling contrapuntal display and despite the potential for chaos, remained distinct and recognizable.

Although his Lieder technique owes much to the German polyphonic tradition established by Finck and Isaac in the previous century, Senfl shows a greater range of emotions than his predecessors. Many of hos Lieder use a cantus firmus form of construction and close or free imitation in the other voices, meaning that the melody was repeated in an inexact but recognizable fashion.

Having studied with Isaac and the Spaniard Cristobal Morales (c1500-1553, biography to come), Senfl’s work reflected the “internationalization” of the Flemish style. His use of imitation is often freer than Jacob Clemens non Papa’s (c1510-1556)—as long as the general shape of the motif was perceptible, he allowed himself to vary the intervals considerably and to distort the rhythm.

Of particular note is Senfl’s Missa dominicalis super l’Homme arme, in which the chanson tune in one voice is combined with plainsong in another. This combination is even more remarkable because it appears throughout the Mass, not solely in one isolated movement. Composers such as Josquin, Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505), and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518), restricted the use of a double cantus firmus in a Mass like that to a single movement, most often the Credo.

In some passages to the L’Homme Mass, Senfl uses the borrowed melody freely, making interpolations and other digressions. The popular tune is in the tenor (except in the Benedictus, where it doesn’t appear at all), and the chant in the discantus (the high voice), except in the Agnus dei, where the two cantus forms exchange positions. The other two voices sometimes imitate phrases from one cantus or the other.

His motets show great skill with counterpoint and variation that’s supplemented by the warm lyricism of his own melodies. One particularly fine example is his Ave rosa sine spinis, which is based on the tenor of Comme femme, which is an interpretation of Josquin’s Stabat Mater.

Ludwig Senfl died in Munich after three years of illness, according to correspondence with Duke Albrecht. It isn’t known what he died of or the exact date, and no one knows where he was buried.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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 Berkeley Press, Berkeley, 1997.

Composer Biography: Oswald von Wolkenstein (c1377-1445)

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Oswald was one of the last south-German/Austrian poet-musicians, and was sometimes regarded as the last of the Minnesingers. (The Minnesingers were the German version of the Trouvères and Troubadours, a species of French itinerant poet-musicians in the 12th and 13th centuries. Their themes were mostly about courtly—or less proper—love.)

Wolkenstein is in Sachsen Germany, on the Zschopau River, southeast of Chemnitz in the Ore Mountains. If that’s too obscure for you, you can think of it as kind of near Dresden. I don’t know when he went there to have been named after the place, though—I couldn’t find anything on it. Although he did a lot of wandering around in his life, the place that gave him his name didn’t come up, so it was probably his father’s name.

German music from this period was isolated from that of other musical centers, like Ferrara and Paris, to some degree. European polyphony had developed almost exclusively in the hands of the French-speaking musicians or those in close and constant contact with the French, like the English. Even the temporarily individualistic music of the Italian trecento was gradually transformed by the French influence, especially once the Franco-Flemish invasion began. (See Composer Biography: Johannes Ciconia for more about that).

When Johannes Ciconia went to Padua in the 1390s, for instance, his presence and that of his compatriots at the Papal chapel marked a new development: the occupation of Italian musical posts by foreigners. This was particularly noticeable after the Papal Schism, which lasted from 1378-1418. The Council of Konstanz (more on this in a moment) brought musicians together from all over as part of the pomp and ceremony that went with resolving this great debate. The Hungarian Emperor Sigismund brought his best musician/politician, Oswald von Wolkenstein, with him; likewise the singers who accompanied the English delegation were particularly admired in Köln on the way, as well as at Konstanz.

Oswald, who is, after all, the subject here, was born in the Schloss (castle) Schöneck in Pustertal, Tyrol. This is south of Munich, in what is present-day Italy, but has been both Austrian and German in the centuries between Oswald’s lifetime and now.

Oswald’s father was Friedrich von Wolkenstein and his mother was Katharina von Villanders. Oswald was the second of (at least) three sons.

When he was 10 years old (c1387), Oswald left his family and became the squire of a knight errant (which means a roving knight, one without a specific patron). He traveled for the next 14 years, writing an autobiographical song about it, called “Es fügt sich…” (“it fits,” or “it is fitting”). His journey took him far and wide, and he was even shipwrecked in the Black Sea. He was said to be fluent in ten languages.

When his father died in 1399, Oswald, now a grown man, returned to Tyrol and began a long feud with his older brother Michael about inheritance. Always tempted by travel, in 1401 or 1402, Oswald participated in a failed expedition to Milan with King Rupert of Germany (1352-1410). In 1407, he and his brother finally settled their argument, and Oswald received a third of Schloss Hauenstein and the accompanying estates in Seis am Schiern (an alpine village in southern Tyrol, now part of northern Italy). The other two-thirds of the castle belonged to a knight named Martin Jāger, who would become Oswald’s lifelong nemesis. Oswald didn’t like the property division once he got there, and he occupied the entire castle, appropriating Jāger’s share. You can imagine how popular that was with Herr Jāger.

In 1408, preparing for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Oswald paid for a memorial stone to be made and installed on the wall of the cathedral in Brixen (another southern Tyrolean town, now part of Italy). The stone still stands there, showing Oswald in Crusader gear, with the long beard of a pilgrim. But before going on the crusade, he wrote several songs for his beloved, Anna Hausmann, the wife of Brixen citizen Hans Hausmann. (It isn’t clear whether the love he felt was requited or not.) When he came back from this pilgrimage in 1410, he acquired the right to take up residence in the Augustinian abbey called Neustift, which was near Brixen. This abbey would later produce collections of Oswald’s music.

In 1414, Oswald became a member of the entourage of Friedrich IV, Duke of Austria and Count of Tyrol at the Council of Konstanz (1414-1418). There’s a nice portrait of Oswald in the council’s chronicle. While he was there, he met other notable dignitaries, emissaries, musicians, and nobles who would affect how he lived the rest of his life.

Oswald soon entered into the service of Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, as a diplomat. This service got him traveling again, including to England, Scotland, and Portugal, where he participated in the conquest of the Moorish city of Ceuta. In 1416, he joined King Sigismund in France, and they went together back to Konstanz, where the Council still convened.

The Council of Konstanz took so long because it ended the great Papal Schism, also known as the Three-Popes Controversy. The deposed or accepted the resignation of two of the papal claimants, and elected Pope Martin V (1369-1431) in 1417. The council also condemned and executed Czech philosopher Jan Hus and ruled on issues of national sovereignty, the rights of pagans, and whether the conflict between Poland and the Order of the Teutonic Knights was a just war.

In 1417, Oswald married Margarete von Schwangau (her hometown is right near Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle on which the Disneyland Castle is based). They had seven children. None of this stopped him from pining after Ann Hausmann, and you’ll hear more about that in a minute.

Oswald joined the Elefantenbund in 1418, an alliance of noblemen against Friedrich IV, who had been banned by King Sigismund for aiding the flight of the antipope John XXIII from the Council of Konstanz (euphemistically called a “resignation” earlier). Friedrich, with the help of the local peasants, resisted Sigismund, Oswald, and the Elefantenbund, and Friedrich vigorously pursued his enemies all over the area.

On the home front, between 1421 and 1427, Oswald was involved in a series of bitter quarrels with other landowners, and his own wild and lawless behavior led to his arrest and imprisonment twice.

In 1421, Anna Hausmann lured Oswald into a trap set by Martin Jäger, and he was brought to Innsbruck, handed over to Friedrich, and imprisoned. In 1422, Friedrich ransomed Oswald off in exchange for 6,000 ducats (about $4.8 million US in today’s money) and an oath to be non-violent evermore. This agreement allowed Oswald five months to settle his debts with Marin Jäger and other nobles. But Oswald didn’t meet his obligations and also didn’t show up in Tyrol Castle when he was supposed to. Instead, he slipped away to Hungary, where he met up with his old friend King Sigismund. Together, they plotted a war against Friedrich. This war was eventually started by Oswald’s older brother Michael, who also allied with Sigismund.

In 1422, the castle where Sigismund and Oswald were hiding, Schloss Greifenstein, was under siege by Friedrich’s troops, and it took most of the year to get out of there. The citizens and peasants of Tyrol and Brixen supported Friedrich, so soon, most of the nobles, including Oswald’s two brothers, surrendered. Oswald fought on with a few other nobles, and Oswald was the last to surrender.

Sigismund couldn’t afford three wars all at once, and by the end of 1424, Sigismund and Friedrich had made peace. Oswald was witness to it. That same year, Oswald commissioned the Neustift monastery to create a manuscript of his collected songs.

Oswald returned home penniless, and when Friedrich insisted on the 6000 ducat ransom that was three years overdue, Oswald fled. In 1425, he lived in Schloss Neuhaus, near Gais (another southern Tyrolean town that’s now part of Italy). Meanwhile, Friedrich renewed his siege of Schloss Greifenstein.

Oswald continued his feud with Friedrich long after all the others had given it up, and was forced to flee to Lake Konstanz in 1426. But Friedrich’s people found him and he was imprisoned in Innsbruck. He soon realized that he had no choice but to make peace with Friedrich, who finally forced him to pay Martin Jäger for the stolen and occupied properties, which allowed Oswald to have uncontested full ownership of Schloss Hauenstein and its estates at last. But Friedrich had learned that Oswald wasn’t to be trusted, and Oswald had to swear not to contact any nobles outside Tyrol unless Friedrich specifically approved it in advance.

Not one to sit tight or to mean an oath after he’d sworn it, Oswald broke his vow in 1428 and went to Heidelberg to meet the Archbishop of Köln. He met with other nobles there and tried to convince them to support him in his dispute with his cousin, Hans von Villanders (dates unavailable), who owed Oswald 2200 ducats ($1.8 million in today’s money). He soon became embroiled in local squabbles because the archbishop was friends with both Martin Jäger and dear old Friedrich. The controversy turned into a fracas and Oswald publically beat the archbishop. Yikes! I’m pretty sure that archbishops are on the list of people you should never beat up, publically or privately. At any rate, initially Sigismund backed Oswald in that argument, but soon, he switched sides and freed the archbishop from Oswald’s henchmen.

In 1430, Sigismund summoned the nobles who supported him to Nuremberg, and Oswald and his brother went off to join them, pausing for two months to celebrate Christmas in Konstanz. During this hiatus, Oswald wrote many love songs of a rather erotic nature, the most famous of which is “Ain Graserin,” about a bathing woman. The “frizzy hair” between her legs, according to the song, creates an overwhelming and irresistible desire in the singer.

Once he finally joined Sigismund in Nuremberg, Oswald became a member of the first rank of the Order of the Dragon (Sigismund’s own noble militia against the Ottoman Turks—on a side note, Vlad the Impaler was a member of this group), a very select position that only two dozen nobles held. This lofty position obligated Oswald to participate in Sigismund’s campaign in Bohemia in 1431, which didn’t go at all well. Apparently 50,000 Bohemian soldiers were scary to Sigismund’s entire Imperial army, and the skirmish was over before it began.

In 1432, Sigismund sent Oswald back to Tyrol to prepare the county for an invasion by the Bohemians (Hussites), and to negotiate with them. While Oswald was busy doing his bidding, slippery Sigismund fled to Milan and then to Piacenza (just 45 miles south east of Milan) under the pretext that he needed to go to Rome in order to be crowned emperor. Meanwhile, Oswald commissioned the Neustift abbey to create a second collection of his songs.

When Sigismund called Oswald to join him in Piacenza, Oswald toddled off, but the visit didn’t go well, leading Oswald to write a song of complaint, “Wer die ougen vil vershüren” (“who will disturb the eyes”), set to a French melody. Tired of Oswald too, Sigismund sent Oswald off to Basel. After a year of negotiations, Sigismund was finally crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1433 by Pope Eugenius IV (1383-1447), with Oswald dancing attendance.

After all that, Oswald settled down a bit, and when Friedrich died with only an underage heir in 1439, Oswald was put in charge of the contracts for the young man’s guardianship. He used the opportunity to seek the assistance of one of the guardians in resolving his 18-year-long argument with his cousin Hans von Villanders over bonds that Oswald had given Hans to hold.

When Friedrich’s heir’s guardianship ended in 1443, one of the guardians decided to extend it for six more years because he was enjoying the benefits of being King of the Holy Roman Empire. This caused a new revolt in Tyrol, and Oswald became one of the five commanders of the uprising. His job was to run the fortress at Mühlbach, which blocked the most likely invasion route from Styria, where the new king had taken up residence. Oswald ended up, as a result of skirmishes and maneuvering, as one of the electors to an opponent to the usurping king.

Oswald died that same year, succumbing to an intense heat wave in Merano, Italy. His body was brought to Neustift Abbey and buried near the front in the monastery’s church, where his grave was rediscovered in 1973.

Compositions

Sometimes Oswald is classified as a Meistersinger (this was a 14th through 16th century German guild for craftsmen who produced lyric poetry, regional music, and unaccompanied art song). He took a highly individual approach to composition, especially regarding text-setting, and he had a fondness for through-composed songs (no repeated section like a chorus, and no obvious divisions into sections—Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I heard for the first time recently, is a through-composed song, for instance and is readily available on Youtube.com), which matched his text style nicely. His often innovative approach to composition (notably his use of large melodic steps and instrumental interludes) sets him apart from other Meistersingers.

His poetry covers a variety of themes from a battle cry and animal sounds, to satire and para-liturgical texts, as well as lots of love poetry inspired by his wife and other ladies. Events from his rather active life are recorded in his songs, and much of his biography can be extrapolated from his music.

Oswald was the ultimate Renaissance jet-setter. Three polyphonic pieces (multiple lines of parallel melodies) attributed to Oswald are French songs to which he set his own German texts. His various visits to Italy also had an effect and his works are the first examples of the influence of Italian music on that of Germany. He was particularly fond of introducing instrumental ritornelli (pieces that circle back in their melodies), especially in his polyphonic works. These range from simple songs with instrumental accompaniment to fairly developed three-part vocal compositions, which, because of technical shortcomings, are usually less successful than his works in two parts.

He also gets classified as a Minnesinger (12th -14th century lyrical songwriters, parallel but different from the Troubadours and Trouvères). His music was representative of 15th century love songs and German polyphony, and he was thought to be the very last of the Minnesingers. (There will be posts on Minnesingers and on Troubadours and Trouvères sometime soon.)

Oswald was skilled in the music notation of his time, but his creative work is that of a gifted dilettante. His works often contain elements borrowed from contemporary French and Italian song as well as from folksong. His monadic pieces (chant), from the standpoint of text, belong to the usual types—there are love songs, religious songs, and bitter political Scheltgedicte (“scolding poems”).

His style puts depth of expression before conventional rules, and his works are marked by unshackling from the weighty traditions governing German courtly song that had bound his predecessors. Most of his songs are monophonic (chant), but some are in two or three parts, and a few of these are contrafacta (replacing the words without changing the melody) based on works by Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377), Francesco Landini (c1325-1397), and others.

He drew on a wide range of compositional techniques, including canon (like a round), organum (two parallel lines of chant), hocket (rhythmic alternation of notes, like hiccups), and conductus (chant in one or two voices that is meant to be used for processions). His texting of the tenor line anticipates the Tenorlied in the next century, where the melody of a lied (romantic solo song with accompaniment) was used as a cantus firmus, running slowly throughout the piece while the other voices dance around it, using elements from it, or repeating it at a faster pace.

Toward the end of his life, he seems to have rejected these more complex compositional devices and concentrated on setting songs with a greater emphasis on the need to instruct others to “do right” (rechttun) in this world.

Despite the wide variety of his work, he was a poor contrapuntist and often fell back on contrafacta (text substitution). His two-part “”Der may mit lieber zal”(“he with loving zeal”) is based on a three-part virelai by Jean Vaillant (fl.1360-1390), and uses a charming imitation of bird-song. His two-part “Mein herz das ist versert” (“my heart is thus destroyed”) borrows almost unaltered the cantus firmus and tenor of Francesco Landini’s popular ballata “Questa fanciulla” (“this girl”). Others borrowed from Oswald, too, such as Konrad Pauman (1410-1473), who used Oswald’s “Wach auf” (“wake up”) on a sixth tone (a hypophrygian mode—for more about modes, see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes) in his own Magnificat.

Some 120 of his songs survive, marking a new departure in the development of German song. They’re not courtly and stylized as had been the fashion, but are the expression of genuine personal feeling. Many are love songs, inspired by his various love affairs and also his marriage to Magarete von Schwangau in 1417, and these are particularly heartfelt. Some are topical, containing references to current political events, others were inspired by his visit to Jerusalem (1409-1411), and there are also a number of sacred texts.

The first collection has 42 complete songs was produced in 1425, with another 66 poems added to it between 1427 and 1436. The second collection was produced in 1432. The third collection is from 1450, and is a copy of the second collection. There are pictures of Oswald in both the first and second collections that were done under the supervision of Oswald himself. This is thought to be the earliest authentic depiction of a German author.

Sources:

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

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

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

“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 Berkeley Press, Berkeley, 1997.

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

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

“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hippen. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978.