Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Posts Tagged ‘14th Century

Music During Times of Plague, Part I

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This topic turned out to be HUGE so I’ve broken into (at least) two sections:

  • Part I: General history of the plague, composers from England, Italy, and Belgium/Flanders
  • Part II: Composers from Germany/Austria, France, Russia/Poland, Czech Republic/Bohemia, and what was happening in other arts at the time. (I might break this down further if it gets out of hand once I start researching and writing it.)

As we face the seventh month of lockdown due to COVID-19, my thoughts rather naturally turn to the plague (which COVID-19 is not). A little research on the Internet turned out to be a whole other kind of rabbit hole, so before I get down to the interesting bits (the music), I need to give you a brief run-down.

Bubonic Plague (or the Black Death) has been around for a LOT longer than you probably think. The first DNA-proven incident was between 3500-3000 BCE (that’s right—5000 years ago), from a Swedish tomb that was excavated in 2018. In one form or another, it has circulated from China, Asia, Africa, Europe, back to China, back to India, the Middle East, and Europe, and through the New World and China, Europe, etc. Just round and round for 5000 years until the invention of antibiotics in the mid-20th century.

There were three major waves in “modern” times: The first wave was from 541-750 CE, spreading from Egypt to the Mediterranean (starting with the Plague of Justinian in Northwestern Europe); the second wave was from 1346-1840, spreading from China, through the Mediterranean and Europe (the Black Plague of 1346-1665 is considered unparalleled in human history, killing more than a billion people in Europe); and the third wave was between 1566 and the 1960s, again originating in China and spreading to India, killing 22.5 million people under British rule alone. Yes, the latter two waves do overlap.

In the 1890s, dead plague cells were used to create a vaccine, dramatically reducing the number of people who got sick, and in the 1940s, antibiotics were invented, reducing the number of deaths. Nonetheless, outbreaks continued to occur in developing countries: Roughly 40,000 cases were reported by WHO between 1987 and 2001, including 2850 deaths in 38 countries. Most deaths today are due to lack of treatment, around 200 people per year, mostly in remote African villages.

A Little Plague History

Between 1334 and 1403, plague was reported in China, all over Eurasia including Southern Russia, and in India, Constantinople (now in Turkey), and Italy.

Black Death arrived in England in 1348, reaching Scotland by 1350. The estimated death toll for the British Isles was 3.2 million. The rest of Europe went crazy. They began killing Jews in pogroms, burning homes and murdering the people as they ran out with clubs and axes, accusing Jews of having brought the plague to specifically kill Christians. (Funny, isn’t it, how the majority always thinks they’re the put-upon ones?) Burning Jewish communities alive in their own communities became the rage—it happened in Toulon, Savoy, Basel, and Freiburg, and in the Strasbourg massacre, 900 Jews were locked up and burned alive. Those who were willing to be baptized were given a reprieve, so it clearly wasn’t really about the plague.

Some of the murderous rage had to do with a change in power in the guilds from the master tradesmen to the patrician bourgeoisie—the uprising was a combination of fear of the illness and anger over social ills. (Sound familiar?) It took two papal bulls from Pope Clement VI to stop the violence against the Jews, claiming that the plague was the result of “an angry God striking at the Christian people for their sins,” not the Jews poisoning the wells or some such.

In 1351, the Black Death reached Russia, but the harsh Russian winter seems to have suppressed it a little. For ten years, it only showed up here and there in Europe, but by 1361, it was back, raging away until efforts to cure it started having an effect in 1374.

They tried all kinds of creative extreme remedies, such as eating cooked onions (!), ten-year-old treacle, arsenic, or crushed emeralds. They sat in the sewers and in very warm rooms, and they tried fumigating the house with smoldering herbs. Flagellants went on processions whipping themselves, thinking to save the innocent from punishment for their sins. It must have been a fun time, eh? In the 1360s, doctors discovered that popping the buboes (the inflammation of the lymph nodes) helped some patients recover.

In 1374, the Black Death re-emerged in Europe. In Sicily and Venice, they began to force ships to wait at sea for 30 days before coming ashore, to make sure that the plague was not with the men or their goods. By 1403, they began to think that 30 days was not enough, and they made them wait for 40 days—that’s where the word comes from: “quaranta giorni” or “quarantena.”

Through all of this strife and terror, they made music. What were they listening to, you ask? Let’s find out.

I’ll provide links to YouTube when they exist. If I can find CDs with recordings, I’ll name them, but I can’t copy tracks because I don’t want to violate copyright AND I think musicians should get paid for their work. There are some composers that I couldn’t find much at all on, whether it be their story or their music. I listed them anyway. Even so, it’s not a complete list.

England 1334-1403

Johannes Alanus (14th c, died c1373) (possibly also Johannes Aleyn or J. Alani and J. Alani Minimus) was possibly Edward III of England’s chaplain and a favorite of Queen Philippa of Hainault. His works in the Old Hall Manuscript include the motet Sub Arturo plebs/Fons citharizancium/In omnem terram, the lieds “Min frow, min frow” and “Min herze wil all zit frowen pflegen,” and a virelai called “S’en vos por moy pitie ne truis.”

  • CD:“Beneath the Northern Star” (Orlando Consort) includes Alleluia: Christo iubelemus, Sub Arturo plebs/fons citharizanium/In omnem terram
  • CD: “Music for the 100 Years War” (Binchois Consort) includes Sub Arturo plebs/fons citharizanium/In omnem terram

(Thomas) Byttering (fl. c1400-1420)has only six surviving compositions, all in the Old Hall Manuscript. Not much is known about him, although there was a canon at Hastings Castle between 1405 and 1408 and a rector in London in 1414 named Byteryng, and he could have been either or neither of them. His is the only offering of a Mass with the canon in all four voices in the Old Hall Manuscript.

John Dunstable (c1390-1453) (Dunstaple)was, with Leonel Power, one of the most prolific composers of his time—about 60 of his works survive. An epigraph after his death shows that he was also a mathematician and astronomer. He challenged and changed continental musical styles with new and unusual treatments of consonance and dissonance, and is largely responsible (so think some experts) for the new movement in polyphonic music to make every interval harmonic and every voice consonant with all the others. He used dissonance only as an ornament. This made a fundamental change from the Medieval style to the Renaissance: Medieval music emphasized the independence of superimposed individual melodies in each voice, and Renaissance shifted the emphasis to the “vertical” aspects of polyphony, dependent on melodic consonance rather than incidental consonance, which would all, one day, lead to the invention of chords and chordal composition. (Several VERY different interpretations of the same pieces follow.)

John Forest (1471-1538) was an English Franciscan friar and martyr, confessor to Queen Catherine of Aragon (Henry VIII’s first wife). While imprisoned for refusing to accept Henry VIII as the head of the church and awaiting a death sentence, Forest wrote a tract denouncing Henry VIII. He refused to swear the oath of loyalty demanded by Cromwell, so Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer worked to have him condemned for treason and heresy. Latimer preached a final sermon at the place of execution that urged Forest to recant, but he still didn’t. Forest was the only Catholic martyr to be burned at the stake during the English Reformation. Fuel for the pyre was said to have come from a statue of St. Derfel that had been prophesied to “one day set a forest on fire.” Oh, the irony.

  • CD: “Music for the 100 Years War” (Binchois Consort) includes Ascendit Christus super celos/Alma redemptoris mater and Guade martyr/Collandemus venerantes/Celestium contemplator

John Hanboys (c1320-c1380) may also be J. de Alto Bosco (fl. C1370) and was a music theorist and the author of a treatise on music notation called the Summa super musicum continuam et discretum. The only known source of the treatise is an early 15th century copy, but because of inconsistencies in the spelling of his name, it might not even have been the same person. It’s said that he wrote a volume of music, but it’s lost.

Roy Henry (fl. c1410) (also King Henry IV or V of England) wrote works that can be found in the Old Hall Manuscript. The music was most likely written between 1399 and 1413, when Henry IV would have been in his early 40s. By 1410, Henry IV was suffering from a disfiguring skin disease and struggling to retain his royal power, so some pieces were either written earlier or perhaps were falsely attributed to him. Henry V is thought to have been quite fond of music, taking his chapel choir with him on campaigns. Henry V reigned from 1413 to 1422. Only two pieces, a Gloria and a Sanctus from the Mass Ordinaries remain, both in three voices. Unusually, neither seems to be based on a chant—or perhaps the underlying chant was lost. I didn’t find any recordings.

Leonel Power (c1370/1385-1445), rather unusually, used intertwined (not independent) voices as descant. The cantus firmus is somewhat freer than other composers’, leaving out some notes or making skips to accommodate melodies in other lines. His work is strongly within the Ars subtilior style, enjoying a variety of meters and notational symbols.

Pycard (fl.c1410) has nine works in the Old Hall Manuscript, all strongly in the English style, although he may have been French. He uses the “usual” four-part style in his Gloria 26, but the text appears only in three voices, with an instrumental tenor. There’s an eight-minute introduction before the contratenor begins the canon, followed by the duplum a fourth above. Only the triplum has the complete text. In Gloria 27, Pycard wrote what might be the earliest example of simultaneous two-part canons (one in the tenor and countertenor and the other in the top two voices), with a free duplum producing the fifth voice. Pycard’s Gloria 35 is partly like Gloria 27, except the tenor and countertenor are now free, with only the two highest voices in canon. His works are in the Ars nova style and are particularly difficult to perform.

Queldryk (fl.c1400-15th c) has a Gloria in the Old Hall Manuscript that’s paired with John Tyes’ Credo (I found nothing on Tyes—or Dyes—beyond mentions that he’s in the Old Hall). It’s written in four voices—not pairs, but independent voices, with wildly varying isometric (matching rhythmic) organization; some are strictly isometric in all four voices, and others only match in the tenor and countertenor parts. Only two bits seem to come from known chants—the rest is freshly composed.

W. de Wycombe (fl.c1275-1279) (perhaps also de Wyc, Wicumbe, or Whichbury, or Willelmus de Winchecumbe, Willelmo de Wincheviumbe, William of Winchcomb) was a secular scribe employed briefly at a Herefordshire priory. Despite the fact that little is known about him, he left a collectarium (a book of introits), a precentor’s (layman who led the congregation in singing) workbook, two scrolls of music, a summary and treatise on music, a history that he added musical examples to, and other books, not to mention 40 settings of various pieces found in fragments here and there. Only one piece (from the Worcester Fragments—the Alleluia) is complete. It’s in four-part polyphony alternating with solo respond and verse sections. There’s another lengthy fragment in the Montpellier Codex. Occasionally, Sumer is acumen in, the earliest known English-language secular song to be written down, is attributed to Wycombe.

Italy 1334-1403

Bartolomeo da Bologna (fl1405-after 1427) wasn’t a prolific composer (only seven pieces survive), but he’s famous for inventing the parody as a type of music. Rather than a silly thing based on a serious one as it is in theater, a musical parody takes a secular piece and sets sacred texts to it. He wrote in the Ars subtilior style, which can be quite complex, but you can hear the influence of the more melodious Franco-Flemish style in his work, too.

Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-1360) has 29 pieces in the Squarcialupi Codex, placing him firmly in the very beginning of the Italian Ars nova period. He wrote a short music theory treatise called “Queste a l’arte del biscanto misurate,” which is largely about the music notation being developed in France. His “Non al suo amante piu Diana piacque” madrigal (featured in the links) was written in about 1350, one of the only known contemporaneous settings of Petrarch’s poetry.

Giovanni da Cascia (fl.1340) (also Jovannes de Cascia, or Giovanni da Firenze) is the earliest known composer of the Italian Ars nova. He was active in the Mastino Il della Scala courts (with Jacopo da Bologna, also in this list) in Verona and the Visconti court in Milan. He mostly wrote madrigals, cacce, and ballades (numbering 28 in all), which can be found in several sources in England and France. His portrait in the Squarcialupi Codex shows him in layman’s clothes, so he probably wasn’t a priest or cleric. He was fond of the hoquet device, which sounds like musical hiccups, and it’s clear that he wanted performers to improvise a fair bit. It’s possible that he and Maestro Piero, one of his great friends and also in this list, died of the Black Death.

Donato da Cascia (fl.c1350-1370) (also da Firenze and da Florentia) can be found in the Squarcialupi Codex in strictly secular works, even though he was a Benedictine priest. He wrote only for two voices (or rather, that’s all that’s been found and attributed to him), which was very much the epitome of the Italian Ars nova style. Usually, the upper part is the fancier of the two, and there’s occasional imitation (where the second voice repeats the melody, perhaps with different notes), and he’s somewhat humorous in his choice of texts.

Antonello da Caserta (late 14th-early 15th c)(also Anthonello de Casette, Antonellus Marot) is a bit of mystery. He was a monk, but it isn’t known to which order he belonged. He set his texts in both French and Italian, which makes scholars think that he was from northern Italy, and one of his texts was set to music by the great Guillaume Machaut. He used unusual mensuration signs that are found in few other manuscripts although he also used proportional rhythms in some ballades, which was more popular after his lifetime (perhaps he was an early adopter?). His works tend to be about courtly love.

Philippus de Caserta (also Philipoctu, Filipotto, or Filipoctus) fl.c1370-c1400) was an Ars subtilior composer and may have worked at for the antipope Clement VII, although he didn’t follow Clement to Avignon. Two of his pieces include fragments of text from Guillaume Machaut, and two of his own were borrowed by Johannes Ciconia. It’s possible that he wrote as many as five musical treatises (although it’s also possible that one was written by or co-written with Egidius de Francia) and there’s a piece (En remirant vo douce pourtraiture) in the Chantilly Codex.

Antonio da Cividale (Antonius de Civitate Austrie) (fl.c1392-1421) straddled the end of the Medieval period and the beginning of the Renaissance—there are very few surviving pieces from the early 15th century from Italy, so it’s wonderful to have them. He was a friar and wrote both sacred and secular music. Four Mass movements and six motets survive, and there are seven secular pieces, mostly in French. He was fond of musical tricks, such as writing a phrase to be sung first forward and then backward.

Andrea da Firenze (fl.c1375-c1415) (Andreas de Florentia, Andrea de’ Servi, Andrea degli Organi, Andrea di Giovanni, and Horghanista de Florentia) was a composer and organist working in the Italian Ars nova style. He was a Servite prior who built organs and hired Francesco Landini to consult on his first project, which was in his own monastery. The two of them took three days and copious amounts of wine to tune the instrument. <heh> Andrea got another commission to build organs for the Florence Cathedral, one in Rieti, and another (possibly) in Rome. All of the surviving pieces are ballatas (secular pieces)—there are 30 of them, mostly in the Squarcialupe Codex. He didn’t like a Benedictine monk named Gianni from L’Aquila because apparently, Gianni liked wine and money too much, so Andrea mocked him in a ballade it’s first in the list).

Ghirardello da Firenza (fl.c1375) (Gherardellus de Florentia, Ser Gherardello, and occasionally, Niccolo di Francesco) was an early composer in the Italian Ars nova style. He was a chaplain in Florence between 1345 and 1361, which was the worst of the Black Death period, and later he was a monk in San Remigio. His secular work can be found in the Squarcialupe Codex (16 pieces), and elsewhere, there are two Mass movements.

Lorenzo da Firenze (died 1372/1373) (Lorenzo Masini, Lorenzo Masi, Magister Laurentius de Florentia) was another member of the Ars nova movement, and he drew on the important poets of the day for texts, including Giovanni Boccaccio (The Decameron). He was a canon at San Lorenzo and probably studied with Landini there. He wrote 16 secular pieces that appear in the Squarcialupe Codex plus two Mass movements using the great innovations of the day such as melismas, imitation, part crossing, and ficta—including chromatic sections—heterophony, parallel fourths, and isorhythms. He was also one of the first Italians to use the new French music notation (neumes—for more on this, see my book or my blog).

Paolo da Firenze (c1355-c1436) (Paulo Tenorista, Magister Dominus Paulas Abbas de Florentia) was a composer and music theorist with quite a few attributed pieces. His portrait in the Squarcialupe Codex (which he supervised the compilation of) shows him to be a Benedictine monk, and later, he became an abbot in San Martin al Pino near Florence. All of his music seems to be vocal—13 madrigals and more than 40 ballate, along with two liturgical pieces—and at least one musical treatise, all in the Ars subtilior style. He used the Italian notation, rather than the new French style, although he borrowed from the French when it suited him.

Ugolino da Forli (c1380-1457) ( Ugolino da Orvieto or Urbevatano) was an Italian composer and music theorist (his Declaratio musicae disciplinae filled five books). Sadly, I didn’t find any music on recordings or YouTube, nor much about him in my usual sources.

Francesco Landini (c1325/1335-1397) (Franciscus caecus, Francesvo il Cieco, Francesco degli organi, and Ferancesco da Firenze) was the Big Cheese of the 14th century in Italy and beyond. He was so prolific (and well documented), that his works provide nearly a quarter of all Italian music that survives from that time. Landini was a blind musician and a scholar. He learned the organ from Jacopo da Bologna (earlier in this list) and was involved in politics and religious controversies as well as creating new music. He was buddies with the poets Francesco Petrarch and Franco Sacchetti, even featuring in Giovanni da Prato’s poem about Florence. Landini is often the link that connects other musicians from the period, so he must have been a likeable fellow. More importantly, he was a fine composer. I’m not going to make too deep a dive here, because you can read more about him in my blog and my book, and elsewhere on the Internet and in printed books. His music is easy to find on YouTube and Amazon.

Giovanni Mazzuoli (1360-1426) (Giovanni degli Organi) was an organist and composer, although many of his pieces are missing. The Squarcialupe Codex blocks out a whole section for him, but he either never delivered, or they never got around to drafting them in.

Bartolino da Padova (fl.c1365-c1405) wrote in the Italian Ars nova style. His work appears in the Squarcialupe Codex—37 pieces! There are a handful of pieces, including 11 madrigals, found in other places too. His work doesn’t seem to reflect French music that was so popular, but it occasionally (like in his La Fiera Testa) employs three languages: Italian, Latin, and French.

Grazioso da Padova (fl.c1391-15th c) (Gratiosus de Padua) didn’t leave a lot of work behind—only three fragments remain. There are three-voice Gloria and Sanctus (Mass) settings and a single ballata (Alta regina de virtutue ornate).

Matteo da Perugia (fl. 1400-1416) was the first magister cappellae of the Milan Cathedral. He seems to have written third lines to existing pieces, which caused some works to be erroneously attributed to him.

Niccolo da Perugia (c1370-1412) (Niccolo del Proposto) wrote in the style of the Italian Ars nova and was probably friends with poet Franco Sacchetti. Forty-one of his pieces have survived, all secular and all vocal, and mostly in the Squarcialupe Codex. One of his pieces, La fiera testa (in the list below), was probably written against the Visconti family during the war between Milan and Florence.

Maestro Piero (c1300-after 1350) (Magister Piero or just Piero) was one of the first trecento composers known by name. He was mostly known for his six madrigals, but he also wrote two cacce. He hung out with Giovanni da Cascia and Jacopo da Bologna (both on this list), and the three composed somewhat competitively, each setting the same madrigal text. It’s possible that he and Giovanni da Cascia died of the Black Death. Two of his works are in the Rossi Codex. His are probably the earliest canonic madrigals.

Nicolaus Ricci de Nuculla Campli (fl.1401-1425, d. after 1438) (also Ricci de Nucella Campli, Niccolo Ricci and Nucella). Some sources say that there’s only one known piece by Nucella, “De bon parole,” and others list “Un Fior Gentile” as well. He was part of the papal choir for Popes Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII, and also a priest and a scribe for Pope Innocent VII (during a schism, no less). His father lived to be 100 years old, which was pretty unusual at the time. It’s still unusual! He was part of the Ars subtilior movement

  • CD: Un fior Gentile (Micrologus) includes “Un Fior Gentile” and, according to Amazon, costs the ridiculous price of $902.81.
  • CD: Menando gli anni (Aquila Altera) contains “De bon parole.”

Vincenzo da Rimini (c1332-1373) (Magister Dominus Abess de Arimino, L’abate Vincencio da Imola, Prate Vincenco) appears in the Squarcialupe Codex six times. His madrigals are all in two voices, and his cacce are in three, which was representative of the time.

  • CD: SVSO in Italia Bella: Musique Dans les Cours et Cloitres de l’Italie du Nord (La Reverdie)

Andrea Stefani (fl.c1399-15th c) has works in the Lucca Codex including two ballate (Con tutta gentilezza and I senti’ matutino) and a madrigal (Morte m’a sciolt). He’s thought to have written five lauds, but the melodies are lost and only the text remains. There’s a will dated 1460 for him, and he no doubt lived longer than that. He lived in the Bianchi Gesuati monastery for 54 years and left his inheritance to them.

  • CD: Rose e Orticha: Music of the Trecento (Ensemble Syntagma) includes “Con tutto gentilezza”
  • CD: Ballate e Madrigali al tempo della Signoria di Paolo Guinigi (Cantilena Antigua/Concentus Lucensus) includes “Con tutto gentilezza” and “I senti’ matutina.”
  • CD: Tracce della tradizione orale in manoscritti Italiani del XIV, XV sec. (Pantrizia Bovi/Gilberte Casabianca) includes “I senti’ matutina.”
  • CD: Medieval and Renaissance Music (A Ricolta Bubu, Pavana publishers) includes “I senti’ matutina.”
  • CD: Canzoni e melodie (Toti Dal Monte, Rivoalto publishers) includes “I senti’ matutina.”

Zacara da Teramo (c1350-c1415) (Antonio “Zacara” da Teramo, Anonius Zacharius of Teramo, Antonius Berardi Andre de Teramo, Antonio Zacar, Zacar, Zaccara, Zacharie, Zachara, and Cacharius) is probably the Zacharias in the Old Hall Manuscript. He was most active around 1400, bridging the periods of Ars subtilior to the beginnings of the Renaissance. He must have been terribly short, as his nickname (Zacara) means a small thing of little value, and he produced nine ballate and a caccia, plus several Mass movements, plus a madrigal. He signed his own name as Antonio, and he appears in the Squarcialupe Codex and the Mancini Codex, and seems to be missing a few fingers and toes. He served at the anti-pope’s court during the Western Schism (1378-1417). His pieces occasionally had very dark –even satanic—texts.

Belgium 1334-1403

Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412) changed Italian music from soloistic polyphony to polyphony for multiple voices—like choruses and consorts. This smoothed some edges and simplified things, so that less lithe or trained voices could manage it. He wrote at least two theoretical treatises and much of his music is lost. Even so, there are 11 Mass sections, 11 motets, and 20 secular pieces in both French and Italian. It’s super easy to find music from him, so I’ll just make a short list.

Egardus (fl.c1370-after 1400) (Engardus or Johannes Echgaerd) was part of the Ars nova movement, and only three of his works have been identified. Of the three works (a canon and two Glorias), two were found in Northern Italian sources, and the third has strong Italian connections. I only found the one recording listed below, but I found a reference to his music from Kurt von Fischer and F. Alberto Gallo, called “Italian Sacred and Ceremonial Music: Polyphonic Music of the Fourteenth Century” (published in 1976 and 1987). I couldn’t find it online, but I suspect that it’s a discussion and not sheet music.

Thomas Fabri (c1380-1420) was probably choir master in Bruges. Only four of his works have been preserved: two are vocal parts in three voices; one is a Gloria; and the fourth is a ballade, probably for solo voice or solo instrument. Of the three offerings below, the “Ach” piece, a rondeau, is secular, and the “Sinceram” piece is an antiphon, meant for a church service.

Johannes de Limburgia (fl.140801431) (also Lymburgia also called Johannes Vinandi) worked in Liege and in Italy (possibly Venice, Vicenza, or Padua), and wrote motets about those cities. About 50 of his works survive as well as the Ordinaries of the Mass in the Trent Codices.

Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) wrote poetry that was as stunning as the music he wrote. His style marks the end of the Medieval age, as composers turned away from monody (one melodic line) to polyphony (multiple melodic lines). His subject matter also marked the coming change from bible stories to romance, metaphors, and allegories. He was a master of the Ars nova style, again, the beginning of change from sacred modal music to secular and scalar music. Check out his book “Roman de Fauvel,” an allegorical work of fiction (before the idea of “novels” existed) meant to reveal the vices of mankind in stories, poetry, and song. There are six books of his works (collected by Machaut himself) and many more in various manuscripts.

Next time, I’ll look at other art forms and some more countries.

Don’t forget to buy my book, “Musical Innovators” from


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

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

“Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music,” by Manfred F. Bukofzer. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1950.

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

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

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

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

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

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

**Grove Music Online** Alanus (England), Jacopo da Bologna (Italy)

**Progeny of Old Hall **Margaret Bent**

**“Un leggiadretto celo’ ed alter cose petrarchesche” Rivista Italiana de Musicologia **Pierluigi Petrobelli**

Written by Melanie Spiller

August 17, 2020 at 11:25 am

The Montpellier Codex (c1270)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The music is gathered by type.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The eighth fascicle dates from c1310.

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

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

IMG_4161IMG_4162  IMG_4164

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Composer Biography: Gherardello da Firenze (c1320/1325-c1362/1384)

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Also Gherardellus de Florentia, Ser Gherardello, and rarely, Niccolo di Francesco.

Gherardello da Firenze was an Italian composer during the flowering of 14th century polyphony. A contemporary of Francesco Landini, he was one of the first composers of the Italian ars nova (a term used to connect all the new techniques that were being developed in France, Belgium, and Italy).

He was probably born in or near Florence and he spent most of his life within 20 miles of there. Many of his contemporaries sought their fortune in the north, so it’s interesting that he stayed home. Not much is known about his private life, except that he wasn’t the only composer in the family. His brother Jacopo (dates unavailable) and his son Giovanni (dates unknown) were also composers, although none of their music survives.

The first mention of Gherardello is when he shows up in the records of the Florence Cathedral as a clerk, at Santa Reparata, in 1343. He soon became a chaplain there (from 1345-1361), and was rather notably there during the Black Death years (1348 was the worst of it in Florence).

He joined the Benedictine order at Vallombrosa in Tuscany (about 19 miles south-east of Florence) in 1351, presumably as a monk. Later, he went back to Florence and became a prior at San Remigio, a 400 year-old church that had been reconstructed in the previous century.

It’s interesting that early 14th century Italian songs show no French influence, as the next century would bring a much greater mix of the two sensibilities—almost a competition. The French didn’t make themselves known in Italian music until around 1365 in the works of the later Florentine composers, like Francesco Landini, and Johannes Ciconia).

Despite that, Gherardello’s Gloria and Credo show the influence of Guillaume Machaut’s French style. Gherardello was known for his liturgical compositions, but sadly, only two Mass movements have survived. In fact, very few of anyone’s Mass movements have survived from before 1400, partly due to the wars that raged and partly due to the paucity of parchment and standardized notation.

In the end, 16 of his works (10 madrigals, five ballate, and a caccia), are in the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come), along with a portrait of him. He was especially famous for the caccia, called Tosta che l’alba (more about that in a moment).

His works show up in other collections from the period, especially in Tuscany, that contain only or mostly secular songs. It’s interesting to note that a great number of otherwise ecclesiastical composers who wrote mostly monody also wrote secular polyphony, although motets (sacred madrigals) by Italian composers during this period are very rare.

Gherardello’s two Mass movements are for two voices, which was the most common arrangement at the time. All of his madrigals are in two voices, the five ballate are monophonic (unison), and his one caccia is for three voices.

Monody (unison voices) was out of style. Of the few documented composers of the time, only Lorenzo da Firenza (d. 1372, biography to come) and Gherardello continued the tradition of monophonic ballate. Each wrote five such pieces, the style of which is less florid than the two-voice madrigals that they wrote. Melismas (where the melody wiggles around on a single syllable) do occur, particularly on the first and penultimate syllables of poetic lines. When the intervening text is set syllabically, as is common in chant, the stylistic influence of the madrigal is unmistakable.

Gherardello wrote one of the best known (as evidenced by how many collections it appears in collections) hunting caccias, called Tosto che l’alba (As soon as the dawn). Tosta’s two upper voices move in canon (one sings a theme and the other repeats it), and the lower voice moves more slowly in cantus firmus (a chant-like song that provides a kind of “home” to the other, more wiggly parts).

Like all caccias, Tosto che l’alba is a hunt—a chase or catch. In this case, it literally describes a hunt, with musical imitations of calling the dogs and sounding the hunting horn. It’s both light-spirited and comic.

A sonnet lamenting Gherardello’s death was written by Simone Penuzzi (dates unavailable) in 1362 or 1363, but there are musical pieces that, if written by him, make it possible that Gherardello lived another 20 years after that.


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

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

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

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

“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hippin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.