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Composer Biography: Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361)

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Also Philippe de Vitri and Philippus De Vitriaco

Philippe de Vitry was a French poet, composer, music theorist, administrator for the Duke of Bourbon and the King of France, church canon, and Bishop of Meaux. He was called the “flower and jewel of musicians” by his contemporaries, and is credited with inventing the “new art” version of music called Ars Nova (I’ll use Ars Nova with both initial capital letters for the movement and Ars nova in italics for the treatise throughout). The Ars Nova style has come to define French music from the 1310s to the 1370s.

De Vitry was an accomplished, innovative, and influential composer, possibly the author of the music theory treatise called Ars nova notandi that gives the era its name. He was widely acknowledged as the greatest musician of his day, with even the great poet Petrarch (1304-1374) writing a glowing tribute.

Various sources claim that de Vitry was born in Vitry-en-Artois near Arras (see also Composer Biography: Adam de la Halle for another great composer from Arras), or possibly in Champagne or Paris. He died in either Meaux or Paris. (For more about great composers from this region, read Composer Biography: Guillaume Machaut, because he was also born in this region fewer than ten years after de Vitry.)

De Vitry is thought to have studied at the University of Paris where he received a Master of Arts degree. He also studied at the Sorbonne and held numerous prebends (a stipend from a cathedral). But his main sphere of activity was the French court, where he was secretary and advisor to Charles IV (1316-1378), Philippe VI (1293-1350), and Jean II (1319-1364).

He was known as a leading intellectual. He was friends with the poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1474) and the famous mathematician, philosopher, and music theorist Nicole Oresme (c1320-1382).

He was a diplomat and a soldier, serving at the siege of Aiguillon in 1346. In 1351, he became Bishop of Meaux which is about 45 miles east of Paris. He held several canonries (an important member of a cathedral), including at Clermont, Beauvais, and Paris, also serving the antipope at Avignon starting with Clement VI (1291-1352).

He composed motets and other music, but the most important aspect of his work was the Ars nova treatise. Probably the most original part was the last ten chapters, where he wrote about mensural rhythm and notation. Music notation was in its infancy—the new styles of music, like polyphony, required more specific forms of notation than chant, organum, and conductus. (For more on these things, see The History of Music Notation, Chords versus Polyphony, and the Composer Biographies for Leonin and Perotin.)

De Vitry’s treatise presented new concepts for rhythm and notation. The two main most important features are the minim (which is now called a half-note) for which he established the notational symbol and imperfect mensuration (the division of note values into twos as well as threes, no matter how long or short the note).

The Ars nova treatise and the contemporaneous writings of music theorist Johannes de Muris (c1290-c1355) form the fundamental source of information on the development of the mensural system of notation. De Vitry pays particular attention to the relationships between the different levels of rhythmic time values, such as breve to long, semibreve to breve, and so on (these are early forms of notation that indicated very long and sort of long notes).

Unlike most medieval theorists, de Vitry was a composer of international and lasting reputation and of outstanding ability. His music shows a new lyricism and an effective use of the hocket device, which was a kind of musical exchange akin to hiccupping. The Roman de Fauvel (a 14th century allegorical poem in two lavish books, by French royal clerk Genvais de Bus and scribe Chaillou de Pesstain, and about which there will be more in a moment) contains six motets attributed to him. He discusses these motets in his own treatise, Ars nova (there will be more on that in a moment, too). Nine additional motets are found in the later Ivrea Codex (mid-to-late 14th century), illustrating the early use of isorhythm (a rhythmic pattern that repeats throughout the piece—a fixture in motet writing) as a constructive principle.

De Vitry is said to have had a vitriolic tongue and often verbally overwhelmed his opponents, such as an unidentified “Hugo” and poor Jehan de le Mote (dates unavailable), a poet musician from Hainaut, Belgium. There are 250 pages of dialog between the two, all in French poetry.

Another work pays homage to Pope Clement VI of Avignon (1291-1352) on his election in 1342, where de Vitry expresses how much he despises being at court. But he was unable to leave the busy life of officialdom, and Petrarch, whom he met at Avignon, poured out his own sympathetic dismay on learning that de Vitry had become Bishop of Meaux in 1350.

De Vitry wrote chansons and motets, although only a few have survived. They are conspicuously different from one another, each with its own distinctive structural idea, as if he were experimenting. It’s too bad that there aren’t several of each sort, though, as it would aid in studying both his thought process and the music of the period.

De Vitry’s motets are distinctive because of the notation using smaller note values. The notation system (semi-breves, breves, and minims) was probably a product of the College of Navarre in Paris (founded in 1305 to rival the Sorbonne). They were documented for the first time in his Ars nova treatise.

Ars nova notandi

As I’ve been saying, de Vitry was most famous for Ars nova notandi (1322), a treatise on music that lent its name to the music of the whole era. Although his authorship and the existence of the treatise itself have come into question, his music also survives elsewhere, showing his innovations, especially in music notation and particularly in mensural and rhythmic notation, for which he gets credit. Such innovations are particularly clear in the motets of the Roman de Fauvel.

His motets set the standard for the next hundred years, past the beginning of the Ars subtilior (1380-1420; see Composer Biographies on Paolo da Firenza and Zacara da Teramo for more on this era). In many ways, modern notation started with de Vitry’s Ars nova, separating for the first time from the old rhythmic modes (see Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes) that didn’t need mensuration in the same way. Modern time meters (like 3/4 time and 6/8 time) also originate from this era and are documented in the treatise. He’s credited with coming up with the idea of isorhythms, where the voice’s melodic line consists of repeating patterns of rhythms and pitches, but the patterns overlap with those of other voices rather than correspond—not chordal (vertical) relationships, but musical gestures and repeated patterns or melodies in a linear (horizontal) sense.

The Ars nova treatise listed the rules of the old and the new art form. De Vitry’s primary intent was to show new ways of notating motets using his own compositions as examples. He barely mentions polyphonic songs, but his late 14th century compositions that are polyphonic are the only Ars Nova works that continue the earlier traditions of form and notational precision.

The Ars nova treatise describes innovations in rhythmic notation that are attributed to both de Vitry and to Jehan des Murs (c1290-1355), a mathematician, astronomer, and music theorist. One innovation allowed duple (“imperfect”) division of note values along with the triple (“perfect”) division that was already popular. Another innovation divided the semi-breve, formerly the smallest note duration, into minims. Both of these innovations resulted in new meters and allowed greater rhythmic flexibility, including, for the first time, syncopation.

De Vitry wholeheartedly embraced the duple time that became the modern time-systems 9/8, 6/8, 3/4, and 2/4. In fact, we still use one of his key signatures, the capital C (for Common time), and our black notes (quarter notes) are successors to his red notes (about which there will be more in a moment), used to distinguish sections of notes with a different rhythm.

Everyone quickly adopted his ideas, although Jacobus of Liege (1260-1340), who wrote the huge musical encyclopedia Speculum musicae, advocated against it. Pope John XXII (1244-1334) issued a papal bull, not against the theory but against the practical results of the new art. He wanted to ensure that the sanctity of the Divine Office and that the tranquility of plainsong was maintained. The new pieces, he complained, were agitated by short notes and disturbed by hockets and the plainsong was made unrecognizable by the rhythmic treatment to which it is subjected. In fact, the pope condemned all such music, insisting that the only allowable polyphony be that with the simple addition of consonant harmonies, such as the octave, the fifth, and the fourth, and those few only on feast days. Most musicians thought that the simplicity was inadequate, though, and the bull was promulgated by 1324. That’s right. The Ars Nova movement was considered a menace!

In addition to the red notes, another innovation from de Vitry was the dot after a note to indicate both the lengthening of a note (as in modern notation), and to divide one group of notes from another as an aid in syncopation, a precursor to measure lines.

De Vitry meant his treatise to describe French music specifically, but it raises the question of the new styles in other countries. Italian music had already moved on, so the Ars Nova period doesn’t apply there. Spain and Northern Germany also resisted the new style. The English liked it and Poland accepted it, both influenced by Southern Germany. This difference is part of why it’s so hard to define when the Renaissance happened. Each nation had its own cultural preferences and influences, but by the Baroque era, everyone was on the same page—it only took 150 years or so.

Only two years after de Vitry’s treatise showed up, Marchetto de Padua (fl.1305-1319) published his own treatise, Pomerium, in 1318. This treatise described Italian forms of notation, including the same minim idea and comparing the French and Italian rhythmic methods. Marchettus dedicated Pomerium to Robert of Anjou (1309-1343), and de Vitry also dedicated a motet to him, so he was probably an important patron for musicians.

Roman de Fauvel

The Roman de Fauvel (1310-1320) is an allegorical poem by the French royal clerk Gervais de Bus (dates unknown) and Chaillou de Pesstain (even less is known about this fellow). It tells the story of a curry- (or fauve) colored horse that rises to prominence in the French royal court. The poem consists of 12 lavish manuscripts replete with poetry, 77 colorful miniatures, and 169 pieces of music that span the gamut of 13th and early 14th century genres.

Just for fun because I’m a bit of a word geek, it’s this collection that led to the expression “to curry Fauvel” which has been corrupted to “curry favor” in English, in reference to everyone, starting with popes and kings, currying (or pandering to) the sins represented by the letters in the horse’s name (Flattery, Avarice, Guile [which begins with a V in French], Variety [inconstancy, in French], Envy, and Cowardice {begins with an L in French]).

Gervais de Bus completed the first part of the poem (1226 lines) in 1310 and the second part (2054 lines) in 1314. By 1316, Chaillou de Pesstain completed collecting the music. These seem to have come from a variety of sources and include diverse musical styles. There are 34 motets and there are monophonic songs in even greater numbers. Most have Latin texts. Over 50 of the monophonic songs are liturgical chants. There are also some conductus pieces (see Composer Biography: Perotin for more on conductus).

Fauvel contains songs with French texts including four lais, four rondeaux, and nine ballades, two of which have the musical and poetic form of the virelai. Shorter entries with French texts include 15 refrains and 12 brief quotations of “sottes chansons” (foolish songs). Finally, a complete duplum (two-part conductus) with French text has been extracted from a motet and broken into 11 fragments, each of which is followed by text explaining it.

Much of de Vitry’s literary output is lost, but he probably wrote the poetic texts of his surviving motets. The earliest of these appear in the Roman de Fauvel, and some of the monophonic songs there may also be de Vitry’s.

In the Roman de Fauvel, de Vitry concentrates on religious or political subjects, attacking, for instance, an unidentified hypocritical “Hugo” who was an enemy of Robert of Anjou (1277-1343), King of Naples. He also wrote a piece in celebration of the election of Clement VI (1291-1352) as Pope in 1342.

His works in Fauvel depart from the modes, a kind of “new lyricism,” according to one source. There’s also hocketing (a way of alternating voices that sounds a lot like hiccupping) and full harmony on accented syllables, although it’s not full-on harmony as would come in the century after.

The most interesting aspect (to me, anyway) is that de Vitry used red notes in Fauvel to indicate a change in rhythm, indicating the difference between a cantus planus (without rhythm or regularity) and cantus mensurabilis (rhythmic and regular). He also used them to show that the rhythm was changing from three (triplum) to two (duplum), that the melody was to be sung up an octave, that a note should be altered by a half step (an accidental) to prevent a note from being a perfect fifth or fourth, and to change the meter to cut-time (twice as fast).

When red notes weren’t available, “vacant” notes—white with black outlines—replaced them, and soon red notes weren’t used at all because the white notes were more convenient. Red notes survived well into the 15th century in the more elaborate manuscripts, especially in England.

White notes were used for special purposes in the Italian trecento. In the first part of the 15th century, white notes replaced black ones for all the values, and in the latter half of that century, the semi-minim lost its tail and became black, and notes of shorter value—also black—appeared with increasing frequency until the same divisions we have today (white for everything from a half note—minim—and larger, and black for the quarter note—semi-minim—and smaller). (For more about this, see The History of Music Notation.)

The Robertsbridge Codex

Two of de Vitry’s motets are in the earliest known collection of keyboard music, the Robertsbridge Codex. It’s part of a collection that includes an old church registry at the Robertsbridge Abbey in Sussex, England. It’s probably as old as 1325 and is roughly contemporary with the Roman de Fauvel.

De Vitry’s motets were probably meant to be played on a small organ or an eschiquier (a small harpsichord). The only trouble was that the player had to read the music from two separate pages simultaneously. At the time, organ tablature involved writing the highest voice on a staff and the rest were in letters of the alphabet written below them. The highest part wasn’t just written out, though. It was colored in and surrounded with decorative figuration, a term that survives until today: it’s where we get the term “coloratura.”

In total, 14 motets are attributed to de Vitry, but only four have been authenticated with any certainty.

De Vitry’s original approach to composition established a hierarchic concept for voices, in which the sustained tenor had a clearly defined structural foundation. He combined the slow-moving and patterned tenor with a superstructure of two faster moving voices, which created increased melodic and contrapuntal flexibility. Of the 14 motets that can be ascribed to him, none has a chant-like tenor as cantus firmus (so it’s much like modern music in that way), and only one uses French texts. His structural use of isorhythm clearly influenced Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377). Machaut based some of his motets on de Vitry’s, as is made clear by the structural complexity that occasionally seems like an effort to outdo de Vitry.

Only one love song came from de Vitry during the age of chivalry. It’s a French motet, but the lost or unidentified ballades, lais, and rondeaux he is said to have written were concerned with love and in French.

He may be seldom performed any more, but pretty much everything else that came since is beholden to Philippe de Vitry—modern music notation grew from his ideas.


“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: 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.


“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.

The Squarcialupi Codex (15th Century)

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The Squarcialupi Codex is one of the chief anthologies of the Italian trecento (c1325-c1425). It’s an illuminated manuscript that was compiled in Florence in the early 15th century and is the single largest source of secular music of the Italian ars nova (the beginning of modern music, with polyphony at the center of it). The manuscript is still in good condition all these centuries later and all of the pieces included are musically complete. About 150 pieces of the 354 included exist in this manuscript and nowhere else in contemporary collections.

This beautiful book is made up of 216 parchment folios. The pieces contained in it are arranged chronologically by composer (dated by the type of music notation used), with some pages left blank for later works. There’s an illuminated portrait of each composer at the beginning of his section, elegantly ornamented in reds, blues, and purples, with gold leaf making an occasional appearance. The remaining pages are also colorful, with the edges surrounding the music displaying flowers, instruments and animals, and people doing musical and pastoral things.

Sixteen of the folios are blank, intended for the music of Paolo da Firenze. They’re all labeled and his portrait is done, but the pages meant for music are empty. Common thinking is that Paolo’s music wasn’t ready when the manuscript was compiled because he was away from Florence until 1409. There’s another blank section for Giovanni Mazzuoli (c1360-1426), with no explanation forthcoming.

The biggest names of the Italian trecento are the composers included in this incredible collection. There are 354 pieces in all, including:

  • 146 pieces by Francesco Landini (c1325-1397)
  • 37 by Bartolino da Padova (fl. c1365-1405, blog post to come)
  • 36 by Niccolo da Perugia (fl. late 1300s)
  • 29 by Andrea da Firenze (d.1315)
  • 28 by Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-c1386)
  • 17 by Lorenzo da Firenze (d c1372)
  • 16 by Gherardello da Firenza (c1320-c1362)
  • 15 by Donato da Cascia (fl.c1350-1370)
  • 12 by Giovanni da Cascia (1270-1350)
  • 6 by Vincenzo da Rimini (mid-1300s)
  • 12 pieces from two unidentified composers

The pieces included are all secular, and are mainly ballatas and madrigals, with a few caccias for good measure, all composed between 1340 and 1415. They were probably copied by a single scribe, as the handwriting is much the same throughout.

All of the pieces are vocal and have Italian texts. Conspicuous by their absence are pieces by Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412), who spent the bulk of his productive lifetime in Padua and is probably the biggest name to come out of Italy during that period, and Italian Antonio Zacara da Teramo (c1350-c1415), whose compositions were rather innovative.

The anthology was compiled by Antonio Squarcialupi (1416-1480), who was an Italian organist and composer. He was a licensed butcher, but his talent on the organ earned him a post at the Florence Cathedral from 1432 until his death in 1480. You have to remember that the de Medici family was prominent during this period, and they could have had any organist they wanted. They chose Squarcialupi.

Antonio is known to have visited Naples and Siena. He was highly esteemed by his contemporaries, including Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474), with whom he exchanged letters. None of his own compositions survive—he was obsessively self-critical about them and he may have destroyed them himself.

The eponymous codex was probably compiled in Florence at the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, between 1410-1415. A family seal that hasn’t been identified is on the first folio and on the portrait page of Paolo da Firenza (c1355-1436); original theories were that Paoli had a part in compiling the collection or that he was part of the family that commissioned it. Recent findings about Paolo’s poor finances make this unlikely.

The Italian trecento has three distinctive developmental periods. You’ll notice that most of the composers in the codex are listed in the first two generations of big names.

First Generation:

  • Giovanni da Cascia (also Giovanni da Firenze) (1270-1350)
  • Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340-1386)
  • Bartolino da Padova (Padua, c1365-1405)
  • Grazioso da Padova (fl. 1391-1407)
  • Vincenzo da Rimini (fl. 1360s)
  • Piero (from Assisi, Milan, or Verona, fl.1340-1350)

Second Generation:

Third Generation:

  • Zacherie (papal singer from 1420-1432)
  • Matteo da Perugia (fl. 1400-1416)
  • Giovanni da Genova (Genoa, no dates available)
  • Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412, Belgian)
  • Antonello da Caserta (1355-1402)
  • Filippo da Caserta (c1350-c1436)
  • Corrado da Pistoia (fl. 1410)
  • Bartolomeo da Bologna (fl. 1405-1427)

The manuscript was inherited by Antonio’s nephew, and then by the estate of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici (1479-1516), the third son of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), who gave it to the Biblioteca Palatina in the early 16th century. At the end of the 18th century, it became part of the collection of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, where it remains.

Antonio Squarcialupi is eulogized on one of the original flyleaves.

If you want a copy for yourself, there are 988 handmade reproductions available through purveyors of ancient manuscripts and Incunabula. I’d imagine that they’re pretty expensive. You can save the money and take a video tour of the codex here:


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

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

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

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

“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.

Composer Biography: Zacara da Teramo (c1350-c1415)

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Also known as Antonio “Zacara” da Teramo, Antonius Zacharius of Teramo, Antonius Berardi, Andre de Teramo, Antonio Zacar, as well as  Zacar, Zaccara, Zacharie, Zachara, and Cacharius. He’s also possibly the Zacharias that’s mentioned in the Old Hall manuscript (the largest collection of British Medieval and Renaissance music from the 14th and 15th centuries). There are two other people by a similar name, one, called Magister Zacharias, who was a papal singer around 1400, and the other, a Nicolas Zacharie (Niccolo Zaccaria), who was from Brindisi and was a papal singer from 1420-1434. Both of these Zacks also wrote music.

Our Zacara da Terama was part of the third generation of the trecento, along with Johannes Ciconia and Bartolomeo da Bologna. He was a composer, a singer, and a papal secretary and he was one of the most active Italian composers around 1400. His style bridged the major periods of the trecento, from ars subtilior (a French style of music in the 14th century) to the beginnings of the musical Renaissance.

He was probably born in Teramo in northern Abruzzo (Naples), not far from the Adriatic coast. He still owned property there and in Rome when he died.

His short stature earned him the nickname Zacara, which means a small thing of little value. He never used the moniker himself, but signed his name Antonio. It’s not too hard to understand why he didn’t use it and it’s too bad that he ended up recorded for posterity by it. He may have been small, but he offered the world considerable value.

The Squarcialupi Codex (compiled 1410-1415, and blog post to come) includes an illustration of Zacara. It shows him as short and with only ten digits total between his hands and feet. This is also mentioned in an entry about him in an 18th century necrology. Whether this was a birth defect or the result of an accident isn’t documented.

Nothing is known about Zacara until 1390 when he turned up as the teacher at the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Sassia Rome. He was not a young man at the time of this appointment, but his age isn’t listed.

In 1391, he became secretary to Pope Boniface IX (c1350-1404). The letter of his appointment survives and indicates that he was a married layman was well as a singer in the papal chapel. He stayed in the papal court through three papacies, until 1415. The Western Schism was going on, and letters from Zacara and some not-so-subtle subversive political references in his music tell us that he may have been involved in the politicking of the time. It’s not known exactly when he left his post with the popes, but one piece of his includes text that make it clear that he left before the council of Pisa in 1409.

During the papal schisms of the 1400s, the anti-popes in Italy (some were at Avignon in France, other were in Milan and Florence) couldn’t afford to hire many chapel singers from France and the Netherlands where the really good musicians lived, so they took advantage of the neighboring towns, which is how little Zacara came to be a chapel musician. He’s recorded as a singer in Anti-Pope John XXIII’s chapel in 1412 and 1413.

He appears to have been an active composer all his life, in two major phases. In the early phase, he used the forms of ballata, much like Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-1386) or Francesco Landini (c1325-1397). In his later period, possibly about the last 15 years or so of his life, when he was in Rome, there’s a clear ars subtilior influence.

Both sacred and secular vocal music survives. There are several paired Mass movements, Glorias and Credos, in a Bologna manuscript that was compiled after his lifetime. There are seven songs of his in the Squarcialupi Codex and 12 in another, called the Mancini Codex, compiled around 1410. Three of his songs are in various other sources. There’s a big difference in style between the works found in the Squarcialupi and the Mancini codices that probably represent when they were written. The Squarcialupi Codex shows influence from lyrical mid-century Italian composers, such as Landini. The Mancini pieces have a more mannerist style, like that of the ars subtilior.

He liked unusual texts with a mixture of languages and bizarre, even Satanic overtones. His “Rosetta” ballate was extremely popular both as the basis for parody Mass movements (for more on parody, see Bartolomeo da Bologna) by himself and others, and for highly ornamented keyboard arrangements.

All but one of his ten surviving secular pieces are ballate in Italian. That one piece is a caccia. In addition to his Mass movements, he also wrote one Latin ballade and one madrigal, both sacred forms.

Mass movements attributed to Zacara are based on secular pieces that are more confidently attributable to him. His Credo is found in manuscripts in both Modena and Bologna. The Bologna copy is simple music, and the Modena manuscript had lavish embellishments.

His Gloria movement contains remnants of the ars nova style (a mostly French style from the 1400s). What’s particularly interesting is that this piece supplies a link between Italian and English repertories, one that would later be called an “Italian influence.” See Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543-1588) and On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player. Probably the most widely distributed piece from the period, Zacara’s Gloria made it to Germany, England, and Poland. It offers more independent part writing (see Chords Versus Polyphony) than French works of the time, and has subtle rhythms.

His Mass movements influenced other composers of the early 15th century, including Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412) and Bartolomeo da Bologna (fl1405-1427). Some of his innovations can be found in works by Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474). He may have been the first to use upper-voice divisi (where a single voice part was split into two or more parts—there had to be multiple singers or instruments per part).

Zacara’s pieces are longer than most other 14th century Mass movements. They use imitation (where one part replicates the melody from another part) extensively as well as hocketing (where the voices produce chirps of sound, like organized hiccups, a style that was popular only for the 13th and 14th century). Pairing his Mass movements with his secular works may provide the link between less unified movements from other composers from that same century and the cyclic Masses that developed by the 15th century.

Two separate documents describe Zacara as already dead in 1416, so he probably died in 1415.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography: Paolo da Firenze (c1355-1436/d Arezzo, 1419)

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Also known as  Paulo Tenorista and Magister Dominus Paulas Abbas de Florentia (as he’s called in the Squarcialupi Codex.)

Musically, Paolo da Firenza was conservative and progressive at the same time. He borrowed and combined musical practices from the past and the innovations of his own times, both Italian (old school) and French (new school). He had a distinctively rich and varied musical style. More music from ars nova period survives from Paolo than any other composer except Francesco Landini (c1325-1397), with whom he was friends.

It’s not known if Paulo was born in Florence, but he did live most of his life there, so it’s probable. His father’s name is thought to have been Marco and his family was poor. Paolo is thought to have had three brothers, but their names and what became of them isn’t known.

Paolo became a Benedictine monk around 1380 and his portrait in the Squarcialupi Codex shows him in a suitable black cassock. In 1401, he took the abbot position at Saint Martin al Pino and later became the rector of Orbetello, where he stayed until 1427. In around 1410, he supervised the compilation of the Squarcialupi Codex.

As abbot, he must have been a public figure, because in 1404, Paolo witnessed the signing of a document written at the cardinal’s house in Rome. The only other known date from his life comes from his madrigal Godi, Firenze, which celebrates the victory of Florence over Pisa in 1406.

Much of Paolo’s work is secular and all is vocal, although some of the attributions on Paolo’s ballate are erased in the source. All of his known output is for two or three voices, and through sources or stylistic elements, it’s all datable prior to 1410. Four of his vocal duets are credited to “Don Paolo,” and “P.A.” Is the composer of another 13 pieces.

He wrote three types of songs: 13 madrigals, more than 40 ballate, and two liturgical pieces. The three types of songs represent a sort of chronological journey. Paolo began with the traditional two-voice ballata but soon picked up the French fashion of three voices.

His use of the madrigal form—a third of his 30 surviving secular pieces are madrigals—is unusual at this time, when other forms had largely superseded it. His madrigals reveal a mixture of progressive and conservative elements, some with French influence (more on that in a minute). His two liturgical pieces combine an upper melodic line in the Italian manner with a cantus firmus. He also wrote at least one musical treatise.

His vocal duets use traditional forms and styles. One unusual feature is the provision of open and closed endings for the ritornelli of six madrigals; in one of these, the text doesn’t require repetition of the music (a ritornelli returns both in melody and text—the word means “return”). The same madrigal has open (doesn’t resolve to a satisfying ending) and closed endings (does resolve) in the first musical section (there’s an A and a B section). Earlier composers didn’t use these kinds of endings, although Lorenzo da Firenze and Jacopo da Bologna (fl 1340-c1386) used them in one piece each. It’s the number of times Paolo used these endings that’s unusual. The departure from common practice is less important, though, than the variety of rhythmic and melodic figures.

Paolo went beyond the two-part madrigal only once, in the three-voice Godi, Firenze when Florence defeated Pisa in a small war (remember, Italy was a collection of small city-states, much like Germany was at the time, each with their own rulers and armies). Perhaps the celebration that inspired him also encouraged him to leave his fuddy duddy ways behind.

Where his madrigals are conservative, his ballata are innovative, and he wrote more in the new style of three voices than for two. He was the first composer to do that in the case of the ballata. Of the 26 pieces concretely attributed to Paolo, only six are in two voices. Ten have the French disposition of solo cantus (chant-based melody line) with instrumental tenor and contratenor (higher voices sung against the chant melody), and ten have the hybrid form of vocal duet with instrumental contratenor. Three of these last also exist as vocal duets without a contratenor, but the three voice versions are probably the original.

Of his sacred music, the Benedicamus Domino is for two voices, and Gaudeamus omnes in Domino is for three voices.

With Landini and Andrea da Firenze (d. 1415), Paolo’s output marks the end of Florence’s dominance over Italian musical styles as musicians and their patrons moved to Milan, Venice, and Padua, and eventually on to Rome. Even Paolo spent the end of his life away from Florence.

Paolo’s ballate are the most modern of his works, being mostly for three voices, and all are lyrical, melodic and use some of the more extreme rhythmic intricacies of the ars subtilior school. Landini’s influence, which would have predominated Florence in the late 14th century, is evident in both the madrigals and the ballate.

Paolo was one of the supervisors who produced the musical anthology called the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come). Despite this, the 32 pages reserved for his works, with his portrait (in the black cassock of the Benedictine monk) on the first page and his name at the top of the rest, contain nothing but empty staves. Some think his music wasn’t yet available, although other sources suggest that he was simply away from Florence, attending to the needs of Cardinal Acciaiuoli (d. 1409) at the deadline.

Paolo’s unique style is evident in the sound of the music and in the notation that he used. He used Italian notation and its varied note shapes, mixed with notation of the French principles of mannered notation that introduced new (and needlessly) complex ways of expressing rhythmic patterns. His manuscripts combine Italian and French notation and show the influence of the Avignon mannerist school of ars subtilior in their rhythms, which are complex and intricate.

Using music notation was considered progressive in the 14th century, especially in Italy, and the proportional survival of Paolo’s secular to sacred music may be representative of a trend to document all music, not just sacred.

A resurgence of interest in the Renaissance in the 1970s translated Paolo’s work into modern notation, so it’s a lot easier for us to perform now.

His date of birth is estimated based on information in his will, written within a day or so of his death. When he resigned as abbot in 1433, he was approximately 78 years old. He died in Florence at the age of 81.


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

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

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

“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.

Composer Biography: Lorenzo da Firenze (d 1372/1373 before 1385)

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(also Lorenzo Masini, Lorenzo Masi, Magister Laurentius de Florentia))

Lorenzo da Firenze was a trecento composer from Florence, Italy. He was a close associate of Francesco Landini in Florence and part of the ars nova movement. His secular pieces draw on texts from all the hot poets of his day, including Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), who’s probably most famous for The Decameron.

Nothing is known about Lorenzo’s childhood or family. People didn’t have last names back then, so there’s no way to trace him, and any records that might have been kept are either too unclear to be helpful or they’re lost altogether. It isn’t known when or where he was born, and sadly, it’s not even known when he died.

The first record of Lorenzo is when he became a canon in 1348 at San Lorenzo, which is the largest basilica in Florence. While there, he was possibly either a pupil or a teacher of Francesco Landini (since we don’t know his dates, we can’t use age to determine which was more likely and the records are muddled, but Landini is most certainly the most famous composer of the period). It’s presumed that he remained at San Lorenzo for the rest of his life, although there’s evidence that he also worked at various other Florentine churches between 1350 and 1370.

His secular music includes five ballate, a lively caccia (called A poste messe), and 10 two-part madrigals. One of these is famous among madrigalists, called Da da a chi avareggia, and includes virtuosic ornamentation and imitation. There is also a pedagogical piece called the Antefana, that mentions his role as a teacher.

It’s hard to know exactly how much music Lorenzo wrote because most sacred music of the period was unattributed. His works are represented in the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come), which was an illuminated manuscript that contained all the big composers of the day. Sixteen of Lorenzo’s pieces are included, consisting of the 10 madrigals mentioned above, six monophonic (chant) ballate, the caccia named above, and two Mass movements.

His music tends to be complex and experimental, with extended melismas (where the music wiggles around on an open syllable), imitation (where one voice repeats what another has done, perhaps in a different place along the scale), part crossing (where a lower voice follows the scale upward while a higher voice follows the scale downward until the lower voice is higher than the higher voice), and accidentals (notes outside those that define the scale of the piece). In fact, he used chromaticism (a melody that follows all the notes of the scale—like all the white and black notes on a keyboard–in order) to a degree that is rare in the 14th century before the ars sublitor period. (See Carlo Gesualdo for more on chromaticism.)

Lorenzo played with heterophony, where two voices simultaneously perform variations of a single melody. The round Dona nobis pacem (no composer known, but nearly everyone today has heard it) is like this to some degree, where the main melody is still apparent even when it’s not being sung. He also used parallel fourths and fifths (where the melody’s movement is paralleled a few notes off from another voice. This creates an interesting kind of harmony, like the melody being played in chords with the middle note missing) that was a relic of organum and conductus (early forms of harmony).

There is some French influence in his music, such as isorhythmic passages (where each melodic line has an identical or very similar rhythm), like those employed by Guillaume Machaut, and that are not usually found in Italian music. The notation he used in some of his works is in the French style. It isn’t known how the French style got to Florence, though, because it wasn’t until nearly a generation after his death that Johannes Ciconia began what would become a musical Franco-Flemish invasion of Italy.

Most collections from the period contain primarily secular songs. Like Lorenzo, a great number of otherwise ecclesiastical composers wrote secular polyphony—they had freedom in secular music to choose their own texts, to earn money writing for patrons and public events, and to experiment with some of the new techniques that I mentioned earlier. Motets (the sacred form of madrigals) by Italian composers during this period are very rarely preserved or attributed, and only a handful of Mass movements remain.

Lorenzo wrote a single Sanctus (a Mass movement). It’s in two voices, and like other Mass movements by other composers of the period, both parts sing the text. On a few occasions, the voices sing specific phrases of text at different times, and alternate singing successive phrases. The style is called “restrained madrigal” and includes short and unobtrusive melismas (where the tune wiggles around on an open syllable, remember?). He uses slightly longer and more elaborate melismas than other composers of sacred music, but there’s a restraint about it that is characteristic of his madrigals. Gherardello da Firenze’s secular pieces are much like Lorenzo’s in quantity and genre, but Gherardello occasionally uses three voices.

Along with Donato da Cascia (fl c1350-1370), the pieces Lorenzo wrote are considered in our time as the pinnacle of the Italian madrigal virtuosic singing, the peak of the Italian ars nova. Melismas are long in the upper part—sometimes very long—and the lower voice provides the cantus firmus (a slow version of the chant on which the piece is based).

Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340-c1386) set the style of having successive rather than simultaneous declamation of the text. This makes each voice similarly—and equally—important (unlike today’s style of carrying the melody in the soprano line).

Lorenzo uses a lot of imitation, sometimes short motives of one or two measures (imagine the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and that’s the length we’re talking about here). Longer phrases are imitated with a distance of several measures between them, in the style of the caccia. The number of repetitions of words and phrases often reflect a descriptive or humorous intention, especially apparent in his setting of Da, da a chi averigia, which is from a madrigal by Nicolo Soldanieri (d1385, also from Florence).

Like other composers of the era, Lorenzo used texts that had already been used in the madrigals and ballata of well-known Florentine or Tuscan poets, such as Antonio degli Alberti (c1360-1415), Boccaccio, Franco Sacchetti (c1335-c1400), and Soldanieri. But the great majority of the texts are of unknown origins, perhaps eve his own.

Only Lorenzo and Gherardello continued the tradition of monophonic ballate this late in the 14th century. Each wrote five monophonic pieces, all less florid than their madrigals. Melismas do occur, particularly on the first and penultimate syllables of poetic lines. When the intervening text is set syllabically, as is usual in chant, the stylistic influence of the madrigal is more obvious.

Just as obscure as his birth, the actual date and place of Lorenzo’s death is not known.


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

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

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

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

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.


Composer Biography: Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412)

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Between 1414 and 1418, the Catholic Church held a council at Konstanz (now in southwestern Germany right on the Swiss border). This council ended the papal schism and elected Pope Martin V (1369-1461), condemned and executed Jan Hus (1369-1415, considered the first church reformer), and ruled on wars, the rights of pagans, and national sovereignty. But the most important thing it did, as far as I’m concerned, is that it moved the center of musical innovation from diverse parts (Flanders, Paris, Burgundy, and Avignon), to Rome.

Music was a part of the event, with Oswald von Wolkenstein (c1376-1445, biography to come) accompanying Emperor Sigismund (1368-1437, King of Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Italy, and Germany, Holy Roman Emperor, and the last Emperor of the House of Luxemburg) and the English delegation bringing its choristers to be admired in Köln along the way to Konstanz.

But even before that, a few northern musicians were making their way to Italy. One of the first northerners to make a career in Italy was Johannes Ciconia. His welcome there marked a change in attitude toward foreigners and the beginning of a true renaissance in music and art. And, of course, he brought the northern aesthetic with him, changing Italian music forever.

Ciconia’s work marks a stylistic change from soloistic polyphony (multiple melodic lines rather than the chord-based harmony that came later) to polyphony for choruses. This meant that complex and rhythmically animated melodic lines from the late Medieval period had to become smoother and more readily singable, the sound that we recognize as Renaissance music today.

He composed in all the popular genres of the time, and, like his contemporary Leonel Power (c1370-1445, biography to come), and superstar Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474), he represents the musical span from the Franco-Flemish Renaissance to the Italian Renaissance.

Three men with the name Johannes Ciconia lived in Liege in the 14th century, and it’s probable that our Johannes’ father was the eldest, born in 1335. That Johannes Ciconia was a priest and is thought to have had a child with a local noblewoman. She named him Johannes Ciconia like his papa and that’s probably the boy we’re interested in. (I found no details about the third person.)

The elder Johannes was in service in Avignon in 1350, and accompanied Cardinal Albornoz (1310-1367) on an Italian campaign between 1358 and 1367. He returned to Flanders and was assigned to Liege in 1372, where he held a prebend (a stipend from the church) and was a priest at St. John the Evangelist. He stayed there until 1401. It isn’t known when he died, but 1401 makes sense, considering his age.

Johannes junior was born in Liege in about 1373 and trained there and in Flanders. A document in Liege in 1385 refers to a choirboy called Johannes Ciconia who became a cleric, but it’s uncertain whether or not he became a priest like his father.

In 1391, there are records of young Ciconia serving Pope Boniface IX (c1350-1404), but it’s not known in what capacity. He served Cardinal D’Alençon in Rome in the 1390s as clericus capella (the cleric of the choir), an important post, and usually one occupied by promising young musicians. Ciconia then went into the service of Giangaleazzo Visconti (1351-1402) at his court in Pavia in the late 1390s. Visconti was busy creating a dynasty and came to rule nearly all of Italy, which didn’t hurt Ciconia’s visibility any.

Big patrons explain some of Ciconia’s stylistic choices. While he was in Padua, he developed close connections with the politically powerful Carrara family and became a canon there. He later received commissions from Venice (which conquered Padua in1406) and he dedicated a madrigal to the Lord of Lucca (probably Paulo Guinigi, 1400-1430) in Tuscany.

Comfortably settled in Padua by 1398, he became chaplain at the cathedral in 1401 and cantor by 1403, a post he held until his death in 1412. In the years following his appointment at the cathedral, Ciconia was granted benefices (both payment and a retainer for future services) at nearby churches, including at St. Biagio di Roncalea Church. Only a handful of his works date to this period.

Ciconia wrote three theoretical treatises, although some sources say it was only two. I only found two titles, Nova Musica and De Proportionibus but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a third book. More sources said three treatises than two.

Although much of his music is lost, there is still plenty that remains for us to marvel at. He wrote 11 Mass sections, 11 motets, and 20 secular pieces with texts in both French and Italian. His sacred music included motets (a religious version of the madrigal using Biblical passages) and Mass movements (mostly Glorias or Credos). His secular music included French virelais (a specific song pattern, often instrumental), Italian ballata (a danceable song), and Italian-styled madrigals (unaccompanied part songs). Of his 11 motets, four are isorhythmic (where a rhythmic phrase or pattern is repeated throughout in one voice or several) but others are closer to Italian songs and were more rambunctious in nature. Most were written to celebrate important events or as eulogies.

Ciconia claimed that his greatest inspiration was Guillaume Machaut (1300-1377) a fellow Franco-Flemish composer. Ciconia’s three-part canon, Le ray au solely, is a typical exercise of northern ingenuity in fond imitation and development from Machaut’s work. And the music went in the other direction too; Franco-Flemish Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474) wrote motets that imitate Ciconia’s.

Within individual pieces, musical imitation was the new style, and Ciconia led the way. Imitation means that a particular melody was produced in one voice and then repeated, slightly changed (perhaps on different notes, perhaps the same notes with a different rhythm, and rarely, repeated identically) in other voices. Occasionally, the line was passed from voice to voice, so that to the listener, the phrase is always heard. Imitation soon became a central feature in Renaissance music.

Practically all of Ciconia’s secular works are settings of Italian poems. He particularly cultivated the ballata in two or three parts, with plenty of coloratura (wiggly and flexible soprano lines) on the upper parts. When the madrigal had a resurgence of popularity at the beginning of the 15th century, Ciconia was quick to participate.

Ciconia’s motets can practically all be dated by the persons and events to which they refer during the first decade of the 15th century. Two are for voices only, both singing the same Latin text; these are stylistically indistinguishable from madrigals. Two others are monotextual, with two equal voices singing with free or canonic imitation over an instrumental tenor. The rest have two or three different texts all sung simultaneously, as in the older style.

Ciconia combined elements of French Ars Nova (a French style that flourished in France and the Burgundian Low countries in the early 14th century) with Italian 14th century style. His synthesis would strongly influence other early 15th century composers.

His Italian songs, including four madrigals and at least seven ballate, show aspects of the French style that was fashionable then in northern Italy, probably made fashionable by Ciconia himself. Chansons, of which only two of his virelais and a canon survive, exploit the rhythmic complexities of the Ars Subtilior (an intricate style from Avignon in the 14th and early 15th centuries).

Ciconia wrote a good many of his works for wealthy patrons, like Francesco Zabarella (1360-1417), who was a good friend and mentor. One of his laments, Con Lagrime bagnadome, was written upon the death of Francesco of Carrara, referring to Francesco il Nuovo (the new) sometime after 1406.

It’s possible that the last years of his life were quite comfortable and he was possibly even wealthy.

Just for fun, Ciconia translates as a stork, a long-legged bird. Perhaps this family was tall?


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“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W> Norton and Company, New York, 1988.

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