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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.



The Codex Calixtinus (12th Century)

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Also known as the Book of St. James (Liber sancti Jacobi)

The Codex Calixtinus is dedicated to the apostle James the Greater and contains a huge assortment of music from the 12th century. It was commissioned by Pope Calistis II (also Calixtus II, 1065-1124), who was pope from 1119-1124. The collection was completed around 1137 or soon after 1139. You can still see it without going to Spain because a complete edition in three volumes was published by Walter Muir Whitehill and Dom Germain Prado in 1931. This modern edition includes facsimiles, notes, and transcriptions of all the musical parts of the manuscript. (I want this. Please take up a collection and buy this for me. I didn’t find it on Amazon.) In 1922, the music alone was transcribed and published by Peter Wagner. (I would also be very happy to have this. Also not listed on Amazon.)

The original Codex was dedicated to St. James. After his martyrdom, the body of St. James was moved from Jerusalem to Galicia, Spain, where James spent time preaching and where he is now venerated (under the name Sant’ Iago or Santiago) as patron saint. According to tradition, his body was miraculously translated into some other substance than flesh and bones during the trip. His relics are in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, an Atlantic coastal town in the extreme northwest corner of Spain, built over his gravesite in 1078.

In 1993, UNESCO placed the Spanish section of the pilgrimage on the World Heritage List, adding the French section in 1998.

The Codex is an illuminated manuscript. The order of songs was probably chosen by the French scholar Aymeric Picaud (dates unavailable) and the principal scribe was called “Scriptor I” in the text itself, which implies that another scribe was expected. Experts say that the whole collection is in a single hand, so I guess Scriptor I worked alone in the end.

Whoever the scribe was, he wasn’t a student of the (then) new art of music notation. He knew nothing of alignment, and it’s hard to tell when the organum parts converged. It’s also clear that the pieces were meant to be learned by rote and performed from memory. Performers of the time didn’t read the music off the page, even in rehearsal; sheet music was considered more of a souvenir or art object than a working tool. (You can read more about the history of music notation here:

In addition to the music, the collection was an anthology of background detail and advice for pilgrims following the way of St. James from Jerusalem to Spain. It’s a proper tour guide, with descriptions of the route, including works of art to be seen along the way and descriptions of local customs. The collection includes sermons, reports of miracles, and liturgical texts associated with James.

There’s a copy of the Codex Calixtinus at St. James’ shrine at Compostela, which has been one of the great pilgrimage spots in Europe since late-medieval times. The Codex is particularly lavish, with many special features. One of these is an appendix of a dozen parchment leaves containing two dozen polyphonic compositions, some of which were specially written for the Office of St. James, and others that were borrowed from the common monastic repertory of southern and central France.

For many years, there was a false assumption that the very first three-part polyphonic setting ever written appeared in the Codex Calixtinus. But the piece, called Congaudeant catholici, actually had the third part written in as a discant (a high, floaty bit) rather than a third composed part. The discant was written in red on the same staff as the tenor (the slow chant on the bottom) by some later scribe. If it were really sung in three parts as written, there would be more dissonance than is found in polyphony from the period, although that might not be a deterrent to doing it that way. At the time, a discant only had to go nicely with the tenor line, not necessarily with the melismatic upper voice. Singers probably chose to sing one part or the other of the higher parts—not all three at the same time.

Along with that interesting three-part piece, one of the oldest collections in the Codex is the Marial Tropers. It’s one of only two that have survived from this early period of music development. (Tropes are the wiggly elaborations and ornaments in Medieval music.)

Three parts of the Codex contain music: Book I and two appendices. Let’s look at the whole collection.

There are five volumes, totaling 225 double-sided folios. The oversized pages were trimmed during restoration in 1966. (Ack!) Each folio displays a single column of thirty-four lines of text. Book IV was torn off in 1609, possibly by accident, possibly by theft, or possibly by decree of King Philip III (you’ll read more about this in a moment).The section was reinstated during the restoration in 1966.

Book I contains the liturgies and comprises almost half of the codex. There are sermons and homilies, all about St. James, including descriptions of his martyrdom. Included are “special” pieces of music along with the Ordinary (Kyrie, Sanctus, etc.) liturgical chants for the festival. The Offices, Masses, and Processions of the festival are liberally supplied with tropes, which are embellishments added to the music of a Mass in the Middle Ages. The music was written in Aquitainian neume notation (a form used in northern France and Spain that didn’t endure into the 13th century).

There are also pilgrim’s songs, which would have been sung on the road to and from Compostela as well as in the cathedral. Most pieces from this period are anonymous, but the Calixtine (isn’t that a fun word?) specimens have the names of their composers appended. Most of them are French bishops and archbishops, but according to one source, the attributions are apocryphal. It’s thought that at least 12 of the 14 Spanish pieces were written under strong French influence.

Calixtus’ (probably fraudulent) letter occupies the first two folios. It claims that he collected many testimonies on the good deeds of St. James over the course of 14 years. He also describes how the manuscript survived fire and water damage. The letter is addressed to the holy assembly of the basilica of Cluny and to Archbishop Diego of Compostela (c1069-1149). There’s more on this in a minute.

The first six pieces of music in the Codex are organum (two lines of parallel melody), the remainder are conductus (two lines of divergent melody). There is only one example of imitation (see Composer Biography: Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412) for more on imitation) in the whole collection. It probably wasn’t accidental, but also, it was probably very much a new style of music. The imitation included is of the type called “interchange,” where two voices produce essentially the same melody, taking turns. Later, imitation developed into form known as the rondelle, and eventually became the form known as a canon for which Johann Sebastian Bach was particularly famous. Imitation appears in the Codex in a conductus piece called Ad superni regis decus (to the glory of the heavenly king).

In the 13th century, the forms of music organum and conductus would become clearly different, but in the 12th century, the two words were used interchangeably. The Codex provides examples of the beginning of the bifurcation. In conductus, the tenor line was not necessarily a previously known melody, such as a chant. In fact, composing something new for conductus was a rule. The upper part moved in parallel steps with the tenor line, forming a sort of chordal harmony (not in modern terms—chords hadn’t been invented yet), like faux bourdon. Sometimes the upper voices split a note’s duration and sang two or three against a single melody note. That’s as fancy as it got in the 12th century, though.

The local liturgy for St. James included in the Codex are Matins responsories, a gradual, and an alleluia, which are provided in chant form (one melodic line, no harmonies) and appear early in the Codex. The two-line versions of the same chants are in the organum style.

Book II is an account of 22 miracles across Europe attributed to St. James during his life and after.

Book III is the shortest book and describes moving St. James’s corpse from its original tomb in Jerusalem to the new one in Galicia. It also describes the custom started by the first pilgrims of gathering souvenir seashells from the Galician coast. The scallop shell is a symbol for St. James.

Book IV is falsely attributed to Archbishop Turpin of Reims (d.800), who is commonly known as Psuedo-Turpin. In fact, it’s the work of an anonymous 12th century writer. It describes Charlemagne (742-814) coming to Spain, his defeat at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (in 778), and the death of the knight Roland (d.778, and a frequent subject in troubadour and minstrel songs). The great king and conqueror Charlemagne had a dream in which St. James appeared, urging him to liberate his (St. James’) tomb from the Moors and showing him the direction to follow using the route of the Milky Way. That’s why, in Spain, the Milky Way has an alternate name, Camino de Santiago.

The chapter also includes an account of Roland’s defeat of the Saracen Ferragut (dates unavailable, but in the 9th century) and the legend of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moorslayer), which was an early example of Catholic propaganda to recruit for the military Order of Santiago, formed to protect church interests in northern Spain from Moorish invaders. This order was also closely associated with the Crusades. The legend got out of hand and became an embarrassment, portraying St. James as a bloodthirsty avenger 800 years after his death. King Philip III (1578-1621) ordered that the section of the Codex be removed, and for a while, it circulated as a separate volume. Despite this, there are still statues and chapels in the churches and cathedrals along the way applauding St. James the Moorslayer.

Book V is a pilgrim’s guide, advising where to stop, which relics are the good ones, which sanctuaries to visit, which inns serve bad food, and the various commercial scams to be aware of, including churches holding false relics. It also describes the city of Galicia and its cathedral. Some of the earliest Basque words and phrases of the post-Roman period are also recorded in it. Book V is a marvelous insight into who a 12th century pilgrim might have been.

Both appendices were compiled in the cathedral town of Vezelay by around 1170 and shipped or carried down to Compostela as a gift to the shrine. One of the reasons for associating the manuscript with a fairly northern point of origin is its use of the word “conductus” in place of “versus.” Another is the inclusion of standard Mass and Office items in polyphonic elaboration along with the more usual tropes and verses in monody (chant). These settings consist of six responsorial chants.

A second copy of the entire Codex was made in 1173 by a monk named Arnaldo de Monte. This version is known as the Ripoli (after the monastery in Catalonia by the same name) and is now stored in Barcelona. In the 12th and 13th centuries, there were copies all over the place, from as far away as Rome and Jerusalem. It was particularly popular at the Abbey of Cluny, another sacred location to which pilgrims progressed in the Middle Ages.

A full transcription was done by Walter Muir Whitehill in 1932 (as mentioned above), and published in Spain along with a musicological study by Dom German Prado and a study of the miniature illustrations by Jesus Carro Garcia.

But the story of the Codex isn’t all rainbows and unicorns.

A letter from Pope Calixtus that provides the preface to the book is thought to have been forged. You see, Calixtus died 11 years before the collection was begun. He could still have commissioned it, but he never saw a single page.

In a 1972 article, Christopher Hohler (1917-1997) said that the book was meant to be a grammar book, being in deliberately bad Latin. He claims that it’s a classic nomadic French teaching technique, to have the students correct the bad grammar. It wasn’t at all about collecting the music or providing a travel guide, according to Hohler.

The earliest known edition dates from 1150 and was lost until 1886, when the Jesuit scholar Padre Fidel Fita (1835-1918) found it. But that’s not the only time the great book disappeared.

The Codex  Calixtinus was stolen from the cathedral in 2011. Spanish police thought that it was an inside job or that the manuscript was hidden somewhere inside the cathedral. Rumors abounded that it was an attempt to embarrass cathedral administration over lax security or that perhaps it was some sort of grievance or grudge being played out. One year and one day after its disappearance, the Codex was found in the garage of a former employee, along with several other items of worth. The book was undamaged and is back on display at the cathedral.


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

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” (Volume II of New Oxford History of Music), edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

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

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.

Composer Biography—Leonin (fl c1150-c1201)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Anness Publishing, Ltd., Wigston, 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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