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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.


Instrument Biography: The Vielle

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If you’ve ever melted to the tones of a violin, tapped your feet to a fiddle, or floated happily away to the sound of a viola da gamba or cello, you have the vielle to thank. The history you’re about to read makes a musical link between the ancient world and the modern one. And although no one composes for the instrument anymore, the vielle was so popular during its heyday that there’s no shortage of performance opportunities in today’s early music communities.

The original vielle probably evolved from the lyre. The lyre soundbox was stretched and thinned, the open space became a neck with a fingerboard, and a bow was employed to sound the strings (although it could also be plucked). It probably came to Europe through the Balkan Peninsula and first appeared in Europe in the 9th century. Its appearance crowded the more traditional lyre out of the public eye.

The spade-shaped vielle of the 9th century became ellipse-shaped (like two cones attached at their wide ends) in the 10th, and pear-shaped by the 11th. The strings were no longer crudely tacked into the bottom, but now crossed a special piece of wood that would later evolve (in the 16th century) into the tailpiece of the violin. There was a circular soundhole divided by a bar, that would later lead to shapes like the violin’s f-holes.

This 11th century instrument is still found in the Near East and on the Balkan Peninsula in folk music. It’s sometimes called the lyra (a commonly applied name to many instruments, including the lyre, harp, and lute). Since the Middle Ages, the vielle has undergone massive transformations to define the difference between the neck and the body and to narrow the soundholes to C-shapes.

During the 12th century, the older style was played on the knee rather than on the shoulder. It developed a narrower waist, making it easier to move the bow freely and play each individual string, rather than all of them at once. This development led the way to the violin in northern Italy in the 16th century. But I digress.

The vielle was well-known and popular in both knee-held and shoulder-held forms by the middle of the 13th century and was documented by Jerome of Moravia (died after 1271). Jerome wrote about the five-stringed vielle that was most popular at the time, and explained about tuning in fifths or fourths, which later became the only way to tune stringed instruments.

Another version of a plucked vielle is called a citole, and appeared around the 9th century, flourishing in the 13th through 15th centuries. It had an egg-shaped body with the strings traversing the length, off the end of the soundbox table, and over a bridge. Strings were arranged in a pairs (called courses) like the lute, and tuned in unison or octaves, which helped make the instrument louder. It was played with bare fingers for more control rather than using a quill or plectrum.

During the Middle Ages, the bagpipe and the recorder were associated with lechery, and the vielle and rebec were associated with worldly significance. I don’t know what to do with that bit of information, but it goes along with these next two thoughts that don’t fit into a nice organizational plan: The later waisted vielle is the ancestor of the guitar and the violin.

When rendered by artists, they’re shown accompanying solo and social dancing, played for banquets and processions, and they’re often shown in consorts with lutes and psalteries, portative organ (biography coming soon), harp, and transverse flute. Other images show vielle players as angels, mythical and allegorical characters, noble amateurs, minstrels, and the occasional saint.

Vielle History

It’s thought that bowing a stringed instrument originated in Central Asia, spread through the Arab countries and then on to Byzantium. We don’t really know what the original instrument looked like because painters and sculptors may have made artistic alterations, and probably didn’t know the instrument well enough to depict it accurately.

For instance, a Psalter (a collection of psalms from the Bible) from the court of Charlemagne in the 9th century (at the University Library at Utrecht) shows a blind musician with a harp on his shoulder and  a spade-shaped instrument with a ridiculously huge bow (if it’s to scale, it would be about 10 feet long). This image is thought to be the oldest illustration containing a bowed instrument. There’s no way to know if this was a widely known instrument or a local phenomenon, but it’s definitely a vielle. This vielle is of the type still used in Turkestan today for folk music.

Soon, the spade-shaped body of the vielle was replaced by an ellipsis with a sharply defined neck. A peg-box, parallel to and on the same plane as the fingerboard, had its pegs at a right angle to the soundbox table. Both this instrument and the spade-shaped one were held in front of the player’s body, upright on a thigh or knee.

A 9th century Psalter from Lothar, Germany shows an image of a plucked vielles that could be played with the fingertips or with a plectrum. This instrument looked much the same as the knee-held vielle, and appears with and without a waist. The citole (also called the sister or cister) evolved from this instrument, and could also be either plucked or bowed.

In the 10th century, another vielle appeared in Southern Italy. It was pear-shaped, carved from a single piece of wood, and played by holding it on the shoulder under the chin. The strings were fastened to a special piece of wood at the base of the instrument (that would later evolve into the tailpiece of the violin in the 16th century) and were stretched over a bridge. Tuning pegs were like those on the earlier vielle, with the box parallel to the soundbox and the pegs at a right angle to it. There was a circular soundhole in the middle of the soundbox’s table, bridged by a small bar that ran parallel to the strings so that two semi-circular soundholes formed. This instrument is still found in the Near East and the Balkan Peninsula, playing folk music. It’s sometimes called the lyra (a commonly applied name to many instruments, from the lyre to the harp to the lute).

By the middle of the 11th century, the vielle was all over Northern Europe. Because the terms vidula, fidula, and fydyl were used generically to describe any bowed instrument, it’s hard to know when exactly the medieval fiddle or vielle came into use. Sources show it in Southern Europe and Byzantium in the 11th century, for sure, and there are texts showing 12th century troubadours using them.

No instruments survive from the Middle Ages. The earliest is in the Corpus Domini monastery at Bologna, Italy, from the 15th century. Its body and neck are carved out of one piece of wood, part of the soundboard is supported by a bar, and it has no soundpost. All reconstructions are educated guesses.

In illustrations, the vielle often appears as an oval shape (as opposed to the pear-shape of a rebec or rubeba), sometimes with indented sides (a waist), and with a neck made from a separate piece of wood. It had four or five strings and is played on the shoulder or neck like a violin, or between or on the knees like a viol. In the knee position, it’s played with an underhand bow-grip. Some instruments could be played in either position—the size or shape didn’t determine whether it was played on the shoulder or the knee.

In the 12th century, slightly larger instruments played between the knees were preferred, and in the 13th century, smaller, shoulder-played instruments were more common. Some German manuscripts show the fiddle played across the chest, held by a strap. It’s possible that this was invented by a painter, though, and imitated by other painters, rather than that Germans really played this way.

Issues like the social and financial status of the player influenced the size, quality, shape, and technical possibilities of the instrument. Some are ornate, with painted sides and inlaid wood and jewels, or even woodcarvings. Noblemen—or women—would have had posh instruments, clerics and lowly jongleurs would have had the simplest.

Vernacular songs are likely to have been accompanied by a vielle during the early Middle Ages, when music was monody. They would have doubled the melody or provided a drone, or filled in a verse or chorus.

From the nature of music composed for the vielle, its apparent that during the Middle Ages, the motet was a strong influence, and it’s possible that a vielle was used to substitute for a singing voice. Some theorize that motets (which were all about the words, after all) were occasionally played by harps, vielles, and portative organs.

14th century theorist Johannes de Grocheio says that a good vielle player should play the introduction to all manner of music. He also thought a little vielle postlude should be played after antiphons (a type of song within the church service). And he associated the vielle with trouvère songs. Troubadours might have had a harp, fiddle/vielle, small lute, pipe or bagpipe to be played alone or as accompaniment to singing or reciting poetry.

Vielles would have been used in sacred music such as hymns, Mass movements (Kyrie, Sanctus, etc.), sequences, conducti, and possibly polyphony. Magister Lambertus (fl. 1270) complained of vielles creeping into church use. Anonymous IV (probably an English student working at Notre Dame in the 1270s and 1280s) mentions the vielle doubling singers during organum (plainchant with a second voice). They played during non-liturgical parts of the ceremony, including Kyries. One story tells of the Virgin Mary attaching a candle to the fiddler’s instrument because he played so beautifully before an altar but the chronology doesn’t work out too well there. Still, it’s a nice story.

English royal household records show the presence of vielle players at court from 1272-1423. Merlin the viellist was a minstrel of the queen in 1307 (Edward I’s second wife Margaret was from Francem, where the vielle was huge). Peter and Nicholas of Prague appeared at court in 1327, as does Hanekin (also called Henequen) . A fiddler with the fabulous name of Counce Snayth shows up in court around 1399, and stayed until 1423. For the most part, after that, fiddlers aren’t mentioned by name until Henry VIII (1491-1547), and by then, the instrument was a violin.

Johannes de Grocheio (c1255-c1320, a Parisian musical theorist) says that vielles played all secular forms of music, especially vocal music, and specifically lists chanson de geste, epic songs, trouvère, troubadour, and Minnesänger songs, Latin songs, and political and satirical conducti. This included lai (musical stories with formulaic melodies) and literary texts, rondeau, rodellus, and rotunda with returning refrains, including stantipes, estampie, or ductia. Of these secular forms, only estampie examples survive.

There are stories of 12 fiddlers being present when Edward I of England knighted his son in 1306 at the Feast of Swans. One of those fiddlers was called Tomasin and he was the prince’s personal fiddler.

Vielles were popular in France, especially around 1300. There, the vielle had long been associated with chanson de geste, and the ancient tradition persisted through the 14th century. In 1377, at Beauvais, chansons de geste were performed at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The presenters were expected to appear with a book of the text and a vielle.

German construction was considered to be the best quality and German players were the best by the end of the 1300s. German fiddlers were ubiquitous throughout the continent during the later Middle Ages.

In Flanders, like in Italy, there was a long-standing tradition of devotional minstrelry. Vielles performed at the Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges in 1391. In Bruges and Ghent, wealthy merchants and tradesmen formed confraternities that commissioned polyphony for religious festivals and made use of minstrels to play the vielle for ceremonial occasions. Italians working in Bruges took commissioned works of polyphony back to Italy with them, so the music and the instrument’s popularity spread.

Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent became centers for minstrel education in the 14th century, hosting schools that attracted students from all over Europe. During the Lenten season, minstrels converged from all over Europe and when they went home, they transmitted what they’d learned at such schools to the musicians who’d stayed at home.

In the 14th century, there were guilds of vielle supporters called confraternities, who amassed considerable wealth and became the patrons of religious art, drama, and music. Many paintings were commissioned by them, documenting the use of vielles, and adorning chapels and serving as objects of devotion. Singing laude was central to confraternity worship, processions, and religious dramas, starting around 1340 and the organs, lutes, harps, vielles, and rebecs that accompanied them appear most commonly in the archives. Instrumentalists were hired in pairs, frequently partners of long standing or family members.

Civic instrumental ensembles became popular during the second half of the 14th century, and by 1380, nearly every town in Southern Germany had its own small liveried wind band, usually consisting of two shawms and a slide trumpet (biographies coming soon). During the 14th century, string players also found employment in private courts. There seems to be a continuous string ensemble tradition in Europe—especially Germany—through the 15th century, and fiddles were as popular as any other instrument at this time, although the “vedel” as a solo instrument was gone by 1420 or so.

Ensemble groupings expanded from two to four parts, although the vielle wasn’t necessarily part of this expansion. Two, three, or four fiddles played together until about 1400; after that, a lute with a fiddle of two was more common.

Vielles excelled at the monophonic and polyphonic laude (non-liturgical devotional songs) of the 14th and 15th centuries as well as processional hymns and motets, the repertoire associated with confraternal use. (Confraternities were lay brotherhoods devoted to a religious or charitable service.) In fact, the vielle was played throughout the 15th century as an expression of lay piety. In 1487, Johannes Tinctoris declared that its sweet sounds inspired religious contemplation. Instrumentalists stop appearing in the Florentine archives around 1450. In Venice, they continued as part of confraternal rites throughout the 15th century.

In 1438, a Russian monk attending the Council of Florence described a solemn Mass that was attended by the Pope. Winds were played during the ceremony, and vielles and other instruments played as the pope ascended his throne. A Christmas Eve vespers service that’s documented by a poem in Simone Prudenzani’s sonnet Il Saporeto (Sonnet 28) also includes a description of vielles as part of the service.

Noble amateurs of both sexes played the vielle in consorts with other soft instruments, such as the lute or psaltery. Minstrels of all kinds would play them in processions, weddings and banquets, and at dances. Courtly musicians would play them in their master’s chambers to promote sleep and emotional or physical fitness.

Boccaccio tells the story of a vielle player in his “Decameron,” on the Tenth Day, in the Sixth Story. Simon Prudenzani talks about fiddling in Il Saporetto, Sonnet 35 in the 14th century.

The vielle’s popularity waned in the 15th century in courtly Italy and elsewhere in Europe, but it stayed the accompaniment instrument of choice for epic stories. In Italy, the chantari specialized in outdoor performances of the Arthurian legends during the 15th century, accompanied by the vielle. After 1430, though, it’s barely seen in pictures or mentioned anywhere. Books of Hours were the most likely places to find pictures, and even then, they were only moderately popular.

But the vielle paved the way for the violin and the viola da gamba (biography to come), and its marvelous sound is preserved by musicians who make music from these periods even today.

Vielle Structure

The top of the soundbox may originally have been flat. A 12th century relief in the Walraff-Richartz Museum in Köln Germany shows an instrument that has a bent or rounded top, but that might have been artistic license. Instruments with a flat top tend to cave in after a while, because of the pressure of the strings, even the relatively low pressure of gut strings, unless the top has heavy cross bracing or a soundpost. (Balkan stringed instruments often have a bridge with an elongated foot that reaches through the soundhole to the back of the instrument, and acts like a soundpost, for instance.) The 16th century lira da bracchio, probably a direct descendant of the vielle, has a soundpost, which helps to hold up the argument for its strengthening qualities.

In about 1300, the smaller, shoulder-held version got a trimmer soundbox with a flat or slightly curved back, straight sides (called ribs), and a flat or nearly flat table on the soundbox. The soundholes were replaced by a single, slender C shape, or by two Cs, one superimposed on the other. This instrument was much lighter and considerably more resonant than the older style. Most vielles then and now have C or half-moon shaped soundholes, although F-like holes are also seen, as well as clusters of small holes arranged in patterns.

Close cultural ties existed between France and England throughout the 14th century despite the Hundred Years War. In both places, vielle bodies were carved from a single piece of wood. By the beginning of the next century, there were overlapping edges—a much more modern construction method.

After 1300, there were a variety of shapes and sizes, from a waistless oval to a curvaceous guitar shape. Oval instruments have long tailpieces, sometimes with bridges. Those with separate bridges have from three to five strings, and the fifth string is usually a bourden string (the drone), off the side of the fingerboard. Oval instruments tend to be large, although string lengths can vary, depending on bridge placement. Most vielles are elongated ovals, with a slight waist, and rarely have fretted necks.

Waisted vielles have an  even greater variety of string and bridge arrangements, from a curved bridge and tailpiece, to a flat and fixed bridge. The bowed guitar-style can have as many as six strings on the fingerboard.

The smaller, shoulder-held instrument developed a waist around 1300, like those the larger styles already had, making it possible to reach all of the strings individually with the bow, including the continually sounding lowest string (the drone). By the 15th century, the waist and droning low notes were a fixture.

Square, boxy shapes were more common than ovals during the Middle Ages, and the reverse is true now.

In about the 12th century, the difference between the neck and body became more clearly defined. Frets didn’t appear until after 1300.

There is a theory that frets were rare, but also that their presence is evidence of shifting hand positions. Some vielle necks are quite long, and the presence of frets down their length argue in favor of shifting. Frets establish a fixed intonation, something more crucial to ensemble rather than solo playing, and they limit the player to one tuning system (or mode) at a time. Frets also facilitate chord playing.

Not all instruments have a fingerboard, but again, this could be inaccuracy on the part of the artists. It’s possible to play fiddles without fingerboards if one or two strings are for melodies and the others are used for drones (like a mountain dulcimer).

On some instruments, the strings are stopped by pushing the fingernails against them from the side rather than pressing them down. It’s a technique that works on fingerboardless instruments.

Most vielles have a bridge of some sort. The bridge lifts the strings up off of the table surface of the soundbox, making it possible for the strings to vibrate freely. Bridges were sometimes quite tall, and not necessarily glued to the table. They made the strings more bowable. The instrument evolved to offer a rounded bridge and alternative tunings that made accessibility to individual strings easier and improved the vielle’s ability to play polyphony.

There are questions about whether, despite Guillaume Machaut’s reference to using them, the vielle might not have been used in performance of his famous “Remede de Fortune” because of the flat bridge that would have forced a drone to sound constantly.

A flat-bridged instrument allows all of the strings to be played at once, producing a four-or five-note chord, depending on the number of strings. The top or bottom string can be stopped and played separately, if the indentation on the sides of the instrument (the waist) or the height of the bridge allows it. The middle strings can’t be stopped without stopping other, outer strings, because finger pressure along the neck puts them below where the bow can reach. A slight curve to the bridge lets the player play strings separately or two or three at a time.

In the oldest instruments with a flat soundbox, it’s possible that the bridge was also flat, but the indentations in which the strings sat were at different depths. This would allow playing individual strings in the same way as an arched bridge.

In Flanders, Hans Memling (c1430-1494) painted vielles with crenellated bridges. These high and low spots allowed certain strings to be temporarily disengaged so the rest could be simultaneously stroked with the bow, and the lowered strings would be silent.

Vielles often have leaf-shaped pegboxes with tuning pegs protruding out of the front (perpendicular to the neck and soundbox table). The tuning pegs are inserted into holes in a pegdisc, either from above or below. The pegbox itself can be carved into a scroll or sickle-shape, especially if the pegs protrude from behind instead.

One innovation was to turn the tuning pegs sideways, so that they stuck out of the side of the pegboard, parallel to the soundbox (like a modern guitar). The pegbox itself was slightly curved. This arrangement increased the resistance to the pull of the strings, but it wasn’t until the 16th century and the rebec that the value of this arrangement was presented in its true glory.

The vielle adopted the head of the rebec in the late Middle Ages. In the 16th century, along with the development of the viola da gamba, the vielle now had three distinct parts—the upper, center, and lower portions. It also got the bent-back rebec peg box, crowned with a scroll and inherited the four strings of the rebec, tuned in fifths.

The number of strings varies from two to six, but a five-stringed vielle was considered best. It was tuned in intervals of fourths and fifths, and occasionally thirds. Sometimes strings were paired, like on a lute. Strings were usually of gut—mostly sheep gut—or silk.

Separate tailpieces and fingerboards are found on some instruments. Occasionally, the tailpiece has “feet,” which make it act as a combination of string-holder and a bridge. Sometimes the drone strings run alongside the instrument, over the bridge and right off the end of the fingerboard. This string could be played with a bow or it could plucked with the left hand’s thumb. The drone aspect of the vielle would have been quite useful in music before 1300 for solo playing as well as accompaniment.

The sound is a lot like a hurdy-gurdy—a continuous drone with one or two strings for melodies of fairly limited range. The pitch of the drone strings determines the mode the vielle is played in. A curved bridge means NOT limiting the mode because all the strings are accessible individually by the bow, and the neck was likely long enough to accommodate playing more than one or two notes on each string by pressing the string to the neck with a fingertip.

Jerome of Moravia wrote “Tractatus de Musica” in 1300 or so, to help his fellow monks learn to play the vielle and the rubeba. His book served as a guide for well-educated people interested in learning about the vielle, which was gaining popularity among clerics and students. He lists three tunings, all with one melody string and two sets of drones on five strings. Pitches weren’t specific, as in today’s instruments, but were relative (meaning that the interval was the same, even if the specified notes were varied). He makes reference to running scales on on Guido’s hand. He also mentions songs that don’t comply with the rules of the modes, and says they are for rustic players or laymen—probably meaning secular performances. One of his tunings would not have allowed a full modal scale to be played without shifting hand positions, something that wasn’t documented until the 16th century and so, presumably, didn’t happen much earlier. Other sources confirm Jerome’s tunings, although there are other ideas put forward by other experts of the time.

With a flat-bridged instrument, all the notes would have sounded at once, limiting repertoire, although the whole instrument could have been adjusted to play in a different mode, like a harp without tuning levers. It would also have been possible to adjust to the needs of a specific singer, as long as no fixed-tuning instruments, like winds or keyboards, were used.

The five-stringed knee-held instrument wasn’t equal to the music of the 14th and 15th centuries, and it needed a massive overhaul in order to compete with other bowed and stringed instruments. In about 1300, the smaller, shoulder-held version got a trimmer soundbox with a flat or slightly curved back, straight sides (called ribs), and a flat or nearly flat table on the soundbox. This instrument was much lighter and considerably more resonant than the older style.

Playing the vielle between the knees frees up the left hand from supporting the instrument, but forces the player into a chair. There are some paintings where the vielle seems to be hanging from a strap around the neck so that the player could be mobile. Playing with the instrument on the shoulder or chest (like Renaissance violins) allowed the player to stand and move around.

Most 1300 vielles are played on the shoulder, with the chin on the instrument, rather than down on the arm or strapped across the body in the German manner.

The bow (or fydylstyck) was originally just like a bow used to shoot an arrow; it was a stick with horsehair attached to it so tightly that the stick bent. The hair might have been attached by a knot and then poked through a hole in the stick. No frogs (a mechanical device for tightening the strings) were necessary to raise the hair from the bow itself because of the extreme curve of the stick. Pressure on the horsehair could be adjusted by holding the thumb on the hair, which was made easier by an underhand grip on the bow.

The medieval bow is held further from the frog than on a modern bow because of a difference in balance and weight. There aren’t rules, though, and each player can determine what works best for them.

The Name

The names fiedel, fidula, and lira probably came to Europe from the Balkan Peninsula. Fiedel, viella, vidula, viuola, fidula, and fedylle are all terms for a bowed stringed instrument in the Middle Ages. In Flemish, the word was vedeles.

In German, the word Geigen meant any bowed stringed instrument, including the rebec, for which there was no properly German name. A Grosse Geigen refers to a large, fretted, bowed instrument played vielle-style.

A citole, is a plucked vielle. It’s also called the sister or the cister.

By the middle of the 15th century, the word “vielle” tended to refer to a hurdy-gurdy, and the bowed instrument was called a fiddle.

Famous Vielle Composers

Guillaume Machaut was probably the most influential composer to come out of the medieval era. He lived from c1300-1377, which is pretty much the heyday of the vielle. He is nearly as famous for his epic poetry as he was for his musical compositions.

John Dowland (1563-1626) (biography to come) was certainly the most prolific of the British lutenists, and it’s his songs that you think of when you imagine yourself in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. In truth, it was more likely to have been Tallis or Byrd at court, because Dowland’s bid for court lutenist was unsuccessful until James I’s reign. Dowland’s music was—and still is—very accessible to non-stuffy music lovers.

Famous Vielle Players

Tomasin was King Edward I’s son’s personal fiddler in the 13th and early 14th centuries.

Herman Hans di Henequin went to minstrel school in 1381 with famous musicologist Jacomi.

Merlin, who was the viellist for the English royal court in the 14th century with Counce Snayth.

Sir Henry Umpton (bass viol) lived from c1557-1596, and was an Elizabethan English diplomat.

Solomon Rossi (c1570-c1630) was said to have been a virtuoso on the viol/vielle.

Pavlo Beznosiuk is an Irish/Ukrainian violinist who dabbles with early instruments. His recordings get a lot of five-star ratings.

Mary Springfels is co-founder of the Newberry Consort, one of America’s best Renaissance musical groups, and has recorded with some of the biggest names in the early-music industry. Her main expertise is on the viola da gamba, but as they’re related, she does a pretty good job of playing the vielle (and writing about it) too.

Margreit Tindemans is a Seattle-based study in fabulousness. In addition to rock-star status on the vielle and viola da gamba, she leads a Hildegard group, teaches all over the world, and is a totally awe-inspiring yet down-to-earth person.

Shira Kammen is a San Francisco Bay Area-based super-goddess. When she plays the vielle (or the harp, rebec, violin, or viola) you find yourself simultaneously transfixed and transported. She’s got a gazillion recordings out there, and you need to have them all. Immediately.

Michelle Levy studied classical viola and banjo and then honed her vielle perfection with Shira Kammen and with some other very important names in the early music industry. She’s often found at English country dance and contra dance events, and you’ll find your toes tapping if she’s got a vielle in her hands.


“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000.

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

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

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

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

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

“The Music of The Jews in the Diaspora (Up to 1800)” by Alfred Sendrey. Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1970.

Composer Biography: Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377)

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Although you might never have heard of him, Guillaume de Machaut is famous for his poetry as well as his musical compositions. Medievalists love him because he demarks the end of the true medieval era—both the style of his music and his poetry change: from monody (one melodic line sung or played by everyone in unison) to polyphony (multiple melodic lines—but still not harmony in the modern sense), and from literal stories (biblical, mostly) to romance, metaphor, and allegory. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he affected literature and music as you know it.

His name is probably derived from the town of Machault (note the L), less than 20 miles from Rheims, where he lived out the last few years of his life. At the time, it was Frankish land, but it had long been contested by Romans, Gallic insurrection, and fun folks such as the Vandals and Attila the Hun. Like others at the time, he was given a first name and then the town of origin was tacked on to identify which Guillaume was meant. Nowadays, we call him by his surname, Machaut.

He lived during a time of artistic, political, and religious secularization, and although he was a cleric, he spent his time in secular circles, producing poetry and music about equally. He was admired and imitated by other poets all over Europe, including Geoffrey Chaucer. His poetry is often compared favorably to that of Petrarch, according to French contemporaries.

He seems to have bounced around Europe for a while, becoming a priest and then in 1323, secretary to the King of Bohemia. In 1340, his principal residence was in Rheims, and by 1349, he served the King of Navarre. There was a lot of anti-Semitism and instigation of violence against the Jews in his work, including accusations of poisoning wells and causing the Black Plague that devastated France in 1349. Sadly, his attitude was all too common.

He had many royal connections, including the King of Cyprus and the court of Savoy. He followed his various military patrons wherever they wandered, including Silesia, Poland, Italy, Lithuania, and all over France. But it must have been a terrifying time. People all around him, including his patrons, were dying of the black death. He managed to survive to write about it.

He was a master of the Ars Nova and among the great composers of all time. Ars Nova is a musical style that flourished in the 14th century. Basically, it marks a change of direction from strictly sacred, modal music (see my earlier blog, Musical Modes, Part I: Church Modes, for more on this), to a more open attitude about scales and secular music. At this point, music began to move toward chords via polyphony and from church service-specific to occasion-specific.

In his lifetime, he was most famous for writing Roman de Fauvel, an allegorical “novel” (the literary form of a novel hadn’t yet been invented), an attack on the vices of the times using a biblical theme. The name of Fauvel the horse is an acronym from the letters that begin the words flattery, avarice, usury, villainy, envy, and lowness. The story goes that Fauvel was so successful as a horse that he aspired to marry Fortune. She’s annoyed by his attentions and sends a substitute, VainGlory, whom Fauvel unknowingly marries. Their children grow up to become a menace to all of France. The story was probably written as a commission for Philip IV because there are allegorical attacks on the Knights of Templar in it. The Templars were one of Philip IV’s pet enemies, largely because he couldn’t repay a debt to them.

Machaut was the master of the isorhythmic motet (meaning that there was a single rhythm throughout the piece), but deserted it for polyphony (multiple melodic lines and varied rhythms) once he’d heard it. He wasn’t really an innovator here, but he refined polyphonic music until it became the definitive musical form of his time.

He would have had both men and women singers in his (secular) choir, and when the minstrels tired of playing for dancers at parties, the singers took over. This would have been a departure from most parties at the time.

Machaut diligently documented all of the various forms of music that existed at the time, such as the viralai, the chanson, and the rondeaux, leaving a record to help music historians figure out when these forms were invented.

In addition, he wrote about 400 poems, most of which didn’t get set to music, and it seems that he wrote the words before he wrote the music when he did set them. Common themes were war, captivity, religion, and courtly love.

He wrote one Mass and two motets with liturgical connections. All the rest of his compositions were secular. There are 21 motets, nearly all of which were based on plainsong melodies or secular songs. There are nearly 120 works based on secular song forms, such as the lai, which is lengthy and mainly monophonic; the virelai, which is mostly monophonic, like the works of trouvères; and rondeaus and ballades, which are almost all polyphonic, in two or three parts, and very rarely four, and are often performed with one singer and accompanying instruments. Machaut was one of the last composers to write a lai, as the style was already out of fashion.

Six manuscripts contain all of Machaut’s works, and were collected and organized by Machaut himself. The originals are beautifully illustrated and belonged to important patrons, like dukes and counts and such.

His La Messe de Notre Dame Mass is the earliest known complete Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the Ite missa est movement that went away post-Tridentine Council, leaving the priest to say it privately after that). It’s possible that Machaut wrote other Masses that were less well documented, because parts appear in collections with other composers’ works, and only his own efforts to document his own work preserved the information that they were his. At any rate, the Notre Dame may have been intended for the Rheims cathedral, or perhaps as a votive Mass in Mary’s honor. It’s not all the same style—the Gloria and Credo are conductus-style and the others are isorhythmic tenors based on plainsong Mass chants.

He wrote a secular work called Dit de la harpe, where the 24 virtues of his lady love are equated with each of the 24 strings of the harp. (Modern harps have more strings than medieval harps.) He considered the harp the most perfect of all instruments and occasionally wrote harp and voice versions of the same music.

He occasionally used a style called hoqueting (or hocketing), where the singers sound like they have the hiccups, in order to create an interesting rhythmic and nearly percussive texture. In hoqueting, voices alternate in little chirps in rapid succession, like a kind of vocal leap frog. The style was found in sacred music in the 13th and 14th century, but never really caught on even then. Machaut wrote a piece called “David Hoquetus” for three voices, so he thought it was interesting, at least. In that piece, Machaut used a chant, sung in a regular rhythm by the lowest voice, and then let the upper two voices dance around it in hoquet.

When Machaut died in 1377, many composers wrote elegies lamenting his loss. Later, musicologists would cite Machaut as the pivotal composer who changed music from Medieval music into Renaissance. So even if you’ve never heard of him, the music you love best wouldn’t have been possible without him.


“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, Pelican Books, Baltimore, 1960

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000

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

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1943

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

Written by Melanie Spiller

January 27, 2013 at 12:06 pm