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Composer Biography: Cristóbal de Morales (c1500-1553)

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Cristóbal de Morales is considered by many to be the greatest Spanish composer before Tomas Luis de Victoria (c1548-1611, biography coming soon). In fact, if you only know two Spanish composers’ names, those are likely to be the two.

Morales’ music has a strong Franco-Flemish flavor to it (for composers of this ilk, check out those listed on my website). That’s because, until his abdication in 1555, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), King of Spain, kept a Flemish chapel. Apart from 10 years in Papal service where Morales would also have been exposed to the Flemish traditions, he spent his whole professional life in Andalusa, where the Franco-Flemish influence was strong (Andalusa is the region that covers nearly the whole bottom third of the Iberian Peninsula.)

Like the other court musicians, Morales followed the Netherlandish style. Of his 22 Masses, two are based on the French motet L’homme arme (anonymous) and others are modeled on motets by Franco-Flemish composers Nicolas Gombert (c1495-c1560), Jean Mouton (c1459-1522), Jean Richafort (c1480-c1547), Philippe Verdelot (c1480-c1530), and Josquin des Prez (c1440-1521). Only two of Morales’ Masses are based on Spanish villancicos. (More about those later.)

Morales is perhaps most Spanish in his use of mystical emotions at the heart of such motets as Emendemus in melius (one of my very favorite motets) and O crux, ave. He didn’t write much secular music; only a handful of pieces with Italian and Spanish text survive.

In 1526, Charles V’s wife, Isabella of Portugal (1503-1539), organized a chapel of Spanish and Portuguese musicians, and Morales was among the instrumentalists of this group. Philip II (1527-1598) supported the group when he became regent of Spain in 1543. These musicians were the real innovators of the time and included blind organist Antonio de Cabezon (c1500-1566), who was one of its original members; clavichordist Francisco de Soto (c1500-1563), who arrived shortly after Cabezon; and Luis de Narvaez (d. after 1555), who played the vihuela de mano (a Spanish lute) and was recruited by Philip II.

Morales’ works were among the first European compositions performed in the New World (which had only been “discovered” a decade before his birth), along with those of his student Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), Tomas Victoria (c1548-1611), and Palestrina (c1525-1594).

Other musicians liked Morales’ music and made him famous across Europe and in Mexico. His work stayed popular all the way to the 18th century, when he was praised as the papal chapel’s most important composer after Josquin and Palestrina by music biographer Andrea Adami da Bolsena (1663-1772), who was a castrato and master of the papal choir in 1700.

Morales was born in Seville, the largest city and capital of Andalusia, a region in southern Spain. He received his education in the classics and in music there, studying with some of the foremost composers of his time.

There is another Cristobal de Morales (dates unavailable), perhaps Morales’ father, who sang for the third Duke of Medina Sidonia (Juan Alfonso Perez de Guzman, 1464-1507) in 1504, when Morales would have been a young child. Morales had a sister who married in 1530, by which time, their father had died. I didn’t find any information about his mother.

It’s possible that Morales had siblings and uncles all around him. Alonso de Morales (dates unavailable) was treasurer of the Seville Cathedral in 1503; Francisco de Morales (d.1505), was canon of the Cathedral; and Diego de Morales (dates unavailable) was the Cathedral notary in 1525. Some of these gentlemen could be his father, uncles, or cousins and others might be siblings.

Earlier Spanish popes (Calixtus III of the 15th century and Alexander VI of the 16th) from the notorious Borja family employed Spanish singers in their chapel choirs, so it’s not surprising that Morales found his way to Rome. There were quite a few non-Italian musicians and composers there at the time. (There were few Italian composers during this period, as it happens.)

In 1522, Morales went to Rome three times to be the papal organist. In 1526, he was appointed maestro de capilla of both Avila and Plasencia Cathedrals and he stayed at both until 1531. In 1531, he resigned and went twice more to Rome in 1534. By 1535, he’d moved to Rome to be a singer in the papal chapel choir under the Italian Pope Paul III (1458-1549), who was particularly partial to Spanish singers. Morales stayed in Rome until 1545. It’s thought that he was a tenor.

Morales obtained leave to return to Spain in 1540, although it isn’t known why. He came right back to Rome, and in 1545, when he sought employment outside the papal choir but still in Italy, he had no luck. He tried the emperor (Charles V) and Cosimo I de Medici (1519-1574) without a nibble. So he returned to Spain, where he finagled a series of posts. He alienated employers. There was always something not-quite-right about the positions he held and he had difficulty keeping them. He’s said to have been egotistical and short-tempered and he made severe demands on the singers in his employ.

Finally, in 1545, he became maestro de capilla at Toledo and left the employ of the pope for good. He stayed until 1547 when he fell ill and renounced his position. The next year, he went to Marchena (near Seville), back in Andalusa, where he served the Dukes of Aros and Malaga until 1551.

In 1551, he became maestro de capilla at Malaga Cathedral. In 1553, he applied for the maestro de capilla position at the Toledo Cathedral, but he died in Marchena before an offer could be made.

Morales was the first Spanish composer who reached international renown. His works were widely distributed in Europe and the New World. Music writers and theorists in the following hundred years considered his to be among the most perfect music of the time.

Morales’ works are almost all liturgical, including over 22 Masses, 18 Magnificats, 11 hymns, at least five Lamentations (one of which survives in a single manuscript in Mexico), and over 100 motets. Two of his Masses are Requiems. All of his music is vocal, although instruments might have been used as accompaniment. He probably wrote Spanish secular songs and intabulations (a kind of notation specific to stringed instruments), but few remain.

He himself regarded his own Masses highly, supervising their publication personally and writing more of them than any other Spaniard of the period or any other polyphonist of his generation. The Masses illustrate his superb contrapuntal technique. His works are more refined than Josquin des Prez’s (c1440-1521) and look ahead to Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (c1525-1594), who based a Mass on Morales’ motet O sacrum convivium.

Morales is the only Spanish composer who didn’t write predominantly parody Masses (basing them on a motet) although his other work included parodies. He had his own discerning parody technique, wherein he enriched and transformed his own motet models.

His 22 Masses include both cantus firmus (with the chant melody sung slowly in the tenor line) and parody styles. Six are based on Gregorian chant and eight are parodies, including one for six voices based on the famous chanson Mille regrets, which is attributed to Josquin. This melody is arranged so that it’s clearly audible in every movement, usually in the highest voice, and giving the work considerable stylistic and motivic unity.

He also wrote two Masses, one for four voices and one for five, on the famous L’homme arme tune, which was frequently set by composers in the late 15th and 16th century. The four-voice Mass uses the tune as a cantus firmus, keeping the melody in the tenor line, and the five-voice Mass treats it more freely, moving it from one voice to another.

He also wrote a Missa pro defunctis, which is a requiem Mass. It may have been his last work, as it seems to be unfinished. It’s written through to the end, but the editing aspect is incomplete.

Masses from this period are often based on motets and Gregorian melodies. Morales offers eight exceptions based them on Spanish songs. In one, he has the Spanish words sung to the main melody and liturgical (Latin) text in the other voices. Some of his other Masses incorporate extraneous texts in the way followed by Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474) and other composers from the same period and after. He also follows the old style of leaving the cantus firmus intact and lets it permeate all of the voices.

Morales treats Gregorian melodies with an almost severe regard for the preservation of their essential contours. He embellishes sparingly, providing the melodies with rather grave settings that reveal his personality. He often omits the melismatic passages from the chant, which emphasizes his sober style. He nearly always ends his themes on the same note as the Gregorian version, which wasn’t the fashion of the period but had music theory historical context. Rather than writing a polyphonic line of melody, he occasionally gave the bass line a progression in fourths and fifths, which sounds like a chordal bass line to modern ears.

His two Masses for the dead and Officium defunctorum are the most extreme examples of Morales’ sober style. He had a thorough command of early 16th century continental techniques and his style is better compared to Franco-Flemish composers Josquin, Nicolas Gombert (c1495-c1560), and Jacob Clemens non Papa (c1510-1556) than to his Spanish contemporaries. He favored cross-rhythms, conflicting rhythms, melodic (but not harmonic) sequence and repetition, harmonic cross-relations, systematic use of consecutives and occasionally daring use of harmony.

The Magnificats may be his master works and are the most frequently performed of his compositions today. They’re permeated throughout by Gregorian cantus firmus.

His motets are intense and personal, often using a cantus firmus with a separate text that glosses or alludes to the principal one. He often used a Gregorian chant associated with the text as a melodic point of departure (such as in Puer natus est) or as an ostinato figure (a phrase frequently repeated in the same voice) such as the five-voice Tu es petrus, but he seldom borrowed entire melodies.

The texture of the motets is characterized by free imitation and with exceptional use of homophonic sections (where one voice predominates) to stress important words or portions of text. He uses alternation of chant verses with polyphonic verses, like those found in a collection of his Magnificats published in 1545 in Venice. You can also find this alternation in his Salve Regina motet, developed by means of imitation in pairs.

An early motet for six voices, Jubilate Deo, was written for the peace conference arranged by Pope Paul III (1468-1549) and held in 1538 between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain (1500-1558) and King Francis I of France (1494-1547). In it, the high voice sings “gaudeamus” over and over to the notes of the Gregorian introit Gaudeamus omnes. He lets one part comment on the text of the other parts in another ceremonial motet, composed to celebrate the elevation of Ippolito d’Este (1479-1520) to the cardinalate in 1539.

He uses this same device with striking dramatic effect in Emendemus in melius, which combines the four-part setting of a responsory for Ash Wednesday with six statements of a modified chant to the words used by the priest while sprinkling ashes on the penitents. “Remember man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return.” This is one of my favorite motets, not only my favorite of Morales’.

His style has a lot in common with other middle Renaissance works from the Iberian Peninsula, such as a preference for harmony in the form of fourths or fifths in the lower voices, and free use of harmonic cross-relations. These techniques were also popular during the same period in England with composers like Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585).

Distinctive Morales characteristics include rhythmic freedom, such as occasional three-against-four polyrhythms and cross-rhythms, where a voice sings in a rhythm that adheres to the text but ignores the meter prevailing in other voices. Late in life, he wrote in a sober, more heavily homophonic style (where one voice predominates, like in modern SATB music where most of the voices provide supporting harmonies to the main melody), but he was always a careful craftsman who considered the expression and understandability of the text to be his highest artistic goal.

Another thing Morales does that’s interesting is to use silence to create a dramatic moment. This is especially obvious in his Parce milo Domine (part of his Office for the Dead in four voices).

There are too many excellent recordings to enumerate here, and I recommend that you do a little looking for some of them, at least.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Composer Biography: Juan del Encina (1468-c1529)

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Also Juan del Enzina. His name at birth was Juan de Fermoselle, according to one source.

In late 15th century Spain, Juan del Encina was among the four big names of music, along with Juan de Anchieta (1462-1523), Pedro Escobar (d. 1514), and Francisco de Penalosa (c1470-1528). With the other three, Encina cultivated the Spanish counterpart of the Italian frottola called the villancico, which is a type of vernacular secular song. His églogas (pastoral poems), said to have been performed for the first time in 1492, all end with villancicos that were sung and danced by all the characters together.

Encina was possibly the earliest Spanish dramatist, and he’s often called the founder of Spanish drama, along with Gil Vicente (c1465-c1536).

He was probably born in Encina de San Silvestre, which is roughly 40 miles west of Salamanca, Spain. He was one of at least seven children of Juan de Fermoselle, a shoemaker, and was of Jewish converso descent.

During the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, Jews were forced to flee Spain or convert to Catholicism. Those who converted were never completely accepted into Spanish society, and some of them secretly continued to practice Judaism. Sadly, both the expunging of Jews and their forced conversion spread throughout Europe (although it was less popular in some places, such as Italy), and lasted several centuries. (See Composer Biography: Solomon Rossi for more on the expulsion.)

In 1484, young Encina joined the Salamanca Cathedral choir. He became chaplain there in the early 1490s. That’s when he changed his name from Fermoselle to Encina. (Fun fact: encina means holly oak, which is a large evergreen found in the Mediterranean.)

It’s possible that his first post was as a Corregidor (chief magistrate of a town) in northern Spain. In 1492, when he was forced to resign as chaplain because he wasn’t ordained, he became a member of the household of Don Fadrique de Toledo (c1460-1531), the second Duke of Alba, although some sources say he didn’t begin working there until 1495. Regardless of the timeline, he was master of ceremonies for the Duke, writing both text and music for plays that were performed at court.

He applied for a post at Salamanca Cathedra but didn’t get it, so he headed out for Rome in 1498 to seek the aid of the Spanish Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), who gave him a benefice. He served there during the next two pope’s tenure, Pope Julius II (1445-1513), and the Medici Pope Leon X (1475-1521).

While he was at the Vatican, he met Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518), who was a Netherlandish composer and singer. De la Rue traveled to Rome with the Archduke Philip (1478-1506), son-in-law of Ferdinand and Isabella and husband to the future (mad) Queen Juana. Encina would have been part of the unison-singing Spanish royal choir, and he would have heard what de la Rue was doing with polyphony and solo voices.

Encina’s ambition led to promotion, and in 1508 he was appointed to the Archdeaconate of Malaga Cathedral by the second pope he served, Pope Julius II (1445-1513). He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem the following year, where he sang a Mass.

He held the Archdeaconate post until resigning in 1518, when he went to Moron for a simple benefice. In 1519, Pope Leon appointed him prior of Leon Cathedral. This was his final job, and he’s thought to have died there toward the end of 1529.

Compositions

It’s interesting to note that despite his many posts and participation in important musical events, he wrote most of his music and plays before he was 30.

He was the principal contributor to the Cancionero de Palacio, a c1500 songbook containing courtly love songs in villancico form. Some of his pieces were for use on particular occasions, and others were intended to be sung at theatrical productions. By uniting popular and artistic elements, he broke new ground in Spanish secular drama.

Encina wrote Triunto de la fama to commemorate the fall of Grenada in 1492. In 1496, he published Cancionero, a collection of dramatic and lyrical poems. Then he applied for the cantor post at Salamanca Cathedral, but the position went to three singers instead, including his rival dramatist, Lucas Fernandez (c1474-1542).

He wrote a prose treatise called Arte de trobar on the condition of poetry in Spain. His lyrical poems are remarkable for their intense sincerity and devout grace. His 14 dramatic pieces mark the transition from the purely ecclesiastical to secular theater. The story lines of Encina’s plays are hardly innovative, but they are important from the historical point of view as a departure for lay pieces. His more devout eclogues prepare the way for those of the 17th century.

Even though his works were dedicated to royal families, he never served as a member of a royal chapel. And although he worked in several Cathedrals and was eventually ordained as a priest, no sacred works are attributed to him.

His plays, published in 1496, include eclogues and pastorals that begin and end with a short motet. He wrote 60 or more songs and there are another nine texts settings, to which music could be added. Many of the surviving pieces are villancicos.

He wrote three- and four-voice settings with a variety of styles depending on the kind of text, and with very limited movement in the voices as they head for cadence points. To make the text heard clearly, Encina used varied and flexible rhythms that are patterned on the accents of the verse, and used simple yet strong harmonic progressions. His works feature a transparent polyphonic texture, expressive harmonies, syllabic word setting, and smooth melodies.

He wrote in Castillian Spanish, with Leonese influences, and in his pastoral eclogues, he wrote in Leonese. (His home in Salamanca was a Leonese-speaking region.)

His villancico Oy comamos y bebamos is typical of the genre. In rather crude language, the text exhorts listeners to eat, drink, and sing, because tomorrow brings the first day of Lent, the season of fasting. The music is simple in melody and harmony, with dancelike rhythms marked by frequent hemiolas (a series of two-counts in a three-count rhythm. It’s a kind of syncopation).

Encina’s will asked that he be buried beneath the choir of Salamanca Cathedral, and in 1534, that request was granted.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography: Juan de Anchieta (c1462-1523)

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Spanish music developed a great deal during the reign of Queen Isabella (1451-1504) and King Ferdinand (1452-1516). Isabella, in particular, was a great supporter of music and the other arts, and it was a love she fostered in her children, Prince Juan of Asturias (1478-1497), who played the flute, viol, and clavichord, and sang with a clear tenor voice, and the future (Mad) Queen Juana (1479-1555).

Ferdinand and Isabella had a very stable reign, as evidenced by their ability to fund Columbus’ journey to the New World and by the conquest of Grenada, through which they drove the last of the Moors from Spanish soil. (They also spent some time driving Jews out of Spain and out of their allies’ lands. Repercussions lasted and were still strongly felt during the time of Solomon Rossi (c1570-c1630) in Italy.) Isabella in particular supported music, employing 40 singers at a time, plus instrumentalists. Her son Juan enjoyed singing so much that instead of taking a siesta, he’d meet Anchieta and four or five choirboys at the palace to sing with them for a couple of hours. Juan was apparently a fine tenor.

The age was so good for music that, until the death of Ferdinand in 1516 (Isabella died in 1504), historians called it a Golden Age.

The royal court was at Aragon and was closely linked with Avignon (now part of France), site of the anti-popes and a lot of musical innovation during the later Middle Ages. Aragon and Catalan shared a common European-style musical culture as a result. The court at Barcelona, like those in Italy, was mostly served by Franco-Flemish musicians with only a few native Spaniards.

Castile had fewer foreigners holding court positions than did Barcelona, Aragon, Catalan, and Toledo, and four of the outstanding Spanish composers who thrived under the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, were Pedro Escobar (d. 1514), Francisco de Penalosa (c1470-1528), Juan del Encina (1468-1529, biography to come) and Juan de Anchieta.

Of the four, Anchieta was the least enterprising. He was a native Castilian and primarily a church composer. Along with the other three Castilians, he cultivated the Spanish counterpart of the frottola, called a villancico. This was a form of vernacular secular song frequently associated with rustic themes, akin to what we call a “carol” in modern times. Sacred versions were sung at Matins, a Divine Office held at midnight in monasteries. Most of Anchieta’s secular villancicos are lost. We only have four that can be positively attributed.

Anchieta was born in Urrestilla Spain, smack in the middle of Basque country, about 60 miles northwest of Pamplona and 230 miles south of Castile. Some sources say that he was born in Azpeitia, about a mile and a half north of Urrestilla. Either way, he was a nobleman’s son.

His mother was also of noble birth and was the great-aunt of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), who became the founder of the Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits. Loyola was beatified in 1609.

Anchieto worked as a royal musician for Ferdinand and Isabella as part of the a capilla flamenco. This group consisted of 14 singers and a few instrumentalists; their style contrasted strongly with the unison singing of the larger Spanish Royal Choir.

In 1506, during a state visit from Juana and her husband the Archduke Philip (1478-1506), Anchieto met Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518, Netherlandish). The future Queen Juana was particularly fond of de la Rue’s music, and he hung around to entertain her even after she was locked away in a convent. Anchieta was exposed to the new Netherland/Flemish polyphony both by de la Rue visiting Spain and when he traveled to Flanders himself in the service of Queen Juana.

Anchieta became chaplain and cantor to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1489. He sang in the Castilian royal chapel for most of his working life, becoming maestro de capilla to Prince Juan in 1493. He returned to the Queen’s service when Juan died in 1497. When Isabella died in 1504, Anchieto kept the post, working for Queen Juana (the Mad).

From 1500, Anchieta was also rector of the parish church at Azpeitia. In 1519, he retired from court to become the parish priest there. He became abbot of Arbos monastery in 1518, about 320 miles southeast from Azpeitia, on the Mediterranean Sea. He was also chaplain at Grenada Cathedral, nearly 600 miles distant from Arbos and 530 miles from Azpeitia. (I only found these posts listed in one source, so perhaps, because of the distances, they are suspect.)

In 1519, he was pensioned and excused from service at court by Charles V (1500-1558) because he was considered already old at 57. Anchieta retired to his native town of Azpeitia, where he died in 1523, spending his final years in a Franciscan convent that he founded himself.

Compositions

It’s likely that much is lost, but what survives from Anchieta are two complete Masses, two Magnificats, one Salve Regina, four Passion settings, and a few motets, all for large choirs. They sound graceful and sonorous, with only a few clever or innovative devices. His sacred works are largely free of the complex counterpuntal devices favored by Franco-Flemish composers, instead, using plainsong and chordal writing (as opposed to polyphony).

His sacred music makes considerable use of Gregorian melodies. The Gloria of one Mass is based on the Gloria of Gregorian Mass XV. His Salve Regina breaks up into ten sections; the odd-numbered verses are chant, the even-numbered ones are polyphony, and all polyphonic verses are in four voices except the last, which is in five. In the polyphonic sections, the highest voice (the superius) paraphrases the chant rather than leaving it to the tenor voice. At the close of the first and last polyphonic sections, Anchieta introduces new voices, much like the Franco-Flemish masters did. There are sustained chordal sections in his work occasionally, interspersed with imitative passages and free polyphony. Like his northern contemporaries, he favored two voices where the voices are ten notes (an octave plus a third) apart, in parallels.

He also wrote four villancicos, one of which, Dos anades, was very popular during his lifetime.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography: Byzantine Women Composers (8th and 9th Century)

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I was researching something else, and I came across the most wonderful CD. It was music by Byzantine composer Kassia, from the 9th century. And here I thought Hildegard was the first named composer! Apparently, she was only the first named composer in the West—Byzantium was naming them left and right, and Kassia is not only earlier, but she’s also a woman!

First, a little history about how Byzantium (which is a modern appellation, by the way. I’ll use it here as a convenience) came to be separate from the West in religion, culture, and language.

The Catholic papacy had a long tradition of eastern orientation, but in the 8th century, the Byzantines split off after the papacy refused to pay taxes to the Byzantine Empire. They also refused to destroy religious icons, because such destruction seemed too close to the Islamic policy banning religious images. There was more to it than iconoclastic differences and fear of Islam, but the result was a papacy vulnerable to the Lombards of Northern Italy, which ultimately led to an alliance with the Carolingian family in the form of Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father.

There was a lot of arguing about whether the Eucharistic bread actually became God’s body and so forth, but the great split between Eastern Orthodox Catholics and Roman Catholics happened when Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne (c742-814) as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Charlemagne was the first to be named Holy Roman Emperor since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier, when Justinian tried to bring Eastern (Byzantine) power further west and ended up dividing rule of the land into several pieces.

Not only the religions but also the cultures diverged wildly after this point. Byzantium used the Cyrillic alphabet, incorporated Indian and Arabian influences into music, architecture, and other art forms, and the language of the literate was Greek. Under Roman rule, Latin was the unifying language of the literate, music and other art forms took on what we now identify as distinctly European affects, and the Roman alphabet was used.

Byzantine music tends to be wildly ornamental, with lithe wriggling endings to long notes, quick turns and decorations in instrumental parts, and extremes of high and low voices. Roman music is more straightforward, requiring less virtuosity but with its own kind of serene beauty. Where church modes (see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes) developed in Roman Catholic lands involving a tuning based on a sequence of three whole tones, a half tone, and another whole tone, Byzantium retained the old Greek modes, which were based on a stricter, more mathematical splitting of string lengths into five pentatonic notes. (For those interested in temperament, this ends up being the difference between Just and Mean tones before they knew it was called that.)

Byzantium became the Ottoman Empire, after bunches of wars and other disruptions, around the 15th century. Even so, a sharp divide between the sound of eastern music and that of western still remains.

Now that you have some context, let’s take a listen to some Byzantine music and explore some composers’ biographies.

Recordings:

  • “Les Tres Riches Heures du Moyen Age, CD 1: Les Premieres hueres de l’Ere Chretienne.” Harmonia Mundi, 1995
  • Hesperion XXI, Montserrat Figueras, Gürsoy Dinçer, Lior Elmaleh, Jordi Savall, et al. “La Sublime Porte, Voix d’Istanbul 1430-1750.” Alia Vox 2011.
  • Peter Rabenser, Belinda Sykes, Jeremy Avis, Oni Wytars Ensemble. “From Byzantium to Andalusa, Medieval Music and Poetry.” Naxos 2006.
  • Soeur Marie Keyrouse, SBC. “Chants Sacres Melchites, Hymnes a la Vierge.” Harmonia Mundi France, 1994.
  • Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum. “Chant Mozarabe, Cathedrale de Tolede (15th Century).” Harmonia Mundi France 1995.
  • Sister Marie Keyrouz, SBC. “Byzantine Chant,” Harmonia Mundi France, 2008.

Sources:

  • “The Early Middle Ages, Part 2 of 2,” by Professor Philip Daileader of the College of William and Mary. The Teaching Company’s “The Great Courses,” Chantily, 2004.
  • “Charlemagne, A Biography,” by Derek Wilson. Vintage Books, New York, 2005.
  • “Charlemagne,” by Roger Collins. Unversity of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2008.

 

Kassia (c805-before 865):

Kassia (also Kassiani, Ikasia, Cassie, and Cassianne), was a Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer. Her name is the feminine Greek form of the Latin name Cassius.

She was one of the first Medieval composers whose scores have survived. We have about 50 of her hymns, and 23 are included in Orthodox Church liturgical books that are still used today. The exact number of her compositions is difficult to assess, as many hymns are ascribed to different authors in various manuscripts or are identified as anonymous. About 790 of her attributed non-liturgical verses still exist.

Kassia was born between 805 and 810 in Constantinople into a wealthy family, and was said to be very beautiful and intelligent. Three reliable chroniclers claim that she participated in a Bride Show where the prospective groom gives a golden apple to the woman of his choice, from among all the potential brides lined up at a party. In this case, the prospective groom was the soon-to-be-emperor Theophilos (813-842). He chose Kassia, and when he quoted a Bible verse meant as a compliment (something about all sin coming from intelligent and beautiful women, a reference to Eve), she responded to it in kind (something about good things coming from women, a reference to the Virgin Mary). He felt rebuffed and chose someone else, but remained Kassia’s supporter until his death.

In 843, Kassia founded a convent in Constantinople near the Constantinian Walls. She was the abbey’s first abbess. The monastery had a close relationship with the nearby monastery of Stoudios, which would play a key role in re-editing the Byzantine liturgical books in the 9th and 10th centuries, and which is why her work survived.

Emperor Theophilos was bothered by the Eastern Orthodox veneration of icons. Despite being scourged with a lash as punishment, Kassia remained an outspoken icon defender. When the Theophilos died, the age of iconoclastic destruction also ended.

Kassia is notable for being one of very few women to write in their own names during the Middle Ages. Her most famous composition is the “Hymn of Kassiani” is still sung every Holy Wednesday. It has a large range and is considered to be one of the most difficult pieces of solo Byzantine chant. It’s a unison piece, sometimes with a vocal bass drone. Church attendees make an issue of going to church specifically to “listen to Kassiani.”

Other important works include the “Doxastichon” (for Vespers on Christmas Eve), numerous hymns honoring saints, the “Triodon” (sung during Lent) and the “Irmoi” (for Matins for Great Thursday), and her longest piece, “Canon for the Departed” (for requiem services).

Kassia briefly traveled to Italy and then settled in the Greek Island of Kasos, which is where she died sometime between 867 and 890. Kassia’s tomb and reliquary are in a church in Panaghia.

Her feast day is September 7th, and she’s often pictured on the icon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy (the first Sunday of Great Lent).

Recordings include:

  • VocaMe: “Kassia—Byzantine Hymns of the First Woman Composer,” 2009. Only works by Kassia, including Augustus. (This is the one I’m completely hooked on.)
  • Kronos Quartet: “Early Music,” 1997. Includes an instrumental version of “Using the Apostate Tyrant as His Tool.”
  • Sarband: “Sacred Women, Women as Composers and Performers of Medieval Chant,” 2001. Includes “Augustus.”
  • Deborah Kayser and Nick Tsiavos: “The Fallen Woman,” 2008. Includes the Kassiani Hymn. Search for this one on YouTube
  • Capella Romana and the English Chamber Choir: “Choral Settings of Kassiani and When Augustus Reigned,” 2011.

Sources:

  • “The Byzantine World,” edited by Paul Stephenson, 2013.
  • “Byzantine Women, Varieties of Experience, 800-1200” edited by Lynda Garland. Ashgate, 2006.

 

Khosrovidukht (8th century)

Also Xosrociduxt.

One of the earliest known women musicians, Khosrovidukht was once thought to have been a member of the Armenian royal family, but experts are now uncertain. There are stories that her brother was abducted by Arabs and that she was taken to the fortress of Ani Kaakh (now called Kemah) for safekeeping. She stayed there as a hermit for 20 years.

She’s thought to be the composer of a sarakan, or canonical hymn, called “Zarmanaii e Ints” (How Wondrous it is”), which honors the memory of her brother, thought to have been assassinated in 737 for his conversion to Christianity. It’s a secular piece, but it was sanctioned for use in the Armenian Church.

Recordings include:

Sources:

  • “Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

 

Sahakdukht (8th century)

Sahakdukht came from a musical Armenian family, and had a famous brother, music theorist Stephannos Syunetsi (dates unavailable—like hers).

She herself was a composer of hymns, and she was a poet and pedagogue. She lived in a cave near present-day Yerevan, and wrote ecclesiastical poems and liturgical chants. Only one survived, “Srbuhi Mariam” (St. Mary), a nine-stanza verse. Many of her works are Marian Hymns, and some may have helped to shape the genre. (In the Latin liturgy, the Marian hymns are my favorites. They’re often gentle and sweetly loving, and use metaphors that I find particularly pleasing.)

Sahakdukht is said to have taught lay musicians and clerical students who visited her cave. According to custom, she stayed seated behind a curtain during all interviews and visits. It must have been a very long and slow 20 years…

Recordings include:

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1995.

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.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography: Marcabru (c1099-1150)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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