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Posts Tagged ‘Music: Franco-Flemish

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.


“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.


Composer Biography Ludwig Senfl (c1486-c1543)

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Ludwig Senfl is one of those composers that you really should have in your playlist. He was a Swiss-German composer who spent most of his composing years in Germany, and was instrumental in bringing the Franco-Flemish sensibility to Germany that had already taken France and Italy by storm.

A collection published in 1544 by Georg Rhau (1488-1548) included 11 of Senfl’s pieces that reflect the transition to Protestant sacred music after the great debate between Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johann Maier von Eck (1486-1583, a German Catholic defender and philosopher) in 1519.

Although he was a Catholic all of his life, Senfl sympathized with the Protestant argument and borrowed from Protestant musical sensibilities. His works were representative of the Protestant Reform movement in music, even though most of his work was for fellow Catholics.

Senfl was born in Basel, Switzerland and moved to Zurich when he was barely a toddler. I didn’t find anything about his parents or siblings, or why they made the move. He lived in Zurich from 1488 until 1496, when he joined the Hofkapelle of Maximilian I in Augsburg, Germany. Except for a brief visit in 1504, he doesn’t seem to have gone back to Switzerland. If you’re doing the math, that’s a pretty young age to leave home forever. I also didn’t find out if he ever married, but he was a priest for a while, so perhaps he was disinclined to take a wife.

Little Ludwig left home to become a choirboy in Maximilian I’s (1459-1519) court. He was promoted to be a singer in the Imperial Chapel in 1507 and succeeded Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517) as imperial chamber composer ten years later. The chapel was dissolved when Maximilian died in 1519.

Senfl, by then a grown man of considerable accomplishment, found work temporarily in Passau (in southern Bavaria), and in 1523, became “first musician” of the Munich court. Although staunchly Catholic, he admired Martin Luther (1483-1546) and sympathized with the Reformation efforts. He maintained a lively correspondence with Protestant Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1490-1568) for many years, and it’s through these letters that we have most of the information about Senfl’s personal life.

Senfl traveled with Maximilian to Vienna in 1497, and again between 1500 and 1504, when he studied at a special school for boys whose voices had changed. This was also part of his training to be a priest.

While he was in Vienna on the second trip, he was lucky enough to study with Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), serving as Isaac’s copyist from 1509. He copied much of Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus (which is a collection of 375 Gregorian chant-based polyphonic motets) and completed it after Isaac’s death in 1513. That’s when Senfl became the official court composer.

In 1518, Senfl lost a toe in a hunting accident, which put him out of commission for nearly a year. When Maximilian died in 1519, Senfl (along with all the other court musicians) was unemployed. Maximilian’s successor, Charles V, refused to pay Senfl the stipend he was promised upon Maximilian’s death, and Senfl fell on hard times. He traveled extensively looking for work, continuing to write music in his spare time.

Although he never became a Protestant, Senfl attended the Diet of Worms (about the Protestant revolution) in 1521, and was sympathetic to Luther. His intelligent receptivity to new ideas got him examined by the Inquisition and as a result, he voluntarily gave up his priesthood. He maintained correspondence with both staunch Lutheran Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1490-1568) and with Martin Luther (1483-1546), starting in 1530. Luther, by the way, liked Senfl’s work. He also liked Josquin des Prez (c1440-1521), Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518) and Heinrich Finck (c1444-1527).

In 1523, he finally found regular work again at the Bavarian court chapel in Munich for Duke Wilhelm (1493-1550). This was a place with high musical standards, and a place that was tolerant of Protestants and their sympathizers. Senfl would stay there the rest of his life.

Within his lifetime, he won the praise of musicians throughout German-speaking Europe, and examples of his work appeared in numerous treatises. Those German-speaking areas that stayed Catholic produced few composers during the 16th century, and those few didn’t contribute new elements or innovations to the music of the Catholic Church.

Senfl is the most significant representative of the Netherlands/German style of motet and Lied composition in German-speaking regions during the Reformation. His work was eclectic in content and purpose, both in its secular and sacred forms. His melodies were enduring and maintained their popularity in Germany more than a century after his death.

He modeled much of his work on the Franco-Flemish composers of the previous generation, particularly Josquin. He used many already archaic features, such as cantus firmus (the practice of having the chant on which the polyphony is based sung slowly in one voice while the other voices wind around it) and isorhythms (repeating rhythmic patterns).

He wrote seven complete Masses, eight Magnificats, numerous Latin motets, German Lieder, four-voice Latin odes, and a few instrumental pieces. These form both the climax of the old German music and a highpoint of the new style at the beginning of the Reformation, which led to the virtuosity that would be Bach. Most of Senfl’s sacred texts were written for his Protestant patron and friend Duke Albrecht.

His German Lieder were secular songs, and he had a talent for writing highly singable melodic passages in parallel imperfect intervals (thirds and sixths), which was a kind of homage to the old-style of organum (these were usually parallel fourths, which is considered a “perfect” interval). The character of these songs varies widely, from simple settings of cantus firmus to contrapuntal powerhouses (where the voices move in opposite directions from each other—one up the scale and another down it, for instance), such as canons (like rounds) and quodlibets (cheerful popular tunes). His texts included courtly love songs, folksongs, comic ditties, and satire, and many of them became the basis for the Tenorlied (using a Lied melody as a sort of cantus firmus) that was popular in the early 16th century.

Senfl’s taste in technique and subject didn’t lead to a lot of innovation, but he did experiment. For instance, he wrote one piece where he disregarded polyphony and melody altogether and made the singers produce onomatopoeic bell sounds.

Senfl’s reputation stems mainly from the 250 German secular songs that he wrote. They illustrate every imaginable approach to the traditional German song melodies, from simple chordal harmonization to masterly canonic pieces with sharply contrasted counterpoint in the non-canonic parts. His Latin odes, with the tune in the descant (highest voice) set in a simple homophonic manner (like a chant), represent the style that later became common to German Protestant settings.

The quodlibet was Senfl’s specialty. In these, two or three different song tunes were combined in a dazzling contrapuntal display and despite the potential for chaos, remained distinct and recognizable.

Although his Lieder technique owes much to the German polyphonic tradition established by Finck and Isaac in the previous century, Senfl shows a greater range of emotions than his predecessors. Many of hos Lieder use a cantus firmus form of construction and close or free imitation in the other voices, meaning that the melody was repeated in an inexact but recognizable fashion.

Having studied with Isaac and the Spaniard Cristobal Morales (c1500-1553, biography to come), Senfl’s work reflected the “internationalization” of the Flemish style. His use of imitation is often freer than Jacob Clemens non Papa’s (c1510-1556)—as long as the general shape of the motif was perceptible, he allowed himself to vary the intervals considerably and to distort the rhythm.

Of particular note is Senfl’s Missa dominicalis super l’Homme arme, in which the chanson tune in one voice is combined with plainsong in another. This combination is even more remarkable because it appears throughout the Mass, not solely in one isolated movement. Composers such as Josquin, Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505), and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518), restricted the use of a double cantus firmus in a Mass like that to a single movement, most often the Credo.

In some passages to the L’Homme Mass, Senfl uses the borrowed melody freely, making interpolations and other digressions. The popular tune is in the tenor (except in the Benedictus, where it doesn’t appear at all), and the chant in the discantus (the high voice), except in the Agnus dei, where the two cantus forms exchange positions. The other two voices sometimes imitate phrases from one cantus or the other.

His motets show great skill with counterpoint and variation that’s supplemented by the warm lyricism of his own melodies. One particularly fine example is his Ave rosa sine spinis, which is based on the tenor of Comme femme, which is an interpretation of Josquin’s Stabat Mater.

Ludwig Senfl died in Munich after three years of illness, according to correspondence with Duke Albrecht. It isn’t known what he died of or the exact date, and no one knows where he was buried.


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

“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.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 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, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

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

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

Composer Biography: Oswald von Wolkenstein (c1377-1445)

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Oswald was one of the last south-German/Austrian poet-musicians, and was sometimes regarded as the last of the Minnesingers. (The Minnesingers were the German version of the Trouvères and Troubadours, a species of French itinerant poet-musicians in the 12th and 13th centuries. Their themes were mostly about courtly—or less proper—love.)

Wolkenstein is in Sachsen Germany, on the Zschopau River, southeast of Chemnitz in the Ore Mountains. If that’s too obscure for you, you can think of it as kind of near Dresden. I don’t know when he went there to have been named after the place, though—I couldn’t find anything on it. Although he did a lot of wandering around in his life, the place that gave him his name didn’t come up, so it was probably his father’s name.

German music from this period was isolated from that of other musical centers, like Ferrara and Paris, to some degree. European polyphony had developed almost exclusively in the hands of the French-speaking musicians or those in close and constant contact with the French, like the English. Even the temporarily individualistic music of the Italian trecento was gradually transformed by the French influence, especially once the Franco-Flemish invasion began. (See Composer Biography: Johannes Ciconia for more about that).

When Johannes Ciconia went to Padua in the 1390s, for instance, his presence and that of his compatriots at the Papal chapel marked a new development: the occupation of Italian musical posts by foreigners. This was particularly noticeable after the Papal Schism, which lasted from 1378-1418. The Council of Konstanz (more on this in a moment) brought musicians together from all over as part of the pomp and ceremony that went with resolving this great debate. The Hungarian Emperor Sigismund brought his best musician/politician, Oswald von Wolkenstein, with him; likewise the singers who accompanied the English delegation were particularly admired in Köln on the way, as well as at Konstanz.

Oswald, who is, after all, the subject here, was born in the Schloss (castle) Schöneck in Pustertal, Tyrol. This is south of Munich, in what is present-day Italy, but has been both Austrian and German in the centuries between Oswald’s lifetime and now.

Oswald’s father was Friedrich von Wolkenstein and his mother was Katharina von Villanders. Oswald was the second of (at least) three sons.

When he was 10 years old (c1387), Oswald left his family and became the squire of a knight errant (which means a roving knight, one without a specific patron). He traveled for the next 14 years, writing an autobiographical song about it, called “Es fügt sich…” (“it fits,” or “it is fitting”). His journey took him far and wide, and he was even shipwrecked in the Black Sea. He was said to be fluent in ten languages.

When his father died in 1399, Oswald, now a grown man, returned to Tyrol and began a long feud with his older brother Michael about inheritance. Always tempted by travel, in 1401 or 1402, Oswald participated in a failed expedition to Milan with King Rupert of Germany (1352-1410). In 1407, he and his brother finally settled their argument, and Oswald received a third of Schloss Hauenstein and the accompanying estates in Seis am Schiern (an alpine village in southern Tyrol, now part of northern Italy). The other two-thirds of the castle belonged to a knight named Martin Jāger, who would become Oswald’s lifelong nemesis. Oswald didn’t like the property division once he got there, and he occupied the entire castle, appropriating Jāger’s share. You can imagine how popular that was with Herr Jāger.

In 1408, preparing for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Oswald paid for a memorial stone to be made and installed on the wall of the cathedral in Brixen (another southern Tyrolean town, now part of Italy). The stone still stands there, showing Oswald in Crusader gear, with the long beard of a pilgrim. But before going on the crusade, he wrote several songs for his beloved, Anna Hausmann, the wife of Brixen citizen Hans Hausmann. (It isn’t clear whether the love he felt was requited or not.) When he came back from this pilgrimage in 1410, he acquired the right to take up residence in the Augustinian abbey called Neustift, which was near Brixen. This abbey would later produce collections of Oswald’s music.

In 1414, Oswald became a member of the entourage of Friedrich IV, Duke of Austria and Count of Tyrol at the Council of Konstanz (1414-1418). There’s a nice portrait of Oswald in the council’s chronicle. While he was there, he met other notable dignitaries, emissaries, musicians, and nobles who would affect how he lived the rest of his life.

Oswald soon entered into the service of Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, as a diplomat. This service got him traveling again, including to England, Scotland, and Portugal, where he participated in the conquest of the Moorish city of Ceuta. In 1416, he joined King Sigismund in France, and they went together back to Konstanz, where the Council still convened.

The Council of Konstanz took so long because it ended the great Papal Schism, also known as the Three-Popes Controversy. The deposed or accepted the resignation of two of the papal claimants, and elected Pope Martin V (1369-1431) in 1417. The council also condemned and executed Czech philosopher Jan Hus and ruled on issues of national sovereignty, the rights of pagans, and whether the conflict between Poland and the Order of the Teutonic Knights was a just war.

In 1417, Oswald married Margarete von Schwangau (her hometown is right near Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle on which the Disneyland Castle is based). They had seven children. None of this stopped him from pining after Ann Hausmann, and you’ll hear more about that in a minute.

Oswald joined the Elefantenbund in 1418, an alliance of noblemen against Friedrich IV, who had been banned by King Sigismund for aiding the flight of the antipope John XXIII from the Council of Konstanz (euphemistically called a “resignation” earlier). Friedrich, with the help of the local peasants, resisted Sigismund, Oswald, and the Elefantenbund, and Friedrich vigorously pursued his enemies all over the area.

On the home front, between 1421 and 1427, Oswald was involved in a series of bitter quarrels with other landowners, and his own wild and lawless behavior led to his arrest and imprisonment twice.

In 1421, Anna Hausmann lured Oswald into a trap set by Martin Jäger, and he was brought to Innsbruck, handed over to Friedrich, and imprisoned. In 1422, Friedrich ransomed Oswald off in exchange for 6,000 ducats (about $4.8 million US in today’s money) and an oath to be non-violent evermore. This agreement allowed Oswald five months to settle his debts with Marin Jäger and other nobles. But Oswald didn’t meet his obligations and also didn’t show up in Tyrol Castle when he was supposed to. Instead, he slipped away to Hungary, where he met up with his old friend King Sigismund. Together, they plotted a war against Friedrich. This war was eventually started by Oswald’s older brother Michael, who also allied with Sigismund.

In 1422, the castle where Sigismund and Oswald were hiding, Schloss Greifenstein, was under siege by Friedrich’s troops, and it took most of the year to get out of there. The citizens and peasants of Tyrol and Brixen supported Friedrich, so soon, most of the nobles, including Oswald’s two brothers, surrendered. Oswald fought on with a few other nobles, and Oswald was the last to surrender.

Sigismund couldn’t afford three wars all at once, and by the end of 1424, Sigismund and Friedrich had made peace. Oswald was witness to it. That same year, Oswald commissioned the Neustift monastery to create a manuscript of his collected songs.

Oswald returned home penniless, and when Friedrich insisted on the 6000 ducat ransom that was three years overdue, Oswald fled. In 1425, he lived in Schloss Neuhaus, near Gais (another southern Tyrolean town that’s now part of Italy). Meanwhile, Friedrich renewed his siege of Schloss Greifenstein.

Oswald continued his feud with Friedrich long after all the others had given it up, and was forced to flee to Lake Konstanz in 1426. But Friedrich’s people found him and he was imprisoned in Innsbruck. He soon realized that he had no choice but to make peace with Friedrich, who finally forced him to pay Martin Jäger for the stolen and occupied properties, which allowed Oswald to have uncontested full ownership of Schloss Hauenstein and its estates at last. But Friedrich had learned that Oswald wasn’t to be trusted, and Oswald had to swear not to contact any nobles outside Tyrol unless Friedrich specifically approved it in advance.

Not one to sit tight or to mean an oath after he’d sworn it, Oswald broke his vow in 1428 and went to Heidelberg to meet the Archbishop of Köln. He met with other nobles there and tried to convince them to support him in his dispute with his cousin, Hans von Villanders (dates unavailable), who owed Oswald 2200 ducats ($1.8 million in today’s money). He soon became embroiled in local squabbles because the archbishop was friends with both Martin Jäger and dear old Friedrich. The controversy turned into a fracas and Oswald publically beat the archbishop. Yikes! I’m pretty sure that archbishops are on the list of people you should never beat up, publically or privately. At any rate, initially Sigismund backed Oswald in that argument, but soon, he switched sides and freed the archbishop from Oswald’s henchmen.

In 1430, Sigismund summoned the nobles who supported him to Nuremberg, and Oswald and his brother went off to join them, pausing for two months to celebrate Christmas in Konstanz. During this hiatus, Oswald wrote many love songs of a rather erotic nature, the most famous of which is “Ain Graserin,” about a bathing woman. The “frizzy hair” between her legs, according to the song, creates an overwhelming and irresistible desire in the singer.

Once he finally joined Sigismund in Nuremberg, Oswald became a member of the first rank of the Order of the Dragon (Sigismund’s own noble militia against the Ottoman Turks—on a side note, Vlad the Impaler was a member of this group), a very select position that only two dozen nobles held. This lofty position obligated Oswald to participate in Sigismund’s campaign in Bohemia in 1431, which didn’t go at all well. Apparently 50,000 Bohemian soldiers were scary to Sigismund’s entire Imperial army, and the skirmish was over before it began.

In 1432, Sigismund sent Oswald back to Tyrol to prepare the county for an invasion by the Bohemians (Hussites), and to negotiate with them. While Oswald was busy doing his bidding, slippery Sigismund fled to Milan and then to Piacenza (just 45 miles south east of Milan) under the pretext that he needed to go to Rome in order to be crowned emperor. Meanwhile, Oswald commissioned the Neustift abbey to create a second collection of his songs.

When Sigismund called Oswald to join him in Piacenza, Oswald toddled off, but the visit didn’t go well, leading Oswald to write a song of complaint, “Wer die ougen vil vershüren” (“who will disturb the eyes”), set to a French melody. Tired of Oswald too, Sigismund sent Oswald off to Basel. After a year of negotiations, Sigismund was finally crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1433 by Pope Eugenius IV (1383-1447), with Oswald dancing attendance.

After all that, Oswald settled down a bit, and when Friedrich died with only an underage heir in 1439, Oswald was put in charge of the contracts for the young man’s guardianship. He used the opportunity to seek the assistance of one of the guardians in resolving his 18-year-long argument with his cousin Hans von Villanders over bonds that Oswald had given Hans to hold.

When Friedrich’s heir’s guardianship ended in 1443, one of the guardians decided to extend it for six more years because he was enjoying the benefits of being King of the Holy Roman Empire. This caused a new revolt in Tyrol, and Oswald became one of the five commanders of the uprising. His job was to run the fortress at Mühlbach, which blocked the most likely invasion route from Styria, where the new king had taken up residence. Oswald ended up, as a result of skirmishes and maneuvering, as one of the electors to an opponent to the usurping king.

Oswald died that same year, succumbing to an intense heat wave in Merano, Italy. His body was brought to Neustift Abbey and buried near the front in the monastery’s church, where his grave was rediscovered in 1973.


Sometimes Oswald is classified as a Meistersinger (this was a 14th through 16th century German guild for craftsmen who produced lyric poetry, regional music, and unaccompanied art song). He took a highly individual approach to composition, especially regarding text-setting, and he had a fondness for through-composed songs (no repeated section like a chorus, and no obvious divisions into sections—Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I heard for the first time recently, is a through-composed song, for instance and is readily available on, which matched his text style nicely. His often innovative approach to composition (notably his use of large melodic steps and instrumental interludes) sets him apart from other Meistersingers.

His poetry covers a variety of themes from a battle cry and animal sounds, to satire and para-liturgical texts, as well as lots of love poetry inspired by his wife and other ladies. Events from his rather active life are recorded in his songs, and much of his biography can be extrapolated from his music.

Oswald was the ultimate Renaissance jet-setter. Three polyphonic pieces (multiple lines of parallel melodies) attributed to Oswald are French songs to which he set his own German texts. His various visits to Italy also had an effect and his works are the first examples of the influence of Italian music on that of Germany. He was particularly fond of introducing instrumental ritornelli (pieces that circle back in their melodies), especially in his polyphonic works. These range from simple songs with instrumental accompaniment to fairly developed three-part vocal compositions, which, because of technical shortcomings, are usually less successful than his works in two parts.

He also gets classified as a Minnesinger (12th -14th century lyrical songwriters, parallel but different from the Troubadours and Trouvères). His music was representative of 15th century love songs and German polyphony, and he was thought to be the very last of the Minnesingers. (There will be posts on Minnesingers and on Troubadours and Trouvères sometime soon.)

Oswald was skilled in the music notation of his time, but his creative work is that of a gifted dilettante. His works often contain elements borrowed from contemporary French and Italian song as well as from folksong. His monadic pieces (chant), from the standpoint of text, belong to the usual types—there are love songs, religious songs, and bitter political Scheltgedicte (“scolding poems”).

His style puts depth of expression before conventional rules, and his works are marked by unshackling from the weighty traditions governing German courtly song that had bound his predecessors. Most of his songs are monophonic (chant), but some are in two or three parts, and a few of these are contrafacta (replacing the words without changing the melody) based on works by Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377), Francesco Landini (c1325-1397), and others.

He drew on a wide range of compositional techniques, including canon (like a round), organum (two parallel lines of chant), hocket (rhythmic alternation of notes, like hiccups), and conductus (chant in one or two voices that is meant to be used for processions). His texting of the tenor line anticipates the Tenorlied in the next century, where the melody of a lied (romantic solo song with accompaniment) was used as a cantus firmus, running slowly throughout the piece while the other voices dance around it, using elements from it, or repeating it at a faster pace.

Toward the end of his life, he seems to have rejected these more complex compositional devices and concentrated on setting songs with a greater emphasis on the need to instruct others to “do right” (rechttun) in this world.

Despite the wide variety of his work, he was a poor contrapuntist and often fell back on contrafacta (text substitution). His two-part “”Der may mit lieber zal”(“he with loving zeal”) is based on a three-part virelai by Jean Vaillant (fl.1360-1390), and uses a charming imitation of bird-song. His two-part “Mein herz das ist versert” (“my heart is thus destroyed”) borrows almost unaltered the cantus firmus and tenor of Francesco Landini’s popular ballata “Questa fanciulla” (“this girl”). Others borrowed from Oswald, too, such as Konrad Pauman (1410-1473), who used Oswald’s “Wach auf” (“wake up”) on a sixth tone (a hypophrygian mode—for more about modes, see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes) in his own Magnificat.

Some 120 of his songs survive, marking a new departure in the development of German song. They’re not courtly and stylized as had been the fashion, but are the expression of genuine personal feeling. Many are love songs, inspired by his various love affairs and also his marriage to Magarete von Schwangau in 1417, and these are particularly heartfelt. Some are topical, containing references to current political events, others were inspired by his visit to Jerusalem (1409-1411), and there are also a number of sacred texts.

The first collection has 42 complete songs was produced in 1425, with another 66 poems added to it between 1427 and 1436. The second collection was produced in 1432. The third collection is from 1450, and is a copy of the second collection. There are pictures of Oswald in both the first and second collections that were done under the supervision of Oswald himself. This is thought to be the earliest authentic depiction of a German author.


“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.

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

“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 and David Fallows. University of Berkeley Press, Berkeley, 1997.

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

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

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


Instrument Biography: The Virginal

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If you’re interested in the Tudors, you’re already familiar with the sweet little instrument known as the virginal (or the virginals—the S doesn’t make it plural, it’s just that some people pronounce it that way). The virginal looked like an itty bitty upright piano and sounded like a harpsichord. It only had a couple of centuries of popularity, but some of the biggest names in music wrote songs for it.

The virginal is a chordophone, which means that the sound is made by the vibration of strings. It sounds funny to say it because of the keyboard, but the virginal is a member of the zither family. The family of chordophones includes bows (like jaw harps), lyres, harps, and lutes (which includes guitars and violins) on one side, and zithers on the other. The zither side of the family includes simple instruments, like an array of strings across a board like a psaltery, more complex struck-string instruments like hammered dulcimers or pianos, or the strings can be plucked like a harpsichord or virginal.

The virginal was a popular domestic instrument in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in England, and major composers like William Byrd (1543-1623) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) wrote a lot for it. The spinet version (more on that in a minute) was first popular in Italy in the 16th century and, by the 18th century, was a favorite all over Europe. One of my favorite painters, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), painted several portraits with virginals in them, including Young Lady Seated at a Virginal (c1670).

Where the idea for the virginal came from and who built the first virginal isn’t known. Musical inventors of the time were fooling around with keyboards and organs, plucked psalteries, and bowed stringed instruments, all of which were being expanded by families (for more on that, read my blog post Instrument Biography: The Vielle or Instrument Biography: The Recorder or even Instrument Biography: The Pipe Organ). The virginal probably existed by the end of the 14th century.

Germany and England were both influential in the development of the instrument, along with Italy to a lesser degree. Virginals weren’t really musically significant until the 16th century when, due to developments in music notation (for more on this, see the History of Music Notation) and chords (for more on this, see Chords versus Polyphony), their harmonic opportunities could be properly exploited.

The oldest dated spinet version of the virginal that has survived was built in 1493 by Alessandro Pasi (dates unavailable) in Modena. The oldest dated harpsichord is also Italian, completed in Rome in 1521 by Geronini di Bologna (dates unavailable), and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The same collection also has the most valuable spinet in existence, which is encrusted with nearly 2000 gems, built in 1577 by Annibale Rosso of Milan (dates unavailable). In 1867, that instrument was bought for $2000, which was a pretty hefty sum, roughly $33,000 in today’s money.

Posh versions aside, by the 16th century, everyone who was anyone had a virginal. Henry VIII had 32 virginals in his collection when inventory was taken in 1547. He also had three hybrid instruments that were part organ and part virginal. (For more about Henry VIII’s musical affinities, see my post On Their MP3 Player: Henry VIII.)

Henry’s very musical daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, played the virginal, and many people think that it got its name because she was “The Virgin Queen.” But the truth is that the virginal was already the most popular household instrument by Elizabethan England., and had its name long before Elizabeth was conceived, let alone crowned queen.

To show how ubiquitous it was, let me cite some examples. The virginal was mentioned in a proverb inscribed on the walls of Manor House, Leckingfield, Yorkshire, England in about 1500. The court organist at Budapest played the virginal to entertain the prince at mealtimes in 1501. Henry VIII bought five of them in 1530, and in 1549, the Innsbruck court bought one from an organ builder in Königsburg. By 1582, the orchestra of the Berlin court possessed four of them. In fact, by 1600, virginals were played throughout all of Europe.

Virginals were very popular domestic instruments in the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Flanders), England, Austria, and Germany. In England, they eventually gave way to the spinet and in Germany to the clavichord.

Virginal Structure

A virginal looks like a flat rectangular box with a keyboard cut out near the end of one long side. By definition, it has strings that run nearly parallel to the length of the keyboard. The virginal’s relative, the spinet, has strings that run diagonally away from the keyboard, and the harpsichord, another near relative, has strings that run perpendicular to the keyboard, directly away from the player.

The rectangular shape was the earliest and the longest-lived shape. Italian virginals included a wide variety of harp-shaped or polygonal designs with the keyboard protruding from the main body. Flemish models had a keyboard recessed into the box, which was either centered in one of the long sides or off to the left. The ones that had the keyboard off to the left were called spinetts (notice the double-T) and the ones that had the keyboard off to the right were called muselars. English virginals followed the Flemish design, with the keyboard off to the left.

There was also a double virginal that had two keyboards superimposed and played separately or coupled and played together. This was a Flemish development. The smaller of the two keyboards was called an ottavino, and it fitted like a drawer under the soundboard of the larger keyboard.

In the early models, the player placed the box on a table, or, more rarely, on their own lap. Later versions had their own stands. The boxes were small, perhaps five feet long, a foot and a half wide, and eight inches deep, and light enough that a musician could place it on the table without help.

Until late in the 17th century, the terms virginal and spinet (one T) were used interchangeably in the various countries of Europe. Both terms were used in England, but there, they described different instruments: the virginal had an oblong rectangular case and the spinet was approximately triangular or wing-shaped, with the keyboard at the the left of the strings, accommodating the long bass strings.

The 32 steel strings are plucked by plectra or quills rather than struck with a hammer like a piano. The strings are attached by a mechanical device to the keyboard.

Each key on the keyboard was attached at the far end to a small wooden rod or jack. The upper end of the jack had a hinged and movable wooden tongue that held the plectrum or quill. The plectrum projected horizontally with a hog’s bristle that served as a spring. The hog’s bristle held the wooden tongue in an upright position.

When the key was depressed, the jack rose and the plectrum plucked at the string above it. After the key was released, a lead weight in the bottom of the jack caused the key to fall back to its original position. The wooden tongue turned aside and the plectrum slid past the string so that the string wasn’t plucked a second time on the way down. A small patch of cloth was fixed to the upper end of the jack to dampen the sound.

The plectrum vibrated the string at the point of impact. In a plucked instrument, the whole string vibrates, which is the major difference between a virginal and a clavichord. In a clavichord, the string is divided so that two notes can be plucked on the same string on either side of a dividing node. That means that a clavichord can have twice as many notes with the same number of strings; a virginal has a single string for each note.

The keyboard could be off to either end of the rectangular box, in the middle, or two separate keyboards could be offset from one another. A spinet keyboard with a harp or pentagonal shape had the keyboard occupying most of the length of the rectangle because it housed more strings.

Remember back when I first started talking about the strings? I said that they ran NEARLY parallel to the keyboard. In truth, they’re at a slight angle, which means that the strings ended up being different lengths when strung from one short end of the box to the other. Lower notes, with longer strings, were harder to play than higher notes because the length of the string meant that the jack and wooden tongue mechanism had to move more weight.

The range of the instrument was limited to the number of strings the case could hold. To extend the range, the keyboard was moved to the narrow end of the soundboard. When they put the keyboard down at the narrow end like that, they had invented the harpsichord. Over time, the length of the keyboard and the number of strings increased until they’d invented the harpsichord you’d recognize today.

Virginals usually had only one register (only one type of sound, compared to organs, which could have many different sounds) and one keyboard (except for the aforementioned ottavinos). It was cheaper to make a virginal than a harpsichord and they were much easier to move. A virginal was louder than the clavichord so it could be used both as a solo instrument and in chamber music with other instruments. This made it as popular as both the harpsichord and the clavichord—it was like a combination of the two.

The tone was full and loud, and couldn’t be altered by varying the pressure on the keyboard. That’s what made the later invention of the piano so exciting—the piano could be played both loudly and softly—its full name is piano-forte, which means “soft-loud” in Italian.

The virginal had 32 metal strings (four octaves) that lay nearly parallel to the keyboard. Each string was longer than its neighbor, forming a triangle inside the case, with the long bass strings at the front. In Flemish virginals, the keyboard was placed either to the right or to the left of center of a long side, a feature that determined the timbre of the instrument. When placed to the right, the strings were plucked nearer their centers, producing a nasal tone that was described in 1730 as “grunting like pigs” by one critic. This form was called a muselar.

With the keyboard to the left, in the form called a spinett (with two Ts), the sound was brighter because the strings were plucked near one end, providing more resonance. It had a more flute-like sound than the muselar or the harpsichord, both of which are plucked near the end of the strings.

The double virginal (ottovino) was nicknamed “mother and child” and combined a large keyboard with a smaller one half the size. The smaller one was set in a recess between the soundboard and the bottom of the case, usually to the left of the larger keyboard. It could also be played on its own, but during performance, the child could be withdrawn and placed on top of the mother so that the mother keyboard played both instruments. The child sounded an octave higher than the mother. These instruments were built in the late 16th century.

The Flemish Ruckers family was famous for producing the mother and child version. The child, or ottavino, was placed over the strings of the larger instrument with the jack rail removed, so the jacks of the child instrument, which passed through a slot in the bottom of the ottavino, could activate the strings of the larger mother instrument. The jacks of the larger instrument activated the keys of the ottavino, so both instruments sounded together, giving a brighter sound.

Italian keyboards projected from the case, and the cases were often cypress wood, and quite delicate. Flemish keyboards had the keyboard recessed within a keywell, were often made of poplar, and were sturdier than the Italian instruments.

The earliest Italian virginals were hexagonal in shape, with the case following the lines of the strings and bridges. A few early Flemish examples were also hexagonal. After 1580, nearly all virginals were rectangular, although the Italian models often had an outer case like harpsichords. There are few surviving English virginals, and they look like Flemish instruments, with vaulted lids.

In the muselar version, plucking the string near the middle makes repeating a note difficult because the vibrating string prevents the plectrum from connecting again. Because of this, the muselar was better suited to chord-and-melody music, without complex left-hand parts. It could be provided with a stop called the harpsichordium, which consisted of lead hooks that were lightly applied against the ends of the bass strings so that the vibrating string produced a buzzing sound. Muselars were popular in the 16 and 17th centuries and their ubiquity has been compared to that of the upright piano in the early 20th century. But, like other forms of virginals, it fell into disuse in the 18th century.

Most virginals have between 32 and 45 notes, or four octaves. There were some Italian models with 54 notes, or five octaves.

They came in several sizes. The Dutch organist and harpsichordist Class Douwes (c1650-c1725) mentions instruments with strings from two and a half feet long to six feet long. The pitch difference between models offered by the Ruckers family corresponded to the musical intervals of a tone: a fourth, a fifth, an octave, and a ninth. Pitch assignments have been suggested based on scaling provided by Douwes.

Many virginals throughout Europe were plain wood, but many others were richly decorated. From the moldings on the case edges, through the jack rails, and name battens, they could be adorned with ivory, mother-of-pearl, marble, agate, tortoiseshell, semi-precious stones, and intricate painting.

Flemish virginals often had their soundboards painted with flowers, fruit, birds, caterpillars, moths, and even images of food, within blue scalloped borders and intricate blue arabesques. Many symbols are meant to suggest the Christian resurrection story.

The keys were in two tones, just like today’s keyboards. The natural keys (white keys on a piano) were covered in bone and the sharp keys (black keys on a piano) were of oak or chestnut. They might be left plain, or keys might be lavishly decorated with ivory, ebony, mother of pearl, or tortoiseshell.

Case exteriors were usually marbled, sometimes painted that way, and sometimes covered with marbleized paper. The inside was covered with elaborately block-printed papers. Sometimes the inside of the lid was painted with a scene, but more often, it was covered with papers printed with a Latin motto having to do with morality or music. Mottos were so often applied to the keywell batten that it’s often called the name batten.

Italian virginals didn’t have a standard form of decoration. The outer case was usually decorated in some way, but the actual instrument was often left plain. Cases might be decorated with grotesques (fantastic curly-cues and human forms), intricately painted classical scenes, or marquetry.

Soundboards were rarely painted. Soundboards of both Flemish and Italian virginals were pierced with a rose, sometimes two or three roses in the earlier models. The piercing served no acoustic function but was purely decorative. These decorations were a throwback to the rose in the medieval lute and were never carved integrally as part of the soundboard.

Italian soundboards were constructed by layering pierced parchment, so the final result looked like a gothic rose window or an inverted wedding cake. In Flemish instruments, the rose was usually cast lead that was gilded and often incorporated with the maker’s initials.

The Name

The name virginal has been erroneously connected with virginity and with the maiden queen Elizabeth. But Elizabeth was born in 1533, quite a few years after the first mention of a virginal. The term goes back to the 15th century, seen first in a poem during Henry VII’s reign (1485-1509, and Elizabeth’s grandfather) and nearly at the same time, in a manuscript in Cracow, written between 1459 and 1463, called the Liber virginti atrium by the Bohemian instrument maker Paulus Paulirinus (c1413-1471).

The word virginal is probably related to the Medieval Latin word virgo, meaning rod or branch. Virginals (with an S) is one variation, and like scissors or pants, is often used in the plural.

In Italian, the word is spinetto, from the Latin spina, meaning thorn. In Middle High German, they’re called Schachtbrett from Schacht or New High German Schaft, or rod, both meaning rod.

In French, the word is echiquier from a mistaken translation of the German word Schachtbrett. Echiquier may be where the term “jack” comes from, that describes part of the plucking mechanism lined up in little rows, like chessmen, which is at the root of the word “check” in echiquier.

A harpsichord could be called a virginal in England, a clavecin in France, and a clavicembalo in Italy. But remember, these are relatives of the virginal, not different forms.

Virginal Composers

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is probably the most famous collection of keyboard compositions, and contains nearly 300 pieces from English composers. It was compiled by a Catholic recusant (for more on recusants, see Composer Biography: William Byrd) called Francis Tregian (1574-1618), between 1609 and 1618. The most frequently represented composers are Byrd, John Bull (c1563-1628) and Giles Farnaby (c1566-1640). No one seems to know why it’s called the Fitzwilliam book, though. Perhaps it was a patron.

The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” is not necessarily meant only for the square form of harpsichord, and even within the square type, the term “virginal” was not limited to a single form. The use of the words spinet and virginal at the time were both vague and somewhat contradictory. The word harpsichord is commonly used for the grand piano-shaped elongated form, and virginal or spinet for the upright and square form. But the book was intended for all keyboard instruments, even organs.

The “Parthenia” was the first music ever printed for virginals. It contained 21 short pieces, including preludes and dances by William Byrd, John Bull (c1562-1628), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), appeared in late 1612 or early 1613.

Although he didn’t write much for the virginal, English madrigalist Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) wrote variations of “Go from My Window” in his Consort Lessons.

Italian Andrea Gabrieli (c1532-1585) wrote Capriccio sopra Il Pass’ e mezzo Antico for the virginal. It was markedly unlike his usual work.

Both William Byrd and Giles Farnaby (c1563-1640) composed their virginal pieces on “grounds” (a phrase that repeats throughout the song in the same voice—in the left hand on the virginal) and extended sets of variations, usually on popular songs, but sometimes on dance tunes or the notes of the hexachord (a six-tone scale, like a mode).

Virginal works grew increasingly complex, culminating with Spaniard Antonio de Cabezon (1510-1566). Cabezon was certainly in England with his master, Philip of Spain (1527-1598), for more than a year, during 1554-1555, when it is likely that he was known to composer John Blitheman (c1525-1591), who was organist at the court of Queen Mary.

The most important English virginal composers were William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Morley (1557-1602), Peter Philips (1561-1628), Giles Farnaby (c1565-1640), John Bull (c1562-1628), Thomas Weelkes (c1575-1623), Thomas Tomkins, (1572-1656), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). The repertory consists of dances (mostly pavanes and galliards), variations on popular tunes, preludes, fantasias, liturgical pieces (organ hymns and In nomine), and transcriptions of madrigals.

Other big names in virginal composition include:

  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), Italian
  • Giovanni Picchi (c1571-1643), Italian
  • Samuel Scheidt (c1587-1654), German
  • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), Dutch

Famous Makers

There were quite a few virginal makers, some of whom were also harpsichord or organ makers. There were three major centers of virginal making: Italy, Belgium, and England.

Andreas Ruckers (1579-c1640), for instance, was a member of a famous Flemish family of plucked string instrument makers that flourished in Antwerp from 1580-1670. They’re thought to have made the earliest harpsichords with two manuals (keyboards) and a single register (like an organ stop, that controls what kind of sound the instrument makes). The first of the outstanding Ruckers was Hans Ruckers (c1550-c1625), whose instruments had a beauty of tone that won them—and him—a lasting reputation throughout Europe. Some of Hans’ innovations sprang from his expertise as an organ tuner.

Lodewejck Grauwels (dates unavailable), was Flemish and from the late 17th century. I found no other details about him or his instruments.


“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Mineola, 2006.

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

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.

“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. Lorenz Books, Wigston, 2012.

“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, Oxford, 1981.

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

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

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


Composer Biography: Johannes Martini (c1440-c1498)

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Also called Giovanni or Zohanne Martini. Martini isn’t an Italianate version of his name—there are Flemish Martinis and variants.

Johannes Martini is not only a Franco-Flemish composer who spent most of his career in Italy. He was such a big deal that the Power Families of the time, the Sforzas and the d’Estes, sought his expertise, and he was well respected by other top-flight composers of his day, such as Josquin des Prez and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come).

Ten of Martini’s Masses survive complete—an enormous number, considering how poor copying and dissemination were, and how few people had access to a printing press (invented in 1440)—as well as motets and many other sacred works, including a large number of homophonic (unison chant) psalm settings. His secular pieces had French and Italian texts, and there are others that were probably intended as instrumental ensemble music.

Martini was probably born in Armentieres, although some sources say he was born in Brabant. Both towns are still quite small and are about 150 miles apart in what is now France.

He received his early musical training in Flanders, like most of his generation of musicians, and he left for Italy when it was time to seek his fortune. He died in Ferrara in 1498 or thereabout.

Not much is known about his youth, but sometime before 1473, he became associated with the Duke of Ferrara, Italy. Duke Ercole I d’Este was building a musical academy that was meant to compete with other musical centers in Italy, and with Flanders and France as well.

In 1474, Martini turned up at the Sforza court chapel in Milan, engaged by Gaspar van Weebecke (c1445-1516) along with Josquin des Prez and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come), probably the other two biggest names of the time. Other Franco-Flemish composers were also at the Milan chapel, including Alexander Agricola (c1445-1506, blog post to come), as part of the movement from Flanders toward Italy as a musical center. The Sforza’s Milan chapel was the most renowned collection of musicians anywhere in Europe at the time.

But Martini didn’t stay long, returning to Ferrara later in 1474. It isn’t known why he didn’t stay, although with so many big names hanging out in Milan, it’s possible that he left to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. He maintained happy relationships with the other composers that he met there, though, so he didn’t go off in a huff.

Records show that in 1475, already in the service of Ercole I in Ferrara, Martini received a monthly wage increase. There’s no record of what his wages were, but the increase was a ducat over whatever he had previously been getting there. Martini was well-paid, receiving a house and a larger salary than other musicians in Ferrara.

He returned to Milan a few years later, as he’s listed in a pass for safe travel to leave Milan, along with other musicians after the assassination of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476) in 1476. Despite his excellent taste in music, Duke Sforza was a sadistic and malicious person, and was conspired against by three of his peers who’d been wronged in one way or another (land grabs, public whipping, and the deflowering of a sister). The public torture and executions of these noblemen and their servants left Milan in a rather unsavory state, and the Duke’s assembly of musicians headed out to less tumultuous cities.

Eventually it all calmed down, and Milan—and the Sforzas—rose again in musical industry. Sforza head musician Gaspar van Weerbecke (c1445-1516) was sent on a composer-recruiting trip to France and Flanders, and in 1489, Martini returned to Milan with Josquin des Prez and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come). These three were each paid 5 ducats a month, which was near the lowest rate of all the singers listed in the register. After 1492, the records stop mentioning Martini, which leads experts to assume that he was probably the first of the three to die.

Most of his time was spent in Ferrara, but he did travel a little, even beyond Milan. In 1486, Martini traveled to Hungary as part of a group installing Ercole I’s nephew as Archbishop of Esztergom. In 1487 and 1488, he made trips to Rome to negotiate benefices given to him by Ercole I.

He was a friend of a court organist in Innsbruck, Austria, one Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537). They probably knew each other through mutual friends from Milan in the 1470s and 1480s. Queen Consort Beatrice of Hungary (1457-1508) asked Martini to intercede on her behalf and convince Hofhaimer to leave the Innsbruck court and come to Hungary. By 1489, she became really insistent, because her own court organist died. Letters show that Ercole I promised Beatrice that he’d send Martini to Innsbruck when they got home to Ferrara. It’s not clear whether or not Martini went, but there are some Martini manuscripts in Munich that originated in Innsbruck. At any rate, Hofhaimer never left Innsbruck for Hungary. Beatrice gave up on getting him to come upon her husband’s death in 1490, when her political life overwhelmed such efforts.

But that wasn’t the last of Martini’s communication with the high and mighty. He was friend and mentor to Ercole I’s daughter, young Isabelle d’Este (1474-1539), and their letters from her first three years (1490-1493) in Mantua survive.

Isabella married Francesco Gonzaga (1466-1519) in 1490 at age 16, and her first letter from Martini arrived six months later. The letter says that her father wanted him to go to Mantua and instruct her in singing. Martini seems eager for the post, but begs for a couple of weeks’ delay so he can gather the necessary supplies. In a later letter, he sends a secular composition for her to practice. Isabella also received dance lessons, and, unlike most women in her circle, made the arts an essential part of her life rather than just superficial knowledge meant to impress suitors. In her study at the ducal palace, she had the song Prennez sur moi by Johannes Ockeghem (c1420-1497) worked out in marquetry, and many of the great artists of Italy were on terms of mutual respect with her, including Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Titian (c1499-1576), and writer Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529).

But I digress. Martini’s secular music was partialy published by Ottaviano Petricci (1466-1539), and other works, both sacred and secular survive. His surviving output includes 10 Masses and quite a few motets, psalms, hymns, and secular songs, including chansons.

He wrote more Masses than motets (the sacred version of a madrigal), which was more typical of Ockeghem’s generation than of Josquin’s. His musical style was also more conservative than Josquin’s.

In fact, Martini’s style refers back to the Burgundian School, especially in his Masses. There’s some stylistic similarity to Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), harkening to the Dutch school. It’s thought that Martini and Obrecht knew each other, or at least each others’ works. Obrecht was a guest in Ferrara in 1487 (Martini was in Rome for part of that year, so they might have missed each other), and his music is known to have circulated in Italy in the early 1480s.

Martini wrote some of the earliest examples of paraphrase Masses. Paraphrase is when the chant melody is in the highest voice, rather than as cantus firmus in the tenor. Martini’s Missa domenicalis and Missa ferialis, both tentatively dated to the 1470s, use paraphrase in the tenor voice, where cantus firmus usually is, but also use the same melodic material in other voices. The paraphrase technique was to become one of the predominant methods of Mass composition in the early 16th century.

Martini is the first composer known to have set psalms for double choir singing antiphonally, a style that would become famous under the direction of Adrian Willaert (c1490-1562) seventy years later, and is probably most profoundly famous as a key element in works of the Baroque, especially those of J.S. Bach (1685-1750). Nevertheless, the style of antiphonal double-choir psalms was strikingly innovative, but didn’t catch on in his own lifetime or even shortly afterward.

In addition to his contrapuntal Masses, Martini also wrote motets with skillful imitative devices. His Vesper psalms, written in collaboration with Johannes Brebis (late 15th century) for Ercole I, are all simple chants.

His Missa Cucu has a cantus firmus melody in the tenor, like so many other pieces, but other voices display a well-developed imitative style, including the descending minor-third song of the cuckoo bird.

Martini wrote a Salve Regina, a Magnificat Secudi Toni (in the second mode, hypo-Dorian), and an Ave Maris Stella, all in four voices. But he wasn’t just doing variations on themes. The Salve Regina uses the double cantus firmus technique, where the cantus firmus is repeated in canon by another voice, only transposed by a fourth or fifth. His Magnificat set the odd-numbered verses in polyphony, except for the opening word, which, like the even-numbered verses, is in plainchant. In those polyphonic verses, the cantus firmus moves from voice to voice. In his Ave Maris Stella, after a brief introduction in the altus and bass, who sing in contrary motion, the discantus and tenor paraphrase the plainsong, occasionally in imitation. Martini’s used of imitation in this piece is quite skillful.

Martini wrote another Magnificat in the third mode (Phrygian). There are also three Masses collected in a single book, each with a Gloria, Credo, and Sanctus only (missing the Kyrie, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est), that are based on Barbingant’s (fl. c1445-1460, no first name found) Der ploben swancz, and a Missa Ma couche rit, based on Ockeghem’s chanson by the same name, and a Missa Io ne tengo. In another book, there are three more Masses from Martini, including a Missa Cela sans plus and a Missa La Matrinella.

Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) printed several of Martini’s works, including both hymns and secular pieces. One of the secular pieces is the widely disseminated three-part La Martinella. That piece and 21 others are contained in a manuscript in Rome. Another is the Toujours bien, which is much like La Martinella in style. Also among them is a textless four-part canon, the canon appearing an octave below the melody in two voices and at a fifth below in the fourth.

More of Martini’s works are preserved in other manuscripts, including 17 secular pieces in the Banco rari, which is a library of rare books in Florence. The bulk of Martini’s secular music is in three parts, with texts in both Italian and French.

Martini wrote one of the most widely distributed works of the period, the aforementioned La Martinella. The piece unfolds in a series of phrases, most featuring imitation between two voices (usually superius and tenor), and the third voice rests or adds free counterpoint. The opening figure returns in various guises throughout, including in a varied inverted form at the midpoint.

He didn’t live a long life, but Johannes Martini certainly led a productive and interesting one. He’s thought to have died around 1498 in Ferrara.


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

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

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

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

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


Composer Biography: Antoine Brumel (c1460-c1515)

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Antoine Brumel was a French composer, and probably the first of the Franco-Flemish school to be from France. Most of the Franco-Flemish composers were from the lowlands area that is now Belgium and the Netherlands, once called Flanders.

When polyphony (independently composed lines rather than composed around chords) was a new thing, just evolving from homophony (unison chant), Brumel was the first to apply this new technique to the psalms that were sung at every Mass. Polyphony had gained in importance in the 13th and 14th centuries, but was mostly used for secular music. Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) was the first to write the Ordinaries of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the Ite, misse est) as polyphony, and slowly, the Propers (the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion, Marian antiphons, and later, the Tract) were added. Psalms were—and are—a common choice for text for the Ordinaries, so that Brumel was the first to do this is an important accomplishment.

It’s not known where Brumel was born, although some music historians say that he was born west of Chartres, possibly in the little town of Brunelles. This puts him in the Netherlands, but just across the border that would soon move to make him French.

His name is prominent among the handful of composers who rank after Josquin de Prez (c1440-1521) as the most eminent masters of the late 15th century and early 16th centuries. You’ve probably heard Brumel’s music—or music influenced by him—whether you know it or not.

Records show Brumel as a singer at Notre Dame in Chartres from 1483 until 1486. He became Master of the Innocents (children’s choirmaster) at St. Peter’s in Geneva in 1486 and stayed there until 1492. In 1497, he was installed as a canon at Laon Cathedral, and the following year, he took charge of the choirboys at Notre Dame in Paris. There he stayed until 1500.

For the next two years, Brumel was a singer at the Duke of Savoy’s Court in Chambery and from 1506 to 1510, he acted as maestro di cappel to Alfonso I d’Este (1476-1534) in Ferrara, replacing Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), who’d died of the plague the previous year. The post was meant to be for life, but that chapel was disbanded in 1510. Brumel stayed on in Italy as part of the Franco-Flemish musical invasion and he’s connected with both Faenza and Mantua, where he probably died in 1512 or thereabout, although there are stories of him dying in Ferrara as late as 1520.

He wrote at least one piece after he was dismissed from Alfonso I’s court, the Missa de beata virgine. In 1513, Brumel is mentioned in a treatise by Vincenzo Galilei (c1520-1591 and famous astronomer Gallileo’s father) as one of a group of composers who met with Pope Leo X (1475-1521). Because Vincenzo Galilei didn’t write his treatise for more than two decades after the event and hadn’t been there himself, it’s also possible that Brumel wasn’t there at all, one reason for his absence being that he was already dead by then.

Brumel was renowned on the musical scene during his lifetime and his music was performed far from where he lived. Josquin borrowed two voices from Brumel’s three-part motet and based his own piece, Missa Mater patris on it. Josquin’s Agnus Dei movement consists of the entire text from Brumel’s motet, plus two new voices. Josquin did this in some of his secular music as well, but it’s unusual to find Josquin using someone else’s work so literally right at the most climactic section of the Mass.

Brumel had a whole volume of his Masses published by Pandolfo Petrucci (1452-1512), like both Josquin and Obrecht, and his music appears peppered all over various manuscripts and collections of the period.

Musicological historian Glareanus said that Brumel excelled more through industry than natural gifts, but his music is truly lovely, so Glareanus was just a poor sport. You should listen for yourself and see what yObrechtou think. (Chanticleer put out an excellent album of Brumel’s music, which is how I first heard his works.)

Glareanus’ attitude might have been sour only because there was so much competition. Brumel was active at the same time as Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), Alexander Agricola (1446-1506, blog post to come), Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517, blog post to come), Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come), Josquin, Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518, blog post to come), and Jean Mouton (c1459-1522), who are considered the brightest lights in a particularly stellar time.

When Johannes Ockeghem died, Brumel was one of those called upon by Guillaume Cretin (c1460-1525, a poet) to compose a lamentation in Ockeghem’s honor.

Brumel was primarily a composer of sacred music, notably of Masses. There are twelve Masses and three Magnifacats that survive complete. His works can be divided into three stylistic groups: those with cantus firmus (the chant melody) underlying the tenor voice, those exhibiting greater rhythmic regularity and a closer relationship between text and melody in all parts, and those that are condensed and brief.

He also wrote 29 motets (a sacred version of the madrigal), many of which use cantus firmus, sometimes with an altered or completely different text (these were usually quotations from the Bible, so this straying was rare and notable), and are in a flowing and rhythmically interesting style. His Sicut lilium is one of these, and exhibits an attractive simplicity that suggests influence by Italian composers.

Sometimes Brumel embellishes and other times he simplifies the underlying chant melodies for his sacred pieces. He occasionally uses cantus firmus with the elongated notes in the tenor, and other times, it’s paraphrased in the superius (highest) voice only. In yet other pieces, the chant is paraphrased in both the tenor and the superius, and occasionally, it’s in all the voices, in imitation (see Johannes Ciconia for more about imitation).

Brumel excelled at a style called paraphrase, where the melody of the chant, instead of being in the tenor, is in the topmost voice. Guillaume Dufay was probably the first to use paraphrase in a Mass setting (listen to Ave regina coelorum, written between 1463 and 1474 for a good example), and other composers were quick to follow. Brumel also used bits of his own motets in his Masses, foreshadowing the parody technique (see Bartholomeo da Bologna for more about parody). By the 1470s or 1480s, Masses started appearing that had the paraphrase in more than one voice, such as those by Johannes Martini (c1440-c1498).

Brumel was an important part of the change from writing independent, parallel lines of polyphony (where a singer could get sick or die of the plague or something, and the piece still sounded good with the part missing) to writing dependent, chordal, and simultaneous lines (where all the singers had to show up for work or the piece fell apart). His earlier works (before 1500) use the cantus firmus or a similar style of polyphony. His later works (after 1500) line up into more chord-like progressions, which included less melodically independent lines that served mainly to fill in a part of the chord. (This is very common today, with the melody in the soprano line and the other parts forming chords that support the melody.)

Brumel also used the parody technique, made popular by Bartholomeo da Bologna, wherein the source material appears elaborately altered and in other voices than the tenor. He also used paired imitation, like Josquin did, but more freely than any previous composer.

He wrote quite a few motets, chansons, and some instrumental music. His earlier pieces have irregular lines and rhythmic complexity, like those of Ockeghem, and the later ones use the smooth imitative polyphony of Josquin’s style and homophonic textures of the Italian composers of the time, such as Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c1470-1535), who was in Ferrara at the same time as Brumel.

Brumel was notable for his cleverness, playing with melodies and accompaniment. For instance, the tenor line of his James que la ne peut ester chanson uses the opening phrase of “Je ne vis oncques” twice; first forward and then backward.

Brumel’s motet Regina coeli was a clear paraphrase of the Marian antiphon by the same name. It has the melody in the tenor, but it’s also found in the other voices. He uses the same paraphrase and chant permeation of the texture in his motet Lauda Sion, in which he wrote polyphony only for the odd-numbered verses.

Brumel’s Laudate Dominum is one of the earliest motet settings of a psalm that can be given an approximate date. Although printer Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) included Josquin’s psalm Memor esto in the same publication of 1514, Brumel’s piece can be traced back to 1507, the date on the Capella Sistina 42 manuscript.

Brumel and Josquin clearly had a healthy working relationship. Josquin based his own Mass on Brumel’s motet Mater Patris, and Brumel’s short and simple motet Sicut lilium has clear phrases that resemble Josquin’s Planxit autem David. Josquin wasn’t the only one to borrow from Brumel. Ockeghem’s Fors seulement l’attente has a tenor that is attributed both to Brumel and to Agricola, but is most likely from Brumel, based on dates.

Brumel’s secular works frequently use pre-existing melodies. His four part secular pieces have texts but those in three parts are purely instrumental. Most are chansons. You have to keep in mind that writing in four voices was a new thing. And writing in more voices was considerably rarer.

Brumel wrote a textless vocal piece in eight voices that is sung with each part in a different mode. (To learn about modes, read Musical Mode, Part 1s: Church Modes). Although the modes are simpler than modern key signatures and scales (no sharps at all and only one possible flat—B), it must have sounded like the various parts were being pushed and pulled by the other parts. This interesting concept didn’t catch on. (I didn’t find the name of this piece, but I’ll keep looking.)

Probably the pinnacle of Brumel’s accomplishment was a twelve-part Mass, Et ecce terrae motus. You have to realize what an achievement that was—most pieces at the time were written in two or three voices. Later, Thomas Tallis would write my favorite piece (Spem in alium) in 40 voices, a feat that couldn’t ever have been had Brumel and his peers not pushed the edges of tradition.

Brumel’s Missa de Beata Virgine and Josquin’s version of the same piece use different chants in their Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements—Brumel’s was based on Gregorian Mass IX and XVII respectively, and Josquin’s was based on IV. Brumel’s choice was from the Medicean edition of the chant, which is an interesting political tidbit. The Medici family was rich and powerful, as you probably already know. The rest of Brumel’s Masses use the same Mass movements as the chants they’re based on

It’s possible that Brumel wrote his Missa de Beata Virgine in competition with Josquin—you have to listen to both to decide who won for yourself. Generally speaking, Brumel’s Masses are conspicuous for their melodiousness and euphony and this particular work was his most popular during his lifetime, as recorded by Glareanus.

The rest of his Masses were in four voices. He often wrote simple note-against-note counterpoint, which is especially conspicuous in his Missa de Dringhs, (no one seems to know what that last word means, but it’s thought to be Greek. The Mass is in Latin). He used parallel thirds and sixths in the Benedictus movement and other pieces, so that may have been a popular sound (it’s strange sounding to modern ears) or just something he was experimenting with.

The Mass called O quam suavis is lost. It has only a few surviving movements, based on an antiphon by the same name. Another untitled Mass uses different source materials for each section. It was unusual for the chant from one part of the Ordinary of the Mass (the pieces that change with the days of the liturgical calendar) to be used in a polyphonic setting for another. This is probably where Brumel got the idea of setting a psalm to polyphony.

In his Mass Je n’ay dueil, which survives under the designation Missa Festiva, is based on Agricola’s chanson by the same name. Brumel’s Missa Pro defunctis is notable for being the first requiem Mass to include a polyphonic setting of the Dies Irae. It’s one of the earliest surviving requiems, with only Ockeghem’s being earlier.

One of Bumel’s distinctive styles is that he often used quick syllables to form chords, which anticipated the madrigal style that developed by the end of the 16th century. He was particularly fond of using this technique during the Credo sections of his Masses. Credos have the longest texts, which can make them very long, and using this style helped keep the movement the same length as the others in the Mass.

Quite a few notable composers wrote pieces commemorating Brumel after his death.

Jachet Brumel (no dates available), was an organist for the Ferrara court in 1543, and is presumed to have been Antoine’s son. I found no mention of a wife or other children.


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

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1974.

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

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

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

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


Composer Biography: Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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