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Composer Biography: Perotin (c1160-1230)

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Also Perotinus and Perotin the Great. Perotinus and Perotin are both diminutives of Pierre. There were five men named Pierre attached to Notre Dame during the same period, and although some can be eliminated because of their superior rank (you wouldn’t call a priest “Joe” or “Freddie” in public), it’s presumed that the one who was only a deacon (not a priest), is the one who made a great contribution to the art of music, and the one whose history is covered here.

Perotin was the most famous member of the Notre Dame School of polyphony, and along with Leonin, he was one of the last masters of the Ars Antigua style. Like Leonin, he earned the academic degree of Master of Arts at the school that would later become the University of Paris, and he was licensed to teach.

Little is known about the man himself, but his name appears in the treatise of Anonymous IV (whose dates and actual name aren’t known, only that he was a student visiting Paris from England) in 1285. This comprehensive treatise refers to Perotin as a “master” and he’s called “optimus discantor” in several manuscripts, meaning that he was the ultimate discant writer. (There’s more about discants in the blog post Composer Biography: Leonin (fl. c1150-c1201). Perotin was probably the most celebrated musician involved in the revision and re-notation of the Magnus Liber attributed to Leonin.

Perotin and his contemporaries created organa (plainchant with another voice or two floating above it) for two or three voices. A two-voice organum was called a duplum, a three-voice a triplum, and a four-voice—Perotin’s innovation—a quadruplum. The voices above the tenor were named in descending order, so the highest voice was the quadruplum, and so forth. The upper voices used the rhythmic modes, allowing exact coordination among them, and they moved in similar vocal ranges, crossing repeatedly (meaning that one voice starts high and ends low, and another starts low and ends high).

He was probably born around 1160 and died around 1220. His exact dates aren’t known, but are extrapolated based on evidence that he flourished in Paris between 1180 and 1205. Some of his dates are approximated from some late-12th century edicts by the Bishop of Paris, Eudes de Sully (d. 1208), that mention organum triplum and quadruplum regarding a “feast of the fools.” The bishop’s edicts are quite specific and suggest that Perotin’s organum quadruplum Viderunt omnes was written for Christmas 1198, and that Sederunt principes, also a quadruplum, was for St. Stephens Day in 1199, for the dedication of a new wing of the Notre Dame Cathedral that was just beginning construction.

Not everyone liked the new music. An Englishman, John of Salisbury (1120-1180), who would become Bishop of Chartres, taught at the University of Paris during the years that Leonin and Perotin were there, and attended many services at the Notre Dame School. He compared the duo of voices to the singing of sirens rather than men and equated it to birdsong. But, he warns, the beauty of it might be likely to incite lust rather than devotion. It must be moderately done, he insists, in order to transport the soul to the society of angels.

Perotin’s major achievements include the revision of Leonin’s collection of organa in the Magnus Liber, as I mentioned earlier, and the introduction of new elements of style and scoring. He used all the rhythmic modes, providing rhythmic interest in both voices of two-part writing (which was a new idea), and added more voices to produce music in three or four parts. The celebrated organa on the Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day Graduals (Viderunt and Sederunt) are four-part settings conceived on a monumental scale apt for the new Cathedral of Notre Dame and are rich in eloquent, imaginative, and delicate vocal writing. They are justly hailed as masterpieces of Gothic music. Sederunt principes and Viderunt omnes are the only known four-voice organa.

Perotin was also a composer of clausulae (rhythmic features at the ends of short phrases) that may have been used to shorten Leonin’s organa (where one voice slowly sings the plainchant and the other parts dance around it), and conductus (where the various voices sing at the same speed) in up to three parts. Perotin probably invented conductus based on Leonin’s organum.

He wrote many pieces with a phrase from one voice repeated in another. Using phrases this way emphasizes dissonances before resolving to the fifth and octave above the chant melody (called the tenor line), using harmonic tension to reinforce the consonance while sustaining the listener’s interest.

He also used a form called a rondellus, where three voices sang a sort of round, like this:

Triplum                 a b c

Duplum                c a b

Tenor                    b c a

Because all three voices in a rondellus are in the same vocal range, the listener hears the polyphony three times, with voice parts traded so the timbre changes each time. There are also rondellus-motets. Rondellus sections appear frequently in English versions of conductus from the later 13th century; Anonymous IV may have brought this form back with him when he finished his studies in Paris.

Where Leonin wrote primarily in the first rhythmic mode (long-short) for the upper voices and the fifth mode (long and a half, totaling the same duration as the long-short combination) in the tenor (cantus firmus), Perotin’s most important development was the use of all six rhythmic modes in the tenor line. This is earth shattering in that suddenly, all the voices are rhythmically interesting and there’s a rhythmic counterpoint for the first time. This is the parent of motet writing.

Early motets put text to the melismatic upper voice of conductus for the first time—upper voices had been either played on an instrument or sung on open vowel sounds. This important innovation led to a notational change for the upper voices. Previously, syllabic block notes (see The History of Music Notation for more on this) took only two forms: syllabic (simple conductus) and duplum (the organa dupla of the early Leonin period). Perotin’s innovations added two more: modal (for organa and clausulae of the Perotin period), and motet (the earliest motets).

Organum puts the main melody in the tenor (from the Latin tenere); a duplum organum creates a second voice with either a more melismatic version (with wiggly bits that diverge from the primary melody at a greater speed) of the tenor or a sort of opposite melody, creating counterpoint. With only two voices, the upper voice can wiggle around ecstatically while the tenor plods earnestly on, but when you add a third and fourth voice, rhythm becomes essential, if only to keep things together. That’s how conductus was born.

In Perotin’s time, the liturgical melody serving as the tenor line appears twice, the second time in half the values (or double—twice as fast) of the first appearance. Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) would do the same thing in the 14th century.

Conductus uses the same principles as organum, but sets a rhymed Latin poem to a repeated melody, much like the later hymn form that was particularly expanded upon by William Byrd (1543-1623) in England and Johann Sebastian Bach (1675-1750) and other Lutheran Germans in the 18th century.

Perotin is known to have collaborated with poet Philip the Chancellor (c1160-1236), whose Beata viscera he could not have set before about 1220 although some sources suggest that Perotin died around 1205. It isn’t known exactly where or when he died nor where he’s buried.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography—Leonin (fl c1150-c1201)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography: Gilles Binchois (c1400-1460) (also Gilles de Bins)

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Like John Dunstable (c1390-1453) and Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474), Franco-Flemish Gilles Binchois was one of the three most important composers of his generation. Invited to serve the Burgundian court under Philip the Good (1396-1467), Burgundy soon became the center of musical activity in northern Europe. Other composers flocked to study and collaborate with him, and he was widely imitated musically. He may have been the greatest musical influence of his time.

Binchois was born in Belgium, the son of Jean and Johanne de Binche (dates unavailable), in the town of Binche near present-day Mons, about 45 minutes south of Brussels and close to the current French border. Binche is still pretty small with fewer than 35,000 residents.

Mons was Walloon country, which meant that Binchois probably spoke French with an accent. Walloons had their own language, but the region soon aligned itself politically with France and it was a Romance language, so sounded (and still sounds) a lot like French to the Flemish speakers in the northern part of the area.

Binchois’ father worked as a councilor to Duke Guillaume IV of Hainault (dates unavailable) and also in a church in Mons, although I wasn’t able to find out what he did there. (Binche, Mons, and Hainault are all within 20 miles of each other, so he never strayed far from home.) I didn’t find anything indicating that Gilles shared his musical gift with others in his family or whether or not he had siblings.

His father’s work at a church gave him access to an organ, and it’s thought that he trained at Binche and became a chorister and organist at Mons. In fact, very little is known of young Binchois until 1419, when he became organist a Saint Waudru in Mons. He stayed there until, in 1423, he went to live in Lille to serve the Englishman William Pole, Earl of Suffolk (1396-1450), who was with the English forces occupying France. He may have visited England with the Earl during the four years that he worked for him.

When the Duke of Suffolk (dates not found) fell off his horse in 1424 and was laid up for a while, he commissioned Binchois to set a poem, Ainsi, que a la fois, into a rondeau (a dance song), and paid him very well. This particular piece has not survived. Suffolk’s friend Charles of Orleans (1394-1465) was an amateur musician with some great skill, and probably commissioned a song or two as well.

Binchois’ genius got him invited to Burgundy to join the chapel of The Duke of Burgundy (later, Philip the Good) (1396-1467). Philip was a big supporter of the arts, and Binchois found himself in the company of such notables as famous painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441).

From sometime before 1431 until 1453, Binchois was chaplain at the court of Burgundy. He was also a canon at a church in Mons along with Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474). I didn’t find any evidence of marriage or offspring and it’s possible that he took holy vows, although I didn’t find any evidence of that either.

In 1430, Philip the Good founded the chivalric order of the Golden Fleece that united a rather motley northern nobility, including Walloons, Picards, and Flemings. His chapel included Binchois, and other important musical geniuses, such as Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem (c1420-1497), and Josquin des Prez (c1440-1521), the latter two of whom were born in the Duke’s northern territories.

When Philip ordered his troops to capture Joan of Arc (1412-1431) at Compiegne in 1430, Binchois seems to have gone with them. He was in the neighborhood at the time, fighting against the occupying English army. But he was back in Burgundy by 1431 (a bad year for Joan of Arc), in time to compose a piece to celebrate the baptism of Philip the Good’s newborn male heir, Antoine. The boy’s name, his guardian figure St. Anthony, and the names of the 19 singers, including Binchois’ own, were woven into the text for the composition, Nove cantum melodie. Unfortunately, in the midst of wars and the movement of the center of Western Europe’s musical scene from Burgundy to Paris, the top two lines of the first section of music were lost. In 2004, Andrew Kirkman and the Binchois Consort reconstructed the lines and made a recording, so you can hear at least approximately what it would have sounded like.

During his life, Binchois held prebends (an allowance paid to clerical employees at a cathedral) in Bruges, Mons, Cassel, and finally at Soignes. He was appointed provost (the most senior academic administrator) of the collegiate church of St. Vincent (1452), and he continued to receive a pension from the Burgundian court.

Binchois, along with Ockeghem and Antoine Busnois (c1430-1492), was one of the few northern composers to resist the lure of the Italian musical community. His chanson style, which included a secular solo with two instrumental parts, was arguably superior even to those by Dufay. The texts of his pieces reflect the pessimism of the period and its preoccupation with ideas of death.

Three decades of contact with English musicians at the Burdgundian court made Binchois the most influential composer on English composers in the Burgundian style, which was a pleasant combination of English primness, French romance, and Italian rambunctiousness.

While a member of the Burgundian court chapel, Binchois spent a great deal of time composing. He wrote no complete Masses, only separate movements and, other than four Magnificats, his other church music consists mostly of short three-part hymns and antiphons. Some have the liturgical melody in the highest voice (richly ornamented in the English style) or in the tenor, or they are missing it altogether. Sometimes the third part is fauxbourdon (rather than polyphony, the parts consist of parallel notes to the melody, an early approximation of chords—for more on this, see my blog post on Chords versus Polyphony).

Binchois’ sacred music is musically more conservative than his secular, complying with the rules and thematic elements of the day. No complete Mass cycle has survived, although some independent movements can be paired, based on similarity. He wrote three Gloria/Credo pairs, five Sanctus/Agnus Dei pairs, 12 single Mass movements, over 30 other sacred works.

Binchois’ pieces are characterized by effortless, graceful melodies, uncomplicated rhythms, and carefully balanced phrases. Some of his church music is simple, elaborating the plainsong with chords in fauxbourdon, with occasional ornamentation, a consolidation of the Burgundian styles.

Tenor lines of two or three voices were used to make fauxbourdon. Popular during his own lifetime, numerous compositions by other composers from the mid-15th century were based on his works, including three Mass cycles (Ockeghem’s Missa de plus an plus, Englishman John Bedyngham’s (1422-c1459) Missa Dueil angoiseux, and an anonymous Mass cycle called Esclave puist il devenir).

His secular songs embody the courtly tradition of the time. Many have a sad or nostalgic quality, telling of unrequited love in the rather stilted style of the chivalric manner. He wrote many of his own texts.

His secular songs are mostly rondeaux, which is a dance form with a pattern of a repeating refrain and verses. They are nearly all for a single-texted upper voice accompanied by an untexted tenor a fifth lower and a contrabass in the same range or a little lower. These may have been meant to be sung or played on instruments.

Often formal in his treatment of poetic forms, Binchois could achieve depth of feeling. Other chansons are more routine, with successive short melodic phrases dominated by cadence formulas (a pattern of notes that signify the end of a section or the piece—modern music still does this, from classical to hip hop to country and western).

Many of his works survive in single sources, compiled in various locations in southern Europe, far from the Burgundian court. This tells us that many of his works must have been lost or attributed to the super productive, long-lived, and mega-famous Anonymous. <wink>

Only one isorhythmic motet has survived. Among his secular music, there are about 50 rondeaux, several ballades, Fille a marier (songs for or about marriageable girls), and a great collection of chansons.

Among his sacred music, Binchois is credited with 28 independent Mass movements, four Magnificats, more than 30 motets and hymn settings, and about 55 chansons, six of which survive as keyboard arrangements. The chanson was his best genre, and he ranked with Dufay as a major exponent of the form. Most are settings of rondeaux and a few are ballades. Most adopt the usual three-part texture, with a melodious top line accompanied by two instrumental parts of equal range.

Binchois stayed in Philip’s employ until he retired with a generous pension to Soignies in 1453. He died there six years later.

His death was lamented in works by fellow Burgundian court musicians Johannes Ockeghem  (c1420-1497) and Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474). Both used the rondeau form that was Binchois’ favorite and involved repeating musical motifs and text.

Like Ockeghem and Josquin, Binchois enjoyed considerable posthumous notoriety, with his fame reaching that of a household name by the 1470s. His music continued to be performed for quite some time. By 1613, however, Binchois’ name was garbled in a dubious elegy by Johannes Nucius (c1556-1620, a German theoretician and composer who has enjoyed the ignominy he musically wished on Binchois, Dufay, and Dunstable.

There’s a miniature in a manuscript of Martin le Franc’s (c1410-1461) poem, Le Champion des dames (1440), that shows Dufay playing a portative organ and Binchois playing a harp, the symbols of sacred and secular music, respectively. Oh, to be a fly on that wall!


“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 Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade Matthews and Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, 2012.

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

“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 Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

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

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