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Composer Biography: Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361)

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Also Philippe de Vitri and Philippus De Vitriaco

Philippe de Vitry was a French poet, composer, music theorist, administrator for the Duke of Bourbon and the King of France, church canon, and Bishop of Meaux. He was called the “flower and jewel of musicians” by his contemporaries, and is credited with inventing the “new art” version of music called Ars Nova (I’ll use Ars Nova with both initial capital letters for the movement and Ars nova in italics for the treatise throughout). The Ars Nova style has come to define French music from the 1310s to the 1370s.

De Vitry was an accomplished, innovative, and influential composer, possibly the author of the music theory treatise called Ars nova notandi that gives the era its name. He was widely acknowledged as the greatest musician of his day, with even the great poet Petrarch (1304-1374) writing a glowing tribute.

Various sources claim that de Vitry was born in Vitry-en-Artois near Arras (see also Composer Biography: Adam de la Halle for another great composer from Arras), or possibly in Champagne or Paris. He died in either Meaux or Paris. (For more about great composers from this region, read Composer Biography: Guillaume Machaut, because he was also born in this region fewer than ten years after de Vitry.)

De Vitry is thought to have studied at the University of Paris where he received a Master of Arts degree. He also studied at the Sorbonne and held numerous prebends (a stipend from a cathedral). But his main sphere of activity was the French court, where he was secretary and advisor to Charles IV (1316-1378), Philippe VI (1293-1350), and Jean II (1319-1364).

He was known as a leading intellectual. He was friends with the poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1474) and the famous mathematician, philosopher, and music theorist Nicole Oresme (c1320-1382).

He was a diplomat and a soldier, serving at the siege of Aiguillon in 1346. In 1351, he became Bishop of Meaux which is about 45 miles east of Paris. He held several canonries (an important member of a cathedral), including at Clermont, Beauvais, and Paris, also serving the antipope at Avignon starting with Clement VI (1291-1352).

He composed motets and other music, but the most important aspect of his work was the Ars nova treatise. Probably the most original part was the last ten chapters, where he wrote about mensural rhythm and notation. Music notation was in its infancy—the new styles of music, like polyphony, required more specific forms of notation than chant, organum, and conductus. (For more on these things, see The History of Music Notation, Chords versus Polyphony, and the Composer Biographies for Leonin and Perotin.)

De Vitry’s treatise presented new concepts for rhythm and notation. The two main most important features are the minim (which is now called a half-note) for which he established the notational symbol and imperfect mensuration (the division of note values into twos as well as threes, no matter how long or short the note).

The Ars nova treatise and the contemporaneous writings of music theorist Johannes de Muris (c1290-c1355) form the fundamental source of information on the development of the mensural system of notation. De Vitry pays particular attention to the relationships between the different levels of rhythmic time values, such as breve to long, semibreve to breve, and so on (these are early forms of notation that indicated very long and sort of long notes).

Unlike most medieval theorists, de Vitry was a composer of international and lasting reputation and of outstanding ability. His music shows a new lyricism and an effective use of the hocket device, which was a kind of musical exchange akin to hiccupping. The Roman de Fauvel (a 14th century allegorical poem in two lavish books, by French royal clerk Genvais de Bus and scribe Chaillou de Pesstain, and about which there will be more in a moment) contains six motets attributed to him. He discusses these motets in his own treatise, Ars nova (there will be more on that in a moment, too). Nine additional motets are found in the later Ivrea Codex (mid-to-late 14th century), illustrating the early use of isorhythm (a rhythmic pattern that repeats throughout the piece—a fixture in motet writing) as a constructive principle.

De Vitry is said to have had a vitriolic tongue and often verbally overwhelmed his opponents, such as an unidentified “Hugo” and poor Jehan de le Mote (dates unavailable), a poet musician from Hainaut, Belgium. There are 250 pages of dialog between the two, all in French poetry.

Another work pays homage to Pope Clement VI of Avignon (1291-1352) on his election in 1342, where de Vitry expresses how much he despises being at court. But he was unable to leave the busy life of officialdom, and Petrarch, whom he met at Avignon, poured out his own sympathetic dismay on learning that de Vitry had become Bishop of Meaux in 1350.

De Vitry wrote chansons and motets, although only a few have survived. They are conspicuously different from one another, each with its own distinctive structural idea, as if he were experimenting. It’s too bad that there aren’t several of each sort, though, as it would aid in studying both his thought process and the music of the period.

De Vitry’s motets are distinctive because of the notation using smaller note values. The notation system (semi-breves, breves, and minims) was probably a product of the College of Navarre in Paris (founded in 1305 to rival the Sorbonne). They were documented for the first time in his Ars nova treatise.

Ars nova notandi

As I’ve been saying, de Vitry was most famous for Ars nova notandi (1322), a treatise on music that lent its name to the music of the whole era. Although his authorship and the existence of the treatise itself have come into question, his music also survives elsewhere, showing his innovations, especially in music notation and particularly in mensural and rhythmic notation, for which he gets credit. Such innovations are particularly clear in the motets of the Roman de Fauvel.

His motets set the standard for the next hundred years, past the beginning of the Ars subtilior (1380-1420; see Composer Biographies on Paolo da Firenza and Zacara da Teramo for more on this era). In many ways, modern notation started with de Vitry’s Ars nova, separating for the first time from the old rhythmic modes (see Musical Modes, Part 2: Rhythmic Modes) that didn’t need mensuration in the same way. Modern time meters (like 3/4 time and 6/8 time) also originate from this era and are documented in the treatise. He’s credited with coming up with the idea of isorhythms, where the voice’s melodic line consists of repeating patterns of rhythms and pitches, but the patterns overlap with those of other voices rather than correspond—not chordal (vertical) relationships, but musical gestures and repeated patterns or melodies in a linear (horizontal) sense.

The Ars nova treatise listed the rules of the old and the new art form. De Vitry’s primary intent was to show new ways of notating motets using his own compositions as examples. He barely mentions polyphonic songs, but his late 14th century compositions that are polyphonic are the only Ars Nova works that continue the earlier traditions of form and notational precision.

The Ars nova treatise describes innovations in rhythmic notation that are attributed to both de Vitry and to Jehan des Murs (c1290-1355), a mathematician, astronomer, and music theorist. One innovation allowed duple (“imperfect”) division of note values along with the triple (“perfect”) division that was already popular. Another innovation divided the semi-breve, formerly the smallest note duration, into minims. Both of these innovations resulted in new meters and allowed greater rhythmic flexibility, including, for the first time, syncopation.

De Vitry wholeheartedly embraced the duple time that became the modern time-systems 9/8, 6/8, 3/4, and 2/4. In fact, we still use one of his key signatures, the capital C (for Common time), and our black notes (quarter notes) are successors to his red notes (about which there will be more in a moment), used to distinguish sections of notes with a different rhythm.

Everyone quickly adopted his ideas, although Jacobus of Liege (1260-1340), who wrote the huge musical encyclopedia Speculum musicae, advocated against it. Pope John XXII (1244-1334) issued a papal bull, not against the theory but against the practical results of the new art. He wanted to ensure that the sanctity of the Divine Office and that the tranquility of plainsong was maintained. The new pieces, he complained, were agitated by short notes and disturbed by hockets and the plainsong was made unrecognizable by the rhythmic treatment to which it is subjected. In fact, the pope condemned all such music, insisting that the only allowable polyphony be that with the simple addition of consonant harmonies, such as the octave, the fifth, and the fourth, and those few only on feast days. Most musicians thought that the simplicity was inadequate, though, and the bull was promulgated by 1324. That’s right. The Ars Nova movement was considered a menace!

In addition to the red notes, another innovation from de Vitry was the dot after a note to indicate both the lengthening of a note (as in modern notation), and to divide one group of notes from another as an aid in syncopation, a precursor to measure lines.

De Vitry meant his treatise to describe French music specifically, but it raises the question of the new styles in other countries. Italian music had already moved on, so the Ars Nova period doesn’t apply there. Spain and Northern Germany also resisted the new style. The English liked it and Poland accepted it, both influenced by Southern Germany. This difference is part of why it’s so hard to define when the Renaissance happened. Each nation had its own cultural preferences and influences, but by the Baroque era, everyone was on the same page—it only took 150 years or so.

Only two years after de Vitry’s treatise showed up, Marchetto de Padua (fl.1305-1319) published his own treatise, Pomerium, in 1318. This treatise described Italian forms of notation, including the same minim idea and comparing the French and Italian rhythmic methods. Marchettus dedicated Pomerium to Robert of Anjou (1309-1343), and de Vitry also dedicated a motet to him, so he was probably an important patron for musicians.

Roman de Fauvel

The Roman de Fauvel (1310-1320) is an allegorical poem by the French royal clerk Gervais de Bus (dates unknown) and Chaillou de Pesstain (even less is known about this fellow). It tells the story of a curry- (or fauve) colored horse that rises to prominence in the French royal court. The poem consists of 12 lavish manuscripts replete with poetry, 77 colorful miniatures, and 169 pieces of music that span the gamut of 13th and early 14th century genres.

Just for fun because I’m a bit of a word geek, it’s this collection that led to the expression “to curry Fauvel” which has been corrupted to “curry favor” in English, in reference to everyone, starting with popes and kings, currying (or pandering to) the sins represented by the letters in the horse’s name (Flattery, Avarice, Guile [which begins with a V in French], Variety [inconstancy, in French], Envy, and Cowardice {begins with an L in French]).

Gervais de Bus completed the first part of the poem (1226 lines) in 1310 and the second part (2054 lines) in 1314. By 1316, Chaillou de Pesstain completed collecting the music. These seem to have come from a variety of sources and include diverse musical styles. There are 34 motets and there are monophonic songs in even greater numbers. Most have Latin texts. Over 50 of the monophonic songs are liturgical chants. There are also some conductus pieces (see Composer Biography: Perotin for more on conductus).

Fauvel contains songs with French texts including four lais, four rondeaux, and nine ballades, two of which have the musical and poetic form of the virelai. Shorter entries with French texts include 15 refrains and 12 brief quotations of “sottes chansons” (foolish songs). Finally, a complete duplum (two-part conductus) with French text has been extracted from a motet and broken into 11 fragments, each of which is followed by text explaining it.

Much of de Vitry’s literary output is lost, but he probably wrote the poetic texts of his surviving motets. The earliest of these appear in the Roman de Fauvel, and some of the monophonic songs there may also be de Vitry’s.

In the Roman de Fauvel, de Vitry concentrates on religious or political subjects, attacking, for instance, an unidentified hypocritical “Hugo” who was an enemy of Robert of Anjou (1277-1343), King of Naples. He also wrote a piece in celebration of the election of Clement VI (1291-1352) as Pope in 1342.

His works in Fauvel depart from the modes, a kind of “new lyricism,” according to one source. There’s also hocketing (a way of alternating voices that sounds a lot like hiccupping) and full harmony on accented syllables, although it’s not full-on harmony as would come in the century after.

The most interesting aspect (to me, anyway) is that de Vitry used red notes in Fauvel to indicate a change in rhythm, indicating the difference between a cantus planus (without rhythm or regularity) and cantus mensurabilis (rhythmic and regular). He also used them to show that the rhythm was changing from three (triplum) to two (duplum), that the melody was to be sung up an octave, that a note should be altered by a half step (an accidental) to prevent a note from being a perfect fifth or fourth, and to change the meter to cut-time (twice as fast).

When red notes weren’t available, “vacant” notes—white with black outlines—replaced them, and soon red notes weren’t used at all because the white notes were more convenient. Red notes survived well into the 15th century in the more elaborate manuscripts, especially in England.

White notes were used for special purposes in the Italian trecento. In the first part of the 15th century, white notes replaced black ones for all the values, and in the latter half of that century, the semi-minim lost its tail and became black, and notes of shorter value—also black—appeared with increasing frequency until the same divisions we have today (white for everything from a half note—minim—and larger, and black for the quarter note—semi-minim—and smaller). (For more about this, see The History of Music Notation.)

The Robertsbridge Codex

Two of de Vitry’s motets are in the earliest known collection of keyboard music, the Robertsbridge Codex. It’s part of a collection that includes an old church registry at the Robertsbridge Abbey in Sussex, England. It’s probably as old as 1325 and is roughly contemporary with the Roman de Fauvel.

De Vitry’s motets were probably meant to be played on a small organ or an eschiquier (a small harpsichord). The only trouble was that the player had to read the music from two separate pages simultaneously. At the time, organ tablature involved writing the highest voice on a staff and the rest were in letters of the alphabet written below them. The highest part wasn’t just written out, though. It was colored in and surrounded with decorative figuration, a term that survives until today: it’s where we get the term “coloratura.”

In total, 14 motets are attributed to de Vitry, but only four have been authenticated with any certainty.

De Vitry’s original approach to composition established a hierarchic concept for voices, in which the sustained tenor had a clearly defined structural foundation. He combined the slow-moving and patterned tenor with a superstructure of two faster moving voices, which created increased melodic and contrapuntal flexibility. Of the 14 motets that can be ascribed to him, none has a chant-like tenor as cantus firmus (so it’s much like modern music in that way), and only one uses French texts. His structural use of isorhythm clearly influenced Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377). Machaut based some of his motets on de Vitry’s, as is made clear by the structural complexity that occasionally seems like an effort to outdo de Vitry.

Only one love song came from de Vitry during the age of chivalry. It’s a French motet, but the lost or unidentified ballades, lais, and rondeaux he is said to have written were concerned with love and in French.

He may be seldom performed any more, but pretty much everything else that came since is beholden to Philippe de Vitry—modern music notation grew from his ideas.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography: Marcabru (c1099-1150)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

with one comment

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.