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Posts Tagged ‘Music: Italian Renaissance

Composer Biography: Maddalena Casulana (c1540-c1590)

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Also known as Signor Maddalena Casaulana de Mezari or Maddelena Mezari dette Casulana.

Maddalena Casulana was a composer, lutenist, and singer of some repute, and was probably the first woman to declare herself a professional musician and composer.

By 1568, when her piece was conducted at a royal wedding by Orlando di Lasso (c1530-1594), she was already known to be a woman of notable pride and confidence. In the same year, Antonio Molino (c1495-1571), a Venetian merchant, actor, and whimsical writer thought to be one of the founding fathers of the commedia dell’arte movement, dedicated his book of four-part madrigals to Casulana. He said that the work was a product of old age and of studying music with her.

In 1569, the Vicentine poet Giambattista Maganza (c1513-1586) dedicated a canzone to her. In the following year, Maddalena dedicated her second book of madrigals to Dom Antonio Londonio (dates unavailable), a highly placed official in Milan, whose wife, Isabella (dates unavailable), was a noted singer.

She was probably born in Casole d’Elsa near Sienna. Her name implies origin in Casole, but no one knows for sure. Author and astronomer Alessandro Piccolmini (1508-1579) claims her for Sienna, but tells us nothing else about her.

She trained in Casole and then moved to Florence, where her patrons were the first to hear her own compositions. From there, she went on to Venice, where she gave private lessons in singing and composition from around 1568. She was also known to play the lute for private entertainments. She visited Verona, Milan, and Florence, and probably met her husband as she traveled. Nothing is known about her husband. (Isn’t that a switch? Usually nothing is known about the wives!)

In 1568, she published her first collection of madrigals for four voices in Venice. The next two collections were published in 1570 and 1583, and her last was published in 1586. Her works also appeared in anthologies in 1566 and 1567.

As I mentioned at the start, one of her secular Latin pieces was played by Orlando di Lasso (c1532-1594) at the marriage of Archduke Wilhelm V of Bavaria in 1568, along with that of another female composer, Caterina Willaert, a relative (but not offspring) of the famous master, Adriano Willaert (c1490-1562). Sadly, the music hasn’t survived, but it was called Nil mage incundum. It was a five-part madrigal.

Her personal writings indicate that in her early 20s, Casulana set out to be a professional musician, and to support herself with her art. Despite this unusual assertion, she was regarded well by the upper echelons of society.

Not much is known about her activities after 1570, but the poet Giambattista Crispolti (dates unavailable) describes a banquet in Perugia where Casulana sang for her supper in 1582. In that same year, publisher Angelo Gardano (1540-1611) dedicated his collection of madrigals to her, begging her to favor him with her own contributions to the neglected genre.

She performed at a meeting of the Acadamia Olimpica in Vincenza in 1583, which, at one time, owned a portrait of her. In her 1583 publication, her name was Madalena Mezari detta Casulana Vicentina, which suggests that she married at some time after 1570 and settled in Vicenza. Perhaps it was her marriage that kept her out of the public eye. It isn’t known whether she had children or not.


Casulana wrote three books of madrigals, the first published musical works ever by a woman. The first collection, printed in 1566, was called Il Primo libro di madrigal.

In total, there are 66 madrigals, of which five previously appeared in anthologies. Another is found only in an anthology (Primo libra de madrigal a Quattro voci, Venice 1568). It was dedicated to Isabella de’ Medici Orsina (1542-1576), a noted patron of the arts and an amateur musician. Casulana made a comment in her dedication to the effect that men don’t hold a monopoly on efforts of intellect.

Her madrigals reveal originality and personal style, but they suffer from being a kind of catalogue of word-painting devices. She doesn’t seem to have had a specific teacher, and some of the stock elements are missing, or are over- or underused. For instance, there are few examples of imitation, and themes are repeated at too close an interval to contrast with the generally homophonic texture. She overuses chromatic alteration and uses such mannerisms as excessive voice crossing (where a low voice ends up higher than a high voice), awkward ranges, strange chord inversions, and too-frequent parallel fifths and octaves.

These weaknesses are eclipsed by original and stunning effects. Textures, sometimes monotonous and cramped, at other times provide effective contrast, such as in passages with dramatic opposition between high and low registers, or passages in the fauxbourdon style (parallel fifths, sixths, or octaves). Her harmonic effects are often striking.

Sometimes, a long melodic line is created where one voice makes a slow and dramatic chromatic rise, culminating at the climax of the piece. Her use of dissonance is also masterful and modern, often sprinkled with dominant seventh chords, approached and resolved in the usual way, at a time when this chord could hardly be found elsewhere, except in the music of such composers as Cipriano Rore (c1515-1565), Adrian Willaert (c1490-1562), or Orlando di Lasso (c1530-1594).

Her texts include some of her own poetry and some by Petrarch (1304-1374), Annibale Caro (1507-1566), Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568), Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530), Serafino Aquilano (1466-1500), Vincenzo Quirino (dates unavailable), Bernardo Tasso (1493-1569) and Giulio Strozzi (dates unavailable, but adoptive—and probably natural—father of Barbara Strozzi).

Composer Philippus de Monte (1521-1603) tried to enlist her help in reviving the three-part madrigal, and referred to her as “the muse and siren of our age.” But then she disappeared.


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

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northwestern University Press, Boston, 1996.

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

“Women & Music, A History,” by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“Women Making Music, The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1959,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1997.


Composer Biography: Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)

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Hans Leo Hassler was responsible for bringing Italian innovation to Germany during the somewhat dry spell that preceded Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). If it hadn’t been for his lieder and his interest in polychoral music, there would have been no B minor Mass. Does that seem too strong? Read on!

Like Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and others of the 17th century, Hassler wrote biblical motets of a rather large scale, which was a definite nod to the Venetian fashion. So much so, in fact, that one source said that Hassler out-Italianed the Italians. Not only that, but Hassler was considered the last great Lied composer of his century, a sound that remains distinctly German to this day.

Hassler was born in Nürnberg. His father was famous organist Isaak Hassler (c1530-1591), and he had two brothers who were also composers, Jakob (1569-1622) and Kaspar (1562-1618). Isaak taught all three of his sons to play the organ, and all would go on to make names for themselves. The three siblings were ennobled by Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) as a result of their awesomeness.

He worked for a time at the church or St. Moritz in Nürnberg and in 1600, became head of the town band. (In those days, important towns had their own bands that performed for state events as well as in the public squares and parks on the weekends.)

Hassler was the first German to study in Italy, and his style is tinged strongly by the Venetian element.

Hassler had heard the polychoral music that was popular in Venice through Leonhard Lechner (c1553-1606), who was an associate of Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594, biography to come) in Munich. These songs in multiple choirs intrigued him, and he visited Venice in 1585. While he was there, he studied with Andrea Gabrieli (1532-1586). Giovanni Gabrieli (c1554-1612), Andrea’s nephew, became Hassler’s friend and colleague.

After Andrea Gabrieli died in 1586, Hassler returned to Germany and was appointed court organist to Octavian II Fugger, of the great Augsburg banking family. Hassler’s fame spread rapidly and in 1602, he returned to Nürnberg as chief Kapellmeister of the town and with the reputation of a composer “whose like has not been found among the Germans up to this time.” In that same year, he was given the title of Imperial Chamber Organist in Prague, so he must have visited there periodically, although records are vague.

He was a Protestant, but he directed the Catholic music services in Augsburg and wrote a number of Masses for them. Some the texts of his Latin motets are of a Catholic nature, some are more Protestant in tone, and many were usable by both faiths.

His secular music was set to German words, and his sacred music is mostly Latin motets and Masses. At the time, Latin motets, particularly those by Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594) and Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jacob Handl, 1550-1591), were used in the Lutheran church. It was these works that paved the way to his connection with the Protestant court of Dresden, when he began writing Lutheran hymns. By 1608, he’d become chamber organist and music librarian to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden.

Hassler was a teacher to Melchior Franck (c1580-1639, Protestant composer), and when it was time to move on, he was succeeded as organist at Augsburg by Christian Erbach (c1570-1635, organist and composer). Hassler was a composer, organist, and a consultant to organ builders. In 1596, with 53 other organists, he examined a new instrument with 59 stops at the Schlosskirche, in Groningen. He used his fame as an organ-construction expert to develop a clockwork organ that was later sold to Emperor Rudlolf II (1552-1612).

In 1600, with his old friend Giovanni Gabrieli, Hassler composed a wedding motet for Georg Gruber, a Nürnberg merchant living in Venice. Hassler was the chief town musician for Nürnberg from 1601-1608, and achieved the title of Imperial Chamber Organist in 1602. While there, he was appointed to Emperor Rudolf II’s court.

In 1604, Hassler took a leave of absence and went to Ulm, where he married Cordula Claus. I didn’t find any family information about her nor did I find her dates. He seems to have been a businessman with many interests in addition to his music, and perhaps he met Cordula through his business dealings.

Hassler composed sacred music, including Masses, motets, psalms, and Lutheran chorales, and he composed secular music, including madrigals, canzonettes, instrumental dances, and keyboard ricercars. He was most famous for his German Lieder, which were often in the Italian style, and about which there will be more in a minute.

Hassler’s work is distinctive in that he borrowed from every conceivable source. He set two Italian texts into Italian-style motets, and he borrowed from such notable predecessors as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594). He let the qualities of the languages of the texts he chose influence and affect his melodies—German is weightier than lithe and limber Italian. (For more on this, consider reading The Sound of a Culture.)

His early works show the influence of Orlando de Lassus (c1532-1594), and his later ones reveal the deep impression made upon him by his studies in Italy. Like Michael Praetorius, he was a prolific composer of Latin and German sacred music, as well as secular and instrumental music. He was no innovator, but he coordinated and developed current styles and earned a lofty reputation for his practical approach and craftsmanship.

As the first German to go to Italy, it was his influence that made Italian music much more popular than German music in Germany, and started a trend for German musicians to finish their education in Italy. Italian musicians like Orlando Lassus (c1532-1594), had been working in Germany for years, but represented an older style of music, the refined Renaissance style of Italian polyphony. By Hassler’s time, new trends were emerging in Italy that would ultimately define the Baroque era. Hassler, and later Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), brought the concertato style, the polychoral idea, and the freely emotional expression of the Venetians to the German culture, representing the first non-German Baroque development of any importance.

Hassler’s secular music, including madrigals, canzonette, and songs for voices, ricercars, canzonas, introits, and toccatas for instruments show the character of the Gabrielis, but with more restraint.

In the Masses and motets of his maturity, his natural propensity for writing light, almost poplar, melodies (like the Lieder) and for very careful workmanship is coupled with a grace and fluidity derived from the madrigalian dance songs and a fondness for polychoral structures. The result is a sacred style that makes up in charm and sonority for what it lacks in profundity. Hassler incorporated polychoral techniques, textural contrast, and occasional chromaticism in his works.

Polychoral writing appeared in Italy as early as 1544—by the end of the century, writing for double and even triple choirs was common in Italy, and unlike his earlier pieces, Hassler’s later works attempt to capture the splendor and richness of the Venetian style. The Protestant composers who wrote in this German-Venetian style include Hassler, and Johannes Eccard (1563-1611), Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629), Georgius Otto (c1550-1618), Andreas Raselus (c1563-1602), Adam Gumpelzhaimer (1559-1625), and Philippus Dulichius (1562-1631). Giovanni Gabrieli was a real trend setter in this arena, and of course, no one topped Englishman Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585).

In his Italian secular music, Hassler shows his thorough familiarity with the up-to-date style of Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) and Luca Marenzio (c1553-1599). The specifically Venetian influence is felt most in Hassler’s double-choir madrigals and Lieder.

His “simpliciter” works are in four parts with the melody in the highest voice, but his “fugue-wise” pieces treat the successive phrases of the hymn in the motet style that would be followed throughout the 17th century and beyond. Hassler would be surpassed in both variety and probably in artistic achievement by Michael Praetorius, but Praetorius wouldn’t have done it—nor would Bach—without Hassler’s influence.

Hassler’s Lieder, however, were a different story, and not as derivative. In them, he incorporates the Italian madrigal elements, but for the most part, he put the melody in the top voice—not polyphony, but distinctly chordal music. (For more on this, see Chords versus Polyphony.) His melodies are distinctive and easily memorized. One love song that was popular was “Mein gmüth ist mir verwirret,” which he later adapted to the Passion chorale “O Haupt vol Blut und Wunden.”

His compositions were first published in 1590: a set of 24 four-part canzonette. His 1596 “New German Songs in the Manner of Madrigals” includes music in four to eight voices, all of it too chordal to be truly madrigalian and using his own texts. His collection of choral and instrumental works of 1601, “A Pleasure Garden of New German Songs, Ballets, Galliards, and Intradas” is also strongly chordal. This latter collection is thought to be his best work and contains 39 vocal and 11 instrumental pieces.

Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) borrowed one of Hassler’s pieces. It was his five-part Mein gmüth is mire verwirret (My Mind is Confounded), which has a religious text only in the superius (highest) voice. Bach used it in his St. Matthew’s Passion.

Hassler’s style of writing the melody in the highest voice profoundly influenced his younger German colleagues. The affect is clearly evident in the Lieder of such men as Melchior Franck (c1579-1539), Valentin Haussmann (c1560-1613), Christoph Demantiums (1567-1643), Johann Staden (1581-1634), and Hermann Schein (1586-1630). The last two belong to the Baroque period more than to the Renaissance, partially because of this Lieder influence.

Despite his Protestantism, Hassler wrote many Catholic Masses and directed the music for Catholic services in Augsburg. Hassler dedicated both his Cantiones sacrae and a book of Masses for four to eight voices to Octavio Fugger, his long-time Catholic patron. Due to the constancy of Catholic patrons and his own Protestant beliefs, Hassler’s compositions represent a blend of both religions’ musical styles and could often work in either church.

Hassler only wrote two pieces specifically meant for Lutheran services while in Augsburg, the Psalmen simpliciter, written in 1608, which was dedicated to the city of Augsburg. Psalmen und christliche Gesange was written in 1607 and dedicated to Elector Christian II of Saxony (1583-1611).

Hassler is considered, like Bach and Praetorius, to be one of the most important German composers. His works sounded fresh and unaffected, combining vocal and instrumental literature without continuo (an improvised bass line), or with continuo as an option. His sacred music introduced the Italian polychoral structures that would later influence many German composers, including Bach.

In 1608, Hassler moved to Dresden to be the chamber organist to the Elector Christian II of Saxony (1583-1611) and eventually became Kapellmeister there too. By this time, he had already contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1612. After he died, Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) were appointed to fill his spot as organist in Dresden.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Instrument Biography: The Virginal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginal Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Name

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

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

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

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

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

Virginal Composers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other big names in virginal composition include:

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

Famous Makers

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Biography: Johannes Martini (c1440-c1498)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Squarcialupi Codex (15th Century)

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The Squarcialupi Codex is one of the chief anthologies of the Italian trecento (c1325-c1425). It’s an illuminated manuscript that was compiled in Florence in the early 15th century and is the single largest source of secular music of the Italian ars nova (the beginning of modern music, with polyphony at the center of it). The manuscript is still in good condition all these centuries later and all of the pieces included are musically complete. About 150 pieces of the 354 included exist in this manuscript and nowhere else in contemporary collections.

This beautiful book is made up of 216 parchment folios. The pieces contained in it are arranged chronologically by composer (dated by the type of music notation used), with some pages left blank for later works. There’s an illuminated portrait of each composer at the beginning of his section, elegantly ornamented in reds, blues, and purples, with gold leaf making an occasional appearance. The remaining pages are also colorful, with the edges surrounding the music displaying flowers, instruments and animals, and people doing musical and pastoral things.

Sixteen of the folios are blank, intended for the music of Paolo da Firenze. They’re all labeled and his portrait is done, but the pages meant for music are empty. Common thinking is that Paolo’s music wasn’t ready when the manuscript was compiled because he was away from Florence until 1409. There’s another blank section for Giovanni Mazzuoli (c1360-1426), with no explanation forthcoming.

The biggest names of the Italian trecento are the composers included in this incredible collection. There are 354 pieces in all, including:

  • 146 pieces by Francesco Landini (c1325-1397)
  • 37 by Bartolino da Padova (fl. c1365-1405, blog post to come)
  • 36 by Niccolo da Perugia (fl. late 1300s)
  • 29 by Andrea da Firenze (d.1315)
  • 28 by Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-c1386)
  • 17 by Lorenzo da Firenze (d c1372)
  • 16 by Gherardello da Firenza (c1320-c1362)
  • 15 by Donato da Cascia (fl.c1350-1370)
  • 12 by Giovanni da Cascia (1270-1350)
  • 6 by Vincenzo da Rimini (mid-1300s)
  • 12 pieces from two unidentified composers

The pieces included are all secular, and are mainly ballatas and madrigals, with a few caccias for good measure, all composed between 1340 and 1415. They were probably copied by a single scribe, as the handwriting is much the same throughout.

All of the pieces are vocal and have Italian texts. Conspicuous by their absence are pieces by Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412), who spent the bulk of his productive lifetime in Padua and is probably the biggest name to come out of Italy during that period, and Italian Antonio Zacara da Teramo (c1350-c1415), whose compositions were rather innovative.

The anthology was compiled by Antonio Squarcialupi (1416-1480), who was an Italian organist and composer. He was a licensed butcher, but his talent on the organ earned him a post at the Florence Cathedral from 1432 until his death in 1480. You have to remember that the de Medici family was prominent during this period, and they could have had any organist they wanted. They chose Squarcialupi.

Antonio is known to have visited Naples and Siena. He was highly esteemed by his contemporaries, including Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474), with whom he exchanged letters. None of his own compositions survive—he was obsessively self-critical about them and he may have destroyed them himself.

The eponymous codex was probably compiled in Florence at the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, between 1410-1415. A family seal that hasn’t been identified is on the first folio and on the portrait page of Paolo da Firenza (c1355-1436); original theories were that Paoli had a part in compiling the collection or that he was part of the family that commissioned it. Recent findings about Paolo’s poor finances make this unlikely.

The Italian trecento has three distinctive developmental periods. You’ll notice that most of the composers in the codex are listed in the first two generations of big names.

First Generation:

  • Giovanni da Cascia (also Giovanni da Firenze) (1270-1350)
  • Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340-1386)
  • Bartolino da Padova (Padua, c1365-1405)
  • Grazioso da Padova (fl. 1391-1407)
  • Vincenzo da Rimini (fl. 1360s)
  • Piero (from Assisi, Milan, or Verona, fl.1340-1350)

Second Generation:

Third Generation:

  • Zacherie (papal singer from 1420-1432)
  • Matteo da Perugia (fl. 1400-1416)
  • Giovanni da Genova (Genoa, no dates available)
  • Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412, Belgian)
  • Antonello da Caserta (1355-1402)
  • Filippo da Caserta (c1350-c1436)
  • Corrado da Pistoia (fl. 1410)
  • Bartolomeo da Bologna (fl. 1405-1427)

The manuscript was inherited by Antonio’s nephew, and then by the estate of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici (1479-1516), the third son of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), who gave it to the Biblioteca Palatina in the early 16th century. At the end of the 18th century, it became part of the collection of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, where it remains.

Antonio Squarcialupi is eulogized on one of the original flyleaves.

If you want a copy for yourself, there are 988 handmade reproductions available through purveyors of ancient manuscripts and Incunabula. I’d imagine that they’re pretty expensive. You can save the money and take a video tour of the codex here:


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

“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hippin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.

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

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

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

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

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: Zacara da Teramo (c1350-c1415)

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Also known as Antonio “Zacara” da Teramo, Antonius Zacharius of Teramo, Antonius Berardi, Andre de Teramo, Antonio Zacar, as well as  Zacar, Zaccara, Zacharie, Zachara, and Cacharius. He’s also possibly the Zacharias that’s mentioned in the Old Hall manuscript (the largest collection of British Medieval and Renaissance music from the 14th and 15th centuries). There are two other people by a similar name, one, called Magister Zacharias, who was a papal singer around 1400, and the other, a Nicolas Zacharie (Niccolo Zaccaria), who was from Brindisi and was a papal singer from 1420-1434. Both of these Zacks also wrote music.

Our Zacara da Terama was part of the third generation of the trecento, along with Johannes Ciconia and Bartolomeo da Bologna. He was a composer, a singer, and a papal secretary and he was one of the most active Italian composers around 1400. His style bridged the major periods of the trecento, from ars subtilior (a French style of music in the 14th century) to the beginnings of the musical Renaissance.

He was probably born in Teramo in northern Abruzzo (Naples), not far from the Adriatic coast. He still owned property there and in Rome when he died.

His short stature earned him the nickname Zacara, which means a small thing of little value. He never used the moniker himself, but signed his name Antonio. It’s not too hard to understand why he didn’t use it and it’s too bad that he ended up recorded for posterity by it. He may have been small, but he offered the world considerable value.

The Squarcialupi Codex (compiled 1410-1415, and blog post to come) includes an illustration of Zacara. It shows him as short and with only ten digits total between his hands and feet. This is also mentioned in an entry about him in an 18th century necrology. Whether this was a birth defect or the result of an accident isn’t documented.

Nothing is known about Zacara until 1390 when he turned up as the teacher at the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Sassia Rome. He was not a young man at the time of this appointment, but his age isn’t listed.

In 1391, he became secretary to Pope Boniface IX (c1350-1404). The letter of his appointment survives and indicates that he was a married layman was well as a singer in the papal chapel. He stayed in the papal court through three papacies, until 1415. The Western Schism was going on, and letters from Zacara and some not-so-subtle subversive political references in his music tell us that he may have been involved in the politicking of the time. It’s not known exactly when he left his post with the popes, but one piece of his includes text that make it clear that he left before the council of Pisa in 1409.

During the papal schisms of the 1400s, the anti-popes in Italy (some were at Avignon in France, other were in Milan and Florence) couldn’t afford to hire many chapel singers from France and the Netherlands where the really good musicians lived, so they took advantage of the neighboring towns, which is how little Zacara came to be a chapel musician. He’s recorded as a singer in Anti-Pope John XXIII’s chapel in 1412 and 1413.

He appears to have been an active composer all his life, in two major phases. In the early phase, he used the forms of ballata, much like Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-1386) or Francesco Landini (c1325-1397). In his later period, possibly about the last 15 years or so of his life, when he was in Rome, there’s a clear ars subtilior influence.

Both sacred and secular vocal music survives. There are several paired Mass movements, Glorias and Credos, in a Bologna manuscript that was compiled after his lifetime. There are seven songs of his in the Squarcialupi Codex and 12 in another, called the Mancini Codex, compiled around 1410. Three of his songs are in various other sources. There’s a big difference in style between the works found in the Squarcialupi and the Mancini codices that probably represent when they were written. The Squarcialupi Codex shows influence from lyrical mid-century Italian composers, such as Landini. The Mancini pieces have a more mannerist style, like that of the ars subtilior.

He liked unusual texts with a mixture of languages and bizarre, even Satanic overtones. His “Rosetta” ballate was extremely popular both as the basis for parody Mass movements (for more on parody, see Bartolomeo da Bologna) by himself and others, and for highly ornamented keyboard arrangements.

All but one of his ten surviving secular pieces are ballate in Italian. That one piece is a caccia. In addition to his Mass movements, he also wrote one Latin ballade and one madrigal, both sacred forms.

Mass movements attributed to Zacara are based on secular pieces that are more confidently attributable to him. His Credo is found in manuscripts in both Modena and Bologna. The Bologna copy is simple music, and the Modena manuscript had lavish embellishments.

His Gloria movement contains remnants of the ars nova style (a mostly French style from the 1400s). What’s particularly interesting is that this piece supplies a link between Italian and English repertories, one that would later be called an “Italian influence.” See Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543-1588) and On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player. Probably the most widely distributed piece from the period, Zacara’s Gloria made it to Germany, England, and Poland. It offers more independent part writing (see Chords Versus Polyphony) than French works of the time, and has subtle rhythms.

His Mass movements influenced other composers of the early 15th century, including Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412) and Bartolomeo da Bologna (fl1405-1427). Some of his innovations can be found in works by Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474). He may have been the first to use upper-voice divisi (where a single voice part was split into two or more parts—there had to be multiple singers or instruments per part).

Zacara’s pieces are longer than most other 14th century Mass movements. They use imitation (where one part replicates the melody from another part) extensively as well as hocketing (where the voices produce chirps of sound, like organized hiccups, a style that was popular only for the 13th and 14th century). Pairing his Mass movements with his secular works may provide the link between less unified movements from other composers from that same century and the cyclic Masses that developed by the 15th century.

Two separate documents describe Zacara as already dead in 1416, so he probably died in 1415.


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

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

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

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

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

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