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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.

Composer Biography: Bartholus de Florentia (fl.1375-1405)

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Also known as Frate Bartholino, Frater Bartholomeus, scappucia Frate Baroino, Magister Frater Bartolinus de Padua, Bartolino da Padova, Bartolino da Padu, and Bartolo da Firenze.

Bartholus de Florentia is an obscure composer but for his one Credo movement, once attributed to Lorenzo da Firenza. He may have been the first Italian to compose a polyphonic Mass movement, but the documentation is so sparse, it’s hard to tell. He’s portrayed in the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come) having a tonsured head and wearing a Carmelite habit.

It’s possible that he was prior at the Carmelite abbey in Padua in 1380. In 1405, he was forced into exile to Florence. It seems that he’d written some unfavorable allusions regarding the political and moral behavior of the Visconti family that controlled Padua, so off he went.

The music collections of the time include only or mostly secular songs—there’s a surprising dearth of sacred music from the century. Ecclesiastical composers were focusing on secular polyphony, which is why only a handful of Mass movements survive. And even fewer complete Masses from a single composer survive. Bartholus wrote the Credo I mentioned earlier, but that’s the extent of his sacred output.

The Credo is in two voices, like the other movements from other composers, and both parts sing the text. On a few occasions, the voices sing phrases of text at different times, and alternate in singing successive phrases. The style is called “restrained madrigal” and includes short and unobtrusive melismas (where the melody wiggles around on an open syllable). Most of the time, though, the text is sung in unison.

Of the eleven madrigals and twenty-seven ballate that he wrote, most are in two voices with a handful in three. His style lacks the flow and clear-cut melodic lines that are characteristic of the Italian composers who came before him. But despite the lack of information regarding how such a thing could occur, his work seems strongly influenced by the French ars subtilior in its rhythmic complexity. What would become a French invasion of Italian musical circles had begun with Johannes Ciconia, but didn’t really become a game-changer until long after both were gone.

Just as I found very little about his life and family, I found nothing about his death or burial. I think that makes him MORE intriguing.


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

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



Composer Biography: Paolo da Firenze (c1355-1436/d Arezzo, 1419)

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Also known as  Paulo Tenorista and Magister Dominus Paulas Abbas de Florentia (as he’s called in the Squarcialupi Codex.)

Musically, Paolo da Firenza was conservative and progressive at the same time. He borrowed and combined musical practices from the past and the innovations of his own times, both Italian (old school) and French (new school). He had a distinctively rich and varied musical style. More music from ars nova period survives from Paolo than any other composer except Francesco Landini (c1325-1397), with whom he was friends.

It’s not known if Paulo was born in Florence, but he did live most of his life there, so it’s probable. His father’s name is thought to have been Marco and his family was poor. Paolo is thought to have had three brothers, but their names and what became of them isn’t known.

Paolo became a Benedictine monk around 1380 and his portrait in the Squarcialupi Codex shows him in a suitable black cassock. In 1401, he took the abbot position at Saint Martin al Pino and later became the rector of Orbetello, where he stayed until 1427. In around 1410, he supervised the compilation of the Squarcialupi Codex.

As abbot, he must have been a public figure, because in 1404, Paolo witnessed the signing of a document written at the cardinal’s house in Rome. The only other known date from his life comes from his madrigal Godi, Firenze, which celebrates the victory of Florence over Pisa in 1406.

Much of Paolo’s work is secular and all is vocal, although some of the attributions on Paolo’s ballate are erased in the source. All of his known output is for two or three voices, and through sources or stylistic elements, it’s all datable prior to 1410. Four of his vocal duets are credited to “Don Paolo,” and “P.A.” Is the composer of another 13 pieces.

He wrote three types of songs: 13 madrigals, more than 40 ballate, and two liturgical pieces. The three types of songs represent a sort of chronological journey. Paolo began with the traditional two-voice ballata but soon picked up the French fashion of three voices.

His use of the madrigal form—a third of his 30 surviving secular pieces are madrigals—is unusual at this time, when other forms had largely superseded it. His madrigals reveal a mixture of progressive and conservative elements, some with French influence (more on that in a minute). His two liturgical pieces combine an upper melodic line in the Italian manner with a cantus firmus. He also wrote at least one musical treatise.

His vocal duets use traditional forms and styles. One unusual feature is the provision of open and closed endings for the ritornelli of six madrigals; in one of these, the text doesn’t require repetition of the music (a ritornelli returns both in melody and text—the word means “return”). The same madrigal has open (doesn’t resolve to a satisfying ending) and closed endings (does resolve) in the first musical section (there’s an A and a B section). Earlier composers didn’t use these kinds of endings, although Lorenzo da Firenze and Jacopo da Bologna (fl 1340-c1386) used them in one piece each. It’s the number of times Paolo used these endings that’s unusual. The departure from common practice is less important, though, than the variety of rhythmic and melodic figures.

Paolo went beyond the two-part madrigal only once, in the three-voice Godi, Firenze when Florence defeated Pisa in a small war (remember, Italy was a collection of small city-states, much like Germany was at the time, each with their own rulers and armies). Perhaps the celebration that inspired him also encouraged him to leave his fuddy duddy ways behind.

Where his madrigals are conservative, his ballata are innovative, and he wrote more in the new style of three voices than for two. He was the first composer to do that in the case of the ballata. Of the 26 pieces concretely attributed to Paolo, only six are in two voices. Ten have the French disposition of solo cantus (chant-based melody line) with instrumental tenor and contratenor (higher voices sung against the chant melody), and ten have the hybrid form of vocal duet with instrumental contratenor. Three of these last also exist as vocal duets without a contratenor, but the three voice versions are probably the original.

Of his sacred music, the Benedicamus Domino is for two voices, and Gaudeamus omnes in Domino is for three voices.

With Landini and Andrea da Firenze (d. 1415), Paolo’s output marks the end of Florence’s dominance over Italian musical styles as musicians and their patrons moved to Milan, Venice, and Padua, and eventually on to Rome. Even Paolo spent the end of his life away from Florence.

Paolo’s ballate are the most modern of his works, being mostly for three voices, and all are lyrical, melodic and use some of the more extreme rhythmic intricacies of the ars subtilior school. Landini’s influence, which would have predominated Florence in the late 14th century, is evident in both the madrigals and the ballate.

Paolo was one of the supervisors who produced the musical anthology called the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come). Despite this, the 32 pages reserved for his works, with his portrait (in the black cassock of the Benedictine monk) on the first page and his name at the top of the rest, contain nothing but empty staves. Some think his music wasn’t yet available, although other sources suggest that he was simply away from Florence, attending to the needs of Cardinal Acciaiuoli (d. 1409) at the deadline.

Paolo’s unique style is evident in the sound of the music and in the notation that he used. He used Italian notation and its varied note shapes, mixed with notation of the French principles of mannered notation that introduced new (and needlessly) complex ways of expressing rhythmic patterns. His manuscripts combine Italian and French notation and show the influence of the Avignon mannerist school of ars subtilior in their rhythms, which are complex and intricate.

Using music notation was considered progressive in the 14th century, especially in Italy, and the proportional survival of Paolo’s secular to sacred music may be representative of a trend to document all music, not just sacred.

A resurgence of interest in the Renaissance in the 1970s translated Paolo’s work into modern notation, so it’s a lot easier for us to perform now.

His date of birth is estimated based on information in his will, written within a day or so of his death. When he resigned as abbot in 1433, he was approximately 78 years old. He died in Florence at the age of 81.


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

“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.

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

“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: Lorenzo da Firenze (d 1372/1373 before 1385)

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(also Lorenzo Masini, Lorenzo Masi, Magister Laurentius de Florentia))

Lorenzo da Firenze was a trecento composer from Florence, Italy. He was a close associate of Francesco Landini in Florence and part of the ars nova movement. His secular pieces draw on texts from all the hot poets of his day, including Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), who’s probably most famous for The Decameron.

Nothing is known about Lorenzo’s childhood or family. People didn’t have last names back then, so there’s no way to trace him, and any records that might have been kept are either too unclear to be helpful or they’re lost altogether. It isn’t known when or where he was born, and sadly, it’s not even known when he died.

The first record of Lorenzo is when he became a canon in 1348 at San Lorenzo, which is the largest basilica in Florence. While there, he was possibly either a pupil or a teacher of Francesco Landini (since we don’t know his dates, we can’t use age to determine which was more likely and the records are muddled, but Landini is most certainly the most famous composer of the period). It’s presumed that he remained at San Lorenzo for the rest of his life, although there’s evidence that he also worked at various other Florentine churches between 1350 and 1370.

His secular music includes five ballate, a lively caccia (called A poste messe), and 10 two-part madrigals. One of these is famous among madrigalists, called Da da a chi avareggia, and includes virtuosic ornamentation and imitation. There is also a pedagogical piece called the Antefana, that mentions his role as a teacher.

It’s hard to know exactly how much music Lorenzo wrote because most sacred music of the period was unattributed. His works are represented in the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come), which was an illuminated manuscript that contained all the big composers of the day. Sixteen of Lorenzo’s pieces are included, consisting of the 10 madrigals mentioned above, six monophonic (chant) ballate, the caccia named above, and two Mass movements.

His music tends to be complex and experimental, with extended melismas (where the music wiggles around on an open syllable), imitation (where one voice repeats what another has done, perhaps in a different place along the scale), part crossing (where a lower voice follows the scale upward while a higher voice follows the scale downward until the lower voice is higher than the higher voice), and accidentals (notes outside those that define the scale of the piece). In fact, he used chromaticism (a melody that follows all the notes of the scale—like all the white and black notes on a keyboard–in order) to a degree that is rare in the 14th century before the ars sublitor period. (See Carlo Gesualdo for more on chromaticism.)

Lorenzo played with heterophony, where two voices simultaneously perform variations of a single melody. The round Dona nobis pacem (no composer known, but nearly everyone today has heard it) is like this to some degree, where the main melody is still apparent even when it’s not being sung. He also used parallel fourths and fifths (where the melody’s movement is paralleled a few notes off from another voice. This creates an interesting kind of harmony, like the melody being played in chords with the middle note missing) that was a relic of organum and conductus (early forms of harmony).

There is some French influence in his music, such as isorhythmic passages (where each melodic line has an identical or very similar rhythm), like those employed by Guillaume Machaut, and that are not usually found in Italian music. The notation he used in some of his works is in the French style. It isn’t known how the French style got to Florence, though, because it wasn’t until nearly a generation after his death that Johannes Ciconia began what would become a musical Franco-Flemish invasion of Italy.

Most collections from the period contain primarily secular songs. Like Lorenzo, a great number of otherwise ecclesiastical composers wrote secular polyphony—they had freedom in secular music to choose their own texts, to earn money writing for patrons and public events, and to experiment with some of the new techniques that I mentioned earlier. Motets (the sacred form of madrigals) by Italian composers during this period are very rarely preserved or attributed, and only a handful of Mass movements remain.

Lorenzo wrote a single Sanctus (a Mass movement). It’s in two voices, and like other Mass movements by other composers of the period, both parts sing the text. On a few occasions, the voices sing specific phrases of text at different times, and alternate singing successive phrases. The style is called “restrained madrigal” and includes short and unobtrusive melismas (where the tune wiggles around on an open syllable, remember?). He uses slightly longer and more elaborate melismas than other composers of sacred music, but there’s a restraint about it that is characteristic of his madrigals. Gherardello da Firenze’s secular pieces are much like Lorenzo’s in quantity and genre, but Gherardello occasionally uses three voices.

Along with Donato da Cascia (fl c1350-1370), the pieces Lorenzo wrote are considered in our time as the pinnacle of the Italian madrigal virtuosic singing, the peak of the Italian ars nova. Melismas are long in the upper part—sometimes very long—and the lower voice provides the cantus firmus (a slow version of the chant on which the piece is based).

Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340-c1386) set the style of having successive rather than simultaneous declamation of the text. This makes each voice similarly—and equally—important (unlike today’s style of carrying the melody in the soprano line).

Lorenzo uses a lot of imitation, sometimes short motives of one or two measures (imagine the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and that’s the length we’re talking about here). Longer phrases are imitated with a distance of several measures between them, in the style of the caccia. The number of repetitions of words and phrases often reflect a descriptive or humorous intention, especially apparent in his setting of Da, da a chi averigia, which is from a madrigal by Nicolo Soldanieri (d1385, also from Florence).

Like other composers of the era, Lorenzo used texts that had already been used in the madrigals and ballata of well-known Florentine or Tuscan poets, such as Antonio degli Alberti (c1360-1415), Boccaccio, Franco Sacchetti (c1335-c1400), and Soldanieri. But the great majority of the texts are of unknown origins, perhaps eve his own.

Only Lorenzo and Gherardello continued the tradition of monophonic ballate this late in the 14th century. Each wrote five monophonic pieces, all less florid than their madrigals. Melismas do occur, particularly on the first and penultimate syllables of poetic lines. When the intervening text is set syllabically, as is usual in chant, the stylistic influence of the madrigal is more obvious.

Just as obscure as his birth, the actual date and place of Lorenzo’s death is not known.


“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 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.

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

Composer Biography: Gherardello da Firenze (c1320/1325-c1362/1384)

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Also Gherardellus de Florentia, Ser Gherardello, and rarely, Niccolo di Francesco.

Gherardello da Firenze was an Italian composer during the flowering of 14th century polyphony. A contemporary of Francesco Landini, he was one of the first composers of the Italian ars nova (a term used to connect all the new techniques that were being developed in France, Belgium, and Italy).

He was probably born in or near Florence and he spent most of his life within 20 miles of there. Many of his contemporaries sought their fortune in the north, so it’s interesting that he stayed home. Not much is known about his private life, except that he wasn’t the only composer in the family. His brother Jacopo (dates unavailable) and his son Giovanni (dates unknown) were also composers, although none of their music survives.

The first mention of Gherardello is when he shows up in the records of the Florence Cathedral as a clerk, at Santa Reparata, in 1343. He soon became a chaplain there (from 1345-1361), and was rather notably there during the Black Death years (1348 was the worst of it in Florence).

He joined the Benedictine order at Vallombrosa in Tuscany (about 19 miles south-east of Florence) in 1351, presumably as a monk. Later, he went back to Florence and became a prior at San Remigio, a 400 year-old church that had been reconstructed in the previous century.

It’s interesting that early 14th century Italian songs show no French influence, as the next century would bring a much greater mix of the two sensibilities—almost a competition. The French didn’t make themselves known in Italian music until around 1365 in the works of the later Florentine composers, like Francesco Landini, and Johannes Ciconia).

Despite that, Gherardello’s Gloria and Credo show the influence of Guillaume Machaut’s French style. Gherardello was known for his liturgical compositions, but sadly, only two Mass movements have survived. In fact, very few of anyone’s Mass movements have survived from before 1400, partly due to the wars that raged and partly due to the paucity of parchment and standardized notation.

In the end, 16 of his works (10 madrigals, five ballate, and a caccia), are in the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come), along with a portrait of him. He was especially famous for the caccia, called Tosta che l’alba (more about that in a moment).

His works show up in other collections from the period, especially in Tuscany, that contain only or mostly secular songs. It’s interesting to note that a great number of otherwise ecclesiastical composers who wrote mostly monody also wrote secular polyphony, although motets (sacred madrigals) by Italian composers during this period are very rare.

Gherardello’s two Mass movements are for two voices, which was the most common arrangement at the time. All of his madrigals are in two voices, the five ballate are monophonic (unison), and his one caccia is for three voices.

Monody (unison voices) was out of style. Of the few documented composers of the time, only Lorenzo da Firenza (d. 1372, biography to come) and Gherardello continued the tradition of monophonic ballate. Each wrote five such pieces, the style of which is less florid than the two-voice madrigals that they wrote. Melismas (where the melody wiggles around on a single syllable) do occur, particularly on the first and penultimate syllables of poetic lines. When the intervening text is set syllabically, as is common in chant, the stylistic influence of the madrigal is unmistakable.

Gherardello wrote one of the best known (as evidenced by how many collections it appears in collections) hunting caccias, called Tosto che l’alba (As soon as the dawn). Tosta’s two upper voices move in canon (one sings a theme and the other repeats it), and the lower voice moves more slowly in cantus firmus (a chant-like song that provides a kind of “home” to the other, more wiggly parts).

Like all caccias, Tosto che l’alba is a hunt—a chase or catch. In this case, it literally describes a hunt, with musical imitations of calling the dogs and sounding the hunting horn. It’s both light-spirited and comic.

A sonnet lamenting Gherardello’s death was written by Simone Penuzzi (dates unavailable) in 1362 or 1363, but there are musical pieces that, if written by him, make it possible that Gherardello lived another 20 years after that.


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

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

“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.

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


Composer Biography: Francesco Landini (c1325-1397)

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Also Franciscus caecus, Francesco il cieco, Francesco degli organi and Ferancesco da Firenze. Florentine sources never use a surname, but called him Franciscus de organis or Francesco degli orghanij.

Francesco Landini is probably the most well-known composer, poet, and performer from 14th century Italy. He was—and is—often considered the Italian counterpart of Flemish composer and poet Guillaume Machaut. Both were endowed with considerable talent, although musically, Machaut explored every compositional innovation of the time, and Landini limited himself to only a few. Landini’s music represents about a quarter of the surviving Italian music from the period and it’s preserved in diverse sources in Florence and elsewhere.

Landini’s father was Jacopo del Casentino (c1297-1358), a noted painter in the school of Giotto di Bondone (c1267-1337). He (Francesco) was born in northern Italy, probably Florence or in nearby Fiesole. His great-nephew, the humanist Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498), was his biographer, and lists his birthplace as Fiesole, but Francesco had been dead for 27 years when Cristoforo was born, so there’s no way to know if it’s accurate or family folklore.

Blinded by smallpox before he was a teenager, Landini studied music instead of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a painter. He also studied the seven liberal arts (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical theory, dialectic, rhetoric, and grammar), plus philosophy and astrology.

He learned to play the lute, the organ, and other instruments, he sang, he wrote about philosophy, religion, and politics, he wrote poetry, and, of course, he wrote music. He invented instruments, including a stringed instrument called the syrena syrenarum that combined features of the lute and the psaltery, and is believed to be the ancestor of the bandura (a Ukrainian folk instrument that has a flat playing surface like that of the psaltery or zither and is long-necked like a lute).

Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-c1386) was Landini’s teacher on the organ before 1351. Landini was gifted and his talents brought him attention from the other notables of the time—he was friends with poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374). He also spent time in northern Italy prior to 1370, and wrote a motet dedicated to Andrea Contarini (d.1382), who was Doge of Venice from 1368-1382. Landini’s music is well represented in northern Italian collections, so he probably spent considerable time there.

Landini became organist at the Florentine monastery of Santa Trinita in 1361 and at the church of San Lorenzo from 1365 onward. He was heavily involved in politics and religious controversies, but managed to stay in the good graces of the authorities anyway.

He was crowned with a laurel wreath in Venice by King Peter of Cyprus (1328-1369) upon the recommendation of a jury that included his good friend Petrarch. He was also employed by the Veronese court and visited northern Italy from Florence, serving, as usual, as an organist.

Petrarch wasn’t Landini’s only literary pal. He also wrote to and received letters from poet and novelist Franco Sacchetti (c1330-c1400).

Landini is a principal character in Giovanni da Prato’s Paradiso degli Alberti, which is a narrative poem from around 1425 that records scenes and conversations in Florence. Prato includes a legendary incident regarding Landini’s skill as a performer: On a very hot day, the audience remained in the shade, with a thousand birds singing in the treetops. Landini played the organ to see whether the birds would respond in kind. At first, many of the birds fell silent. But then they resumed their song and sang even more enthusiastically than before. One nightingale in particular seemed to be enjoying it, and it came over and perched on a branch above Landini’s head.

He knew most of the other Italian composers of the time, including Lorenzo da Firenze (d. c1372), who was also at Santa Trinita, and Andreas da Florentia (d. 1415), whom he knew in the 1370s. Around 1375, Andreas hired Landini as a consultant on the organ construction at the Servite house (one of the mendicant orders of Catholicism) in Florence. Records of receipts for wine show that it took the two of them three days to tune the organ. Landini also helped build the new organ at the Basilica Santissima Annunziata in 1379. Also in 1379, Landini was paid 9 solidi for writing 5 motets—a rare record of payment to a composer. In 1387, he was involved in building an organ at the Florence Cathedral.

He was the master of many instruments, especially the organetto, a small portative organ. According to 14th century chronicler Filippo Villani (fl. late 14th century, early 15th), Landini played the organetto “as readily as though he had the use of his eyes, with a touch of such rapidity (yet always observing the measure), with such skill and sweetness, that beyond all doubt he excelled all organists within memory.”

After the 1370s, he was organist and cappellanus at San Lorenzo, where he would be buried in 1397.

Now to the music. There’s not a lot of difference in the trecento between the French and Italian idioms—relatively few Italian composers for the whole century were innovators (a failure for which they would make up in spades in the coming centuries). So if you heard music from the 14th century, it would sound much the same if the composer were Flemish, French, English, or Italian. (The English would really branch out during the Tudor years—for more on that, read my post On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player.)

Landini displayed his Italian heritage by performing outdoors (as was the style in Italy and you saw it in Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” Boccaccio lived from 1313-1375), and by describing the outdoors in his texts. The intention was to move the listener rather than to charm or challenge, like in the French and English styles.

There are records of Landini writing sacred music, but it’s all lost. At the time, Italian church music was Gregorian chant. Polyphonic liturgical music was the occasional exception, but it was even more rare in Italy than elsewhere in Europe.

Two-part religious polyphony was the new rage all over Europe from Spain to Poland and in all the lands peripheral to French musical culture. But the only complete polyphonic Italian Mass of the period was a composite: the Gloria and Agnus Dei were by Gherardello da Firenze (biography to come), the Credo by “Frate Bartholino” (Bartholus de Florentia, fl. c1410-1425), and the Sanctus by Lorenzo da Firenze (biography to come). Paolo da Firenza (biography to come) contributed a three-part Benedicamus Domino in a later style, with a chant tenor in long-note values—the cantus firmus that is evidence of the French influence.

With none of his sacred music available, it’s possible to assume that the bulk of Landini’s work was secular, the polyphonic ballata, which was the Italian version of the virelai (a musical format, possibly the descendent of troubadour songs). It wasn’t a new form, as Gherardello da Firenze had already written some, along with others of Landini’s predecessors and peers.

Landini wielded the polyphonic ballata masterfully. His earlier works are predominantly in two parts, with both parts sung or one sung and the other instrumental, and occasionally in three parts, sometimes entirely vocal but most often with an instrumental tenor or countertenor.

Landini used the new French notation, although, as he was blind, it was someone else who wrote his music down. (If you want to know about the whole history of music notation, check out The History of Music Notation.)

French notation used a six-line staff (the Italians were using a four-line staff with ledger lines for individual notes that exceeded the four-line range). They used dots to separate one breve (the shortest note value in medieval music—modern music uses this term for the longest note) from the next. Breves had downward-extending diagonal stems that indicated a longer note. There were also flagged stems on minims and dragmas (other flavors of notation indicating duration) that indicated triplets, duplets, and quadruplets, plus one-note ligatures that indicated a held note (like across-the-bar in modern notation).

At any rate, as I mentioned, most of his surviving works are ballata, of which roughly two-thirds are for two voices and one third is for three voices. His style ranges from simple dance-songs to intricate canonic (Bach would later be a fan of this style, where a melody is cascaded among voice parts) or isorhythmic forms, synthesizing the Italian style of his predecessors with French influences, and displaying a distinctive gift for melody.

He frequently used what would later be called the “Landini-cadence,” especially in upper parts. (It’s also called the Landini 6th) This name was given to a cadential formula (a sequence of notes that indicates the end of a piece or a change from verse to chorus) in which the 6th degree of the scale (in the do-re-mi sense) is interposed between the leading note (the penultimate note of the scale) and its resolution to the tonic or final degree (the “do” note). Examples appear aplenty in the music of Landini, but it was already common, and it appears in 15th and 16th century polyphony as well.

The Landini cadence can also be heard in the songs of Gilles Binchois. Gherardello da Firenze is the earliest composer to use the cadence whose works have survived, and he was roughly Landini’s contemporary.

Hardly any poetry or texts for Landini’s music can be securely attributed to him, although the texts of the autobiographical songs, in the Italian dolce stil novo that are associated with Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch are presumably his. He was a distinguished poet in his own time, though, and he was awarded poetic honors in Venice.

Of his 140 ballata, 89 are for two voices, 42 are for three, and nine survive in both two- and three-part versions. The two-part ballata are presumed to be his earlier works and resemble madrigals in texture, with two texted vocal parts. Many of the three-part ballata are in a treble-dominated style that feature a solo voice with two untexted accompanying parts that were most likely sung, like in Machaut’s canons.

In his entirely vocal two-part ballata, the upper voices were more florid than the lower. Some of the pieces are so regularly rhythmic that they were probably intended as dances. It’s his three-part ballata that are his most incredible, with a modern “consonant” sound, a kind of musical foreshadowing of what was to come (chords and harmonies).

Only one of his three-part pieces was transcribed for keyboard. It can be found in the Codex Reina.

His music tends to be smooth and melodic rather than dissonant—you have to remember that chords and harmony hadn’t been invented yet. He wrote particularly sweet harmonies. Sonorities containing thirds and sixths are plentiful, though they never begin or end a section or a piece.

His vocal melodies are charming, arranged in arching phrases and often moving step-wise. They’re decorated with varied and occasionally syncopated rhythms, but are smoother in both pitch contour and rhythm than most melodies by Machaut, to whom he is most often compared. Melismas (wiggly melodies) on the first and penultimate syllables of a poetic line are characteristic of the Italian style, as is the clear, almost syllabic declamation of melody between melismas.

The end of every line, and often the first word and the mid-point or caesura (pausing point) of a line, is marked by a cadence, frequently the Landini cadence, and consist of a lower voice descending by steps, and the upper voice decorating its ascent by first descending to the lower neighbor and then skipping up a third—the Landini cadence. This cadence became ubiquitous in both French and Italian music in the late 14th and early 15th century.

In addition to his 140 ballata, he wrote 12 madrigals (texted polyphony, like a motet), one caccia (like a round, but more complex), and one virelai (the French version of a ballata).

There are two modern editions of Landini’s and other trecento secular repertory prior to Johannes Ciconia: Leonard Ellinwood’s “The Works of Francesco Landini,” and Leo Schrade’s “The Works of Francesco Landini, Polyphonic Music of the 14th Century.”

The two known likenesses of Landini depict him as blind—his eyes are closed and darkened—and both show him holding a portative organ. One image is carved on his tombstone in San Lorenzo, Florence. The other is a painting in the Squarcialupi Codex, where he is shown seated at his organetto. The painting has a decorative border that includes a psaltery, three kinds of lute, and another small portative organ, played by St. Cecelia, the patron saint of music and musicians.

Landini is buried at San Lorenzo, Florence. His gravestone was lost until the 19th century, but is now displayed at the church, replete with the carving.


“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.

“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 & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000.

“Companion to Medieval and 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 & Company, New York, 1940.

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

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

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hippin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978.