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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: Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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