Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Posts Tagged ‘Rhythmic Modes

Composer Biography: Perotin (c1160-1230)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triplum                 a b c

Duplum                c a b

Tenor                    b c a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical Modes: Part 2, Rhythmic Modes

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This is the second of three blogs on musical modes. Part 1 is about “church” modes, Part 2 is about rhythmic modes, and Part 3 is about non-European modes.

In the 10th century, music was starting to diverge from unison; one voice maintained a somewhat slow and steady tune (called the tenor) and another voice waxed ecstatic (often called the superius or the altus). Although the rhythms in the wandering voice didn’t matter much to the steady voice, there were certain markers that needed to be met so that syllables or unison notes could be lined up.

Without written notation, both singers had to listen and take visual cues from one another to stay in step. There was the tenor voice plodding purposefully toward the final note while the other voice wiggled and wandered and all but mamboed in a way that thrilled the listener.

They had to come up with some way to keep together, to change syllables at the same moment and to come to a satisfying end together. At first, they must have employed significant glances or nods, but in time, a form of rhythm evolved. The original two-part music, organum and conductus, was performed as the monks walked down the aisle as part of the mass ceremony. A natural rhythm accompanies such things, and voila! Rhythm joined melody.

At first, rhythms were only allowed in certain prescribed forms, what are known as the rhythmic modes. They do seem to travel in threes—the count tallies to three or multiples of three in each of them. This may have had some religious symbolism, but it is actually more likely to come from secular music. The dancing aspect of the rhythms is rather easy to hear.

The work being done to create a notation system was pivotal in the development of rhythmic modes. There had to be some way to aurally tie one voice to the other, and writing it down made it easier both to learn and to perform. It also made it possible for more than two singers to participate.

It is thought that the development of rhythmic modes originates from the treatise De musica by St. Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries. He described two units of measure, a long (longa) and a short (brevis), where the short was exactly half the length of a long. But they didn’t really get down to documenting these until they had block-note mensuration in the late 11th century. The first notation for the rhythmic modes was based on the block-notes they used for writing down the chants.

It isn’t known who originated the six rhythmic forms, although it is rather likely to have begun at the school at Notre Dame in Paris, where considerable work was being done regarding documenting music theory and coming up with new musical forms. In the 13th century, there was a definitive treatise (attributed to Johannes de Garlandia) that at last described these modes in De musica mensurabili positio.

The first mode was likely the first to be used, a pattern of a longer note and then a shorter one. The reversal of the order to a short and then a long note was a natural progression, and that is the second mode. It is thought that the sixth mode was a sort of ornamentation of this arrangement in that it is three short notes, equaling both the first and second mode in duration.

The third, fourth, and fifth modes are thought to be later developments. The third consists of three notes, one that is half-again as long as a long note (or the equivalent of three shorts), a short, and then a normal-length long (like a dotted quarter, an eighth, and a quarter note in modern notation). The fourth mode is a short, a long, and a triple-wide long (like an eighth, a quarter and a dotted quarter note in modern notation). And the fifth mode is like two triple-wide longs (two dotted quarter notes in modern notation).

At first, the problem must have been that re-using the same rhythmic patterns throughout a single piece grew tedious and it was also a little hard to document—not every text ends neatly at the end of a rhythmic mode. By the 13th century, scholars at Notre Dame had come up with something called fractio modi (the breaking of the mode), which combined notes of several modes and filled in spaces with notes that didn’t comply with any mode and with rests (silence). They also created a diamond-shaped note to indicate running patterns, usually downward and which may have been performed as ornaments rather than staying in a particular rhythm. (This shape got borrowed back into block-note chant notation.)

Polyphony (multiple melodic lines) made it necessary to indicate how the various voices fit with each other so that the group could stay together. The Notre Dame School replaced the even unmeasured flow of plainchant and early polyphony with the recurrent patterns of long and short notes of the rhythmic modes. No song is likely to have maintained any single rhythmic pattern for the duration—it would have seriously squelched the exuberant nature of the wandering voice or voices.

And of course, a sensitive artist wouldn’t follow the notation on the page with mathematical rigor, but would introduce rhythmic nuance suggested by the text and the mood of the poem and by the melody itself. This probably caused the creation of even more developments in the musical world. And it didn’t take too long for music to evolve in such a way that it was too complex for thse few little modes.

It’s interesting to note that the six rhythmic modes correspond to the “feet” of meters in classical poetry. Although the modes have names (Trochaic, Iambic, Dactylic, Anapestic, Spondaic, and Tribrachic), they are usually referred to by their numbers (1-6).

Like the literary meters, the formulas created by these rhythmic modes allowed development into the musical shapes we find familiar today—soon, they needed meters divisible by 2 or 4, and now, we have things with sevens and fives and nines!

Next in the series, non-European modes.

Early Medieval Music Up to 1300, edited by Dom Anselm Hughes, Oxford University Press, London, 1954
Medieval Music, Richard H. Hoppin, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978
A History of Western Music (8th edition), J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

Written by Melanie Spiller

September 26, 2011 at 3:46 pm