Category: Pre-1600





Astonishing beauty—it’s there for the listening…

When I posted an overview of the Franco-Flemish composers a few months ago (Music I Love, #168), I noted that there are three composers who mark the three peaks of that remarkable two-century long run of great imitative-counterpoint choral music. Those composers were Ockeghem, Josquin, and Lassus. We last looked at Ockeghem in MIL, #211. He was the “top” of the first wave of Franco-Flemish composers. Today, I want to highlight Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594), the “top” of the third, and last, wave. I’ll be posting Josquin—“top” of the second wave soon.

At the end of sixteenth century, the big three composers in Europe were the Netherlander Lassus, the Italian Palestrina, and the Spaniard Victoria. All three were, in their generation, like suns in a firmament of stars. Lassus, in particular, shone brightly because of the sheer quantity—over 2000 works—and the amazing quality of his writing. The common used forms of the day—motet, madrigal, villanelle, chansons, and lieder—were the vehicles through which his genius was heard. He works include 530 (!) motets, 175 madrigals, 150 chanson, and 60 masses.

In an age in which instrumental music was becoming more and more popular as art music, it is interesting that Lassus wrote no instrumental music, preferring choral and vocal music exclusively. The universal (meaning pan-European) appeal of his work and his style is reflected in the fact that he wrote to texts in four languages—Latin, French, Italian, and German.

Although born in what is today Belgium, Lassus left home at the age of twelve to study in Italy. His talent as a singer had been evident from the time he was a boy—he was supposedly KIDNAPPED three times by various parishes because of the beauty of his voice—and, in Italy, his aptitude for composition propelled him to be named maestro di cappella of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the ecumenical mother church of Rome, at the age of twenty-one. It was simply unheard-of for anyone so young to be appointed to such a position. It would be somewhat analogous to a young man of that age being named the conductor of a major orchestra or opera company. It was a spectacularly prestigious post.

Lassus felt he could not be tied to that post forever, though. And while still in his twenties, his musical travels and responsibilities were wide-ranging, all over France and England. When he was 33, he was offered the post of maestro de capella in Munich, a city he loved so much that he passed up all other opportunities thereafter in favor of staying in Munich for the rest of his life. Lassus’ fame as a master composer had spread to every corner of Europe; even at this relatively young age, composers were streaming from all over Europe to study with him there.

Lassus was a very serious man who remained a staunch Catholic even though the times he lived in were brimming with religious controversy and polarization. Especially attractive to him were the penitential psalms—those psalms expressing sorrow for sin. There are seven of these. In the Christian Bible, these would be Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142. (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 in the Hebrew numbering.)

Lassus was not the first Renaissance composer to compose works based on these psalms, but by common agreement, his (which were written in 1584) are the most impressive and beautiful. The Penitential Psalms were my introduction to Lassus—a falling in love at first listen—some forty years ago. __________________________

I hope no one will mind my taking a moment here to say a word about actually listening to the links in my posts. Those of you who have been with me from the beginning know that my motivation for posting music I love is to share music (and whatever I happen to know about music) with others. Truly, nothing gives me more pleasure than knowing I have successfully shared something of beauty with others. Now that I’ve started a separate Facebook page—ROBERT RUCKMAN, MUSICIAN—I am able to see that, although 100 people may check out a given post, very few readers are clicking on the YouTube links and listening to them.

Don’t get me wrong—I am very glad to share knowledge about composers and music. And I am aware that listening to anything at all requires time—a precious commodity. But—to make an analogy—if I had a genuine interest in, say, the history of art, but I was content to simply read about it—the artist’s life, how he compared with other artists, a description of his style and what was unique about him or her—but I never actually just beheld an artist’s work when it was right in front of me, I would be living life at a distance, once-removed from actual experience, a second-best existence.

So, I really do hope that it will be possible for you to find enough time to listen to the links in my posts. Maybe not so much with pop music or other music that you are already thoroughly familiar with, but especially in cases like today—with a composer like Lassus who may be unfamiliar to you. Listening to the music can be an opportunity for horizon-expanding.

OK, I hope that didn’t sound like a lecture. Not my intention at all.

If hearing Lassus IS a new experience for you, I would offer the suggestion that it might be more instructive, and probably leave a deeper impression, if, after listening to the first few minutes, you simply skipped around in the following link rather than listening straight through. These works are the high-water mark of Renaissance vocal polyphony. You will know in the first half-minute whether Lassus simply doesn’t appeal to you—or whether he opens up a whole new world of astonishing beauty. I think what is important is to get an aural taste of what the best music of the late Renaissance actually sounded like.

As I mentioned, Lassus wrote settings for all seven of the Penitential Psalms. I am linking here to a really fine performance featuring four of these settings. The singers are the Leipzig-based, world famous Kammerchor Josquin des Prez.

Penitential Psalm #1 – Psalm 6 0:00
Penitential Psalm #3—Psalm 37 13:45
Penitential Psalm #6—Psalm 129 38:50
Penitential Psalm #7—Psalm 142 46:35

Pictures are Lassus, the Penitential Psalm choirbook–notice how beautiful it is–and the Kammerchor des Prez.







A couple of months ago, I posted a summary of the Franco-Flemish era in music history (Music I Love #168). There, I mentioned that among all the great composers from that two-century long era, the three big names—each representing a high point in compositional ingenuity—were Ockeghem, Josquin, and Lassus. I’d like to feature a work by Ockeghem today.

I also mentioned, in a different post, a memory I have of a professor I had back in my days as a doctoral student, a marvelous teacher and human being, James Riley. I remember the day he discussed Ockeghem in his music history class. He closed his eyes and softly said, “Oh how I love the music of this man!” That was enough to make me want to hear everything Ockeghem composed.

As it turns out, although Johannes Ockeghem (1410-1497) was definitely a major figure, not a lot of his work has survived. Of his works, only 14 masses, 10 motets, and 21 chansons have survived. Of his 14 masses, only 9 are complete; the remaining 5 consist of only a few movements each. This relative scarcity of material only throws into high relief how great a composer Ockeghem was. It would be something like only having a dozen or so works by Beethoven—but we know, of those, there would be enough “evidence” to conclude that Beethoven was the greatest composer of his day.

Details of Ockeghem’s early life are scant. Although he was born in what is now Belgium, his life’s work occurred in what is now France, specifically at Moulins, Tours, and Paris, where he served at Notre Dame. We also know of his valuable skills as a diplomat for the court, as he was sent by Louis XI to Spain to handle very complex negotiations in a dual attempt to 1) dissuade Spain from allying with England against France, as well as to 2) arrange a marriage between Isabella I and Louis’ brother, the Duke of Guyenne.

Obviously, Ockeghem was obviously highly regarded both as a composer and diplomat.

What set Ockeghem apart from others was his writing for four voices, which was then a novelty. Writing for three voices had dominated the Burgundian School, which preceded him. His four-part writing, particularly within the context of impressive vocal counterpoint—different voices all moving simultaneously yet producing an overall extremely harmonious effect—was unprecedented. He extended the activity and range (downward) for his lowest bass part, creating an almost instrumental effect.

Even if one knows nothing of Ockeghem’s technique, one is immediately drawn to the beauty and clarity of his writing.

As a parenthesis here, I think it needs to be said that in order for our 21st century ears to appreciate Ockeghem—and by extension, all Renaissance choral music—a certain kind of mind re-set needs to occur. We need to go back in time to half a millennium ago, to imagine we are in a cathedral which itself is the acoustic instrument that is being played. We have to imagine ourselves away from everything we’ve ever experienced in terms of technologically-produced sound. We must become blank slates.

A funny memory, though, comes back to me even as I am writing this. My attempts at trying to create a “soundstage” in the minds of hearers occasionally falls flat. As is probably obvious, I am an enthusiastic proponent of music from the Renaissance. So, back in the 1980s when I was teaching my Music History class at Sinclair, and we had come to the Renaissance in England, and specifically to William Byrd—one of my favorites—I thought what a GOOD IDEA it would be, while playing the Kyrie movement from Byrd’s Mass in Four Parts, to say everything I just said above—forget all you’ve known, just hear the sounds, imagine you are in a cathedral, etc—and then, to make sure there were no visual distractions, I turned the lights out. Six minutes later at the Kyrie’s conclusion, I turned them back on, thinking about the profound impression Byrd had no doubt made on these music majors…only to discover that about half of them were drifting off to sleep! And those who were still wide awake—unbelievably to naïve me—I had NOT lit a lifelong fire for William Byrd in their minds.

Needless to say, that was the last time I attempted the “lights-off” pedogogical techniqe.

But I do still think it can be effective…given the right listeners.

I hope that no one reading this will have a similar nocturnal response to Ockeghem. His music is sublime, but, as with so many things in life, it requires our attention if any kind of impression at all is going to occur.

If there is a “greatest hit” in the Ockeghem oeuvre, it is his Missa Pro Defunctis. This mass is the first (not just Ockeghem’s first, but THE first) surviving example of a requiem mass—a Mass for the Dead. The five parts which are extant are: Introitus, Kyrie, Graduale, Tractus, Offertorium.


It may be of interest for me to include here the texts for each movement, both in Latin and in English.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion,
Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem
Exaudi orationem meam
Ad te omnis caro veniet.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord
And let perpetual light shine upon them
A hymn, O God, becometh Thee in Zion
And a vow shall be paid to thee in Jerusalem
Hear my prayer
All flesh shall come before you.



Kyrie, eleison!
Christe, eleison!
Kyrie, eleison!

Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy on us.



Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In memoria aeterna erit iustus,
ab auditione mala non timebit.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord :
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
He shall be justified in everlasting memory,
and shall not fear evil reports.



Absolve, Domine,
animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
ab omni vinculo delictorum
et gratia tua illis succurente
mereantur evadere iudicium ultionis,
et lucis aeternae beatitudine perfrui.

Forgive, O Lord,
the souls of all the faithful departed
from all the chains of their sins
and by the aid to them of your grace
may they deserve to avoid the judgment of revenge,
and enjoy the blessedness of everlasting light.



Domine, Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae,
libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
de poenis inferni
et de profundo lacu.
Libera eas de ore leonis
ne absorbeat eas tartarus,
ne cadant in obscurum;
Sed signifer sanctus Michael
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam,
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semini eius.

Hostias et preces tibi, Domine
laudis offerimus
tu suscipe pro animabus illis,
quarum hodie memoriam facimus.
Fac eas, Domine, de morte
transire ad vitam.
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semine eius.

Lord Jesus Christ, king of glory,
deliver the soulds of all the faithful departed
from the pains of Hell
and the bottomless pit.
Deliver them from the jaws of the lion,
lest hell engulf them,
lest they be plunged into darkness;
but let the holy standard-bearer Michael
lead them into the holy light,
as once you promised to Abraham
and to his seed.

Lord, in praise we offer you
Sacrifices and prayers,
accept them on behalf of those
who we remember this day:
Lord, make them pass
from death to life,
as once you promised to Abraham
and to his seed.

Pictures are of Ockeghem and the Ars Nova Copenhagen.







I had originally written this post a few days ago, but I was not satisfied with it. Something was irritating me about it. It was a somewhat lengthy post about the omni-presence of music in all civilizations and how the music of the Notre Dame school in Paris—and Perotin’s accomplishment in particular—could be seen both as the conclusion of a long trajectory from ancient times and also as a brand new start. And while I think those things are true and interesting, it is not really what I wanted to say. I woke up in the middle of the night, just now, with this realization. And so this time I’ll say what I really should have said in the first place.

We know almost nothing about the life of Perotin, other than that he was held in the highest regard by his contemporaries at Notre Dame as a master composer and teacher—so much so that during his lifetime and for many generations after, he was referred to as Perotin Le Grand, Perotin the Great, or Magister Perotin (Perotin the Master.) We don’t know when he was born. We think he died early in the 13th century, around 1215.

The music that Perotin and his predecessor Leonin wrote is called ORGANUM. Organum is music that involves two or more simultaneously occurring voices, and is itself built upon an existing chant melody. By the time of Perotin’s life, there would have been literally thousands of chant melodies—monophonic, unmeasured, pure melodies which “clothed” biblical texts or other spiritual words. Depending upon the geographic location of the cathedrals in which these chants were created, certain styles of chant-writing had come into being—Ambrosian, Gallican, Mozarabic, and the one that most people have heard of, Gregorian. In the work of the Notre Dame composers, a second voice would be added to this chant melody. It was always a higher voice which often moved in parallel motion with the original voice.

This was organum. The important thing to remember is that one of the voices was a chant melody.

It only took a couple generations of the Notre Dame composers to expand from 2-part organum to 4-part organum. To our 21st century ears, the sound of four simultaneously-sounding parts is something that seems commonplace—our ears have heard multi-part music for many hundreds of years—ever since Perotin. But composing 3- and then 4-voice organum was a quantum leap forward, if you will, over all the music of all the centuries that had preceded it. From about 1100 A.D. on, this IS what made western music different than anything that had preceded it. It was an outstanding accomplishment. From it sprang all the music we know and love.

So, here is why “Viderunt Omnes” carries so much weight.

The language of Gregorian chant was Latin. By the middle of the middle ages—1000 A.D.—Latin had become the exclusive language of the clergy and the language of scholars. Therefore, the personal meaning that a typical “parishioner” would get from hearing a chant sung during a service would have been limited at best. The average congregation would have perhaps recognized that this or that chant was speaking about Mary or about God’s beneficence, but that is probably all.

As the writing of organum evolved, the voice that was added above the chant line took on a life of its own—IT became the sole interest. No longer was the centuries-old chant upon which it was written that important. Rather quickly—say, in 40 years or so, around 1150-1190—the chant line—that bottom voice—became simply a series of very long notes, and the voices written above it became everything.

Imagine, for the sake of illustration, the folk song Shenandoah.” The first few lines of that song go:

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.

Imagine, you are composing a 4-voice organum, and for your bottom line, you select “Shenandoah”—it is your chant. The first note is “OH” and it lasts, say for nearly a full minute—and then comes “SHEN” and it lasts just as long, followed by “AN” and “DO” and “AH”, all of which are very long. Meanwhile, above your long held syllables, you are creating a completely new composition which has nothing whatsoever to do with your original “Shenandoah” tune.

“Viderunt omnes” is Perotin’s masterpiece, and it works in this same way. “Vidernut omnes” had been a single-line, monophonic chant melody, sung by monks during services, in the 1000’s. Here is the Latin text and its English translation.

Viderunt omnes fines terræ
salutare Dei nostri.
Jubilate Deo, omnis terra.
Notum fecit Dominus salutare suum;
ante conspectum gentium
revelavit justitiam suam.

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
in the sight of the heathen,
he has revealed his righteousness.

In Perotin’s work, this chant melody would become the bottom part, sung in very long, held notes. As you will hear, the first syllable—“VI”—lasts 50 seconds, followed by a very long “DER”, and so on. Meanwhile, Perotin is embroidering above that foundation a completely new and—to our ears and to the ears of 12th century congregants—beautiful composition.

It is really worth thinking about that with the introduction of organum—of increasing complexity—into the music of the Church, music lost all pretense of being the vehicle for spiritual messages. Even if a congregation had some minimal familiarity with a particular chant, that chant would now be unrecognizable because its notes would be held so long and would be of such secondary importance to the other voices being sung above it. In his way, music was now truly art for art’s sake.

Composers may have sincerely felt they were glorifying God. But their music had definitely become an end in itself, and from an outsider’s perspective, there would have been nothing to specifically connect these new works of art with the Church—other than the threadbare connection to chant itself. Music became art, composed within the aegis of the Church.

Apart from my high regard for Hildegard von Bingen’s music—which is a tad earlier than Perotin and nowhere near as complex—Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes would be the earliest masterpiece in western music, music of complexity and beauty. I listen to it often.

Once again, I apologize for the length of this post (but…it IS shorter than my original).

David Munrow’s suicide death in 1976 at the age of 34 was a tragedy of major proportions for the music world. He was the world’s preeminent authority on early music, an extremely gifted player and conductor who was blessed with amazing organizational skills as well. Fortunately, he left behind, a large discography of early music, from which this recording is taken.

The slides in this YouTube link are of the interior of Notre Dame cathedral, the majestic space where Perotin’s music would have first been performed.





If one steps back and looks at the broad expanse of western music, something that is unmistakable to observe is that for nearly two centuries, 1400-1600, most of the great composers from a certain area of northern Europe—and a certain style of writing—dominated over and above everything and everyone else.

From the Gothic era (Music I Love, #112), through Machaut (MIL, #66) and right up until the early 1400’s, music composition had been dominated by the French and Italians. The “Notre Dame School,” which was centered in that Parisian cathedral, had been the locus of much compositional activity from 1100 to 1250. But as we move into the 1300’s and then the 1400’s, the central point of composition activity gradually began to shift from Paris to the northeast. And from that point until two centuries later—encompassing most of the Renaissance—many of the great composers, and the most influential, long-lasting compositional techniques, came from the area referred to as the Low Countries, the Burgundian Netherlands.

Today’s post is primarily informational, setting the stage for future posts that will address specific composers and specific compositions. For now, I’d just like to lay out a panoramic picture of this time period. I apologize in advance for my length here. I thought it better to include all of this in one post.

I’ve referred, above, to the Notre Dame “School”. And I’ve labeled today’s post the Franco-Flemish “School”. In the case of the Notre Dame School, there was an actual building—a physical place—associated with the embryonic beginnings of polyphony there in Paris. But generally, when musicians speak of compositional “schools”, they are referring more broadly, and primarily, to creative processes that happen to occur in generalized localities. The area of northern (continental) Europe that includes Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and northern France became the area in which a specific type of composition—vocal music utilizing imitative polyphony—developed and then dominated Europe. It was the Franco-Flemish “School.”

Unlike Notre Dame, where one master—say, Perotin—actually taught younger composers, the spread of imitative polyphony throughout northern Europe was almost exclusively by example and imitation of one composer by another, always building and adding to whatever already existed—rather than through systematic pedagogy.

Before (briefly) defining imitative polyphony (below), let me lay out a chronological chart of these composers as they appear in this two-century timespan, citing five progressive “waves” of increasingly complex polyphony. The three composers I’ve listed above—Ockeghem, Josquin, and Lassus—I will put in CAPS below to indicate their importance. You might say they represent the high points of the entire Franco-Flemish period.

There were, as you could expect, many composers in each one of these groupings; I’m only listing the most noteworthy.

1. 1420-1450 the “Burgundians”– the predecessors to the Franco-Flemish composers

Du Fay, Binchois, Busnois

2. 1450-1485

OCKEGHEM, Compere, Agricola, Tinctoris

3. 1480-1520

Obrecht, de la Rue, Isaac, Brumel, Fevin, JOSQUIN

4. 1520-1560

Gombert, Crequillon, Arcadelt, de Rore, Willaert, Clemens

5. 1560-1620

LASSUS, de Monte, Rogier

I do not want to get overly technical, but in order to appreciate the music of these centuries, it is necessary to have some familiarity with basic terminology, so I will bullet-itemize these:

* The bulk of all of these composers’ compositions were sacred—most often motets—and were typically written for four voices using the imitative polyphonic style.
* Imitative polyphony was the writing of four (or more) simultaneously-sounding parts in which one voice imitates another voice, and then another voice imitates that one, and so on.
* These imitations could be transposed (occurring at higher or lower pitches), or inverted (where a previously appearing melodic line that went up now goes down and vice versa) or simply replicated exactly.
* All voices were of equal importance—the idea of melody (something most important) and accompaniment (something of lesser importance) did not exist for these composers.
* The texture–the sounding of one to four voices simultaneously–would be continually changing.
* Moments when all four voices sing the exact same rhythm at the same time would be rare, and would often be the climax of a work or a section.
* One of the continual challenges that these composers faced in writing many concurrent vocal parts was the avoidance of dissonance—sounds that are disagreeable when heard at the same time.
* And finally: we will also observe over the course of these two centuries a gradual but continual move toward music which has a strong tonal center. What musicians now refer to as the “common practice period” (1600-1900)—in which music is written around clearly defined (and easily heard) tonal centers—such as “C Major” or “D minor”—was just hazily on the horizon to the composers of 1400, but became clearer and clearer as time went by.

I APOLOGIZE for what no doubt seems like a lot of minutiae. I am just trying to establish a foundation for those who may have a desire to appreciate the composers of this lengthy era. The serious intent, and overall dark coloring, of much music from the Franco-Flemish “School” will not be, I hope, a deterrent to anyone wanting to get the “big picture” of music history. I’ll be returning to the Franco-Flemish composers with some regularity.

I will talk in detail about individual composers from the above groupings and their works in future posts. For right now, though, I just want to give a taste of three of the giants of the entire Franco-Flemish period. The Hilliard Ensemble, conducted by Paul Hillier, performs all three selections.


Missa Prolationum – Credo

JOSQUIN DES PREZ (1450-1521)

Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae – Gloria


De profundis clamavi ad te Domine




LUTO CARENS ET LATERE (a’ 3) 3-voice conductus
LUTO CARENS ET LATERE (a’ 1) 1-voice conductus, responsory


Philippe le Chancelier was a medieval poet, living in Paris at the very same time that Perotin, the first great composer of organum, lived. Despite his illegitimate birth, he was part of a powerful family of clerics, and rose to a position of some eminence. His name in English—Philip the Chancelor—indicates that his position was that of a church official, a keeper of archives and official documents. This was at the cathedral of Notre Dame—near the beginning of its two-centuries long construction.

The conductus was a non-liturgical work with a sacred text for one to three voices. The form reached its peak with the Notre Dame composers of the early 13th century. It is not actually certain whether le Chancelier was a composer or not. He put texts to many of Perotin’s compositions, and all of his poetry was available to the School of Notre Dame composers. So it is very possible that the music for these two conducti was actually that of Perotin.

I am guessing there might be limited interest in my medieval music postings. But when one considers that the evolution of music which occurred in Europe, climaxing with the great works of the 18th-20th centuries, had its humble beginnings in Notre Dame, I think that that music is always worth a listen.

These are the first and last tracks of a very pleasing CD by Sequentia, the wonderful medieval music specialists.







Just a bit more from the Middle Ages. The idea of finding out where we came from, musically speaking, always keeps leading me back to these centuries that often get overlooked.

Walther von der Vogelweide (1170-1230) was a minnesinger—the German equivalent of the French troubadour. He is regarded, in Germany, as the greatest poet prior to Goethe. Unlike Philippe de Vitry in (what became) France, he was a simple travelling singer with no political or religious positions, although his songs often critiqued those in power.

His many songs were greatly admired in his time. While nearly all of his poetry has been preserved, the same can be said for only a small number of his melodies. He apparently was quite a singer, ostensibly taking part in the “Sangerkrieg” singing contest at Wartburg in 1207. Vogelweide and this contest are even referenced in Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.

Per-Sonat is an ensemble, founded by Sabine Lutzenberger, that specializes in music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The ensemble ranges from two to eight players, depending on the needs of the repertoire. Per-Sonat sets the bar very high for authenticity based on a thorough knowledge of the original sources they use. Sabine Lutzenberger may be the preeminent singer in the world of music from this time period.

I am including three links here. They are, for me, all equally appealing! However, if you only have the time or interest to listen to one, let it be the last one, “Nemt, frouwe disen kranz”, an 800-year old song which is bubbling over with energy.

The picture above is Walther von der Vogelweide.

“Bin ich dir unmære” :

“Die werlt was gelf, rôt unde blâ” :

“Nemt, frouwe disen kranz” :






I think there may be a tendency by some—at least there was by me at one time–when thinking about the long history of music, to regard the Middle Ages—that vast thousand years between the fall of Rome and the year 1400, a date often given as the beginning of the Renaissance–a significant fraction of recorded history, if you think about it–a tendency to regard that period monolithically when it comes to music, an inclination to think of ALL music—or at least all “important” music–in this time period as having occurred within, or having been derived from, the Church.

Although it’s true that western music owes a significant debt to all the advances that it underwent by virtue of the Church, music—of course—did not occur or evolve in an ecclesiastical vacuum. In the same way that there had been an oral tradition of storytelling and epics long before Homer–he did not suddenly appear, full-blown—there had always been secular music of one kind or another for a very long time before the composers and performers of this music–most often being the same persons—finally started writing their creations down in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The forms of secular music are far more varied, over the course of time, than one finds in sacred music of the same time period. I happen to love a lot of it, and will be posting my favorites from time to time.

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) was a renowned poet and musician, philosopher and intellectual, councilor to three kings, who began his stellar career with a master of arts degree from the Sorbonne in France. He was highly regarded by both the Church and royalty. Petrarch referred to him as “the one true poet of France, the keenest and most ardent seeker of truth, so great a philosopher of our age.”

In addition to being highly thought of as a composer and singer, he was also a pivotal figure in the development of music notation, having developed various codifications for the writing of rhythmic values. He is considered to be an important figure of the entire “Ars Nova”–the musical style involved in writing polyphony during the 14th century.

The composition of much of the secular music of the Middle Ages was done by troubadours. A troubadour was often someone of means, someone of the nobility. Very often, troubadour songs were concerned with chivalric love.

Troubadour songs do not constitute the bulk of what we have from de Vitry. As can be easily imagined, finding manuscripts that are 700 years old is a challenging endeavor. Most of his music that has been discovered thus far is sacred in nature. De Vitry’s authorship of this particular troubadour song–Je Qui Paoir Seule ai de Conforter–is not 100% confirmed, but it is included in all compilations of his works, nevertheless. It is a “descort”, a poem of unequal stanzas put to music.

The photo above is of music notation as it existed in the century before de Vitry.

Sequentia is a performing ensemble, based in Cologne, Germany, that specializes in music from the middle ages. They are all superlative performers. I believe the singer in this beautiful rendition is Barbara Thornton, one of the founders of Sequentia.








Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (1525-1594) was the great Italian Renaissance composer, considered by many to be the last breath of the great vocal polyphony from that era. Palestrina was born in the town of Palestrina, close to Rome, where he spent the entirety of his life. Two of the greatest composers of the “Franco-Flemish” school, Dufay and Josquin, had spent part of their lives in Italy, leaving a strong influence behind. But no Italian had risen to their level of compositional skill and communicative power until Palestrina. He was the composer of several hundred works, among them masses, madrigals, and motets. One of his masses, the Missa sine nomine (a mass having as its melodic foundation an anonymous melody) served as the inspiration for Bach’s famous Mass in B Minor.

Because of its immediate attractiveness to listeners, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli—the Pope Marcellus Mass—is his most popular work. It is included in all “basic listening lists” and is taught in collegiate music curricula worldwide. I would have to say, though, that just about all of Palestrina’s output is cut from the same cloth–meaning it is all highly accessible and worth seeking out.

I don’t know whether the Missa Papae Marcelli has been sung at every papal coronation, but I do know it was sung at quite a number of them, the last one being in 1963. Somewhat ironically, the pope for whose coronation this mass was originally written—Pope Marcellus—reigned for only three weeks in 1562.

The story about this mass, and about Palestrina’s sacred music in general, is that it was part of the Counter-Reformation’s musical response to the florid, extremely melismatic musical style associated with the Reformation—in which the text was so distorted that it was unintelligible to a congregation. Palestrina’s “job”, supposedly, was to remedy this by writing music in which the text was always in the foreground. However, all of this seems to be speculation. The Council of Trent (mid-16th century) did NOT make any pronouncements about music needing to change to a simpler style.

Another legend about this Mass is that Cardinal Borromeo, when hearing the complex polyphony of Palestrina’s and noting that it did not negate the intelligibility of the text one bit, labeled Palestrina the savior of polyphony as it was known.

These arguments and musings are, I think, irrelevant. It is the music that counts, and once again—for me—“la-la-la” would suffice just as well as any text. Palestrina’s mastery of polyphony was so complete, and his ability to weave the most contoured phrases into his writing so impressive that we can only listen in wonder.

The photo above is the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome, the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome, where the mass was first performed. The performance is by the Tallis Scholars.






When I was in my teens, while trying to self-educate myself by searching out recommended listening lists of the “Basic Classical Repertoire”, I discovered the different “periods” of music history, the first one of course being Medieval. And it seemed that every list I found—even the short ones—included the Notre Dame Mass by Guillaume de Machaut.

I have been listening to this Mass now my whole life. There is something about it that still compels me to listen. Its modal harmonies were certainly strange to my teenage ears. And Machaut’s style, with its discontinuous melodic lines in the various voices, were equally strange and attractive.

Guillaume de Machaut was a French medieval composer. He lived from 1300 to 1377, primarily in Reims. He is now regarded as the most important composer of the entire 14th century. He regarded himself as both poet and composer. He wrote a substantial body of poetry—over 400 poems. His music, which was also substantial, was equal parts secular and sacred.

One of the reasons that his Mass is included on “basic repertoire” listening lists is that it is the first appearance in history of the complete musical setting of the Mass–Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Composers for centuries afterward routinely set these five Latin texts to music, hundreds and thousands of times.

Machaut’s Kyrie, being the first movement, has received more attention than the other four movements, although they are all “cut from the same cloth”. It is set for four voices. There are many fine versions of this Mass on Youtube. This particular one, by the Alfred Deller Consort, is somewhat famous. Deller was one of the 20th century’s greatest and earliest proponents of medieval music. This recording was made in 1961, and is probably THE recording of medieval music most often heard in U.S. music history classes in the 1960s and 70s.

The Kyrie movement ends at 6:08.









I have not yet been to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. It is certainly near the top of my own personal “bucket list”. St. Mark’s is an important pillar in the long history of important music venues. I look forward to experiencing it.

The interior architecture of St. Mark’s lent itself ideally to the development of what is known as “antiphonal” music. There was a built-in sound delay in St. Mark’s when choirs on opposite sides of the cathedral were singing or playing—there are choir/instrument lofts on both sides. Composers addressed this phenomenon by writing compositions in which a phrase which is sung or played by one choir or group of instruments on one side would be immediately answered by a group on the other side. This “antiphonal” technique was in full force in the 16th century, and nowhere more so than in the music of Giovanni Gabrieli, whose music represents the culmination of what became known as the “Venetian school”. Gabrieli was chief composer and organist for St. Mark’s until his death in 1612.

Gabrieli and brilliant brass music are often thought of simultaneously—at least that is true for me. This particular CD has been a favorite in my collection for a very long time, but still sounds so fresh. RCA Victor, years ago, had the great idea of combining the principal players of the brass sections from the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony for a recording of Gabrieli “greatest hits”.

I suggest cranking up the volume and then sitting back, imagining you are in the spacious environs of St. Mark’s interior, listening to brass music reflecting off every surface.