Early Music – The Key Composers, part I

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1197)
Only recently have we come to recognise Hildegard’s importance. Hers is the first substantial body of individually recognisable music, though it is heavily indebted to existing plainchant style. She developed especially long melodic lines and passages of ecstatic melismata. It’s also the last great collection of monodic church music (outside plainchant). Her longest continuous work is a musical morality play called Ordo Virtutum.

Léonin (d. 1190) and Pérotin (d. 1240)
Frenchmen Léonin and Pérotin are only known thanks to the notes on their music of an English monk who attended lectures at the Sorbonne a century after their time. They were two prominent members of the Parisian twelfth-century Notre Dame school, which developed proportional notation and polyphony. Pérotin was particularly adept at polyphony and wrote two famous four-voiced ‘clausulae’: Viderunt and Sederunt. Their music is typical of the earliest stages of Ars Antiqua.

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361)
A French composer, famous for his motets, some of which form part of the satirical poem, Roman de Faouvel. He also wrote musical treatises and is the principal instigator of the new rhythmic freedoms and complexities known as Ars Nova.

Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377)
A diplomat and cleric, Machaut was acknowledged by all Europe as the greatest poet and ‘composer’ of his day. His most famous work is the Messe de Notre Dame, which is for four voices and is the first polyphonic mass setting by a single named composer. It contains many typical features, including hocket and isorhythm.

John Dunstable (c. 1385-1453)
An English composer in the service of the Duke of Bedford who, after Henry V’s Agincourt victory, came to Paris as regent. He brought Dunstable, who in turn brought with him the English polyphonic sound called the contenance anglaise, which was much less rhythmically complex and dissonant than the last stages of French Ars Nova. This can be heard in his beautiful ballade O rosa bella and his motet Ave regina caelorum.

Guillaume Dufay (c. 1400-1474)
Born in Cambrai, but spent much of his life in Italy. Famed both for his sacred and secular music, like most composers then he was a singer, minor cleric and composer. His motet Nuper rosarum flores, written for the opening of Florence Cathedral dome, mirrored the dome’s proportions in music. His moving motet Ave Regina Caelorum from late in life touches a minor chord at the words ‘have mercy on your dying servant Dufay’, a device years ahead of its time.

Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1430-c. 1495)
Netherlands composer, who rose as a cleric to become the treasurer of the Cathedral in Tours. He is best remembered for his masses, of which the ones not based on a plainchant achieved astonishing contrapuntal ingenuity. His Missa Prolationum, for instance, contains several canonic lines sung simultaneously, but in different rhythms. Yet so euphonious is the surface of the music you’d hardly know this secret world was going on underneath.

Josquin des Pres (c. 1440-1521)
Another Netherlands composer, who lived mostly in Italy. He was a pupil of Ockeghem, and though sometimes a difficult man, was renowned as the best composer of his age. Some of his works resemble Ockeghem in their complexity, but others, like the late motet Absalom, mi fili, show a new sensitivity to the expression and sound of words. Two of his best masses use as their cantus firmus the plainchant Pange lingua gloriosum.

Giovanni da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594)
One of the first great Italian 16th century composers, Palestrina was the musical director of the Sistine Chapel. He became the classic voice of mid-16th century Italian polyphony, in which a continuous flow of beautifully controlled homophony was articulated by moments of prepared dissonance and great rhythmic subtlety. Among his most famous masses is Missa Papae Marcelli; he also wrote many expressive motets and a setting of the Stabat Mater.

Roland de Lassus (1532-1594)
Flemish composer, supposedly kidnapped when young because of the beauty of his voice. Worked mostly in Munich. He and Byrd were the most diverse composers of the century; Lassus was the most published, hence his fame. His music can be funny (Matona mia cara), grandly rich (Bell’ Amfitrit’ Altera) or expressively evocative (La Nuit froide et sombre). Possibly his most famous work was Seven Penitential Psalms, lavishly printed by his employers.

William Byrd (1543-1623)
A very diverse composer, who made a significant contribution to vocal and instrumental music. A Catholic, Byrd still wrote both for the Roman rite (the Gradualia, Cantiones Sacrae and three masses) and the Anglican rite (The Great Service). he also wrote some magnificent music for virginals, and secular vocal music. His celebrated Ave Verum Corpus is expressive, and his motet Haec Dies shows his delight in cross-rhythms and polyphonic vigour.

Classic CD magazine, 1994

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1 Response to “Early Music – The Key Composers, part I”


  1. 1 Professor VJ Duke December 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Very Interesting! Are you a composer?

    I wish! I don’t even play (with any skill, that is). I’m just an enthusiastic amateur who loves listening to early music and reading about it. Stay tuned for part 2, next Thursday!


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