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Chapter 8 -- Some RepresentativeMedieval Composers and Historical


Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179)

In an era where many of the composers were anonymous and didn't have a reason to even sign their names to the music that they created, Hildegard von Bingen is an unusualcomposer for a couple of reasons. First, the simple fact that we know her name is fairly unusual for the time period. She is the first composer for whom we have substantial biographical information.

In addition, Hildegard is a member of a very small club--women composers. Throughoutmusic history, successful female composers are quite rare, a prime reason being that for much of history it was difficult for a woman to get into music enough to be a successful composer. Over 70 of her compositions survive--one of the largest bodies of Medieval music by a known composer.

Illustration 1: Music by Hildegard von Bingen, courtesy ofthe Petrucci Music Library (

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Von Bingen was a nun, founded two monasteries, was a scientist, author, and talented in many differnent fields.

She was also known for having visions that occurred over her entire life.

Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300 – 1377)

Machaut is the finest composer from the 1300s and considered the first great composer in Western music. With his work centered around the cathedral at Rheims in France, Machaut composed a large amount of songs and contributed to the development of the Medieval motet and other song forms. Probably his most famous composition is his Messa Notre Dame, the first known polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary by a single person.

Machaut, who was an ordained priest, composed a great deal of secular music during hislifetime. He was also greatly admired as a poet and became fairly famous--something very unusual for this period. His Hocketus David is one of the earliest instrumental compositions by a known composer.

His musical style is considered an excellent example of ars nova, an artistic wave of the Middle Ages that embraced counterpoint and a new style of music involving more structured and complex rhythms. To distinguish themselves from the "old generation", the ars nova composers labeled the older music ars antiqua, possibly the first time an erahad described itself as modern and discounted the old style.

Guillaume Dufay (1397? -- 1474)

Dufay was one of the most influential composers of the 1400s and is considered a transitional figure that laid the groundwork leading to the music of the Renaissance. He is cited as one of the key figures of the Burgundian School, a group of composers that began using music more based on the interval of thirds (similar to the harmony we predominantly use today).

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The illegimate child of a priest, Dufay exhibited substantial musical talent at a very young age. Dufay composed many masses with parts being based on a specific melody. These were known ascyclic masses. His Missa Se La Face Ay Pale and Missa L'Homme Arme masses use that technique and are examples of a parody mass. Parody, in this context, is not meant to be disrespectful, but uses a musical framework based on anothercomposition. In this case, it was based on a popular song of the era.

Dufay also composed a great deal of secular music including motets, chansons, and other forms of the time.

During his lifetime he was considered the greatest composer of his time, a judgment thatpersists today.

Anonymous (??? to ????)

A collection of Medieval composers has to include "Anonymous". Looking back on an era where there was a great deal of music, we see a very large component of it written byanonymous composers. In a time when there was very little way to derive an income from composition, "Anonymous" wrote anyway--he just didn't bother signing his name. "Anonymous" lived in many different countries and composed in many styles. Some of the music of "Anonymous" was very serious, some very lively, some sarcastic. Some of it is good, other of it isn't so good. However, we are thankful that many centuries later, any music whatsoever is still around to give us a soundtrack for Medieval life.

Much of the time, "Anonymous" wrote for the church, for his love of God, as a musical offering of his devotion. Thousands of chants as well as secular songs are by "Anonymous".

It is often asked why "Anonymous" never claimed the music he composed. The answer is simple: music was not a marketable commodity during the Middle Ages. While there were individual musicians who became very famous (for their time), there was nothing like the environment musicians have today. An individual musician had no way to get wealthy (no internet, no recordings, no way to become a celebrated performer, no publisher to sell music to). Actually, the ability to make a living from other people performing or listening to one's music wasn't even in the realm of possibility.

However, people create music: people have a need for music. It would not be going too far to say that we as a species have a burning desire to create music. "Anonymous" was

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doing just what he did for thousands of years earlier: giving voice to human emotion.

There are a number of Medieval figures who had a distinct style of writing. Musicologists have given them names of Anonymous I, Anonymous II, etc. Unfortunately, we will probably never know their names or anything else about them.


The Fall of the Roman Empire Signing of the Magna Carta The Bubonic Plague The One-Hundred Years War The Crusades Marco Polo's Explorations Writings of Khayyam, Dante, Chauser


•Gregorian Chant•Music of Hildegard von Bingen•Missa Notre Dame – Machaut•L' Homme Arme Mass – Dufay•Polyphony and Plainchant of the Notre Dame School•Motets of the Middle Ages

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Material copyright 2016 by Gary Daum, all rights reserved. All photos and illustrations by Gary Daum unless otherwisenoted. Unlimited use granted to current members of the Georgetown Prep community.