Italian Benedictine Polyphonists c.1400

Two weeks ago I attended and presented a paper at the “Sources of Identity: Makers, Owners and Users of Music Sources before 1600” conference that Lisa Colton and Tim Shephard convened at the University of Sheffield, 4-6 October 2013. I’d just hopped off a long-haul international flight from Australia and had made my way north to Sheffield using England’s rather slow and not cheap train system, so my memory of the first day was a bit patchy.

On the third day of the conference I presented a paper in which I examined a question that I have been puzzling over for the last few months (or more) concerning the role of Benedictine monks in the composing and preserving polyphonic music in Italy. A thing that struck me was that many of the reformist Benedictine congregations like the Cistercians and the Cassinesi had regulations which prohibited their members from copying and/or using polyphony in the liturgy. Yet during the fourteenth century, and even in the following centuries we know of several outstanding Benedictine composers of polyphony. Much of their polyphony is not liturgical, but concerned with more worldly matters. Vincenzo da Rimini, Gherardello da Firenze (a Vallombrosian), Donato da Cascia, Paolo da Firenze and Bartolomeo da Bologna are some of the names that come to mind. I also spoke about another famous Benedictine monk Rolandus de Casali, who was clearly an excellent copier of mensural music, but the details of my findings concerning his activity will have to wait to another day.

Monks singing from a lectern. Niccolò da Bologna, c. 1370
Monks singing from a lectern. Niccolò da Bologna, c. 1370

There is something interesting about these composers despite the little we know about them. In the famous Codex Squarcialupi Vincenzo da Rimini is called an abbot. Likewise Don Paolo “Tenorista” da Firenze was an abbot and Bartolomeo da Bologna a prior of a Benedictine priory. Even in the late middle ages, these were all distinguished ecclesiastical offices that monks could only rise to by virtue of their birth or by (with more difficultly) distinguished service.

Little is known about Vincenzo. The most recent research on Don Paolo does not indicate that he was from a well known family in Florence, but he seems to have had a distinguished career as an administrator and representative of the church. Bartolomeo is an unusual case. His career is comparatively well documented as prior of San Nicolò and as cathedral organist in Ferrara. Documentary evidence shows that authorities did all they could to retain Bartolomeo’s services at the cathedral, especially when he was forced to give up his official title very early in the fifteenth century.

These three men all held privileged ecclesiastical ranks in the church, serving principally not as musicians but as administrators. (This situation has some similarity with today’s universities where there are several musicologists I know who have risen through the ranks often to become leading figures in higher education management.) Thus there is a question whether the music of Vincenzo, Paolo and Bartolomeo is preserved because they used their influence to ensure that it was copied into more permanent manuscripts, including ones that survive today.

On the other hand, these Benedictine composers possessed considerable musical skills. Where did they get these skills from? Composing and writing polyphony required a good working knowledge of several musical techniques. One of these was measured (mensural) notation that was able to indicate the rhythmic relationships between parts. The other was counterpoint which controlled the vertical (i.e. musical intervals) and to some extend horizontal relations (eg. standard cadential figures) between parts. From the rudimentary nature of counterpoint treatises and statements by figures like Johannes Tinctoris, it seems that youths started learning counterpoint after they had mastered the rudiments of music and singing. Importantly, they learnt counterpoint not by writing notes on paper as is often the case in today’s counterpoint classes, but by practice (and thus training their ear). In other words youths were taught to improvise counterpoint on an existing melody (or sometimes against the same melody like in a canon). This suggests that Vincenzo, Paolo and Bartolomeo (and other Benedictines) either possessed considerable musical skills before they became acolytes or they were trained in polyphony as Benedictine acolytes and novices.

We have thus reached an important research question: what was the nature of music education in the late middle ages, especially in Italy, either in pre-monastic or monastic institutes? I could not provide the answers to these questions at Sheffield, although there is some evidence that some monasteries (but the evidence is from fifteenth England) required a certain level of training in those who wished to join a monastery. The answer to this new question is the focus of ongoing research.

Selected References

Cavicchi, Adriano. “Sacro E Profano: Documenti E Note Su Bartolomeo Da Bologna E Gli Organisti Della Cattedrale Di Ferrara Nel Primo Quattrocento.” Rivista italiana di musicologia 10 (1975): 46-71.

Günther, Ursula, John Nádas, and John Stinson. “Magister Dominus Paulus Abbas De Florentia: New Documentary Evidence.” Musica Disciplina 41 (1987): 203-46.

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