We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 17 Commercial and Literary Music

Vernacular Song Genres in Italy, Germany, and France; Lasso’s Cosmopolitan Career

CHAPTER 17 Commercial and Literary Music
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Alongside the Masses, motets and instrumentalized chansons for which Ottaviano Petrucci is best remembered, the enterprising Venetian printer also issued Italian songbooks for the local trade. That trade was exceedingly brisk. The first such book, Frottole libro primo, came out in 1504, the fourth year of Petrucci’s business activity. It was his seventh publication. A scant decade later, in 1514, Petrucci issued his eleventh Italian songbook, in addition to two volumes of laude, Italian part-songs of a similar style but with sacred texts, and two volumes of previously published songs arranged for a single voice with lute accompaniment.

The fifteen volumes described thus far, each containing about fifty or sixty songs, accounted for more than half of the printer’s total output as of 1514. Four books were issued in the year 1505 alone, and by 1508 three of the four had sold out and been reissued. When Petrucci’s first competitor, the Roman printer Andrea Antico, set up operations in 1510, his cautious maiden outing was yet another book of Italian songs. Canzoni nove, it was called: “New songs.” But most of them were not new. They were pirated from Petrucci, whose copyright was good only in Venice. Clearly we are dealing with a craze that was created by the music printing business and that in turn sustained it. It was the first great instance in the history of European music of commodification: the turning of artworks, through mass reproduction, into tangible articles of trade—items that could be bought, stockpiled, and sold for profit.

Although books of Latin church music and Franco-Flemish court music were Petrucci’s and Antico’s prestige items, the humble vernacular songs were their moneymakers. The same held true in every other country to which music printing, and with it the music business, spread. The first music book printed in Germany, by the Augsburg printer Erhard Öglin, was a prestige item: Latin odes by Horace set by a humanist schoolmaster, Peter Treybenreif (alias Petrus Tritonius), to illustrate the classical meters. The moneymakers began appearing a little later with part books issued by Öglin (1512), Peter Schöffer in Mainz (1513), and Arnt von Aich (Arnt of Aachen) in Cologne (1519), all with flowery sales puffs in place of titles.

Arnt von Aich’s title page, for example, says In dissem Buechlyn fynt man LXXV. hubscher Lieder myt Discant. Alt. Bas. und Tenor. lustick zu syngen (“In this little book you will find seventy-five pretty songs with superius, altus, bass and tenor [parts] to sing for fun”). The first musical incunabulum to appear in England (London, 1530) was similar. A gorgeously appointed effort in the Petrucci style, its title page read, “In this boke ar conteynd. XX. songes. ix. of iiii. partes, and xi. of thre partes” (twenty partsongs, nine for four voices, and eleven for three). It contained vernacular settings by many of the famous composers of Henry VIII’s chapel royal (Cornysh, Taverner, etc.) but it survives, alas, only in fragments.

In France, music printing got under way when Pierre Attaingnant set up shop in Paris in the mid-1520s and secured for himself a royal patent or monopoly (a necessary protection for such a risky undertaking). His first book was a breviary, a book of Mass texts, issued in 1526. His first music publication followed two years later: Chansons nouvelles en musique, “New Songs with Music,” imprinted 1527 but actually issued in 1528. That same year he issued five more sets of part books, averaging thirty songs apiece, and one set of dance music, plus one volume of motets. That would remain Attaingnant’s effective ratio between the universal sacred and the local secular repertory for the duration of his career as printer, which lasted until 1557.

Attaingnant was more than a printer, and had an impact on the music trade that far exceeded his activities as publisher. For he was the inventor of a new laborsaving and cost-cutting method for music typography that swept Europe in the 1530s and completely transformed the business, making real mass production and high-volume distribution possible. The method employed by Petrucci and the other early Italians had required a triple impression. A page was fed to the presses once for the staves, again for the notes, and yet again for the titles and texts. The result was stunning, and Petrucci’s early books were never surpassed as models of printerly art, but the process wasted time and was overly exacting: a great deal of spoilage took place due to “misregistration” (failure of the impressions to line up exactly with one another).

Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary MusicChapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music

fig. 17-1 Above: Specimens of Pierre Attaingnant’s movable music type (Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp). Opposite: Superius and tenor parts from Claudin de Sermisy’s Tant que vivray, in Chansons musicales, esleus de plusieurs livres par ci-divant imprimés, les tous dans un seul livre … réimprimées par P. Attaignant [sic], imprimeur et libraire de musicque (Paris, 1536). The typically wordy title translates as “Songs with Music, Chosen from Several Books Printed by the Above-Named, All in One Book Reprinted by P. Attaingnant, Printer and Seller of Musical Books.”

Attaingnant’s method was much more like alphabetic typography. Every possible note- and rest-shape was cast along with a short vertical fragment of the staff on a single piece of type. When these were placed in a row by the compositor like bits of letter type and printed, the staff-lines joined together, or nearly so. The result was far less elegant than Petrucci’s, but so much more practical and economical that the older typographical method could not stand a chance against the new. Attaingnant’smethod remained standard as long as typography was the print medium of choice for music—until the eighteenth century, that is, when copperplate engraving came into widespread use.

Who bought the early printers’ wares? Petrucci’s early volumes, with their cumbersome production methods and handsome appearance, were luxury items. We know something about their prices because of the meticulous purchase records kept by Ferdinand Columbus, the explorer’s son and one of the great early bibliophiles. (His collection, more or less intact, became the basis of the famous Biblioteca Colombina in Seville, Spain.) No musician, Columbus nevertheless acquired several Petrucci items on a buying expedition to Rome in 1512; and in the words of Daniel Heartz, whose study of Attaingnant remains virtually the only investigation of early music printing from the consumption as well as the production standpoint, “for the price of any one of them he might have acquired several literary works of equivalent size.”1

Thus the practical utility of the early Petrucci volumes was at least matched, and probably exceeded, by their value as “collectibles,” items of conspicuous consump-tion—and in this they did not differ appreciably from the twelfth- to fifteenth-century presentation manuscripts of polyphonic music with which we are familiar. The very fact that Petrucci’s volumes, particularly of court and church music, survive today in greater quantities than those of his eventual competitors shows that their primary destination was not the music stand but the library shelf.

The trend, however, was toward economy and utility, which is why Attaingnant was so successful. Even before the Paris printer revolutionized the trade, Antico experimented in Rome with smaller, less decorative formats, single woodblock impressions, and (consequently) lower prices, to meet the needs “especially of students of music,” as he stated in his application for a permit. He managed to undersell Petrucci by more than fifty percent, forced down the price level of the whole industry, and eventually squeezed Petrucci, the immortal founder, out of the music trade altogether.

Few surviving music books testify to their household use, partly because such use itself led to deterioration: Heartz, lamenting the large number of lost Attaingnant prints, has rather pessimistically suggested that, as a rule, “an inverse ratio exists between the popularity of music prints and their chance of survival.” Nevertheless, we know from literary accounts that household entertainment—both aristocratic and bourgeois, both as provided by professional entertainers and by convivial amateurs—was the chief use to which vernacular songbooks were put, increasingly so as the sixteenth century wore on and printed music became less a bibliophile’s novelty or prestige purchase and more a normal household item.

Diaries, prefaces, and treatises make reference to the ritual of passing out part books at social functions or around the table after meals. The ability to sing at sight and play an instrument increasingly became a vital social grace on a par with dancing. Self-tutors, like the Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (London, 1597) by Thomas Morley, the musician-entrepreneur who inherited William Byrd’s monopoly on the British music trade, were a favorite sales item in and of themselves—the sixteenth century’s popular and commercial answer, so to speak, to the learned theoretical treatise of old.

Morley’s book opens with a preface in the form of a dialogue in which one gentleman confides to another his social embarrassment when “supper being ended and the music books (according to the custom) being brought to the table, the mistress of the house presented me with a part earnestly requesting me to sing; but when, after many excuses, I protested unfeignedly that I could not, every one began to wonder; yea, some whispered to others demanding how I was brought up.”2 Conversation manuals, etiquette books in which upwardly mobile burghers were trained in the manners of genteel society, often contained model dialogues to teach their readers how to take part in such a musical party: how in polite company, each member with a part book in hand, one inquires who is taking which part, who begins the song, on what pitch, and so on (for an example from a Flemish etiquette book of around 1540, see Weiss and Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., pp. 126–127).

Finally, one of the main consequences of the music trade and its commodifying practices was that music traveled faster, farther, and in greater volume than before. Particularly was this true of Attaingnant’s aggressively marketed editions and those of his competitors in Paris and Lyons, the other main French publishing center, who did a booming international business, particularly in northern Italy. As we shall see, this ease of travel led to some surprising hybrid styles and genres.


(1) Daniel Heartz, Pierre Attaingnant, Royal Printer of Music (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), p. 107.

(2) Thomas Morley, A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music, ed. Alec Harman (New York: Norton, 1973), p. 9.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-017.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Oct. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-017.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Oct. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-017.xml