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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 6 Notre Dame de Paris
Richard Taruskin

Those who copied and sang these works for generations did not, however, know their authors’ names. Like most manuscripts containing music for ecclesiastical use, the Notre Dame sources carried no attributions. (Only “secular” works like courtly songs could carry an author’s name without taint of pride, a deadly sin.) We do think we know the identities of some of the authors, though, and we think we know something about the history of the repertory and its development. And we know what we know (or what we think we know) precisely thanks to the alliance of the cathedral church of Notre Dame with the University of Paris.

From the very beginning, the student body at the university had comprised a strong English contingent. Even earlier, it had been the rule for English theologians to go to Paris for their doctoral training. An example was John of Salisbury (ca. 1115–80), the great neo-Platonic (or “realist”) philosopher and biographer of Thomas à Becket, who traveled to Paris in his youth to study with Pierre Abélard. His first important work, a treatise on good government called Policraticus, was written around 1147, when he had just returned from Paris, and contains a notorious complaint about the gaudy music he heard in churches there. We don’t know what music he heard; maybe it was something like Congaudeant catholici (Ex. 5-9), whose composer, Albertus, was the cantor at Notre Dame around the time of John’s visit. More likely it was never written down at all. But the fact that the dour English clergyman found so much to condemn is already an indication that Paris was a special place for music.

Something over a hundred years later, around 1270 or 1280, we get another Englishman’s testimony—in this case entirely approving, even reverent—about music in Paris. This second Englishman was the author of a treatise called De mensuris et discantu (“On Rhythmic Notation and Discant”) that was published as the fourth item in a batch of anonymous medieval writings on music brought out by the great music bibliographer Charles-Edmond-Henri de Coussemaker in 1864, when musicology was in its infancy. The treatise was headed Anonymus IV in this celebrated publication, and the name, anglicized by the insertion of an “o,” has unfortunately come since to be associated, thanks to popular writers and textbook authors, with the writer instead of the text. The poor fellow, whatever his name may have been, is irrevocably known to music history students as “Anonymous Four.” We can surmise that he was English since the treatise survives in English manuscript copies and makes reference to local English saints (and even to the “Westcuntrie,” the author’s immediate neighborhood). We assume that he learned the contents of his treatise as a student in Paris, since he based most of his discussion slavishly (at times verbatim) on the known writings of Paris University magistri (lecturers), which he may have first encountered in the lecture hall.

If, as seems evident, the treatise is something like a set of university lecture notes, we may imagine the lecturer pausing amid the technical complexities he was laboriously imparting to reminisce briefly about the traditions of Parisian polyphony and the men who made it. This brief memoir—it is without doubt the most famous passage in any medieval treatise on music—begins with an obeisance to “Leoninus magister” (Master Leonin, short for Leo), who, “it is said,” was the best organista (composer of organum). He made a magnus liber, a “great book” of organa de gradali et de antiphonario, “from the Gradual and the Antiphoner”; that is, he made organa on chants from the Mass and the Office books. That is all we are told about Master Leonin.

Next, Anonymus IV reports what the lecturer said about Perotinus magnus (the great Perotin or Pierrot, short for Pierre), who was the best discantor (composer of discant) and “better than Leoninus.” Perotin is identified first as the reviser of Leonin’s work. He abbreviavit the great book (let the translation of that word wait for now) and inserted many clausulae (“little discant sections”) of his own devising into Leonin’s compositions.

Then comes a list of Perotin’s original works, beginning with the real newsmakers, the quadrupla, organa in four parts (that is, three parts added to the Gregorian tenor). Two titles are given: Viderunt and Sederunt. Both, it turns out, are graduals: Viderunt omnes fines terrae (“All the ends of the earth have seen”), for Christmas, was reserved at Notre Dame for the newly instituted Feast of the Lord’s Circumcision (January 1); Sederunt principes et adversum me loquebantur (“Princes sat and plotted against me”) was the gradual for the Feast of St. Stephen the Martyr (December 26).

Next some famous organa tripla by Perotin are listed, including an Alleluia for the Mass commemorating the birth of the Virgin Mary. Finally, Perotin is credited with continuing the already venerable tradition of composing music to new Latin religious lyrics in the form of conductus, both polyphonic and monophonic. Three titles are mentioned, of which one—Beata viscera (“O blessed womb”) in honor of the Virgin—was set to a poem by Philip the Chancellor (of Notre Dame), head of the University of Paris from 1218 to his death in 1236.

The link between Philip and the work attributed to Perotin is choice evidence for the close creative relationship that obtained between the cathedral clergy and the university faculty. Philip’s death, moreover, marks what is known as the terminus ante quem, the latest possible date (literally, “the end point before which” something happens) for Perotin’s compositional activity. (It also marks the virtual end of the Latin versus tradition, for Philip was one of the last of that line.)

There is no telling, of course, exactly how Perotin’s lifetime overlapped with Philip’s, and good reason to believe that he did most of his work considerably before 1236. For there is another category of historical document that can be linked with him—or rather, with the works attributed to him in Anonymus IV. In 1198 and again in 1199, the Bishop of Paris, Eudes (or Odo) de Sully, issued letters cautioning against excessively boisterous holiday celebrations in the cathedral.2 Keep the bell-ringing down, they instruct; keep the mummers and maskers out of the sanctuary; no fools’ processions, please. Instead, let there be good music, and let it be lavish.

In both letters, the bishop promises payment for organum quadruplum: in 1198 he requests it for the Feast of the Circumcision; in 1199, for the Feast of St. Stephen. Comparison with the list of Perotin’s works in Anonymus IV shows a remarkable correspondence; for these feasts are precisely the ones at which the two quadrupla enumerated there would have been sung. So again we have a probable terminus ante quem: the largest of the works attributed to Perotin must have been composed by—or, most likely, just at—the end of the twelfth century. One or both of the famous quadrupla, moreover, can be found in every one of the four big “Notre Dame” manuscripts mentioned above, as well as other manuscripts of the time or shortly after. And that observation holds as well for every other piece named in Anonymus IV. On the basis of that list, Perotin’s “complete works” have been collected and published.

So we appear to have a remarkable convergence of prose description, archival document, and actual musical source, each corroborating the content of the others. It is owing to Anonymus IV and the bishop’s letters that we can identify the four manuscripts as containing a repertory specifically and officially associated with Notre Dame. And the musical sources corroborate the specifics of the documentary accounts.

The only uncorroborated information, frustratingly enough, is the identity (or indeed, the existence) of the musicians named in Anonymus IV. Three are named in all: besides Leonin and Perotin, there is one Robert de Sabilone, who is lavishly praised but otherwise unidentified and whose name is found nowhere else. But neither is the name of Perotin! About the greatest musician of his time, as the author of Anonymus IV emphatically insists he was, we have no evidence at all except a chance mention in a set of lecture notes taken down by a nameless Englishman at least fifty and possibly as many as seventy years after Perotin’s death. (There did happen to be a cantor at Notre Dame named Petrus, who was born Pierre Hosdenc near Beauvais and served at the Paris cathedral from 1184 to 1197; needless to say, strenuous efforts have been made to identify him with Anonymus IV’s Perotin, but the facts and the chronology do not add up.) The situation is more promising in the case of Leonin. Two candidates have been more or less plausibly identified. One is a certain Henricus Leonellus, who owned a house near Notre Dame and was a lay member of the abbey of St. Victor. According to the available documents, he died some time between 1187 and 1192, which would place him in the generation of Anonymus IV’s “Leoninus.” There is nothing in the documents to connect him with music, though.

The other candidate, recently put forward by the music historian Craig Wright, is especially appealing: a canon and priest at Notre Dame and St. Victor whose name was Leonius but who was sometimes referred to in official documents by the same affectionate diminutive—Leoninus, “old man Leo”—used in Anonymus IV.3 The peak of his documented activity was reached in the 1180s and 1190s, and he died in 1201 or 1202. This Leonius is not identified as a musician, but he was a poet of considerable renown, best known for his Hystorie sacre gestas ab origine mundi (“Acts of sacred history since the beginning of the world”), a paraphrase of the first eight books of the Old Testament in verse—some 14,000 lines of it! Anyone who could write that, it seems, could also write “a great book of organa from the Gradual and the Antiphoner to adorn the Divine Service.” But this still does not constitute factual corroboration of Anonymus IV’s terse report, and we ought to proceed with utmost caution when it comes to identifying the composers of the “Notre Dame school” with actual persons. For the unconfirmed account in Anonymus IV, written long after the fact, has all the earmarks of a “creation myth”—that is, a story that seeks to account for the existence of something wonderful (here, the matchless repertory of polyphonic music at Notre Dame) by supplying it with an origin and an originator. (Compare the way the Bible accounts for the existence of music by naming its inventor—Jubal, son of Lamech, “the forerunner of all who play the harp and flute”—in Genesis 4:21. Or the way Haydn has been named the “father of the symphony” or the string quartet, to say nothing of Saint Gregory and his dove.)


(2) Eudes de Sully, Contra facientes festum fatuorum, in Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Latina, CCXII (Paris, 1853), col. 70ff. See Janet Knapp, “Polyphony at Notre Dame of Paris,” in R. Crocker and D. Hiley, eds., The New Oxford History of Music, Vol. II (2nd ed., Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 561–62.

(3) See C. Wright: “Leoninus: Poet and Musician,” JAMS XXXIX (1986): 1–35.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Jul. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-006002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-006002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Notre Dame de Paris." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-006002.xml