Music of the Middle Ages: The
Innovations and Contributions of Magister Leoninus
Music History I
Professor Maria Ogburn
November 18, 2017
In current American culture, music has
become a part of daily life. The sound of the latest popular artist serenading
about their latest life experience is an almost constant background noise to
daily life. Obsession with the art of music began hundreds of years ago,
yielding huge masterpieces of all kinds by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn,
Chopin, Schumann, and hundreds more. Great masters composed in countless styles
their entire lives to create fascinating works of art. And yet, the results of
these lifelong dedications were the outcome of a fine-tuned perfection of style
and rules intended to please the ear. Only after a certain point did this
progression allow such great masters to produce their work and make such an
enormous impact. Music must have had a beginning. The question is: where?
Understanding the source of music requires
understand of ancient culture and art of the Middle Ages. Christianity has
spread throughout Europe and has allowed the Church to rise to extreme power, centered
in Italy in the form of the Vatican. This power controlled the ascension of
Kings to the throne, the practices of the various sub-churches throughout the
’empire,’ and everything else that the public was exposed to. As a result, any
music of the time also came out of the church. Musicians were most often monks
or choirboys specifically trained in the church’s school, and valued for their
Music in general closely regulated because
it was considered sacred and a direct expression of Christianity. Hildegard of
Bingen, a renowned nun who composed music and claimed to receive divine inspiration,
wrote letters that spoke on this subject. Holsinger published a letter written
by Hildegard of Bingen, who explained that Christ is the direct representation
of God’s “New Song by virtue of His embodied redemption of humanity.”2 As a result, there was
absolutely very little tolerance for music either outside the church or outside
of the rules. Any deviation from these criteria and the music was considered of
Little is known of Magister Leoninus
outside of whatever information can be gleaned from an unknown music theorist,
discovered by a student at the University of Paris, commonly known as Anonymous
IV.3 He was most likely raised
under the church’s guidance from a young age. He would have studied Latin
grammar through Donatus, Priscian, and Villedei, Greek mythology and ancient
Greek texts, and the known meters, rhythms, and rhythmic modes.4 According to preserved
documents of transaction collected by the Journal of American Musicological
Society, Leoninus probably complete this education by 1179.5 Once that education was
complete, he could rise up among his contemporaries as an experienced
chorister, and perhaps begin to write his own music. Historians are fairly sure
that Leoninus was trained in the school of Notre Dame in Paris, eventually
become the Magister there, and from here change began to spread.
In terms of the world today, the basic
understanding is that each person well known in their field studied only that
for which they have gained recognition. However, based the record of other
great scholars of the time, that is not true at all. For example, Philippe de
Vitry, the maîtres de requêtes
(master of requests) served the court of France also as a poet, a diplomat, a
mathematician, and a bishop. Also, Guilliame de Machaut served not only as a
canon but also as a royal secretary, rhetorician, and poet. Likewise, Magister
Leoninus was not only educated in music. As a monk and scholar, he also wrote
many great poetic works.6
The poetic works of Magister Leoninus,
according to the Journal of the American
Musicological Society, have never quite dropped from list of great French
literature. During Leoninus’s probable lifetime and far into the fourteenth
century, his words are preserved in “at least seven different sources, sic of
which are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale and one in the Vatican Library.”7
Historically, during the time of Leoninus,
the church’s power, although complete, was not orderly. Countless churches were
springing up throughout Europe, many of them quite far from Rome. Many regions
were so distant that entire dialects were quite different from that of Italy.
This created an inconsistency in not only the music being used, but also the
style and order of worship. This created a great amount of diversity that the
Vatican could not control. In order to unify this diversity, the Church
enlisted the services of Magister Leoninus.
The text of the church at this time was
almost entirely based from Judaic text and songs. Each composer of the time had
their own interpretation and opinion about how the text should be presented in
the services of the church. This time was not best known for its ability to
keep records of music, therefore many of the rules established in the different
areas were passed on verbally, thereby creating even more margin for slight
differences in style and method. However, Leoninus took all of the best texts
and set them all to his own method and style. He compiled all of them into a
book now known as Magnus liber organi.8 This book had music or
every occasion, service, and function in the Roman Catholic church, and was
used throughout every church as standard up until Perotinus, known as the
master of descant, remodeled them to his own style.
While the actual text no longer exists,
pieces from the text are used in various other documents that provide
historians with at least a large sampling of what the book must have contained.9 And while transcribers’
understanding is fairly limited, the knowledge they do have allows them to
discover just how big of an impact this particular book had on the music of the
day.10 Through it, Leoninus
established not only the music everyone used, but also rules that set music
towards a path of order that ripples through to present day.
One major step Leoninus took beyond the organum
of the time was the “determinate rhythmic relationships to the melodic lines,”
according to Douglass Seaton, author of Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical
He goes on to say that this simplified the organization of the different polyphonic
parts in the vocal music he wrote. Previously, there was very little meter
marking, creating rhythm that heavily depended on the division of notes. The
vocalists had to rely heavily on each other and their understanding of the note
lengths in order to stay organized. Due to the lack of a standard printing
press, the music varied heavily from composer to composer. In short, the
musician had to be incredibly learned in the art of music. While many
improvements were made, such as Guido of Arezzo’s massive innovations to
notation, the lack of standard meter markings created several challenges.
Magister Leoninus utilized a system of
rhythmic modes to indicate the length of each note that is very similar to
poetic metrical patterns already established at the Notre Dame school. Each
note length is divided exactly in half to create faster notes, following the
now standard European metric system of numbers. The longest note, called the longa in Latin, was usually notated by a
square note head with a tale (now called a stem), and was twice as long as the brevis, which is notated by a square
note head without a tale. Alternating
long-short was called “trochaic” rhythm, and short-long was called “iambic”
rhythm.12 Seaton explains exactly
how current scholars presume these modes were interpreted.
More complex metrical feet, consisting
of three durations, were stimulated by the use of an extralong long equal to
three breves, called “perfect” to distinguish it from the two-breve or
“imperfect” long, and an “altered” breve twice as long as a normal (“recta” or
correct) breve. This allowed for the “dactylic” rhythm (LBB, LBB, LBB, etc.)
and the “anapestic” rhythm (BBL, BBL, BBL, etc.) where the long was perfect and
the second of the two breves was altered. Two other patterns were added, the
“spondaic,” plodding along in of perfect longs, and the “tribrachic,” which
tripped quickly in groups of three regular breves. 13
After the development of these meters,
singers were able to quickly identify what mode they needed to sing in based of
the particular ligature pattern. For example, three notes followed by a
two-note series was the pattern for the first mode. A quick series of two notes
indicated the second mode. The pattern continues thus. This gave the trained
singer the ability to recognize patterns, and interpret according to those
patterns, which is a practice that carries through to today’s professional
performers and improvisors. This method permitted Leoninus to give his music an
instant vitality that encouraged the listener to pay attention and
instinctively united the singers as a whole.
A second innovation that Magister Leoninus
used connects to the previous point. In the tenor line, reserved for tenor
solos, the notation became more distinct and clear than the methods previous
used. Traditionally, when the tenor line flourished off into melismatic
sections, the lower voices sustained their notes, “sometimes to incredible
lengths” as Hoppin states.14 However, Leoninus began
to take the tenor at a much faster and regular pace, making his voice the heartbeat
of the music. The lower voice, not necessarily moving in note-to note-
counterpoint would not sustain, but would continue to move, creating the
illusion that two simultaneous melodies were occurring at once. The new use of
rhythms also aided in this method of writing, allowing the voices to know
exactly there they should be in relation to one another and providing all the
movement and energy the music needed.
A third massive innovation that came out
of the Notre Dame School of Music during Magister Leoninus’s time was a small
symbol called a plica, which means
fold. This symbol, according to Hoppin, “evolved from the liquescent neumes of
plainchant and continued to be used well into the fourteenth century.”15 This particular symbol
indicated to the singer that the note in question should be embellished by an
ornamental change in pitch and or rhythmic value. Naturally, the singer would
have to determine what exactly should be done with the note based on the
context of the song, the text of the song, and the style preferred in that
particular area. The symbol itself is a small line extending at an angle
between notes or at the end of ligature pattern. As far as contemporary
scholars can tell, the pitches tend to act as neighboring tones above or below
two given notes a second apart, and a passing tone between two notes a third
apart. If the plica is added to
triplets or duplets, the interpretation process becomes even more complicated
and requires a higher level of skill. Hoppin goes further to say that if the
composer used plicas consistently as
opposed to sparingly for variety, the mode modulates into a different mode
altogether. This may have aided to bring about a sixth mode not listed above
which allowed for new patterns created by plicas.16
To many eyes today, the glory days of
music seem to have dropped to the back burner of the world’s accomplishment
stove. When this generation thinks of good music, they recall the fantastic
dance moves of Michael Jackson, or the wild costumes of Lady Gaga, or even the
incredible passion of Beyoncé. No one thinks of Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Bellini,
or Wagner. People only think of celebrities dedicating their entire being to
one talent in order to produce perhaps ten or fifteen years of fame to express
themselves. While this is a noble dedication, they forget the true masters,
those who began this ancient and time-honored art. Magister Leoninus is one of
these masters. He rose above his contemporaries hundreds of years ago through
the church to lay down precedents and traditions that would last to the
present, and allow music to travel along a path that allowed for other masters
for hundreds of years to come. Shaping the standards of music that came before
him, he shaped the future of a great art.
Holsinger, Bruce W. Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval
Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.
Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. New York: W. W.
Norton and Co., 1978.
John. “Magister Leoninus, the first great polyphonist.” Goldberg:
early music magazine, no. 36 (2005): 48-55.
Seaton, Douglass. Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical
Tradition. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1991.
Tischler, Hans. “New Data on the Evolution of the
Parisian Organa.” Musicalogical Research 5 (unknown, 1984): 85-91.
Waite, William G. The Rhythm of Twelfth Century Polyphony:
Its Theory and Practice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.
Wright, Craig. “Leoninus: Poet and Musician.” Journal
of the American Musicological Society 39 (Spring, 1986): 1-35.
—. Music and Ceremony at Notre
Dame of Paris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
1 Craig Wright.
Music and Ceremony at Notre Dame of Paris. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.) 165.
2 Bruce Holsinger, Music, Body, and Desire Medieval Culture. (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 2001) 34.
3 Richard H. Hoppin, Medieval Music. (New York: W. W. Norton
and Co., 1978) 217.
4 Craig Wright, “Leoninus: Poet and
Musician.” Journal of the American
Musicological Society no 39. (Spring, 1986.) 2-4.
5 Ibid. 8.
6 Ibid. 4.
7 Ibid. 17.
8 Hoppin, Medieval Music, 217.
9 John Potter. “Magister Leoninus,
the first great polyphonist.” Goldberg:
early music magazine, no. 36 (2005.) 50.
10 William Waite. The Rhythm of Twelfth Century Polyphony: Its
Theory and Practice. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.) 10-11.
11 Douglass Seaton. Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical
Tradition. (Mayfield Publishing Company, 1991). 67-68.
12 Ibid. 68.
13 Ibid. 68-69.
14 Hoppin, Medieval Music. (New
York, 1978) 220-21.
16 Ibid. 225-26.