Cantus Firmus: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The cantus firmus is a compositional technique that has existed for a thousand years. Learn how it developed, how it was used, and some of the important compositions that employed it.

The New Music

Attending church in the 9th century was exhausting. There were no pews. Congregants stood for hours listening to a Latin service they couldn't understand. Even the music would have seemed dull compared to what you could hear in the streets, but one day a new musical technique was performed and interesting musical innovations became all the rage.

Medieval church, Tum, Poland, built in the 12th c.
A photo of a medieval church in Tum, Poland

Early Sacred Music

In the early Medieval Period sacred music was monophonic, one melody sounding at a time. It most often consisted of a group of monks or nuns singing a chant in unison. By the 9th century, however, some church composers were developing polyphony, more than one melody sounding simultaneously. This was a new type of music and would have sounded daring and exciting at the time.

These first polyphonic compositions were very simple. They utilized parallel movement, with all voices moving up or down together at a specified interval, such as the fifth or the octave. This is called parallel organum, and it continued to gradually develop for the next two hundred years.

By the 11th century, the melodies were becoming more independent of each other. One melody, usually a chant, served as a foundation for a second melody to move in a quicker, more florid manner above it. This chant was called the cantus firmus which is Latin for fixed song. The cantus firmus is any preexisting melody that is used as the foundation for a polyphonic composition.

The Notre Dame School

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris had a flourishing musical culture. Composers and musicians traveled there to study and learn the newest techniques in polyphonic writing. Two composers, Léonin and his successor, Perotin, were responsible for such developments as adding three or four voices to the cantus firmus and creating a codified rhythmic system. This rhythmic system was a collection of rhythm patterns that were repeated in various ways throughout a composition.

An excellent example of Perotin's use of cantus firmus is the Siderunt Principes. Composed circa 1199, it is organum quadruplum, or four voice polyphony. In this instance, the cantus firmus, taken from a chant, sustains very long notes while the other three voices move in varying rhythm patterns above it.

A composition by Perotin
A photo of a Perotin manuscript

The Renaissance

The use of the cantus firmus continued to expand in the 15th and 16th centuries. Even so, there were two notable changes. The first was that the cantus firmus no longer had to be the bottom voice. It could be employed in a middle voice, or even the top voice with some ornamentation added. Regina Caeli Laetare, by the English composer John Dunstable, is composed in this manner. In this particular piece, the cantus firmus is the top voice and is ornamented with additional notes not found in the original chant.

A manuscript of 15th century polyphony by Heinrich Issac
Manuscript of 15th century polyphony

The second major change was the use of secular tunes as the cantus firmus. In the Medieval Period, chant was the only appropriate source of cantus firmus material. Now, popular music, such as folk songs and chansons, secular French songs, were used as well. The most famous example of this is L'Homme armé (The Armed Man), a popular French song of unknown origin. This melody was used as a cantus firmus in no fewer than 30 masses. The greatest composers of the day composed L'Homme armé masses, including Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez, and Giovanni da Palestrina.

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