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Medieval Composers: Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume de Machaut, Leonin & Perotin

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  • 0:07 Medieval Composers
  • 0:41 Hildegard Von Bingen
  • 2:41 Leonin and Perotin
  • 4:38 Guillaume Machaut
  • 6:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

Four of the most important composers from the Medieval Period were Hildegard von Bingen, Leonin, Perotin, and Guillaume de Machaut. Learn about their contributions and key musical works in this lesson.

Medieval Composers

Are they mosquitoes? Are they helicopters? No, they are the super composers of the Medieval Period! Revel in the visionary melodies of Visionista, the alter ego of Hildegard von Bingen! Bask in the multi-part harmonies of Leonin the Doubleman and his successor, Perotin the Tripleman! Indulge your religious and non-religious sides with the sacred and secular love songs of the Massanova, Guillaume de Machaut!

Hildegard von Bingen

We'll start with the earliest composer, Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard lived from approximately 1098 to 1179. She was a German nun who was known for her visions and prophecies. First written as poems, Hildegard later set her visions and prophecies to music around the year 1140. Hildegard's music was primarily syllabic hymns and melismatic solos, meaning a succession of pitches sung on one syllable as heard in this popular holiday song.

Her music is notable for many reasons. She is known for writing songs that were uncharacteristically melodic for this time period. At a time when the church had very strict rules about music, Hildegard was able to creatively integrate and extend musical techniques to compose music that was intriguing, yet still fit the church's guidelines. Specifically, her use of a wide range of pitches and note leaps were uncharacteristic for the time. She used these techniques to give meaning through musical emphasis of the words. Today, Hildegard's songs are some of the best known and most recorded sacred solos.

Hildegard's standout work is a musical play called Ordo virtutum. Written in 1151, Ordo Virtutum is her most extended musical work. Meaning, 'The Virtues,' the sacred musical drama is a morality play with allegorical and human characters, including the happy, unhappy, and repentant souls, prophets, virtues, and even the devil, though he was only allowed to have a spoken part.

Leonin and Perotin

Later, in the 1200s, French composers Leonin and Perotin of the Notre Dame cathedral drastically changed music. Leonin and his student, Perotin, are generally credited with composing the first significant polyphonic, or multi-part, church music. This is significant because it hadn't been done in church music before, and in medieval thought, anything new had to be founded on something old. This meant that any new compositions had to be based on a preexisting composition, such as church chants. This school of thought is known as Ars Antiqua.

In order to achieve new music while adhering to the rules, both composers added vocal parts to chants. Often, the added part was sung at the same rhythm as the original chant, creating a parallel harmony. Other times, the original chant was sung at an extremely slow pace, while a new, faster melismatic melody was added at a higher pitch. Leonin used these techniques to write music with two vocal parts. This new type of multi-part chant was called organum. Perotin also used these techniques, but went a step further and composed for three - and sometimes four - vocal parts.

In fact, Leonin and Perotin were so good at writing organum that they wrote the first complete annual cycle of chants for the mass in two parts. The music was compiled as a book called the Magnus Liber Organi, or the 'Great Book of Organum.' Leonin wrote the original version, with Perotin editing and adding new ideas afterward. By the end, it sounded something like this.

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