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Medieval Music


1312–1337 Mali Empire reaches its height in Africa under King Mansa Musa.

c. 1325 The beginning of the Renaissance in Italy: writers Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio; painter Giotto. Development of Noh drama in Japan. Aztecs establish Tenochtitlán on site of modern Mexico City. Peak of Muslim culture in Spain. Small cannon in use.

1337–1453 Hundred Years' War—English and French kings fight for control of France.

1347–1351 At least 25 million people die in Europe's “Black Death” (bubonic plague).

1368 Ming Dynasty begins in China.

c. 1387 Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

1398 Tamerlane, the Mongol conqueror, begins last great conquest—Delhi.

Guillaume de Machaut, French composer, born. 
Francesco Landino, Italian composer and organist born. 
Phillipe de Vitry coins the name “Ars nova” for the new, strongly contrapunctal style of music. 
Lute playing is now popular throughout Europe. 
Mastersinger movement begins in Germany. 
Jean de Muris, French composer dies. 
Beginnings of the development of the clavichord and cembalo. 
Phillipe de Vitry, French composer, dies. 
Guillaume de Machaut:”Mass for four voices,” composed for the coronation of Charles the V at Rheims. 
Guillaume de Machaut, French composer, dies. 
John Dunstable, English composer, born. 
Francesco Landino, Italian composer, dies. 
Guillaume Dufay, Dutch composer, born.

Francesco Landino

Francesco degli Organi, Francesco il Cieco, or Francesco da Firenze, called by later generations Francesco Landini or Landino (c. 1325 or 1335 – September 2, 1397) was an Italian composerorganist, singer, poet and instrument maker. He was one of the most famous and revered composers of the second half of the 14th century, and by far the most famous composer in Italy.



Details of Landini's life are sketchy and few facts can be established with certainty, but the general outline has begun to take shape as more research has been done, especially into Florentine records. Most of the original biographical data on him comes from a 1385 book on famous Florentine citizens by chronicler Filippo Villani, who was also born approximately 1325.

Modern scholars no longer accept the idea that Landini was a member of the Landini family and prefer to use the names 'Francesco da Firenze' (Francesco of Firenze), 'Francesco degli Organi' or 'Francesco degliorghani' (Francesco of the organs) and 'Francesco il Cieco' or 'Franciscus cecus' (Francesco the blind) to refer to the composer. The reason is that the surname 'Landini' or 'Landino' has not been linked to the composer in any sources of the 14th century nor in secondary references in the 15th century.

The evidence linking Francesco to the Landini family via his presumed father, who was identified by Filippo Villani as a painter who lived a simple life is no longer accepted by art historians. It can therefore also no longer be maintained that the painter Jacopo del Casentino (formerly also referred to as 'Jacopo Landino') was his father or that Cristoforo Landino was his great-nephew.

Landini was most likely born in Florence, though Cristoforo Landino, gave his birthplace as Fiesole. Blind from childhood (an effect of contracting smallpox), Landini became devoted to music early in life, and mastered many instruments, including the lute, as well as the art of singing, writing poetry, and composition. Villani, in his chronicle, also stated that Landini was an inventor of instruments, including a stringed instrument called the 'syrena syrenarum', that combined features of the lute and psaltery, and it is believed to be the ancestor of the bandura.

Despite his young age, Landini was already active in the early 1350s and it is likely that he was very close to Petrarch.[2] According to Villani, Landini was given a crown of laurel by the King of Cyprus, who was in Venice for several periods during the 1360s. Landini probably spent some time in northern Italy prior to 1370. Evidence in some of his music also points to this: a motet by a certain "Franciscus" is dedicated to Andrea Contarini, who was Doge of Venice from 1368 to 1382; and in addition, his works are well represented in northern Italian sources.

He was employed as organist at the Florentine monastery of Santa Trinità in 1361, and at the church of San Lorenzo from 1365 onward. He was heavily involved in the political and religious controversies of his day, according to Villani, but he seems to have remained in the good graces of the Florentine authorities. Landini knew many of the other Italian composers of the Trecento, including Lorenzo da Firenze, with whom he was associated at Santa Trinità, as well as Andreas da Florentia, who he knew in the 1370s. Around or shortly after 1375, Andreas hired him as a consultant to help build the organ at the Servite house in Florence. Among the surviving records are the receipts for the wine that the two consumed during the three days it had taken to tune the instrument. Landini also helped build the new organ at SS Annunziata in 1379, and in 1387 he was involved in yet another organ-building project, this time at Florence Cathedral.

Numerous contemporary writers attest to his fame, not only as a composer, but as a singer, poet, organist, philosopher, and passionately devoted citizen of Florence, notably Giovanni da Prato, in his book Paradiso degli Alberti. This book, written in 1389 contains short stories, one of which supposedly was related by Landini himself. His reputation for moving an audience with his music was so powerful that writers noted "the sweetness of his melodies was such that hearts burst from their bosoms."

He is buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. His tombstone, lost until the 19th century and now again displayed in the church, contains a depiction of him with a portative organ.

Music and influence

Landini was the foremost exponent of the Italian Trecento style, sometimes also called the "Italian ars nova". His output was almost exclusively secular. While there are records that he composed sacred music, none of it has survived. What have survived are eighty-nine ballate for two voices, forty-two ballate for three voices, and another nine which exist in both two and three-voice versions. In addition to the ballate, a smaller number of madrigals have survived. Landini is assumed to have written his own texts for many of his works. His output, preserved most completely in the Squarcialupi Codex, represents almost a quarter of all surviving 14th-century Italian music.

Landini is the eponym of the Landini cadence (or Landino sixth), a cadential formula whereby the sixth degree of the scale (the submediant) is inserted between the leading note and its resolution on the tonic. However this cadence neither originated with him, nor is unique to his music; it can be found in much polyphonic music of the period, and well into the 15th century (for example in the songs of Gilles Binchois). Gherardello da Firenze is the earliest composer to use the cadence whose works have survived. Yet Landini used the formula consistently throughout his music, so the eponym—which dates from after the medieval era—is appropriate.


John Dunstable


English composer. Only a few remnants are known of his life: also a mathemati cian and astrologer, he worked under the patronage ofJohn, Duke of Bedford, the Dowager Queen Joan, and Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester. Humfrey’s friendship with Leonello d ’Este in Ferrara may explain why most of Dunstable’s compositions ended up in Italian rather than English manuscripts, though it is doubtful whether Dunstable himself spent time in Italy.

His numerous works preserved in manuscripts in Bologna, Modena, and Trent, as well as Munich, attest to his near-mythic status in Europe as the inventor of what Continental musicians termed “contenance angloise” (“English style”) : a warm, full sonority, extensive use of thirds and sixths, resulting in triadic motion with a characteristic melodic suppleness, and suspended, slowly shifting harmony, similar to that of modern minimalism. Despite the presence of these qualities in earlier English music, and their rich mani festation in the late-14th- or early-15th- century collection known as the Old Hall Manuscript—which also contains works by Dunstable’s brilliant contemporary, Leonel Power (1370-1445)—Dunstable alone was credited with this “great flowering” and its overwhelming influence on Franco-Flemish composers, particularly Du Fay and Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400-60).

Although Machaut owns the distinction of producing, in the late 14th century, the first truly unified mass cycle, in which all the movements of the Ordinary are struc turally and/or melodically connected, it took more than half a century for this approach to become the norm. Dunstable and Power were pioneers in bringing the change about; they each wrote connected pairs of mass movements, and the five movements of the Missa Rex seculorum (attributed to both men) appear to be based on the same tenor, though the upper parts contain no unifying melodic material.


The true glories of Dunstable’s output are his isorhythmic motets and polyphonic settings of sacred Latin texts. In these works, for example the incomparably luscious “Quam pulcra es,” the rich, expressive “pan consonance” of the new style reaches its apogee. The spellbinding, seductive effect it must have had on Continental composers can easily be imagined. 


John Dunstable - Sancta Maria, non est tibi similis

Guillaume Du Fay

(1399 - 1474)

French composer, acknowledged by his colleagues as the preeminent musi cian of the mid-15th century, and described by Piero de’ Medici in 1467 as “the greatest ornament of our age.” Du Fay
(his name was pronounced in three sylla bles—Doo-fah-ee) was accepted as a choir boy at Cambrai Cathedral in August 1409 and served in that capacity until 1414, when, presumably, his voice broke.

Between 1414 and 1418 he is thought to have attended the

Council of Constance in the ret inue of Cardinal Pierre d ’Ailly. While there, he came into contact with members of the Malatesta family, who commissioned some of his earliest works, including the motet Vasilissa ergo gaude (1420). By the late 1420s he had become a priest as well as one of the most famous, and well traveled, musicians in Europe. From 1428 (the year he was ordained) until 1433, he was a member of the papal choir in Rome. He appears to have been held in great esteem by Pope Eugene IV, who commissioned six motets, one of which, Ecclesie militantis, was sung at his coronation in 1431.

Following a stint as maitre de la chapelle to the Duke of Savoy in 1434, Du Fay rejoined the papal choir (1435-37), which by then had moved, along with the pope, to Florence. He wrote the motet Nuper rosarum flares for the dedication of the Florence Cathedral in 1436, and probably came into contact with the cathedral’s architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, as well as the sculptor Donatello. Du Fay spent two further periods in Savoy (1437-39 and 1451-58), in between which he was resi dent at Cambrai, becoming choirmaster in 1442. He returned to Cambrai in 1458 and spent the rest of his life there, completing a Requiem in 1470 (unfortunately lost) and the mass Ave regina celorumin 1472.

Du Fay composed at least seven settings of the complete Ordinary of the Mass and about a dozen independent settings of the Kyrie and Gloria, as well as hymns, antiphons, motets, and nearly 100 secular songs in French and Italian. Most impor tant were the mass settings—which exhibit great refinement and exceptional poly phonic skill, as well as groundbreaking innovations in their conception and organization—and the motets, particularly the 13 isorhythmic motets that are among the masterpieces of medieval art.  Du Fay was the first composer to base a setting of the mass on a popular song, using one of his own, the chanson “Se la face ay pale,” as the CANTUS FIRMUS for his mass Se la face ay pale (composed around 1455). The four great mass cycles of Du Fay’s later years—Se la face ay pale, L’homme are (alsobased on a popular song, and composed most likely in the 1460s), Ecce ancilla Domini (ca. 1463), and Ave regina celorum—are works of extraordinary richness and beauty whose lucid counterpoint, exquisite sonor ity, and cogent organization are supreme musical achievements. 


Guillaume de Machaut


French composer and poet. The lead ing figure of the Ars Nova, he was regarded during his lifetime not only as his era’s finest composer, but as its finest poet as well, probably the last time supremacy in both fields was united in one person. His talent and good fortune placed him at the 
center of power and wealth in 14th- century France, which allowed him to produce a large oeuvre and gave him the means to ensure its survival as well.

Machaut was educated in the cathedral town of Reims and, possibly, in Paris. For a period of about 17 years, from 1323 to 1340, he was employed as clerk, then notary, and even tually personal secretary to Jean de Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, a formidable figure known in English-speaking countries as John the Blind. King John was closely allied with the French court by blood and marriage. As a result, many important doors were opened for his young scribe. Machaut visited the French court in 1323-24 as part ofJohn’s retinue, and at that time probably came into contact with the composer and theorist Philippe de Vitry, a seminal figure in the emergence of the Ars Nova.


By the time he was 30, Machaut already enjoyed considerable fame for his verse accounts of Kingjohn’s exploits. His initial achievements as a composer were his motets, of which 23, mostly three-part, ISORHYTHMIC pieces, have survived, 19 of them dating from before 1350. He also made important early contributions to the art of the courtly love song. Building on the tradition of the TROUBADOURS and trouveres, he began by introducing the more elaborate metrical schemes of the Ars Nova, and ultimately succeeded in creating a new genre, the polyphonic chanson, by apply ing compositional techniques pioneered by Vitry. His settings occupy a number of genres: lays and virelais, ballades, and ron deaux. One of his most impressive is the lay “Je ne cesse de prier” (“I do not cease pray ing”), known as the “Lay de la Fonteinne,” a meditation on the Holy Trinity delivered as a prayer to the Virgin Mary in the guise of a love song. Equally fascinating is the rondeau “Ma fin est mon commencement” (“My end is my beginning”), a song about itself composed as a retrograde canon, in which Machaut airily demonstrates the self-awareness of the true artist.


The greatest of Machaut’s composi tional achievements is his Messe de Nostre Dame, created sometime in the early 1360s. The earliest integral, stylistically coherent polyphonic setting of the Ordinary of the Mass (including the “Ite missa est”), it remains the only surviving complete mass by a composer of the 14th century, at once marking a watershed in the history of the musical genre and an extraordinarily inno vative step in compositional technique. The writing still sounds “open” and organum-like, but the polyphony is ele vated, beautiful, and arresting, testifying to Machaut’s extraordinary powers of invention.  The setting incorporates isorhythmic structure everywhere except in the Gloria and Credo and, while not based on a specific cantus firmus, is unified by a number of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic elements that are consistent throughout. The first masterpiece of poly phonic music, it is one of the most vital expressions of the Ars Nova.

During his years of service to King John, Machaut had received a string of benefices, culminating in a canonicate at the
cathedral of Notre Dame in Reims. In April of 1340 he settled into a comfortable resi dence near the church, where he remained for the rest of his life. (John would die a valiant death in 1346 at the battle of Crecy, when he and a handful of retainers, tied to each other by the reins of their horses, charged the English lines.) Thanks to the esteem in which he continued to be held by various members of the French royal fam ily, Machaut in later years was able to have his works copied into a number of lavishly illuminated manuscript volumes, which, owing to their striking visual beauty, were preserved through the centuries. These have provided scholars with the most extensive sources for any composer of the 14th century (only 12 or 13 compositions securely attributable to Vitry have survived, while Machaut’s known works number 143). Thanks to these sources, which exist in large part due to Machaut’s unique foresight in preserving his artistic legacy, pos terity has come to recognize him as one of the first truly “modern” artists. It is with him, too, that polyphony transcended its status as a mere technique, becoming an art for the first time.


Du Fay

Save Regina (Chant of the Templars)

Francesco Landini: Non avra ma' pieta questa mia Donna

Du Fay (left), with Gilles Binchois

Guillaume Dufay: Missa l'Homme Armé 1. Kyrie

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales.

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