Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Polyphony through the Thirteenth Century

Composer Biographies


Flourished: c. 1200, Paris, France

In his own words . . .

"The Magnus lieber [the Large Book of Organum, credited to Leoninus] was in use up to the time of Perotinus the Great, who made a redaction of it and made many better clausulas . . . since he was the best discantor, and better than Leoninus."

Parisian composer of polyphony. With his predecessor, Leoninus, a primary figure of the so-called school of Notre Dame.

When the thirteenth-century author known to us as "Anonymous 4" wrote these words, he provided us with what might be seen as the first music history lesson. In it, he describes the work of two composers, compares the strengths of each, and suggests a process of change and influence.

The anonymous writer also told us nearly all that we know about Perotinus: that he was associated with the cathedral at Notre Dame, that he wrote certain pieces (which can be identified in various manuscripts), and that even after his death he was seen as a figure worthy of respect. But who was he? There are a few candidates for the "real" Perotinus—specifically two men named Petrus who held ranks of importance at the cathedral. But neither can with assurance be given the title "Master Perotinus." So he remains, in many ways, the creation of that late-thirteenth-century writer in the same way that any figure of the past is the creation of historians.

The so-called Magnus lieber organi represents something of a landmark in the early history of polyphonic music. It comprises a body of music that was sufficient for all the major feasts of the church year, thus highlighting for us a point at which polyphony seems to have become an integral part of the music of the Western Church. As important as the development of polyphony was for the history of Western music, however, we would be wrong to assume that it was greeted with universal approval. Like critics of popular music today, many saw this style as a danger to the morals of the listener because it appealed to people's sensual nature—an especially dangerous thing in the context of the church. One twelfth-century writer, John of Salisbury, made his case using sexual language that would startle and at the same time sound quite familiar to us today.

Perotinus created works on a scale never seen before—both in terms of the number of voices and in terms of sheer size. One of his most famous works, Sederunt principes, is nearly twenty minutes in length. So even if we are not sure who he was, he still stands as an imposing historical figure.


  • Three- and four-voice organa, including Viderunt omnes
  • Numerous clausulae (substitute sections for earlier organum)
  • Many one-, two-, and three-voice conductus (independent polyphonic pieces)

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Musical Examples

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