Saturday, August 4, 2012

More than a Musician

We so often study famous people in isolation, forgetting that their lives and successes probably overlapped other well-known people. Imagine the possibilities when people of vision and ingenuity met with and influence each other?

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) is not a well-known name today, but in his lifetime he was acknowledged as the greatest musician of the age, and his own works and his connections with others are worth knowing. In his lifetime, he was a diplomat, a soldier, a poet, a composer and music theorist. Like most university-educated men of the Middle Ages, de Vitry was in Holy Orders and held several clerical positions, finally being appointed Bishop of Meaux by Pope Clement VI.

Some of the motets he composed have survived. His chief contribution to music, however, was in the evolving system of notation. In Ars nova notandi (Art of the new notation), de Vitry improved on Franconian musical notation that had been set out in Franco of Cologne's Ars Cantus Mensurabilis (The Art of Measurement of Songs); de Vitry recognized the existence and importance of duple and triple meter. For connoisseurs of music:
In the treatise Vitry recognizes the existence of five note values (duplex longa, longa, brevis, semibrevis, and minima), codifies a system of binary as well as ternary mensuration at four levels (maximodus, modus, tempus, prolatio), and introduces four time signatures. He also discusses the use of red notes to signal both changes of mensural meaning and deviations from an original cantus firmus. (source)
And of course he knew other accomplished figures of his age, such as Petrarch, Nicholas Oresme, and Gersonides. In fact, de Vitry's musical approach to mathematics (the two subjects were closely linked in medieval education) prompted him to request of Gersonides a work to prove a theory. This 1342 work, De harmonicis numeris (On the harmony of numbers), maintained that, "except for the pairs 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, and 8-9, it is impossible for two numbers that follow each other to be composed of the factors 2 and 3." (source) The result is known today as the Theorem of Gersonides.

I will leave you with a sample of his work.

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