New Research on Philippe de Vitry

A quick post to flag a (relatively) recent post by Anna Zayaruznaya marking the third anniversary of the conference we co-organized on Philippe de Vitry at Yale on November 6–7, 2015. In it she assembles a bibliography of new research on Vitry stemming from the conference – as a sort of virtual conference volume. So head on over to her blog for the full list, and links to any available online versions, including to our newly-published co-edited special issue of Early Music (vol. 46, 2018) – ‘Philippe de Vitry and the Ars nova’ – with articles by David Catalunya, Karen Desmond, Karl Kügle, and Anna Zayaruznaya.

Jean des Murs, Quadrivial Scientist

As promised, a brief summary of the third chapter of Music and the moderni, 1300-1350, which focusses on the music theorist and astronomer, Jean des Murs (fl. 1312-1347). It also gives me a chance to repost this wonderful image of Lady Astronomy from Burney 275 (the same manuscript from which this blog’s header image is taken).

London, British Library, Burney 275, fol. 390v (France, between 1309 and 1316)

To musicologists, Jean des Murs is known for his groundbreaking contributions to ars nova theory. But during the same decades (1320s/1330s) that Jean wrote his influential treatises on music (Notitia artis musicae, Compendium musicae, and his Musica speculativa, he was also deeply involved in adapting and implementing the innovative practices of Castilian astronomy for use in Paris. His work caught the attention of the higher-ups: renowned for his impressive feats of calculation and prediction, Jean worked at two prestigious courts: at the Évreux court of Jeanne de France, Queen of Navarre, and at Pope Clement VI’s court at Avignon–an important centre for those engaged in significant work on music and astronomy in the 1340s (including Levi ben Gerson and Philippe de Vitry).

The chapter opens with the scene of Jean des Murs and Jeanne, Queen of Navarre, observing a solar eclipse:

On the afternoon of 14 May 1333, the twenty-one-year old Jeanne de France, Queen of Navarre (1312-1349), observed a solar eclipse from her castle at Saint-Germain in Évreux. Just months earlier, on 9 October 1332, Jeanne had given birth to her fourth child, a son Charles, heir to the throne of Navarre, the kingdom over which Jeanne had reigned since her 1329 coronation in Pamplona. To observe the eclipse Jeanne was in the castle she had ordered built shortly after her coronation – a castle she reportedly had named ‘Navarre’. In this annular solar eclipse, as the moon passed between the sun and earth, the moon did not cover the sun completely, and a glowing ring of light encircled the dark shadow of the moon . . .

Desmond, Music and the moderni, p. 70.

We have scant information about Jean’s career: in this chapter I explore some of the possible influences – personal and ideological – of predecessors, mentors, peers, and patrons on Jean’s work during his early career at the Sorbonne, and as he began to seek employment outside of the university. In this synthesis of Jean des Murs’s career and scholarly endeavours, I also reassess the chronology and content of his music theory. The chapter concludes with an analysis of Jean’s new conceptualisation of rhythmic duration, and how it ought to be measured and represented in notation (presented in book 2 of Notitia artis musicae). Jean’s rhetoric in Notitia, which foregrounds both observation (experientia), precision in measurement, and practical application, is foregrounded in all of Jean’s quadrivial pursuits, which were to have significant repercussions through the fourteenth century and beyond.

Music and the ‘Moderns’


The music notation developed by ars nova theorists in the first half of the fourteenth century ushered in possibly the most significant change in the way in which musicians and composers in western Europe thought of musical composition, that is, as an act facilitated by the visual forms of music notation. Brand new possibilities were afforded by the expanded variety of note shapes, rests, dots, and metrical combinations. Jean des Murs (fl. 1312-47), a leading French astronomer and mathematician who first appears on the Parisian scene in the 1310s, was one of the main developers of the new music notation. Of it, he claimed : “Whatever can be sung, can now be written down.” Ars nova notation precipitated a series of new compositional techniques that characterised fourteenth-century music, such as syncopation, counterpoint, and complex repetitive formal structures. It also generated heated debate, especially among music theorists based in Paris. The attitudes of its proponents – the so-called “moderni” – prompted laments like this from Jacobus, a vociferous critic of the ars nova

Oh, so much abuse, so much illegality, so much vanity, so much insolence, so much uselessness, so much rudeness! Oh, so much presumption in the figuring of the notes, so much confusion! (Speculum musicae, book VII, chapter 27)

My new book Music and the moderni, 1300-1350: The ars nova in theory and practice, which was published by Cambridge University Press last month, explores the writings, music, and interactions of the main ars nova protagonists, and identifies and explains what was at stake for them (and the rest of us). Through contemporaneous accounts, I situate the musical developments of this crucial half century within the cultural and intellectual context of the time.

The discoveries I present in this book challenge prevailing narratives of the ars nova, which had previously coupled the emergence of the ars nova too specifically to the c. 1320 copying date of the famous Roman de Fauvel manuscript. I propose instead that the musical aesthetics of the fourteenth-century moderni, derided by older theorists like Jacobus, is bound up with ideas of subtilitas and mathematical precision in notation and style only exemplified in writings and music compositions from the 1330s and 1340s. Music and the moderni, 1300-1350 revisits broader questions about both the chronology and character of the ars nova, and how changes in theory and notation can engender changes in style and practice.

In series of blog posts of the next few weeks, I will introduce some of the ideas and music discussed in my book. Next up: the aesthetic of subtilitas (subtlety)–a surprisingly hard-to-pin-down term with both positive and negative connotations in the Middle Ages–and how it was embraced by the fourteenth-century moderni.