Born: Oct 31, 1291 in Vitry, Champagne, France
Dead: Jun 9, 1361 in Paris, France
Genre: Vocal Music
Philippe de Vitry, poet and musician, philosopher and intellectual, councilor to three kings, began his stellar career with a master of arts degree from the Sorbonne. Pope John XXII conferred upon him the first of many ecclesiastical revenues in 1321. By this point, Vitry may have already been serving as a notary to the Royal Court; his documented service to French royalty spanned three reigns, Charles le Bel, Philippe VI, and Jean II. In 1346, Vitry accompanied Jean to war as a "companion in arms," and he served as an ambassador to the Papal court in Avignon starting in 1350. In that year, he was named Bishop of Meaux, a post he retained until his death in 1361. During his life, Vitry was commended by no less a writer than Francesco Petrarch as "the one true poet of France," and by numerous professional musicians as the "flower and jewel of singers"; he was said to have discovered the very means of composing music in his time.
Philippe de Vitry has long been erroneously thought to have codified his new theories of music composition some time around 1320 in a revolutionary treatise called the Ars Nova, or "New Art" (setting its teaching in contrast to the compositional styles in the previous century). Musicologists now doubt that such a single work existed. Nevertheless, vestiges of his teachings on music have survived in a number of smaller treatises and tracts by his pupils. His expansions of musical practice largely deal with rhythmic features: the codification of different mensurations (or musical time signatures), specifically duple time; the use of red notation to indicate new proportional rhythmic values; and the standardization of a new shorter note value, the minim. In each of these cases, it seems he influenced his peers and pupils more in codification than in revolutionary invention.
Though a contemporary musical treatise suggests Vitry "discovered" the means of composition for secular verse forms such as the ballade, the lay, and the rondeau, virtually none of his secular music survives. Almost all his extant music is in the form of the fourteenth century motet, not to be confused with the Renaissance musical form by this name. The motets display a dramatically hierarchical ordering of voices, with a slow-moving tenor voice based upon a plainchant melody (often subject to rhythmic manipulations), complemented by one or more upper voices, moving in shorter note values and set to different texts. The added texts, assumed to be the work of the composer himself, most often add an ironic level of commentary to the chant text, enhancing the rational pungency of the piece's affect. The most famous of the motets attributed to Vitry appear in the provocative and sumptuous illuminated manuscript, dated 1316, of the Roman de Fauvel, in which the corrupt government of France is personified as an ass.
- Timothy Dickey (All Music Guide)