Four of the most important composers from the Medieval Period were Hildegard von Bingen, Leonin, Perotin, and Guillaume de Machaut. Learn about their contributions and key musical works in this lesson.

Medieval Composers

Are they mosquitoes? Are they helicopters? No, they are the super composers of the Medieval Period! Revel in the visionary melodies of Visionista, the alter ego of Hildegard von Bingen! Bask in the multi-part harmonies of Leonin the Doubleman and his successor, Perotin the Tripleman! Indulge your religious and non-religious sides with the sacred and secular love songs of the Massanova, Guillaume de Machaut!

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Hildegard von Bingen

We’ll start with the earliest composer, Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard lived from approximately 1098 to 1179. She was a German nun who was known for her visions and prophecies. First written as poems, Hildegard later set her visions and prophecies to music around the year 1140. Hildegard’s music was primarily syllabic hymns and melismatic solos, meaning a succession of pitches sung on one syllable as heard in this popular holiday song.

Her music is notable for many reasons. She is known for writing songs that were uncharacteristically melodic for this time period. At a time when the church had very strict rules about music, Hildegard was able to creatively integrate and extend musical techniques to compose music that was intriguing, yet still fit the church’s guidelines. Specifically, her use of a wide range of pitches and note leaps were uncharacteristic for the time. She used these techniques to give meaning through musical emphasis of the words. Today, Hildegard’s songs are some of the best known and most recorded sacred solos.

Hildegard’s standout work is a musical play called Ordo virtutum. Written in 1151, Ordo Virtutum is her most extended musical work. Meaning, ‘The Virtues,’ the sacred musical drama is a morality play with allegorical and human characters, including the happy, unhappy, and repentant souls, prophets, virtues, and even the devil, though he was only allowed to have a spoken part.

Leonin and Perotin

Later, in the 1200s, French composers Leonin and Perotin of the Notre Dame cathedral drastically changed music. Leonin and his student, Perotin, are generally credited with composing the first significant polyphonic, or multi-part, church music. This is significant because it hadn’t been done in church music before, and in medieval thought, anything new had to be founded on something old. This meant that any new compositions had to be based on a preexisting composition, such as church chants. This school of thought is known as Ars Antiqua.

In order to achieve new music while adhering to the rules, both composers added vocal parts to chants. Often, the added part was sung at the same rhythm as the original chant, creating a parallel harmony. Other times, the original chant was sung at an extremely slow pace, while a new, faster melismatic melody was added at a higher pitch. Leonin used these techniques to write music with two vocal parts. This new type of multi-part chant was called organum. Perotin also used these techniques, but went a step further and composed for three – and sometimes four – vocal parts.

In fact, Leonin and Perotin were so good at writing organum that they wrote the first complete annual cycle of chants for the mass in two parts. The music was compiled as a book called the Magnus Liber Organi, or the ‘Great Book of Organum.’ Leonin wrote the original version, with Perotin editing and adding new ideas afterward. By the end, it sounded something like this.

Guillaume De Machaut

Near the end of the Medieval Period, a French composer named Guillaume de Machaut would take Leonin’s and Perotin’s ideas to a whole new level. He lived from 1300 to 1377. Machaut’s musical career started in the church, though he also later worked in various French courts. Quite the talented and diverse individual, Machaut wrote music in both sacred and secular styles, and he was also known as a poet who wrote about love and even influenced the great Geoffrey Chaucer.

Musically, Machaut is considered one of the most important and influential composers of his time. His efforts contributed to the Ars Nova school of musical thought, which was in contrast to the Ars Antiqua of Leonin and Perotin’s time. Ars Nova encompassed more complex rhythms and polyphony of secular music. This meant not worrying so much about building on previously existing chants and focusing more on more polyphonic writing. He even integrated secular and sacred texts for some works, giving polyphony a new application.

One of Machaut’s most important works was the Messe de Notre Dame, the first polyphonic setting of the Ordinary of the Catholic mass. This is perhaps the most well-known composition of the entire Medieval Period. Aside from being polyphonic, the mass also used a rhythmic technique called isorhythm, which was using recurring rhythmic patterns in successive repetitions of the melody. This seems like such a simple concept because it is used so often today, but at the time, it was quite revolutionary. Part of his mass can be heard here.

Lesson Summary

In all, Hildegard von Bingen, Leonin, Perotin, and Guillaume de Machaut made significant advancements in music during the mid to late Medieval Period, around 1100 to 1400. Hildegard von Bingen enhanced church music by adding melodic richness through use of many notes and leaps. Leonin and Perotin added multiple vocal parts to the existing church chant to develop polyphony in the church’s music in the Ars Antiqua style. Finally, Guillaume de Machaut took these ideas and added repeating rhythms, called isorhythm, and polyphonic complexity to establish the Ars Nova style. These developments were significant in fostering musical growth and change as society moved into what would be known as the Renaissance Period and beyond.

Learning Outcomes

By the time you have finished this lesson, you could have the ability to:

  • Recognize notable composers of the Medieval Period
  • Characterize the music of Hildegard von Bingen, and cite one of her major musical plays
  • Recall the style of music that was composed by Leonin and Perotin
  • Note Guillaume de Machaut’s contributions to the music of the era, and name one of his most famous works