Pérotin (active ca. 1185-1205), of the Notre Dame school in Paris, was the central figure in polyphonic art music during his time and the century thereafter. He was the first to write three-and four-part compositions and invented numerous musical techniques.

Of the life of Pérotin or Perotinus, absolutely nothing is known. For some time it was believed that a number of documents, dating from 1208 to 1238, referred to the composer, but this has recently been shown not to be the case. All we know is his name, the titles of some of his works, and his achievements, which are mentioned in two treatises: one by an eminent philosopher and music theorist, John of Garland, an Englishman who taught at the University of Paris during the second quarter of the 13th century; and the other by an anonymous English student, actually his voluminous class notes taken during the 1270s in Paris. The student informs us that Pérotin "edited" the Magnus liber organi (Great Book of Organa) of his predecessor at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, Léonin, by shortening the long sections of these compositions in which a free-flowing melody was laid over a slow-moving cantus firmus, that is, a series of notes taken from preexisting music—here from Gregorian chants of the Mass or the daily prayer hours. On the other hand, Pérotin added many sections, or clausulae, in discant style, where both voices were regulated by rhythmic patterns in strict meter. Of this style, the anonymous writer tells us, Pérotin was the greatest master (optimus discantor). Over 500 such discant clausulae are extant, some short ones undoubtedly the work of Léonin and of Pérotin's disciples, but the bulk probably Pérotin's own works.

These clausulae were not only sung at services, within the organa, but apparently also enjoyed as instrumental and vocal chamber music. Poets soon discovered that this metric music could well serve poetic texts, and they invented poems to go with the upper part, while leaving the cantus firmus, to be played by an instrument. The text (mot in French) gave the name motet to the new songlike species, which was at first based on Pérotinian discant clausulae but soon became independent of them. The motet was the central type of 13th-century art music. It first carried Latin texts connected with the feasts to which the clausulae belonged, presumably in the last decade of the 12th-century, but soon after the turn of the century it began also to employ French secular texts, many of them including quotations from contemporary trouvère poems and romances.

Pérotin's name is not directly connected with the motet, but the anonymous English student lists several of his works in other categories. Pérotin, he informs us, was the first to compose organa in three voice parts, some 30 of which are preserved. He also wrote two long four-part organa (ca. 1198-1200) whose fame spread throughout the Continent: Viderunt omnes for Christmas and Sederunt for the Mass of St. Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas. These works show great ingeniousness and many technical innovations, such as imitation, use of melodic and rhythmic motives and their variation for unifying a larger work, phrase repetition for the creation of structure, and rhythmic patterning of a Gregorian chant to serve as the basis of his clausulae. As in the organum, Pérotin also advanced to three-and four-part writing in his conductus, strophic Latin songs whose texts were sung simultaneously in all voices but could also be sung by a single person with instruments playing the other parts.

During Pérotin's time Paris became the center of Western culture. The Cathedral of Notre Dame neared completion and with it the Gothic style of architecture its zenith. The various philosophical schools that had grown up around it during the 12th century gave birth to the first general university outside Moorish Spain, where Aristotelian science stimulated a great intellectual debate. Pérotin's music was carried from this center to all the Western countries, where it was sung and imitated well into the 14th century.


Further Reading on Pérotin

Some of the music of Pérotin is available in modern transcription in various publications and also on records. The best account of his achievements is in Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960).