Philippe de Vitry

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1360) was a French poet, composer, and churchman-statesman. His treatise Ars nova became the rallying cry for all "modern" composers after about 1320.

Born in Paris, Philippe de Vitry was the son of a royal notary. Philippe served several French kings, carrying out political missions that took him to southern France and a meeting with the Pope at Avignon. As a cleric, he received several money-producing canonates; in 1351 he became bishop of Meaux near Paris. One of his friends, Italy's leading poet, Petrarch, in a letter of 1350, called Vitry the foremost French poet of his time.

Nearly all Vitry's literary works are lost. Especially regrettable is the loss of his French poetry set to music, ballades and rondeaux in which he created a new style in song anticipating Guillaume de Machaut. Surviving are one ballade without music; two longer poems, one written in reference to a crusade planned for 1335 by King Philip VI; and two poems that serve one of his 12 extant motets. Of Vitry's Latin poems only one has reached us outside of those that are incorporated in his motets.

Vitry's earliest musical works, five motets, are preserved in a musical appendix added in 1316 to a moralistic romance, Le roman de Fauvel, written in 1314. Seven motets by Vitry, mostly composed between 1320 and 1335, are included in later collections, and the texts of a thirteenth work survive in one of the many additional manuscripts that include these pieces. In his motets Vitry emerges as the first highly individual composer. Each work is a distinctive work of art, expresses personal ideas, and is characteristically shaped.

The new techniques which Vitry embraced in his music he expounded in his famous treatise Ars nova (ca. 1320). It is mainly through him that these techniques gained widespread acceptance. They include a new system of proportional tempo changes and meters, including the adoption of the formerly neglected duple meter beside the triple meter; the introduction of the intervals of the third and sixth as consonances, considered as dissonant before him, and therewith of the triad and what we now call its first inversion; a freer use of accidentals; and the employment of new, smaller note values.

In addition to the new ballade style, Vitry created a new technique in motet composition, today called isorhythm. This consists in employing a long and complex rhythmic pattern, which governs one or all voice parts of a motet in one of the following ways: both melody and rhythmic pattern may be repeated, sometimes in a new tempo, usually twice as fast; the rhythmic pattern may be repeated but superimposed on new melodic content; or the pattern may be divided into several subpatterns, which, with ever new melodic content, may be repeated in an arbitrary order and any number of times. This highly complex method has been said to foreshadow some 20th-century approaches.

Further Reading on Philippe de Vitry

Vitry's music is available in a modern edition by Leo Schrade. Information on him appears in Gustave Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (1940); Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (1941); and Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson, eds., The Pelican History of Music, vol. 1 (1960).

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