Philippe de Vitry


Philippe de Vitry was a composer and theorist whose work influenced the compositional practices of many subsequent generations.  Perhaps most well known for a treatise on the “New Art” of his time, his motets also exhibit the earliest known use of isorhythm in the motet tenor.


Born in France in 1291, Philippe de Vitry was not only a celebrated musician and poet, but also a bishop, administrator, diplomat, and political adviser.  He spent most of his life in Paris, working at the French courts of Charles IV, Philippe VI, and Jean II, but traveled often as part of his diplomatic activities.  On one of his diplomatic missions to Avignon, Vitry befriended the great Petrarch and they became mutual admirers, Vitry referring to Petrarch as “the one real poet of France.”

Vitry was closely connected to Louis de Bourbon, the Count of Clermont, and served as his clerk, administrator, and diplomat for twenty years.  When Louis became the Duke of Bourbon in 1327, Vitry continued in his employ.  Louis de Bourbon was active in French politics, which was influential on the works Vitry produced.  The subjects of Vitry’s motets very much reflected his exposure to current events and the opinions of Bourbon.  Vitry’s O canenda/Rex quem/Rex regum, for instance, praises one of the Crusades’ leaders – an endeavor supported by Bourbon.

In 1340, the composer went into the service of King Philippe VI, holding several important positions; he continued in this service when the king’s son was crowned in 1350.  One year later, in 1351, Vitry became the Bishop of Meaux and remained in this position until his death in 1361.

Ars nova (The New Art)

Vitry was active during the period now known as the Ars nova (approximately 1315-1375) and he is also credited with having documented its musical development in a treatise of the same name.  This treatise detailed a revolutionary new method of notation – a method that allowed for far greater rhythmic subtlety and complexity.  The method was very forward thinking and reflected an increasingly secular world that was influenced by new technologies and the tragedy of the Black Plague. 

The name “Ars nova,” which translates to “The New Art,” became the moniker for an entire artistic period.  In terms of musical practice, its most noteworthy contribution was the new method of measuring rhythm, which, among other things, allowed for syncopation to be easily implemented; the concept of a time signature was also introduced.

The church was troubled by the Ars nova because it was yet another indication of secularization.  The motet, once an almost purely sacred form, became a medium for discussion of current events.  The Roman de Fauvel (1310-1314), for example, which contains 167 musical works including thirty-four motets (at least five motets are attributed to Vitry), is a satirical poem that addresses topics such as the dubious morals of the contemporary clergy.  Not surprisingly, the Church reacted negatively to such new musical developments.  In 1323, the following passage appeared in Pope John XXII’s Docta Sanctorum (1323):

Certain disciples of the new school, much occupying themselves with the measured dividing of beats, display their rhythm in notes new to us, preferring to devise new methods of their own rather than to continue singing in the old way.  Therefore the music of the Divine Office is disturbed with these notes of quick duration.  Moreover, they hinder the melody with hockets, they deprave it with discants, and sometimes they pad out the music with upper parts made out of secular songs…We hasten to forbid these methods, or rather to drive them more effectively out of the house of God than has been done in the past.

Vitry is generally credited as the author of the Ars nova, but twentieth-century scholarship questioned his role as the sole author and even the manner by which the treatise was created; many scholars now consider the work to be a compilation of both Vitry’s theoretical ideas and those of his contemporaries.

Most of Vitry’s music has been lost.  There are twelve surviving motets, five of which are in Le Roman de Fauvel and five others are in the Ivrea Codex.  Beyond his legacy as the author of the Ars nova treatise and his innovations in rhythmic notation, Vity was a great influence on Machaut, who adopted and developed the use of isorhythm in his own motets.


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Maury, Yossi.  “A Courtly Lover and an Earthly Knight Turned Soldiers of Christ in Machaut’s Motet No. 5.”  Early Music History 24 (2005): 169-211.

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