Philippe de Vitry

Philippe de Vitry (October 31, 1291 – June 9, 1361) was a French composer, music theorist and poet. He was an accomplished, innovative, and influential composer, who is credited to have been the author of the Ars Nova treatise, and is renowned as the great philosopher and truth seeker of his time. As a scholar who worked in great detail to preserve what was happening in the music of the fourteenth century, de Vitry specifically explained the new notational examples in his treatise. This was a partnership that he created with his readers and other musicians to explain the essentials of the current music theory, and to allow them to reciprocate by facilitating the performance of late French Medieval music for the enjoyment of all peoples.



He was born in Paris; however, biographical details of his life are sketchy. Given that he is often referred to in documents as "Magister," he is thought likely to have studied at the University of Paris. Later he was prominent in the courts of Charles IV of France, Philippe VI of France and Jean II of France, serving as a secretary and advisor. Perhaps aided by these House of Bourbon connections, he also held several canonries, including Clermont, Beauvais, and Paris, and served for a time in the antipapal retinue at Avignon starting with Pope Clement VI. Additionally, he was a diplomat and a soldier, and is known to have served at the Siege of Aiguillon in 1346. In 1351, he became Bishop of Meaux, east of Paris. Moving in all the most important political, artistic, and ecclesiastical circles, he was acquainted with many sages of the age, including Petrarch and the famous mathematician, philosopher and music theorist Nicole Oresme. De Vitry died in Paris.

Musical Writings

Philippe de Vitry is most famous in music history for writing the Ars Nova (1322), a treatise on music, which gave its name to the music of the entire era. While his authorship and the very existence of this treatise have recently come into question, a handful of his musical works do survive, and show the innovations in notation, particularly mensural notation and rhythm, with which he was credited within a century of their inception. Such innovations as are exemplified in his stylistically-attributed motets for the 'Roman de Fauvel' were particularly important, and made possible the free and quite complex music of the next hundred years, culminating in the 'Ars subtilior'. In some ways the "modern" system of rhythmic notation began with the Ars Nova, during which music might be said to have "broken free" from the older idea of the rhythmic modes, patterns which were repeated without being individually notated. The mensural notation or notational predecessors of modern time meters also originate in the Ars Nova.

Musical Output

De Vitry is reputed to have written chansons and motets, but only some of the motets have survived. Each motet is strikingly individual, exploring a unique structural idea. Vitry is also often credited with developing the concept of isorhythm (an isorhythmic line is one which has repeating patterns of rhythms and pitches, but the patterns overlap rather than correspond. For example, a line of thirty consecutive notes might contain five repetitions of a six-note melody, and six repetitions of a five-note rhythm).

Five of Vitry's three-part motets have survived in the 'Roman de Fauvel'; an additional nine can be found in the 'Ivrea Codex'.

He was widely acknowledged as the greatest musician of his day, and even Petrarch wrote a glowing tribute of him: "...he is the great philosopher and truth-seeker of our age."


  • Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978. ISBN 0-393-09090-6
  • Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. Compositional techniques in the four-part isorhythmic motets of Philippe de Vitry and his contemporaries. Outstanding dissertations in music from British universities. New York: Garland, 1989. ISBN 9780824020163
  • Sanders, Ernest H. Philippe de Vitry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • Sinnreich-Levi, Deborah M., and Ian S. Laurie. Literature of the French and Occitan Middle Ages: eleventh to fifteenth centuries. Dictionary of literary biography, v. 208. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999 ISBN 9780787631024.

External Links

All links retrieved March 22, 2019.


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