Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2014. Do not copy without permission.
hit counter

Composer Biography: Johannes Martini (c1440-c1498)

Completely Off Topic
Completely Off Topic

Also called Giovanni or Zohanne Martini. Martini isn’t an Italianate version of his name—there are Flemish Martinis and variants.

Johannes Martini is not only a Franco-Flemish composer who spent most of his career in Italy. He was such a big deal that the Power Families of the time, the Sforzas and the d’Estes, sought his expertise, and he was well respected by other top-flight composers of his day, such as Josquin des Prez and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come).

Ten of Martini’s Masses survive complete—an enormous number, considering how poor copying and dissemination were, and how few people had access to a printing press (invented in 1440)—as well as motets and many other sacred works, including a large number of homophonic (unison chant) psalm settings. His secular pieces had French and Italian texts, and there are others that were probably intended as instrumental ensemble music.

Martini was probably born in Armentieres, although some sources say he was born in Brabant. Both towns are still quite small and are about 150 miles apart in what is now France.

He received his early musical training in Flanders, like most of his generation of musicians, and he left for Italy when it was time to seek his fortune. He died in Ferrara in 1498 or thereabout.

Not much is known about his youth, but sometime before 1473, he became associated with the Duke of Ferrara, Italy. Duke Ercole I d’Este was building a musical academy that was meant to compete with other musical centers in Italy, and with Flanders and France as well.

In 1474, Martini turned up at the Sforza court chapel in Milan, engaged by Gaspar van Weebecke (c1445-1516) along with Josquin des Prez and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come), probably the other two biggest names of the time. Other Franco-Flemish composers were also at the Milan chapel, including Alexander Agricola (c1445-1506, blog post to come), as part of the movement from Flanders toward Italy as a musical center. The Sforza’s Milan chapel was the most renowned collection of musicians anywhere in Europe at the time.

But Martini didn’t stay long, returning to Ferrara later in 1474. It isn’t known why he didn’t stay, although with so many big names hanging out in Milan, it’s possible that he left to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. He maintained happy relationships with the other composers that he met there, though, so he didn’t go off in a huff.

Records show that in 1475, already in the service of Ercole I in Ferrara, Martini received a monthly wage increase. There’s no record of what his wages were, but the increase was a ducat over whatever he had previously been getting there. Martini was well-paid, receiving a house and a larger salary than other musicians in Ferrara.

He returned to Milan a few years later, as he’s listed in a pass for safe travel to leave Milan, along with other musicians after the assassination of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476) in 1476. Despite his excellent taste in music, Duke Sforza was a sadistic and malicious person, and was conspired against by three of his peers who’d been wronged in one way or another (land grabs, public whipping, and the deflowering of a sister). The public torture and executions of these noblemen and their servants left Milan in a rather unsavory state, and the Duke’s assembly of musicians headed out to less tumultuous cities.

Eventually it all calmed down, and Milan—and the Sforzas—rose again in musical industry. Sforza head musician Gaspar van Weerbecke (c1445-1516) was sent on a composer-recruiting trip to France and Flanders, and in 1489, Martini returned to Milan with Josquin des Prez and Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come). These three were each paid 5 ducats a month, which was near the lowest rate of all the singers listed in the register. After 1492, the records stop mentioning Martini, which leads experts to assume that he was probably the first of the three to die.




Most of his time was spent in Ferrara, but he did travel a little, even beyond Milan. In 1486, Martini traveled to Hungary as part of a group installing Ercole I’s nephew as Archbishop of Esztergom. In 1487 and 1488, he made trips to Rome to negotiate benefices given to him by Ercole I.

He was a friend of a court organist in Innsbruck, Austria, one Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537). They probably knew each other through mutual friends from Milan in the 1470s and 1480s. Queen Consort Beatrice of Hungary (1457-1508) asked Martini to intercede on her behalf and convince Hofhaimer to leave the Innsbruck court and come to Hungary. By 1489, she became really insistent, because her own court organist died. Letters show that Ercole I promised Beatrice that he’d send Martini to Innsbruck when they got home to Ferrara. It’s not clear whether or not Martini went, but there are some Martini manuscripts in Munich that originated in Innsbruck. At any rate, Hofhaimer never left Innsbruck for Hungary. Beatrice gave up on getting him to come upon her husband’s death in 1490, when her political life overwhelmed such efforts.

But that wasn’t the last of Martini’s communication with the high and mighty. He was friend and mentor to Ercole I’s daughter, young Isabelle d’Este (1474-1539), and their letters from her first three years (1490-1493) in Mantua survive.

Isabella married Francesco Gonzaga (1466-1519) in 1490 at age 16, and her first letter from Martini arrived six months later. The letter says that her father wanted him to go to Mantua and instruct her in singing. Martini seems eager for the post, but begs for a couple of weeks’ delay so he can gather the necessary supplies. In a later letter, he sends a secular composition for her to practice. Isabella also received dance lessons, and, unlike most women in her circle, made the arts an essential part of her life rather than just superficial knowledge meant to impress suitors. In her study at the ducal palace, she had the song Prennez sur moi by Johannes Ockeghem (c1420-1497) worked out in marquetry, and many of the great artists of Italy were on terms of mutual respect with her, including Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Titian (c1499-1576), and writer Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529).

But I digress. Martini’s secular music was partialy published by Ottaviano Petricci (1466-1539), and other works, both sacred and secular survive. His surviving output includes 10 Masses and quite a few motets, psalms, hymns, and secular songs, including chansons.

He wrote more Masses than motets (the sacred version of a madrigal), which was more typical of Ockeghem’s generation than of Josquin’s. His musical style was also more conservative than Josquin’s.

In fact, Martini’s style refers back to the Burgundian School, especially in his Masses. There’s some stylistic similarity to Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), harkening to the Dutch school. It’s thought that Martini and Obrecht knew each other, or at least each others’ works. Obrecht was a guest in Ferrara in 1487 (Martini was in Rome for part of that year, so they might have missed each other), and his music is known to have circulated in Italy in the early 1480s.

Martini wrote some of the earliest examples of paraphrase Masses. Paraphrase is when the chant melody is in the highest voice, rather than as cantus firmus in the tenor. Martini’s Missa domenicalis and Missa ferialis, both tentatively dated to the 1470s, use paraphrase in the tenor voice, where cantus firmus usually is, but also use the same melodic material in other voices. The paraphrase technique was to become one of the predominant methods of Mass composition in the early 16th century.

Martini is the first composer known to have set psalms for double choir singing antiphonally, a style that would become famous under the direction of Adrian Willaert (c1490-1562) seventy years later, and is probably most profoundly famous as a key element in works of the Baroque, especially those of J.S. Bach (1685-1750). Nevertheless, the style of antiphonal double-choir psalms was strikingly innovative, but didn’t catch on in his own lifetime or even shortly afterward.

In addition to his contrapuntal Masses, Martini also wrote motets with skillful imitative devices. His Vesper psalms, written in collaboration with Johannes Brebis (late 15th century) for Ercole I, are all simple chants.

His Missa Cucu has a cantus firmus melody in the tenor, like so many other pieces, but other voices display a well-developed imitative style, including the descending minor-third song of the cuckoo bird.

Martini wrote a Salve Regina, a Magnificat Secudi Toni (in the second mode, hypo-Dorian), and an Ave Maris Stella, all in four voices. But he wasn’t just doing variations on themes. The Salve Regina uses the double cantus firmus technique, where the cantus firmus is repeated in canon by another voice, only transposed by a fourth or fifth. His Magnificat set the odd-numbered verses in polyphony, except for the opening word, which, like the even-numbered verses, is in plainchant. In those polyphonic verses, the cantus firmus moves from voice to voice. In his Ave Maris Stella, after a brief introduction in the altus and bass, who sing in contrary motion, the discantus and tenor paraphrase the plainsong, occasionally in imitation. Martini’s used of imitation in this piece is quite skillful.


Martini wrote another Magnificat in the third mode (Phrygian). There are also three Masses collected in a single book, each with aGloria, Credo, and Sanctus only (missing the Kyrie, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est), that are based on Barbingant’s (fl. c1445-1460, no first name found) Der ploben swancz, and a Missa Ma couche rit, based on Ockeghem’s chanson by the same name, and a Missa Io ne tengo. In another book, there are three more Masses from Martini, including a Missa Cela sans plus and a Missa La Matrinella.

Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) printed several of Martini’s works, including both hymns and secular pieces. One of the secular pieces is the widely disseminated three-part La Martinella. That piece and 21 others are contained in a manuscript in Rome. Another is the Toujours bien, which is much like La Martinella in style. Also among them is a textless four-part canon, the canon appearing an octave below the melody in two voices and at a fifth below in the fourth.

More of Martini’s works are preserved in other manuscripts, including 17 secular pieces in the Banco rari, which is a library of rare books in Florence. The bulk of Martini’s secular music is in three parts, with texts in both Italian and French.

Martini wrote one of the most widely distributed works of the period, the aforementionedLa Martinella. The piece unfolds in a series of phrases, most featuring imitation between two voices (usually superius and tenor), and the third voice rests or adds free counterpoint. The opening figure returns in various guises throughout, including in a varied inverted form at the midpoint.

He didn’t live a long life, but Johannes Martini certainly led a productive and interesting one. He’s thought to have died around 1498 in Ferrara.


“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“A History of Western Music,” by K. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude B. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1988.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1959.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.