Also Perotinus and Perotin the Great. Perotinus and Perotin are both diminutives of Pierre. There were five men named Pierre attached to Notre Dame during the same period, and although some can be eliminated because of their superior rank (you wouldn’t call a priest “Joe” or “Freddie” in public), it’s presumed that the one who was only a deacon (not a priest), is the one who made a great contribution to the art of music, and the one whose history is covered here.
Perotin was the most famous member of the Notre Dame School of polyphony, and along with Leonin, he was one of the last masters of the Ars Antigua style. Like Leonin, he earned the academic degree of Master of Arts at the school that would later become the University of Paris, and he was licensed to teach.
Little is known about the man himself, but his name appears in the treatise of Anonymous IV (whose dates and actual name aren’t known, only that he was a student visiting Paris from England) in 1285. This comprehensive treatise refers to Perotin as a “master” and he’s called “optimus discantor” in several manuscripts, meaning that he was the ultimate discant writer. (There’s more about discants in the blog post Composer Biography: Leonin (fl. c1150-c1201). Perotin was probably the most celebrated musician involved in the revision and re-notation of the Magnus Liber attributed to Leonin.
Perotin and his contemporaries created organa (plainchant with another voice or two floating above it) for two or three voices. A two-voice organum was called a duplum, a three-voice a triplum, and a four-voice—Perotin’s innovation—a quadruplum. The voices above the tenor were named in descending order, so the highest voice was the quadruplum, and so forth. The upper voices used the rhythmic modes, allowing exact coordination among them, and they moved in similar vocal ranges, crossing repeatedly (meaning that one voice starts high and ends low, and another starts low and ends high).
He was probably born around 1160 and died around 1220. His exact dates aren’t known, but are extrapolated based on evidence that he flourished in Paris between 1180 and 1205. Some of his dates are approximated from some late-12th century edicts by the Bishop of Paris, Eudes de Sully (d. 1208), that mention organum triplum and quadruplum regarding a “feast of the fools.” The bishop’s edicts are quite specific and suggest that Perotin’s organum quadruplum Viderunt omnes was written for Christmas 1198, and that Sederunt principes, also a quadruplum, was for St. Stephens Day in 1199, for the dedication of a new wing of the Notre Dame Cathedral that was just beginning construction.
Not everyone liked the new music. An Englishman, John of Salisbury (1120-1180), who would become Bishop of Chartres, taught at the University of Paris during the years that Leonin and Perotin were there, and attended many services at the Notre Dame School. He compared the duo of voices to the singing of sirens rather than men and equated it to birdsong. But, he warns, the beauty of it might be likely to incite lust rather than devotion. It must be moderately done, he insists, in order to transport the soul to the society of angels.
Perotin’s major achievements include the revision of Leonin’s collection of organa in the Magnus Liber, as I mentioned earlier, and the introduction of new elements of style and scoring. He used all the rhythmic modes, providing rhythmic interest in both voices of two-part writing (which was a new idea), and added more voices to produce music in three or four parts. The celebrated organa on the Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day Graduals (Viderunt and Sederunt) are four-part settings conceived on a monumental scale apt for the new Cathedral of Notre Dame and are rich in eloquent, imaginative, and delicate vocal writing. They are justly hailed as masterpieces of Gothic music. Sederunt principes and Viderunt omnes are the only known four-voice organa.
Perotin was also a composer of clausulae (rhythmic features at the ends of short phrases) that may have been used to shorten Leonin’s organa (where one voice slowly sings the plainchant and the other parts dance around it), and conductus (where the various voices sing at the same speed) in up to three parts. Perotin probably invented conductus based on Leonin’s organum.
He wrote many pieces with a phrase from one voice repeated in another. Using phrases this way emphasizes dissonances before resolving to the fifth and octave above the chant melody (called the tenor line), using harmonic tension to reinforce the consonance while sustaining the listener’s interest.
He also used a form called a rondellus, where three voices sang a sort of round, like this:
Triplum a b c
Duplum c a b
Tenor b c a
Because all three voices in a rondellus are in the same vocal range, the listener hears the polyphony three times, with voice parts traded so the timbre changes each time. There are also rondellus-motets. Rondellus sections appear frequently in English versions of conductus from the later 13th century; Anonymous IV may have brought this form back with him when he finished his studies in Paris.
Where Leonin wrote primarily in the first rhythmic mode (long-short) for the upper voices and the fifth mode (long and a half, totaling the same duration as the long-short combination) in the tenor (cantus firmus), Perotin’s most important development was the use of all six rhythmic modes in the tenor line. This is earth shattering in that suddenly, all the voices are rhythmically interesting and there’s a rhythmic counterpoint for the first time. This is the parent of motet writing.
Early motets put text to the melismatic upper voice of conductus for the first time—upper voices had been either played on an instrument or sung on open vowel sounds. This important innovation led to a notational change for the upper voices. Previously, syllabic block notes (see The History of Music Notation for more on this) took only two forms: syllabic (simple conductus) and duplum (the organa dupla of the early Leonin period). Perotin’s innovations added two more: modal (for organa and clausulae of the Perotin period), and motet (the earliest motets).
Organum puts the main melody in the tenor (from the Latin tenere); a duplum organum creates a second voice with either a more melismatic version (with wiggly bits that diverge from the primary melody at a greater speed) of the tenor or a sort of opposite melody, creating counterpoint. With only two voices, the upper voice can wiggle around ecstatically while the tenor plods earnestly on, but when you add a third and fourth voice, rhythm becomes essential, if only to keep things together. That’s how conductus was born.
In Perotin’s time, the liturgical melody serving as the tenor line appears twice, the second time in half the values (or double—twice as fast) of the first appearance. Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) would do the same thing in the 14th century.
Conductus uses the same principles as organum, but sets a rhymed Latin poem to a repeated melody, much like the later hymn form that was particularly expanded upon by William Byrd (1543-1623) in England and Johann Sebastian Bach (1675-1750) and other Lutheran Germans in the 18th century.
Perotin is known to have collaborated with poet Philip the Chancellor (c1160-1236), whose Beata viscera he could not have set before about 1220 although some sources suggest that Perotin died around 1205. It isn’t known exactly where or when he died nor where he’s buried.
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