Philippe de Vitry Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: De Vitry, whose reputation as a musician and poet was well known among his contemporaries, is remembered as the author of the treatise Ars nova. De Vitry proposed a solution to notational problems that was ultimately adopted in France and Italy in the fourteenth century.

Early Life

Philippe was born in one of six towns named Vitry in the province of Champagne. His father was a member of the royal chancellery. In 1322, de Vitry became an officer in the French royal household, where he served as clerk and secretary to Charles IV in Paris.

Prior to the twentieth century, it had been generally believed that de Vitry was a musician and poet who had largely developed his skills through individual instruction and private study. Modern scholarship, however, suggests that de Vitry studied at the Sorbonne and was one of the important intellectuals of his day, with interests ranging from music to mathematics. Petrarch, who met de Vitry at the Avignonese court and who described him as an active seeker of truth and a great philosopher, was one among many prominent contemporaries who held de Vitry in high esteem.

Life’s Work

De Vitry maintained his connection with the royal court throughout his life; in addition to serving Charles IV, he served Philip VI and Duke Jean of Normandy in the capacity of secretary. His association with Duke Jean was to prove particularly helpful. While in his service, de Vitry performed various functions and participated in at least one military campaign. He was in the service of the duke in 1350, when the duke became Jean II of France. De Vitry made several diplomatic journeys to the papal court at Avignon on behalf of Jean II. In addition to his royal posts, de Vitry held several ecclesiastical offices during his life; he was Canon of Soissons and Archbishop of Brie. In 1351, Pope Clement VI, acting upon Jean II’s recommendation, appointed de Vitry Bishop of Meaux, a position he held until his death, in 1361.

De Vitry’s most significant work is a treatise on music entitled Ars nova (English translation, 1961). There is some disagreement about the exact date of the manuscript; the most widely accepted date, however, is 1320, which means that de Vitry would have been twenty-nine years old at the time of its completion. His treatise, which proposed a new theory of mensural notation, was actually a response to the generally perceived shortcomings of the older Franconian notational system that was used in the late thirteenth century.

Composers during this time pushed the older system beyond its limits, as they began to compose music using shorter note values than could be accommodated by the old Franconian system. The common compositional practice in use at that time dictated that the old notational system be revised or a new one be devised to allow the composer greater rhythmic flexibility. De Vitry’s system, as outlined in his treatise Ars nova, was not the only solution proposed, but it was the one that ultimately prevailed.

There are several innovative features in de Vitry’s treatise. He recognized the minim as the newest and shortest note value and added it to the maxim, long, breve, and semibreve already found in the older Franconian system. Thus, it became possible to notate shorter note values in a systematic way. Also, the notation and usage of the minim in compositions exerted a strong influence on overall notational practice, for, as increased usage of the minim came to be realized, the tactus, or unit of beat, slowed down and rendered the larger note values, such as maxims and longs, impractical in actual use. Further, de Vitry held that any note longer than the minim could be reduced to two or three shorter notes of equal value—for the first time placing duple meter on an equal footing with triple meter.

Before the fourteenth century, triple meter was regarded as perfect, the number three being symbolic of the Trinity and thus constituting a perfection. Duple meter was regarded as imperfect and was used sparingly. That began to change in the early fourteenth century, and de Vitry was actively involved in effecting this change....

(The entire section is 1733 words.)