Philippe de Vitry was a renowned poet, music theorist, composer, diplomat, and bishop. Along with Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–1377), he is emblematic of the French fourteenth century—a pivotal era in the history of Western music and poetry, and one in which he flourished as an influential public intellectual and early humanist. But while Machaut has been the subject of numerous books and conferences, Vitry’s story has been told piecemeal due to difficulty in attribution for his compositions.
Today is the 655th anniversay of his death which occurred on June 9, 1361.
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.
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. Each of his known works is strikingly individual, exploiting a unique structural idea. He is also often credited with developing the concept of isorhythm (an isorhythmic line consists of repeating patterns of rhythms and pitches, but the patterns overlap rather than correspond; e.g., a line of thirty consecutive notes might contain five repetitions of a six-note melody or six repetitions of a five-note rhythm).
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.
Various sources claim that de Vitry was born in Vitry-en-Artois near Arras, or possibly in Champagne or Paris. He died in either Meaux or Paris. De Vitry is thought to have studied at the University of Paris where he received a Master of Arts degree. He also studied at the Sorbonne and held numerous prebends (a stipend from a cathedral). But his main sphere of activity was the French court, where he was secretary and advisor to Charles IV (1316-1378), Philippe VI (1293-1350), and Jean II (1319-1364).
He was known as a leading intellectual. He was friends with the poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1474) and the famous mathematician, philosopher, and music theorist Nicole Oresme (c1320-1382). He was widely acknowledged as the greatest musician of his day, with Petrarch writing a glowing tribute, calling him: “…the keenest and most ardent seeker of truth, so great a philosopher of our age.”
Though we do know something about Philippe de Vitry’s life and his positions at the French court, less is known about his actual compositions. The only surviving works (some with greater evidence of authenticity than others) are motets.
These motets are primarily secular in nature – though a few use religious texts. However, they are mostly on political rather than romantic subjects. Vitry also uses Latin for his secular works, rather than French as had become standard (and Machaut returns to French in his chansons). One sees him here as an intellectual, expressing the issues of his day in musical form. In addition, these motets use two simultaneous texts (as do similar works of Machaut); this is one of their most interesting features. Much of Vitry’s skill in this regard is his ability to set both texts so that they are comprehensible – this is done by rests at important points, as well as the structual integration previously described. One finds a direct sensitivity to the text in these works; the text is the primary determinate of the form, and all the resources employed are devoted to articulation. In this regard, one finds more in common with the later madrigal than with the motets of the early Renaissance.
Vitry was a singular genius who found new modes of expression that would not be fully refined until many years after his death. Interestingly, the nature of the music suggests that his motivation for the new style may well have been in rhetoric, rather than musical expression per se.