Nec vivere carmina possunt

quae scribuntur aquae potoribus

Horace, Epistulae 1.19:2-3





The Renaissance celebrated the splendours of a mythical, glorious, oneiric and magical past. The enthusiasm of that time for antiquity and its treasures of wisdom was the mainspring of the humanist revolution. Universities and academies passed on the knowledge that laid the foundations for its ideas and established its roots in the golden age, the aurea aetas , of Greek and Roman thought. Time validated the heritage of antiquity, gave it a halo of ‘sanctity’. Classical texts – the writings of Greek philosophers, rhetoricians, historians, the Church Fathers – were read, studied and translated directly from the original, avoiding the possibly misleading Latin versions.


Where music was concerned the humanist sought the answer to a question that was vital to him: how could the magical powers of that art be rediscovered and revived? Music has the ability to move, modify, transform the human passions; how could it calm destructive rage or induce ecstasy or madness? How could it heal, uplift or, on the contrary, plunge a person into the depths of gloom? On the one hand, the humanist explored the world that music and medicine had shared since their common Pythagorean infancy, which had been formalised in the theory of the affects. In that context, melody and affect were one and the same reality. Moods, passions aroused by the imagination, were simply a ‘mechanical reaction’ to tempo (fast or slow), register (high or low), intervals (consonant or dissonant) and the mode employed. On the other hand, the rhythm of poetry – the metric scansion of the lines – was also a vehicle for the magical forces of music. Like melody, the ethos , or character, of a rhythm affects the soul and determines its passions. Like melody, rhythm is capable of overcoming reason and will. Poetry, in its quantitative essence, thus became the humanist’s second line of investigation. The desire to rediscover his primitive soul resulted in the invention of musica more antiquo mensurata and the Latin ode. Surprisingly this repertoire has escaped the attention of both musicologists and interpreters, although musique mesurée à l’antique  offered a most original solution to the problem of the relationship between words and music, based purely on rules of a quantitative order, i.e. on the alternation of long and short notes imitating the feet in the lines of verse.


The diversity of literary registers found in Latin poetry generated a whole constellation of musical forms and styles, all of them depending on metric scansion, whether they were madrigals and motets, the noble genres of vis tragica , or Horatian odes and frottole , which speak the simple, unpretentious language, sermo humilis , of vis comica . Latin polyphony is compact and massive, homophonic and homorhythmic, conceived in a verticality that uses sound as a means of shaping the poetry and transforming it into an almost tangible mass of energy, speaking in unison like the chorus in a Greek tragedy.


In the conception of musica more antiquo mensurata  two divergent attitudes emerged from the outset, thus reproducing the ancient controversy between rhythm and metre that had already divided poets in ancient Greece. The Aristotelian school, giving priority to rhythm, had admitted the possibility of shortening or lengthening syllables and introducing pauses (the silentia  of St Augustine) so that the feet of the poetry coincided with the musical measures or bars. The Alexandrian school, on the other hand, favoured metre, therefore the music had to follow the text exactly, with strict observance of the classical quantities. Taking inspiration from the latter, German composers chose in their works to use just two rhythmic figuræ , the brevis  and semibrevis , corresponding to the long and short quantities of the poetic metres. Meanwhile, those composers who were active in Italy identified rather with the Aristolelian rhythmicians. Horace was in favour north of the Alps, but not to the south; Virgil (especially the story of Dido and her unhappy love) was more in keeping with the Italian temperament and the prevalent taste in the Italian peninsula for tragedy. Jacob Arcadelt, Cipriano de Rore, Stefano Rossetti and others retained in their compositions the homorythm that was already found in Germanic works, but differed from their northern counterparts in adopting a through-composed madrigal style, enabling the music to follow the changes of mood more closely. Adapting the rules of metrical music to the vernacular was for the humanist an irresistible temptation. O sonno  by Cipriano de Rore and Solo e pensoso  by Nicola Vicentino are, with the Airs  of Claude le Jeune, the most famous manifestations of the humanist desire to unite the ancient and the modern.


The liturgical repertoire was also a subject of humanist experimentation. The Psaumes mesurez à l’antique  composed by members of Baïf ’s Académie de Musique et de Poésie are often given as the earliest examples of sacred works written in a style intended to imitate contemporary understanding of ancient Greek music, and indeed they are the best-known instances of that trend in music. But Petrus Tritonius, in his Melopoiæ sive harmoniæ tetracenticæ  (Augsburg, Erhard Oeglin, 1507), had already shown aspirations to combine the pagan world of Horace with Christianity. Meliopoiæ  was the first printed work of musical humanism, i.e. of the experiments of that time that were intended to re-create ancient musical theory and practice. Tritonius gave a list of liturgical texts that could be adapted to the melodies of the twenty-two Horatian odes presented in the book. The Austrian composer, Latin scholar (and teacher) and humanist Petrus Tritonius (Peter Treybenreif) was born around 1465 in Bozen (now Bolzano, in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy). He was the first of a long line of authors who throughout the sixteenth century presented anthologies of Horatian odes accompanied by musical settings. These he composed with the guidance and encouragement of another famous humanist, Conradus Celtis, who had been the first German to be crowned poet laureate by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick III at Nuremberg in 1487, and had become professor of poetry and rhetoric at Ingolstadt University in 1491. The settings, which were performed after Celtis’s lectures on Horace, were intended to illustrate the poetic metres.


The full title of Tritonius’s work, presented in the frontispiece1 , makes his intention clear:



super XXII genera carminum Heroicoru[m] Elegiacoru[m] Lyri

corum & ecclesiasticoru[m] hymnoru[m] per Petrum

Tritonium et alios doctos sodalitatis Lit

terariæ nostræ musicos secundum natu

ras & tempora syllabarum et pe

dum compositæ et regu

latæ ductu Chunradi

Celtis foeliciter


Carminum dulces resonemus odas

Crater Concinant læti pueri tenores Bachi

Et graves fauces cythara sonante

Temperet alter.


musiphile stro

phos id est Repeticio

nes carminum, collisiones syl

labarum, coniugationes et conu

bia pedum pro affectu animi motu

et gestu corporis dilligenter observa.


In this text in the form of a calligram (a ‘Crater Bachi’, or wine-cup) the author explains first of all that the work consists of ‘Musical poetical four-part settings (tetracentiæ ), or Harmonies, on the twenty-two genres of Epic, Elegiac and Lyric poetry, and of ecclesiastical hymns’, with strict observance of the classical metres and quantities (secundum naturam et tempora syllabarum et pedum ): each syllable of the text is set to one note only; there are no repeats; the rhythm is reduced to two note values, short and long (the long having twice the duration of the short), which are carefully adapted to the syllables of the text. The prestige of this work was ensured by the support of the distinguished poet, Conradus Celtis, who is mentioned in the text.


The text forming the middle part of the wine-cup reads: ‘Let us cause the sweet odes to resound. Let the joyful boy tenors sing out; another man will guide the bass voices as the lyre sounds.’ The tenors, the main voice in this composition, are supported by accompanying basses and musical instruments: Fistula dum vestris inflatur concava buccis | Et testudo loquax pollice pulsa sonat | Constrepit et vario concentu stridula arundo  (lit. ‘When the concave flute is inflated by your cheeks, and the loquacious testudo  [type of lyre] resounds when plucked by the thumb, and the hissing reed pipe resounds with various harmony’). Finally, the text forming the foot of the cup addresses the musiphilius  (the interpreter of the music), who is advised to express the musical values of the verbal rhythm in accordance with ‘the longing of [his] mind and the gestures of [his] body’.


The great success of Tritonius’s odes is indicated by their several reissues between 1507 and 1551. Most of the errors in Oeglin’s first edition, ‘corrupted either by a fault in the copy or some other carelessness’ (sive vitio exemplaris seu alia quadam incuria depravata), were corrected in the second edition, which followed almost immediately; the three odes that were not written by Horace were also omitted in the latter.


Throughout the sixteenth century the Melopoiæ  inspired books of settings modelled on their Tenors. Such anthologies were a popular means of teaching music in the Latin schools. Ludwig Senfl’s Varia carmina genera  appeared in 1534, Harmoniæ poeticæ  by Paul Hofhaimer and Bartolomeo Ducis in 1539, Odæ cum harmoniis by Johannes Honterus in 1548, and (the anonymous) Geminæ undeviginti odarum Horatii  in 1552. Thus, within the space of a generation or so, the Melopoiæ became a topos , a mythical reference stemming from a recent past, an echo of the ancient Latin models.



Translation: Mary Pardoe