Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


Medieval Women in Music: Trobairises

Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, medieval composer

Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, medieval composer

When I was researching my post for International Women’s Day, I came across a fascinating topic:  trobairises.

Trobairises (singular trobairitz) were female troubadours, primarily of southern France where the Occitan language was/is spoken, of the 12th and 13th centuries.  They are the first recorded female composers of secular music.  The names of about 20 trobairises are known, and around 32 works have been attributed to them.  These consist of only lyrics.  There is only one for which we also have the musical notation, A chantar m’er by the Comtessa Beatriz de Diá.1

Here is an image of the manuscript

Music manuscript of A Chantar by Beatriz de Dia

Here is a link to an a capella performance.

You may hear it here with instrumental accompaniment.

The earliest work attributed to a trobairitz, a woman named Tibors de Sarenom, is Bels dous amics, for which only the words survive.  This song dates from around 1150.2

The name of only one female composer of this period from northern France is known (in northern France, a troubadour was known as a trouvère; there is no female counterpart to this term).  Marie de France was active in the period 1160-1215, and it is believed she did her writing in England.3  Texts of her poetry, the Lais of Marie de France, may be found in an English manuscript of the 13th century (coincidentally, this same manuscript also contains the song Sumer Is Icumen In, long held as the oldest secular song in English).

Here you can find a list of known trobairises with links containing more information about them.

[Postscript:  I thought the absence of female trouvères was odd, so I dug a little deeper.  I turned up a book, Songs of the Women Trouvères, which documents eight named female trouvères, and a wealth of songs and motets that may have been written by women.]


  4. Bruckner, Matilda, Shepard, Laurie, and White, Sarah, Songs of the Women Troubadours. Routledge, 2000.


Image attribution: Image of Comtessa Beatriz de Dia, [public domain] Bibliothèque Nationale, MS cod. Fr. 12473, via Wikimedia Commons,  Image of A chantar m’er, [Public domain] Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, fr. 844 via Wikimedia Commons, and


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A Classical Music Revolution: In Your Living Room and Down the Pub

For years, critics have been bemoaning the increasing average age of classical music concert attendees.  They worry that the candlelight of classical music, once so bright, is beginning to flicker.


While silver hair may dominate in gilded concert halls, there’s an unexpected place you might find a more youthful and lively group of classical music fans.

Down the pub.

It was with great delight that I learned of two wonderful recurring events, Polyphony Down the Pub and Counterpint.  I first read about them in this blog post in Luis Henriques’s early music blog (check it out!).

London pubs are the common venues for these events—singers sign up and gather at the appointed (appinted?) place and time and sing Renaissance polyphony…to the delight (and possibly confusion, though I hope not consternation) of non-singing pubgoers.

Sometimes you just have to take polyphony into your own hands.

I cannot tell you how much I want to be in London right now.  And I don’t even drink beer.

Image of glass of beer with text "Universal Languages: Love. Music. Beer."

But here’s another option for up-close-and-personal classical music:  Groupmuse.

This US company matches young classical musicians with hosts who hold concerts for 10 to 50 people in their own homes.  An audience member might pay as little as $10 for the ultimate front row seat (or couch).  The first set is always classical music; the second set is the performer’s choice.  Soloists and quartets can be booked.  An article describing this service states that the typical audience consists of mostly millennials.1

Gray hair?  None in sight.

Classical music is far from dead.  But the market is evolving—not everyone has access to a concert hall, or can afford to go to one.  Not everyone wants to.  Online streaming has made it possible not only to hear the piece of music we want, but to hear that music played by the specific performer we’d like to hear (without the extraneous noise of crinkling candy wrappers, cell phones, or coughing—ok, with the exception of the Horowitz in Moscow live recording before a seemingly tubercular audience—or Glenn Gould’s humming).  So live performance producers need to be more creative to meet the changing demands of the market.

We are already seeing this in the live streaming of concerts and operas and their availability on demand, as well as in the proliferation of small groups of music makers, local opera companies, and local symphony orchestras.  And I expect this trend will continue to expand.

There once was a time when only kings could summon musicians, only royalty could afford concerts.  Those days are gone.

¡Viva la revolución!


  2. Toffler, Alvin, The Third Wave. New York: William Morrow & Co, Inc., 1980, Chapter 13 “De-Massifying the Media,” in particular, pp 144-153.


Image attribution: Image from press kit of International Beer Day,

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Haiku Wednesday: Summer, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and Savings

Miniature of 'The Spanish Dance'; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547.

It’s summer! Have a party and dance!

In the northern climes,
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!

Vivaldi wrote some
Sonnets for The Four Seasons;
That I never knew!

The Four Seasons app
Is on sale for the summer,
And we say “Woo-hoo”!

Summer is here in the northern hemisphere.  School is out, the heat is ramping up, and summer thunderstorms blaze through, leaving (hopefully) cooler air in their wake.

People have been singing about summer for a long time.  The first stanza of today’s haiku refers to one of the earliest notated songs in English, Sumer Is Icumen In (loudly sing cuckoo).  The earliest manuscript dates to the mid- to late-13th century.  Here’s some sheet music to follow along, and here’s the tune.

Manuscript of song Sumer Is Icumen In from the British Library

Sumer Is Icumen In. MS Harley 978 f. 11v, British Library.

Somewhat later (between 1720 and 1723), Antonio Vivaldi wrote The Four Seasons.  You may hear familiar refrains, as it is frequently used in television commercials.  Something that I learned is that the piece is accompanied by four sonnets, possibly written by Vivaldi himself.  You can find the four sonnets in Italian and English in the link, but here is the translation of the one for summer (Boreas is the north wind):

Under the merciless sun
Languishes man and flock; the pine tree burns,
The cuckoo begins to sing and at once
Join in the turtledoves and the goldfinch.
A gentle breeze blows, but Boreas
Joins battle suddenly with his neighbor,
And the shepherd weeps because overhead
Hangs the dreaded storm, and his destiny.

His tired limbs are robbed of their rest
By his fear of the lightning and the heavy thunder
And by the furious swarm of flies and hornets.

Alas, his fears are well founded
There is thunder and lightning in the sky
And the hail cuts down the lofty ears of corn.1

The sonnet itself is broken into three sections, which is not uncommon for the sonnet form, but also echoes the three movements of the composition.  See if you can hear what is depicted above.  Here is Vivaldi’s Summer.

(I know it’s summer, but educators can find a teacher resource kit on Vivaldi and The Four Seasons at the link.  It’s written for students in grades 4-6, but I enjoyed reading it!)

Now, if you have an iPad or iPhone, you are in luck.  This summer, Touchpress is offering the Vivaldi Four Seasons app for $2.99 (70 percent off!)

Here’s a review of the Vivaldi Four Seasons app.  Here is the website for the app (which is available through the Apple iTunes App Store).

The Four Seasons app joins Touchpress’s other iPad offerings, The Liszt Sonata, The Orchestra, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (free!).

I hope you will enjoy lots of music this summer, and I hope your living is easy.

The blog will be on summer vacation for a week.  See you again soon!




Image attributions:

Miniature of ‘The Spanish Dance’; from Códice de trajes, Germany, 1547, BNE MS Res 285, ff. 2v-3r via  The original can be found at the Biblioteca Nacional de España BNE MS Res 285, ff. 2v-3r,

Manuscript of Sumer Is Icumen In, MS Harley 978 f. 11v.  British Library digitized manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons  See the original (and more) at the British Library website

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The 40-Part Motet Revisited: A Work of Art

Octagon with lines connecting all vertices with one anotherI recently wrote about the 40-part motet written by Thomas Tallis, and showed you a wonderful visualization of the piece, which is titled Spem in alium.

Here is a video about how artist Janet Cardiff has taken this music and created a unique installation, The Forty Part Motet.

Thanks to friend and reader Paul B. for telling me about the Cardiff installation.


Image attribution:  Octagon with lines connecting all vertices with one another, via


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As Seen on Twitter: Orlando Gibbons and More

Pietro Filippo Scarlatti … no, I can’t do that to you.  Two Scarlattis is enough for one week!

I saw this zigzagging Orlando Gibbons manuscript on Twitter.

Wow. Seriously, dude?

I couldn’t help but think, “This has more chevrons than a crocheted afghan from the 1970s.”

crocheted afghan with chevrons

The manuscript shows the ground The Queen’s Command (MB 28).  You’ll hear all those zigzags if you listen to the recording.


It’s amazing who you can find on Twitter.  In addition to the @gibbonsorlando you can follow @Beethoven_____ , @mozart____ , @clementi_muzio , and @Frankiejhaydn just to name a few.  They can be very entertaining, so check it out! No Twitter account is needed to view the links.  If you go exploring on Twitter, you might find other spoof accounts for classical composers too, but some that I found are absolutely Not Safe For Work (and do not hew to history as such), so be forewarned.

You might want to check if your favorite living artists are there too.  Itzhak @PerlmanOfficial has a Twitter feed, for example. Look for the check mark indicating verified (official) accounts.

If you like what you see and decide to set up your own Twitter account, please consider following me, @CintoClassical .  Thanks!

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Haiku Wednesday: New Songs from 1000 Years Ago

Medieval manuscript depicting musicians, from Boethius's book De Musica

A leaf from Boethius’s book De Musica

Underground rivers
Course in ancient passages
Undeterred by time.

Neumes flow on the page
In forgotten passages,
Unheard—until now.

Carefully the notes
Are traced and coaxed from hiding
To sound once again.

Flow and dance again,
River of sound, and so quench
Our thirst for knowledge.

After decades of work, University of Cambridge researcher Dr. Sam Barrett has made a breakthrough that has brought once silent neumes back to life.

Barrett has been studying and gathering as many manuscripts containing neumes as possible and assessing them in terms of musical performance and music setting practices of the neume era.

Of particular interest was a manuscript known as the Cambridge Songs. The 11th-century Cambridge Songs manuscript includes a setting of parts of a poem by the Roman philosopher Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. You can read it in English here.

But there was one problem.  There was a page missing from the manuscript.

By chance, the page was rediscovered in Frankfurt.  A scholar had cut out the page in 1840 and taken it home.  This page was a tipping point in the research.  It made it possible to reconstruct the songs.  You can read the University of Cambridge article on the discovery here.  Here is the page.

Leaf from the Cambridge Songs manuscript containing The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius with neumes

Leaf from the Cambridge Songs manuscript containing The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius with neumes

Barrett partnered with Benjamin Bagby of the group Sequentia to test whether interpretations of the neumes were feasible given the limitations imposed by instruments of the time, as well as by human hands and voice.

You may not be hearing on the radio anytime soon, but you can hear an excerpt of The Consolation of Philosophy here now.  You can follow the words using the manuscript.



Image attribution

A page from Boethius’s De musica.  Manuscript of the University of Cambridge (MS Ii.3.12, ff.73v-74).