Composers and Musicians of the Middle Ages

Seven Men and One Woman Who Influenced Sacred Music

Several Medieval composers are responsible for some of the most important sacred music still used in modern churches today, known to us in part because their careers coincided with the invention of musical notation. The Medieval Period in Europe saw a blossoming of sacred music, written by composers who were employed by the nobles of society in France, Germany, England, and Italy. The combined talents of the eight individuals described here are a few of those whose music is still heard today.  

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Gilles Binchois (ca .1400–1460)

Close-up of sheet in hymnbook
Katja Kircher Getty Images

The French composer Gilles Binchois, also known as Gilles de Binche, is mostly known as a composer of chansons, although he did create sacred music. He composed at least 46 works, including 21 Mass movements, six Magnificats, 26 Motets. He served as the major composer-in-residence in the 15th-century court of Burgundy and served 30 years in the service of Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good.

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Guido de Arezzo (ca 995–1050)

Italian composer Guide de Arezzo also known as Guido Aretinus, was a Benedictine monk, choirmaster, and music educator, known for his inventions to  greatly help choirs to sing in harmony and to sight-sing: the placement of staff lines to signify intervals of thirds, and the use of instruments and the hand as for visualizing, hearing and singing the distances between consecutive pitches. He also wrote the  Micrologus or "little discourse" on music theory practices of his day and developed an "improvisational method" to teach original composition to the very young. 

  • Miller SD. 1973. Guido d'Arezzo: Medieval Musician and Educator. Journal of Research in Music Education 21(3):239–245.
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Moniot d'Arras (active 1210–1240)

French Composer Monoit d'Arras (a name meaning basically the Monk of Arras) served in the Abbey of Northern France. His music was part of the trouvere tradition, and he wrote monophonic songs in the tradition of pastoral romance and courtly love. His output included at least 23 pieces, many after he left the monastery and had contact with other musicians of the day.

  • Lejeune R. 1941. Moniot d'Arras et Moniot de Paris. Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 42(1):1–14.
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Guillaume de Machaut (1300–1377)

French composer Guillaume de Machaut was the secretary of John of Luxemburg between 1323–1346, and after Luxemburg died, was employed as a musician by Charles, King of Navarre; Charles of Normandy (later King of France); and Pierre King of Cyprus during the time he spent in France. He was recognized as a musician during his lifetime, and wrote a motet for the lection of the archbishop of Reims in 1324. He traveled with many of his employers and was one of the first of the Medieval composers to write polyphonic settings of poetry in the formes fixes, ballade, rondeau, and virelaii.

  • Thomson JM, and Boorman S. 1977. [Editorial]: Guillaume de Machaut. Early Music 5(4):458+461.
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John Dunstable (ca. 1390–1453)

Among the most famous of the medieval music composers, John Dunstable (sometimes spelled John Dunstaple) was probably born at Dunstable in Bedfordshire. He was canon of the Hereford cathedral from 1419–1440, during his most productive years. He was one of the leading English composers of his day. and known to have influenced other composers including Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois. Aside from being a composer, he was also an astronomer and mathematician and is often regarded as the inventor of counterpoint and an innovator of the English Descant and the use of secular Chansons as sources for sacred masses.

  • Bukofzer M. 1938. John Dunstable and the Music of His Time. Proceedings of the Musical Association 65:19–43.
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Perotinus Magister (working ca. 1200)

Perotinus Magister, also known as Pérotin, Magister Perotinus, or Perotin the Great, was a member of the Notre Dame school of polyphony, and about the only member known from that school, because he had a fan known as "Anonymous IV" who wrote about him. Perotin was a prolific proponent of Parisian polyphony and is considered to have introduced four-part polyphony

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Leonel Power (ca. 1370–1445)

English composer Leonel Power was one of the major figures in English music, associated with and perhaps the choirmaster at Christ Church, Canterbury, and likely a native of Kent. He was the instructor of choristers for Thomas of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Clarence. There are at least 40 pieces attributed to Power, the considered best of which is the Old Hall Manuscript. 

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Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179)

German composer Hildegard von Bingen was the founding abbess of the Benedictine community and was made Saint Hildegarde after her death. Her name is prominent on the list of Medieval composers, having written what is considered the earliest known musical drama in history entitled "The Ritual of the Virtues."