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Vitry in the Rhineland? A provisional report, and some methodological considerations

Colloquium Muziekwetenschap
prof. dr. Karl Kügle

19 November, 15:30-17:00
Nieuwe Doelenstraat 16, zaal 3.01

The ontological status of Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) escapes easy classification even more than that of his contemporary, ‘secretary-poet-musician’ (Leach 2011) Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377). Vitry personally might have seen himself first and foremost as a cleric, pursuing a career that led him from studies at Paris University into service to two noble houses within the extended French royal family (Bourbon and Valois), culminating in his appointment as bishop of Meaux (1351-61). Having fulfilled relatively straightforward functions for his aristocratic patrons at first, including legal counsel and notary, he acquired important posts within the Valois administration following Philip of Valois’s accession to the French throne (1328), at the same time serving as royal propagandist, diplomat, and tutor to Philip’s children. Hailing (probably) from Artois, his own family included several brothers also active in French politics. He befriended the likes of Petrarch and of Pierre Roger, archbishop of Rouen, later Pope Clement VI (1342-52), possibly one of Philippe’s student friends. He was a scholar of music, theology, and astronomy, an early humanist, a poet working in Latin and Old French, a singer, and – last but not least - a composer. His reputation extended far beyond France into England, Italy, Central Europe and Cyprus, and endured well into the fifteenth century. His fame was revived by musicologists who see him as one of the key instigators of the so-called ‘ars nova’.

Against such a background (‘data-poor’ but exceptionally rich in hermeneutic possibilities), any additional material coming to light acquires unusual importance. In my paper, I shall review the state of Vitry research today, then introduce a new source I discovered recently in the Middle Rhine region of Germany. I conclude with some methodological considerations: How to grasp the complexities of a past where even the word for music (musica) means something different from what it means to us?