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Johannes Tinctoris

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Johannes Tinctoris

Portrait of Tinctoris, from the title page of the ms 835, Valencia, Biblioteca universitaria

Johannes Tinctoris (c. 1435 – 1511) was a Renaissance composer and music theorist from the Low Countries. He is known to have studied in Orléans, and to have been master of the choir there; he also may have been director of choirboys at Chartres. Because he was paid through the office of petites vicars at Cambrai Cathedral for four months in 1460, it has been speculated that he studied with Dufay, who spent the last part of his life there; certainly Tinctoris must at least have known the elder Burgundian there. Tinctoris went to Naples about 1472 and spent most of the rest of his life in Italy.

Tinctoris published many volumes of writings on music. While they are not particularly original, borrowing heavily from ancient writers (including Boethius, Isidore of Seville, and others) they give an impressively detailed record of the technical practices and procedures used by composers of the day. He wrote the first dictionary of musical terms (the Diffinitorium musices); a book on the characteristics of the musical modes; a treatise on proportions; and three books on counterpoint, which is particularly useful in charting the development of voice-leading and harmony in the transitional period between Dufay and Josquin. The writings by Tinctoris were influential on composers and other music theorists for the remainder of the Renaissance.

While not much of the music of Tinctoris has survived, that which has survived shows a love for complex, smoothly flowing polyphony, as well as a liking for unusually low tessituras, occasionally descending in the bass voice to the C two octaves below middle C (showing an interesting similarity to Ockeghem in this regard). Tinctoris wrote masses, motets and a few chansons.

Tinctoris was also known as a cleric, a poet, a mathematician, and a lawyer; there is even one reference to him as an accomplished painter.

Tinctoris' eight rules of composition

From his third book on counterpoint.

Rule #1 Begin and finish with perfect consonance. It is, however, not wrong if the singer is improvising a counterpoint and ends with imperfect consonance, but in that case, the movement should be many-voiced. Sixth or octave doubling of the bass is not allowed.

Rule #2 Follow together with ténor up and down in imperfect and perfect consonances of the same kind. (Parallels at the third and sixth are recommended, fifth and octave parallels are forbidden.)

Rule #3 If ténor remains on the same note, you can add both perfect and imperfect consonances.

Rule #4 The counterpointed part should have a melodic closed form even if ténor makes big leaps.

Rule #5 Do not put cadence on a note if it ruins the development of the melody.

Rule #6 It is forbidden to repeat the same melodic turn above a cantus firmus of equally long notes, unless cantus firmus has a repetition in itself.

Rule #7 Avoid two or more consecutive cadences of the same pitch even if cantus firmus allows it.

Rule #8 In all counterpoint, try to achieve manifoldness and variety by altering measure, tempo, and cadences. Use syncopes, imitations, canons, and pauses. But remember that an ordinary chanson uses fewer different styles than a motet and a motet uses fewer different styles than a mass.

Notable writings

  • the first dictionary of musical terms (Diffinitorum musices, c. 1475)
  • an introduction to the elements of musical pitch and rhythmic notation (Expositio manus and Proportionale musices); examples show how rhythmically elaborate extemporization may have been practiced
  • a thorough exposition of the modal system (Liber de natura et proprietate tonorum)
  • Liber de arte contrapuncti – his main exposition of intervals, consonance and dissonance, and their usage. He devised strict rules for introducing dissonances, limiting them to unstressed beats and syncopations (suspensions) and at cadences.
  • a broad survey of the origins and evolution of music, its theological and metaphysical roots and ramifications, and vocal and instrumentation practice (De inventione et usu musice).


  • Tinctoris, Johannes, Liber de arte contrapuncti, tr. Oliver Strunk, in Source Readings in Music History. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1950.
  • Tinctoris, Johannes, Opus musices. Naples, c. 1483. Digitized codex at Somni

References and further reading

  • Hüschen, Heinrich, "Johannes Tinctoris", in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • Palenik, Jeffrey, "The early career of Johannes Tinctoris: An examination of the music theorists Northern education and development". PhD Diss., Duke University: 2008.
  • Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4

External links

  • Latin text of his work Diffinitorium musicae
  • Latin text of his work Liber de arte contrapuncti, Liber primus
  • Latin text of his work Liber de arte contrapuncti, Liber secundus
  • Latin text of his work Liber de arte contrapuncti, Liber tertius
  • Latin text of his work De inventione et usu musicae
  • Latin text of his work Complexus effectuum musices
  • Latin text of his work Proportionale musices
  • Latin text of his work Expositio manus
  • Latin text of his work Liber de natura et proprietate tonorum
  • Latin text of his work Liber imperfectionum notarum musicalium
  • Latin text of his work Tractatus de notis et pausis
  • Latin text of his work Tractatus de punctis
  • Latin text of his work Tractatus alterationum
  • Latin text of his work Complexus viginti effectuum nobilis artis musices
  • Latin text of his work Tractatus super punctis musicalibus
  • Latin text of his work Tractatus de regulari valore notarum
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