Research project: Cantum pulcriorem invenire: Thirteenth-Century Music and Poetry

The aim of this AHRC-funded project is to place the conductus of the period c 1170 to c 1320 on the same footing as its two partner genres, the motet and organum.

Currently Active: Yes

Project Overview

Aims and objectives

The aim of Cantum pulcriorem invenire is to place the conductus of the period c 1170 to c 1320 on the same footing as its two partner genres, the motet and organum. It seeks to achieve this aim by working in three domains simultaneously: conventional musicological scholarship, digital music bibliography, and practice-based research. There is a central objective to each of these three domains, followed by a fourth destined to secure sustainability for work in medieval studies in music.

  1. To research, write and publish a monograph entitled Discovering Song: Thirteenth-Century Latin Poetry and Music that will investigate the conductus in all its forms. This will include manuscript sources, repertories, transmission and distribution, compositional strategies, issues of rhythm and metre, cadence, intertext and reception.
  2. To produce an online catalogue of the repertory of the conductus building on primary sources and existing secondary works.
  3. To produce recorded traces of the two-part and monophonic conductus repertory (more than 90 per cent of which is in one or two parts) with experienced world-class soloists using the most up-to-date technology for dissemination.
  4. To use the project as a resource to develop the research further via two project studentships which will not only enhance our knowledge of the field but will build capacity in terms of medievalists of the next generation. 


  • monograph: Discovering Song: Thirteenth-Century Latin Poetry and Music  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, delivery 1 October 2014)
  • online catalogue of conductus (Research Fellow and IT team at University of Southampton)
  • three recordings (one per year) with Hyperion Records
  • two PhD dissertations (complete 30 September 2013)

Cantum pulcriorem invenire: a monograph for Cambridge University Press

Discovering Song: Thirteenth-Century Latin Poetry and Music

Context and rationale
The late 12th and 13th centuries saw the emergence of coherent repertories of polyphonic music for the first time. Organum and motet emerged as genres understood by contemporaries of their composers as bodies of music that could be organised in a written form and could be described and explained using the written word. Both genres were open, in that they were subject to consistent reworking, and since the beginning of the 20th century, they have enjoyed canonic status in musicology, and – to a degree – in the world of music as cultivated in the present.

There was a third category of polyphonic music that co-existed with motet and organum. Latin song, called the conductus by contemporary authors, was composed and cultivated in both monophonic and polyphonic forms. Unlike the motet and organum, it was not based on any pre-existing musical or poetic material (with a very few exceptions [see chapter five of the outline]), nor did it experience the mobile textual status that characterised the other two genres.  Although this meant that it represented a less engaging musicological challenge to scholars of the early 20th century, today it may be recognised as the first coherent repertory of polyphonic music that was entirely composed – poetry and music – for the first time.  If there is a single point on which Cantum pulcriorem invenire focuses, it is the aim of reinstating the conductus repertory not simply to an equal status with organum and motet, but to re-establishing the 13th-century recognition that saw the conductus as the most significant form of poetic and musical utterance.

This is not to say that the conductus has been completely ignored in favour of the motet or organum. Some of the poetry was published by Léopold Delisle as early as 1855, and more appeared in the 1895 volumes of Analecta hymnica medii aevi. However, the music was not coherently examined until 1935 when Gröninger published his inventory of the repertory, and more recent scholarship has continued to focus on either the bibliographic with two catalogues of the repertory (Anderson, 1972-5; Falck, 1970 and 1981) or the identification of new sources (Everist, 1984; Staehelin, 1987; Everist, 1994; Everist, 2000). Occasional dissertations treated the conductus generally (Corrigan, 1980; Stelzle, 1978), but neither author pursued the subject, and single pieces have frequently been the subject of individual analyses; these have largely been based on Anderson’s edition (1979 onwards), which has been much criticised and is urgent need of replacement, and have frequently completely disregarded the poetry of the conductus. Recent work that can be said to advance our understanding of the subject is in short supply (Stevens, 1986; Sanders, 1995; Payne, 2000; Payne, 2001) but of impressive scope and depth.

Discovering Song therefore seeks to build on the existing, largely bibliographical and source-critical, work and to develop a view of the conductus in line with the esteem in which it was held in the 13th century. The chapter outline shows how the book focuses on both poetry and music, their contexts, functions and interactions, in every chapter. It sets out the particular qualities of the conductus cum and sine caudis and, having dealt with several key technical questions – not least the question of rhythm – develops critical tools for considering the genre in terms of the mixed form, and concludes with questions of geographical distribution, and the fate of the conductus at the end of the 13th century.

Poetry and Music. Central to the methodology of Discovering Song is the even-handed balance of Latin poetry and music. Rithmus has been greatly misunderstood in much 20th-century scholarship, and until its understanding had permeated musicological writing (Sanders, 1995; Fassler, 1987; Page, 1997), much writing of the subject had been hobbled by a wholly mistaken view of the relationship between words and notes. The current volume redresses that balance, taking comfort from the recent translation and introduction of Nordberg 1958 in Stokowski. 2004.

Sources and Editions. The existing edition of the conductus repertory is difficult to use because it takes a strictly modal view of the syllabic parts of the compositions. Discovering Song returns to manuscript sources to circumvent this problem, using – where necessary – new editions of the music and poetry.

The Interdisciplinary. The constant balance between an understanding of music, poetry, palaeography should be taken as read for this study. Chapter 6 takes this further with a sustained investigation of the conductus cum caudis as a mixed form (satura) alongside the most important mixed genre of the period, the so-called prosimetrum.

Chapter outline

  1. Repertories, Chronology and Style. The most prestigious Latin song in the high middle ages was the conductus, a genre that came in a variety of species: monophonic, polyphonic (in anything from two to four parts).  Beginning c 1170, the polyphonic form retained a prestigious position at least until the completion of the copying of the so-called ‘Notre-Dame manuscripts c 1260. It exploited both syllabic and melismatic idioms within the same composition, enabling a sophistication of structure yet unknown in the history of music.
  2. Poetic and Lyric Types: Words and Music. The conductus sets a type of poetry called rithmus which has little in common with traditional quantative Latin poetry.  Its basic principles lie in end accent and rhyme rather than accent and quantity.  The principles underpin the fundamentals governing the relationship between words and notes in this repertory.
  3. Rhythm and Metre: Editing and Performance. The melismatic sections (caudae) of the conductus cum caudis are notated modally and their rhythm not in doubt. By contrast the rhythm of the syllabic passages (musica cum littera) are obscure and subject to wide scholarly disagreement. A review of the ways in which the arguments have been conducted serves as the basis for empirical work with performers to arrive at a plausible balance between epistemological imprecision and editorial rigour.
  4. Cadential Functions: Gesture and Closure. The conductus cum caudis consists of two principal discursive modes, musica cum and sine littera, but this leaves out of account a critical cadential figure, the punctus organicus. Not only does this figure fulfil an important conventional role signifying closure but it is also used as a structural device to articulate and emphasise poetic and textual moves.
  5. Intertexts.  Unlike the motet and liturgical organum, the conductus does not depend on substantial intertextuality for its stylistic makeup; there are however a few revealing interactions from vernacular repertories that enrich our understanding of the corpus. The highest degree of intertextuality lies within the corpus itself, where caudae and syllabic musica cum littera share significant elements of pitch.
  6. The Mixed Form: Architecture and Structure. The conductus cum caudis creates meaning through the interplay of its different discursive modes. In this regard it has much in common with the literary genre of the prosimetrum which mingles prose and poetry.  In both the prosimetrum and the conductus cum caudis, questions of symmetry and balances are controlled by numerical forces to create large-scale structures.
  7. Europe and its Boundaries. The conductus is a truly European genre. Compositionally, there is evidence of a wide range of geographical locations of creativity and an even wider range of points of cultivation. Certain parts of Europe –  England, the Iberian Peninsula and South-western German-speaking lands – however, seem to have taken a coherent view of the genre that is marked out by a different range of poetic, musical and codicological choices resulting in identifiably local styles.
  8. Towards 1300. The conductus may have diminished in importance after the middle of the thirteenth century, but it remained an important feature on the landscape of polyphonic music of the period; around 1300, it was subjected to a range of rhythmic, contrapuntal and textural changes.

Online catalogue of the Thirteenth–Century: Conductus

The online catalogue will, for the first time, provide a coherent, fully-searchable inventory of the repertory of the 12th- and 13th-century conductus. The Southampton project team will complete the (approximately) 800 records by September 2013. It will inventory material from the following sources:

  1. References in a wide range of 12th- and 13th-century European manuscripts from Aberdeen to Zagreb
  2. Gröninger’s 1939 catalogue
  3. Falck’s 1970 and 1981 catalogue
  4. Anderson’s 1972 and 1975 catalogue
  5. Commentaries in Anderson’s critical editions, many published posthumously and possibly not by Anderson (Anderson’s earliest dated preface 1972; latest publication 1988)
  6. Anderson’s handwritten notes on his catalogue (1975-1981) subject to resolution of IP issues
  7. Manuscripts discovered since Anderson’s death in 1981 (mostly described in print by the PI to this project)
  8. Recent work on English sources by Helen Deeming (RHUL)
  9. Recent work on Bohemian sources by Charles Brewer (Florida State University)
  10. Recent work on Iberian sources by Juan Carlos Asensio Palacios (Salamanca)
  11. Recent work on Latin refrain songs by Mary Caldwell (University of Chicago)

Performing the Conductus

The two soloists, John Potter and Christopher O'Gorman, have extensive experience of the performance of medieval polyphony, and especially music from the period 1170-1320 in collaboration with PI. Three commercial recordings will be made, one at the end of each of the three years of the project, and will appear on the Hyperion label, the most prestigious for early music performance world wide. In addition, developmental work will all be recorded and deposited, with appropriate metadata, on the PRIMO website. This practice-based section of the project is critical to the research on chapters three, four and six of the monograph, since the development work that precedes the commercial recording will address such questions as rhythm and metre in performance, pacing the mixed form and switching performative modes from unmeasured syllabic music to fully-measured melismatic passages. Given the importance of performance venue, the partnership with the National Centre for Early Music based in York is essential to the project. Initial development sessions are scheduled for March 2011 with the first recording for Hyperion for late October 2011.

Partners and Consultants

Delma Tomlin (National Centre for Early Music, York)
Simon Perry (Hyperion Records)
Helen Deeming (RHUL; consultant, UK sources)
Charles Brewer (Florida State University; consultant, Eastern European sources)
Juan Carlos Asensio Palacios (Salamanca; consultant, Iberian sources)
Mary Caldwell (University of Chicago; consultant, Latin refrain songs)

Related research groups


Members of staff associated with this project: