Music History Monday: All the Music That’s Fit to Print

by Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.

On this day in 1501 – 516 years ago – the first polyphonic (multi-part) music printed using movable type was released to the public by the Venice-based publisher Ottaviano dei Petrucci.

Image of the frontispiece to the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton
Frontispiece to the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton

(The publication features a dedication dated May 15, 1501, so we assume that this corresponds with its release date.) The publication was an anthology of works entitled Harmonice musices odhecaton A, meaning “One Hundred Pieces of Harmonic Music, Volume A”. (Volumes “B” and “C” would follow in 1502 and 1503, respectively). The anthology consists of 96 (not “100”, as the title claims) French songs and instrumental pieces by some of the most famous composers of the day, as well as some anonymous works as well. Those famous composers represented in the anthology – which include Josquin de Prez, Johannes Ockingham, Jacob Obrecht, Antoine Brumel and Alexander Agricole – were all originally from northern France and southern Belgium: the so-called “Franco-Flemish” composers from “oltre montani” (“the other side of the Alps”) who were so popular in Italy at the time.

The publication of Harmonice musices odhecaton A was an event of earth-shaking importance, one that changed – forever – the speed of dissemination and the rate of stylistic change in Western music. By printing music using movable type, Ottaviano dei Petrucci was hitching his wagon to what is today is considered as not just the most important invention of the second millennium but of the entire Christian Era in Europe: the movable type printing press.

This article originally appeared on Professor Greenberg’s Music Blog

Credit to where credit is due: it was the German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer and publisher Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg who introduced movable type printing to Europe in 1450. (Gutenberg’s magnificent bibles – with 42 lines on each page – were printed in 1455. Roughly 180 copies were made, some on vellum but most of them on paper. 48 complete or almost complete Gutenberg Bibles have survived.)

It is virtually impossible to overestimate the impact of the printing press on the Western world. Movable type heralded in our present era of mass media and communication. It allowed for all sorts of information – even revolutionary and heretical information – to circulate almost instantly and without easy restriction. Literacy rates exploded across Europe and made possible the eventual rise of the middle class. The monopoly on information held by the literate elite – meaning primarily the church and the aristocracy – was shattered. Vernacular languages increasingly reduced the importance of Latin across the continent and encouraged, to an rising degree, the growth of national self-awareness.

Much of this would have been evident to an Italian publisher named Ottaviano dei Petrucci. He was born in 1466 in Fossombrone, a town in the province of Pesaro and Urbino in central Italy. It is believed that he was educated in the local court of Guidobaldo I, the Duke of Urbino.

On March 25, 1498, the not-quite-32-year-old Signor Petrucci received a “privilege” from the Republic of Venice that was, at the time, not just a hellaciously great party town but also the printing and publishing capital of all Italy. In applying for this “privilege” – meaning a monopoly – Petrucci had claimed to have figured out how to do something that many others had tried but failed to do: use movable type to print polyphonic music. In granting him his privilege, the Republic of Venice gave Petrucci a twenty-year monopoly on the printing of “canto figurado” (polyphony) and “intaboladure d’organo et de liuto” (organ and lute tablatures).

Three years later – in May, 1501 – Petrucci released the Harmonice musices odhecaton A. By doing so, the publishing revolution now encompassed composed polyphony. Between 1501 and 1520 Petrucci published a total of 61 collections of music.

Success spawns imitation, and the publication of music took off. By the mid-sixteenth century music was being published across Europe: in Italy, yes, but also in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. These publishers both influenced public taste and catered to it as well, creating in the process a music industry. The industry launched compositional careers, created new markets, changed the economics of music by making it a consumable product, and took what were the first steps in creating a musical “canon”.

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances
Many of his lectures series, including How to Listen to and Understand Great Music are available to stream at The Great Courses Plus.
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