10 Of The Greatest Medieval Era Composers You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

The history of Western classical music can be divided into six major eras, and the Medieval period is the first of these. It is also the longest, spanning an incredible 1,000 years, from AD 500 to 1500.

Religious music dominated the era, with Gregorian chant perhaps its best-known exponent. While a relatively small amount of Medieval music survives today in comparison to other periods, there are some beautiful and important pieces from this time that survive and continue to be performed.

Composers of the Medieval period are also less well-known than the major artists from later periods of classical music, but there were some fascinating figures writing music during the era. Read on to learn who they are!

1. Stephen Of Liège (c.850–920)

Stephen of Liège — “Gloria Patri, Summe Trinitati, Benedicamus Patri et Filio cum Sancto Spiritu”

Up first, we have Stephen of Liège, who was active toward the end of the Early Medieval period, which lasted from the 5th to the 10th century.

However, the further back in history one looks, the scarcer names of individual composers become, so Liège is one of the earliest formal composers we know of.

This is largely because music at the time was passed by ear from person to person until the 9th century, when primitive musical notation was developed.

Liège wrote Gregorian chant, or plainsong, which was the dominant form of music in the Early Medieval period. Largely monophonic, it was performed by monks as a part of mass during the Catholic church service.

He was Bishop of Liège from 901 to 920, having previously held various other religious posts, and also worked as a hagiographer (someone who writes biographies of saints and religious icons).

2. Hildegard Of Bingen (1098–1179)

Hildegard of Bingen — Source (CC BY 4.0)

A fascinating figure and possibly the most famous composer of the medieval period, Hildegard of Bingen was a German abbess, writer, philosopher, poet, and composer.

She experienced religious visions from a young age, and her Christian mysticism informed her work deeply. She was not formally trained as a composer or musician but claimed that the pieces she wrote came to her while she was in a trance-like state.

Hildegard is one of the best-known and most frequently recorded composers of monophonic sacred works, while her Ordo Virtutum, which contains 82 songs, is considered the first-ever morality play.

She also wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal texts and was made a saint in 2012.

3. Fulbert Of Chartres (c.960–1028)

“Organum: Solem Justitie” by Fulbert de Chartres

The exact details of Fulbert’s origins remain something of a mystery, although he was born in the late 10th century in northern France or possibly Italy before becoming Bishop of Chartres and a teacher at the cathedral school there.

He wrote several hymns to glorify the Virgin Mary, as well as the “Chorus Novae Jerusalem” (Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem), to be sung at Easter.

His sacred works have proved popular in recent years and have been interpreted on many modern recordings.

4. Peter Abelard (1079–1142)

Peter Abelard — “Planctus David super Saul et lonatha”

Abelard is best known as a theologian and scholar: the Frenchman was one of the most important and controversial figures in the Western church of his day.

But he was also a composer, writing monophonic hymns and biblical planctus (lamentations). These were mournful songs that lamented a death, in this case, the demise of a biblical figure.

He had a famous and scandalous affair with Héloïse, a well-known nun and scholar, composing many love songs for her — although these have sadly now been lost — as well as a book of hymns for Héloïse’s order of nuns.

Abelard’s music was ahead of its time in its use of repetitive sequences and limited melodic material.

5. Léonin (fl. c.1150–c.1200)

“Viderunt Omnes” by Leonin

French composer Léonin, active during the High Medieval Period (1150–1300), was a pioneer of polyphonic organum, which involves accompanying the primary melody of a plainchant with an additional voice at a fixed interval — an early form of counterpoint and harmony that emerged in the 9th century.

Léonin was the first to write two melodic parts with greater independence and strict note lengths, making him the first composer of polyphonic art music. He was also innovative in his use of rhythmic modes, which were set patterns of long and short notes, representing one of the first methods of notating rhythm.

6. Pérotin (fl. c.1200)

Pérotin — “Beata Viscera”

Not much is known about Perotinus Magnus, as Pérotin was also known, except that he was a French composer from the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Historians only found out about him because an anonymous English writer praised him as “Magister Perotinus” (Pérotin the Master).

He improved on Léonin’s two-voice organum by writing the first ever four-part polyphony with his organa quadruple. Given the importance of four-part harmony in later classical music (Bach chorales and string quartets, for example), this was an incredibly significant development.

Pérotin is also associated with the Ars Antiqua style and the Notre Dame School of Polyphony, both important in the High Medieval period.

7. Philippe De Vitry (1291–1361)

“Vos qui admiramin” by Philippe de Vitry

Ars Nova was an artistic movement that became popular in the Late Medieval era (1300–1400). Philippe de Vitry wrote the treatise that named this style.

Meaning “new art” in Latin, this music was more expressive and varied, with polyphony (multiple independent melodies played together) becoming common. This change paved the way for the Renaissance era, where music became grander and more complex.

Born in Paris, de Vitry wrote important motets (multi-part vocal pieces) and introduced isorhythms (repeating rhythmic patterns). He was one of the first composers with a unique writing style and was also a respected theorist, poet, and cleric.

8. Guillaume De Machaut (c. 1300–1377)

Guillaume de Machaut — “La Messe de Nostre Dame”

Guillaume de Machaut was one of the central figures of the Ars Nova movement and perhaps the most important composer of the 14th century. He was also one of the first composers for whom extensive biographical information and an exhaustive list of surviving works exist.

The majority of his works were secular, with the lyrics to many describing “courtly love,” or the love of an idealized woman from afar, which was a popular theme at the time.

De Machaut’s sacred work includes the Messe de Nostre Dame, a polyphonic setting of the mass that is considered a masterpiece of the Medieval period. He was also a prolific poet who influenced Geoffrey Chaucer and others.

9. Adam De La Halle (c.1250–c.1306)

Adam de la Halle — “Qui a droit veut amours servir”

De la Halle was a French trouvère, the etymology of which is linked to the word troubadour. These were poet-composers who played music as part of the aristocratic courtly tradition, and de la Halle was employed by the households of various European noblemen.

He composed 36 chansons in the trouvère tradition and also innovated in the field of French secular theater with Jeu de Robin et Marion, a musical play considered a predecessor of comic opera.

10. Francesco Landini (c.1335–1397)

Francesco Landini — “Adiu, adiu dous dame”

Francesco Landini was probably born in Florence, although concrete details about his life are lacking. After becoming blind as a child, he devoted himself to music, learning several instruments and becoming particularly proficient on the organ.

He was the primary exponent of the Trecento style, the Italian take on Ars Nova. Approximately 150 of his secular songs have survived, including madrigals, a caccia, and ballate (common song forms of the era).

The Landini cadence, a musical technique the composer used extensively, is named after him. This ends a musical phrase by having the second to last note drop down before going up to the final note, making the ending sound smoother and more pleasant.

Summing Up Our List Of Composers Of The Medieval Period

We covered composers of monophonic Gregorian chant, polyphonic organum, and secular music from the Ars Nova period. These composers managed to create music while also having other jobs and interests.

And that wraps up our guide to the key composers of the Medieval era! We hope you’ve found some new and enjoyable music from this fascinating time in history.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.