Timeline: Anonymity And Authorship In The Middle Ages

May 21, 2017

Have you ever been to a restaurant and heard an off-brand version of the popular “Happy Birthday To You” song?

The reason why a restaurant would choose to use that version, rather than the traditional “Happy Birthday To You,” is because, until recently, that song was protected under copyright. The company Summy Birchard of the Warner Music Group claimed the rights to that melody. They earned an estimated $2 million dollars a year in licensing fees for what is arguably the most popular song in the world. They owned that music.

This concept of ownership and authorship was completely foreign in the early middle ages. Most of the composers working during this time were working for the church. So they really had to question, “Who owns a melody and who can really own a song?” Because of this, we have many examples of music from this time, but very few composers’ names to attach to them; most are just marked anonymous. There are two exceptions to this rule, and those exceptions are Leonin and Perotin.

Leonin worked around the late 12th Century in the School of Notre Dame in Paris. This school is noteworthy because of its development of the rules of harmony. Leonin wrote an early work of harmony that became the standard for those who followed him, including Perotin.

Perotin “the Great” was most likely a successor of Leonin. He also taught at the School of Notre Dame and also wrote early experiments in harmony. He’s noteworthy for his works that balance four independent voices at once, including his work Viderunt Omnes.

The only reason we know these composers names is really just a fluke.  A student who attended the cathedral at the time of Perotin wrote an early treatise on music theory, and in this work he dropped names. If he hadn’t mentioned the works that Leonin and Perotin had written, we would have never known otherwise. The funny thing is we don’t even know that name of that student. We simply know that he was an Englishmen and we call him Anonymous IV.

The concept of a composer actually acknowledging the authorship of their own work is one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance, which was to come a couple of centuries later.