Franco of Cologne (fl. mid-thirteenth century) was a German music theorist and possibly composer. He was one of the most influential theorists of the late Medieval era, and was the first to propose an idea which was to transform music notation permanently: that the duration of any note should be determined by its appearance on the page, and not from context alone. Franco of Cologne's contribution to the understanding of rhythmic notation helped musicians and performers alike which demonstrated the integrity which Franco of Cologne was known for by his colleagues and the service that he rendered for the greater good of the music community.
A few details are known about his life, and more can be inferred. In his own treatise, he described himself as the papal chaplain and the preceptor of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John at Cologne, an extremely powerful position in northern Europe in the thirteenth century. Other documents of the time refer to him as "Franco of Paris" as well as "Franco teutonicus"; since his writing on music is intimately associated with the Notre Dame School of Paris, and his Teutonic origin is mentioned in several sources, he was probably German, probably traveled between Cologne and Paris, which had close relations during that time, and probably had a musical position at Notre Dame at some point, perhaps as a teacher, composer or singing master.
Jacques of Liège, in his early fourteenth century Speculum musice, a passionate defense of the thirteenth century ars antiqua style against the new "dissolute and lascivious" ars nova style, mentioned hearing a composition by Franco of Cologne, a motet in three voices. No music of Franco with reliable attribution has survived, although some works of the late thirteenth century, from Parisian sources but stylistically resembling German music of the time, have on occasion been attributed to him.
Franco's most famous work was his Ars cantus mensurabilis, a work which was widely circulated and copied, and remained influential for about a hundred years. Unlike many theoretical treatises of the thirteenth century, it was a practical guide, and entirely avoided metaphysical speculations; it was evidently written for musicians, and was full of musical examples for each point made in the text.
The topics covered in the treatise include organum, discant, polyphony, clausulae, conductus, and indeed all the compositional techniques of the thirteenth century Notre Dame school. The rhythmic modes are described in detail, although Franco has a different numbering scheme for the modes than does the anonymous treatise De mensurabili musica on the rhythmic modes, written not long before. (This treatise was once attributed to Johannes de Garlandia, but scholarship beginning in the 1980s determined that Garlandia edited an anonymous manuscript late in the thirteenth century.)
The central part of Franco's treatise, and by far the most famous, is his suggestion that the notes themselves can define their own durations. Formerly, under the system of the rhythmic modes, rhythms were based on context: a stream of similar-appearing notes on the page would be interpreted as a series of long and short values by a trained singer based on a complex series of learned rules. While the old system was to remain largely in place for decades longer, under Franco's method the notes acquired new shapes indicating their duration. From the evidence of the spread of his treatise and the writings of later scholars, this innovation seems to have been received well; then again Franco was a papal chaplain and a preceptor of a large body of knights, and the acceptance of the method may have had little to do with democracy.
The consensus date of most medieval music theory scholars on the Ars cantus mensurabilis is about 1250. The De mensurabili musica dates from about 1240, not long before; clearly the mid-thirteenth century was a time of progress in music notation and theory, even if it were only catching up with the current state of composition and performance.
The composer who most notably followed Franco's treatise in his own music was Petrus de Cruce, one of the most prominent composers of motets of the late ars antiqua (one of the few whose name has been preserved; many of the surviving works are anonymous).
Franco of Cologne discovered a way to designate the duration of a note by the way the note appeared in the composition rather than understanding the context of where the value appeared to deduce how long to hold the note. Prior to this discovery, the length of time that one held a note was within the unmeasured rhythms of sacred music like the Gregorian chant and this early rhythmic polyphonic music contained this unique free rhythm. Although Leonin and Perotin then changed the performance of Gregorian chant with the use of measured rhythmic values with a defined meter or combinations of rhythmic pulses, a performer would still have to understand the context of where the value was to determine a note's exact duration. It was Franco of Cologne who facilitated this process by modifying the appearance of the symbol to dictate how long the note would be held, thus greatly conveniencing the art of performance.
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