Johannes Tinctoris

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Johannes Tinctoris (c.1435 – 1511) was a Flemish composer and music theorist of the Renaissance era. Tinctoris was also known as a cleric, a poet, a mathematician, and a lawyer. There is even one reference to him as an accomplished painter.


He is known to have studied in Orleans, and to have been master of the choir there. He also may have been director of choirboys at Chartres. Because he was employed at the Cambrai Cathedral for four months in 1460, it has been speculated that he studied with Dufay, who spent the last part of his life there. Certainly Tinctoris must at least have known the elder composer of the Burgundian whereby he began to understand that the energy and openness of the Burgundian court was derived from an education for character prior to an education in the academic, musical and technical education of the court. Tinctoris then went to Naples in 1472 and spent most of the rest of his life in Italy.

Musical Output

Mensural notation in the Renaissance era, excerpt.

Tinctoris published many volumes of writings on music. While they are not particularly original, borrowing heavily from ancient writers (including Boethius, Isidore of Seville, and others) they give an impressively detailed record of the technical practices and procedures used by composers of the day. He wrote the first dictionary of musical terms (the Diffinitorium musices), another book on the characteristics of the musical modes, and a treatise on proportions. There is also a book on counterpoint, which is particularly useful in charting the development of voice-leading and harmony in the transitional period between Dufay and Josquin. The writings by Tinctoris were influential on composers and other music theorists for the remainder of the Renaissance era.

While not much of the music of Tinctoris has survived, that which has shows a love for complex, smoothly flowing polyphony, as well as a liking for unusually low tessituras. These are deomonstrated in the occasional descents in the bass voice to the C two octaves below middle C (showing an interesting similarity to Johannes Ockeghem in this regard). He wrote masses, motets and a few chansons.

Notable writings

  • The first dictionary of musical terms (Diffinitorum musices).
  • An introduction to the elements of musical pitch and rhythmic notation (Exposito manus and Proportionale musices); examples show how rhythmically elaborate extemporization may have been practiced.
  • A thorough exposition of the modal system (Liber de natura et proprietate tonorum).
  • Liber de art contrapuncti – his main exposition of musical intervals, consonance and dissonance, and their usage. He devised strict rules for introducing dissonances, limiting them to unstressed beats and syncopations (suspensions) and at cadences.
  • A broad survery of the origins and evolution of music, its theological and metaphysical roots and ramifications, and vocal and instrumentation practice (De inventione et usu musice).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hüschen, Heinrich. Johannes Tinctoris, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London: Macmillan Publisher Lrd., 1980. ISBN 1-561-59174-2
  • Reese, Gustave. Music in the Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4
  • Tinctoris, Johannes. Liber de arte contrapuncti, tr. Oliver Strunk, in Source Readings in Music History. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1950. OCLC 385286


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