Notre Dame Organum

Written by Anne E. Johnson

On April 15, 2019, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was severely damaged in a fire. As it happens, that church has a special place in music history. Construction on Notre Dame started in 1163. It took almost 200 years to complete, but it’s in those early decades, around the year 1200, that the cathedral starts to matter musically.

In this column, I usually discuss a few recent recordings of a particular repertoire, but this time there’s only one that I’d call recent. So I’ll fill in with a few important earlier releases.

We’re talking about Notre Dame organum (accent on the first syllable). The term “organum” meant a Gregorian chant decorated with other notes sung against it in counterpoint. In the Middle Ages, both composers and monks/nuns experimented with making chant more interesting to listen to and sing (oops, I mean more glorious for God to hear, of course!). The innovations in organum by composers at Notre Dame not only established how to turn a simple chant into a big, rich piece of music; they also served as the seeds for basic techniques of writing polyphony that you can still hear in the likes of Bach and Beethoven.

The earliest Notre Dame composer whose name we know was Léonin (Leoninus in Latin). He’s credited with inventing a new way of decorating chants in a specific pattern. For Léonin, each phrase of the chant proceeds like this:

  1. A few words are sung in unison, like a traditional plainchant.
  2. One syllable is held for a long time by most of the monks. A soloist sings ornaments against the held note. This part is always in triple time (which they called “perfections”).
  3. For a few seconds, the held voice moves to different notes, but not quite as fast as the solo voice.
  4. The chant phrase is finished in unison.

Léonin’s music was written down using a new kind of notation that could capture rhythm – as long as it was in triple time. Léonin’s book then taught Pérotin, an even more brilliant organum composer in the next generation of Notre Dame.

Using the same structure described above, Pérotin upped the ante. He made items 2 and 3 longer, plus added one or two extra voices in the counterpoint. “Big deal,” right? Right! Pérotin was creating the first sustained three- and four-voice polyphony in history.

Now that you know what you’re listening to, let’s get to some recordings.

The gold standard is Perotin (Harmoni Mundi, 1989) by the Hilliard Ensemble, led by Paul Hillier. They did everything right: Pythagorean tuning (which makes their perfect fifths and fourths ring true), an acoustic space that takes advantage of the pure tuning, and a strong sense of the triple rhythm that still manages to be lilting rather than robotic.

Here’s Hilliard singing Pérotin’s famed “Viderunt omnes,” an organum built on a two-voiced Léonin original, with two more voices added:


Paul Hilliard was part of a movement in the 1980s to fix a wide range of misconceptions about early music as it had been recorded in the 1950s and 60s. Of course those earlier pioneers got some stuff wrong — there was very little scholarship to draw on. It’s incredible that they bothered with this weird old music at all. People like Alfred Deller are heroes to me. They forged the way for early music performance practice.

Here’s the Deller Consort, originally recorded in 1966, on a re-release from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, singing Perotin’s “Alleluia Nativitas.” You’ll notice many stylistic differences from that Hilliard recording. In terms of vocal production, the vibrato is the most jarring from our vantage point. But the interpretation of the rhythm is also a big issue (as it is for most early-music attempts from that period). There’s a halting, self-conscious sound to it, as if they’re afraid they might break the music if they barrel through.


Given their name, it only seems right to include Ensemble Organum in this discussion. Under the leadership of Marcel Pérès, in the ʼ80s and ʼ90s this French group was one of the most intense hunters of medieval authenticity, with an emphasis on spiritual authenticity. Their concerts were full worship services. Pérès’ musical choices served the expression of his faith, never mind what scholarly eyebrows he raised.

Here is Ensemble Organum in 1985, singing Léonin’s Mass for Christmas Day on Ecole Notre-Dame: Messe du Jour de Noël (Harmonia Mundi — are you seeing a pattern with this label?). But, typical of Pérès, it’s the entire Mass, not just the parts Léonin set as organum. You can hear some polyphony starting at around 37:20.

Pérès barely acknowledges the long and short beats that make up triple meter in most renditions. For him, the “perfections” seem to be more about which notes to stress than which have more value. Still, his interpretations are always compelling, in a mantric sort of way.


Another group with a long history of singing the Notre Dame repertoire is Ensemble Gilles Binchois, directed by Dominique Vellard. Their first try was in 1986, Ecole de Notre Dame; in 1993 they released more from this repertoire on the similarly titled Ecole de Notre Dame de Paris.

This is the same “Viderunt omnes” by Perotin that the Hilliard Ensemble sings above. Vellard’s performance is slower, with softer edges. You might say it’s more personal and prayerful, but I miss Hilliard’s focus on the acoustical properties (which Perotin is thought to have understood).


Since the mid-1990s, there have been a handful of other discs devoted to Notre Dame organum. Orlando Consort, Tonus Peregrinus, and Diabolus in Musica, among others, have produced recordings worth checking out. All of them owe a debt to the earlier groups I’ve mentioned.

The only new release in the past year – one wonders if all the media attention will soon inspire more – is Pérotin: The Scottish Source, by a group called Iuchair. It is on their own indie label, Yoker Music. As the title implies, Iuchair made a new edition based on a manuscript at St. Andrew’s Priory in Scotland.

Their interpretation is fascinating – wild and rousing, almost raunchy, more like something you’d expect to hear outside than in a cathedral. I applaud them on their daring, and for trying to move the historical conversation forward.


In case you’re concerned, all the medieval music written at Notre Dame is housed in the Bibliotèque nationale and other manuscript repositories, so it was safe during the fire.

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