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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Johannes Tinctoris on 'Counterpoint' and 'Res Facta' (1477)

‘Moreover, simple as much as diminished counterpoint is made in two ways, that is, either in writing or mentally. Counterpoint that is made in writing is commonly named “composed polyphony”. But that which we put together mentally we call “counterpoint” without qualification. And those who do it ordinarily call it “singing upon the book”. Composed polyphony chiefly differs from counterpoint in this, that all the parts of composed polyphony, be they either three or four or more, are mutually bound to each other, so that the order and law of concords must be observed of any part with respect to each and all, as is sufficiently clear in this example, being of five parts. Of which parts first three, then four, and finally all five sing together But two or three, four, or more singing upon the book are not subject one to the other. Indeed, with respect to the things that pertain to the law and ordering of concords, it suffices for any of them to be consonant with the tenor. Nevertheless, I do not count it blameworthy, rather much more praiseworthy, if those singing together should prudently avoid a resemblance of taking up and ordering concords among themselves. For so they make their harmony [concentus] much more full and sweet.’

‘Porro tam simplex quam diminutus contrapunctus dupliciter fit, hoc est aut scripto aut mente. Contrapunctus qui scripto fit communiter “resfacta” nominatur. At istum quem mentaliter conficimus absolute “contrapunctum” vocamus. Et hunc qui faciunt “super librum cantare” vulgariter dicuntur. In hoc autem resfacta a contrapuncto potissimum differt, quod omnes partes reifacte, sive tres sive quattuor sive plures sint, sibi mutuo obligentur, ita quod ordo lexque concordantiarum cuiuslibet partis erga singulas et omnes observari debeat, ut satis patet in hoc exemplo quinque partium existenti. Quarunquidem partium tres primo, deinde quattuor, ac postremo omnes quinque concinunt: Sed duobus aut tribus, quattuor, aut pluribus super librum concinentibus alter alteri non subiicitur. Enimvero cuilibet eorum circa ea que ad legem ordinationemque concordantiarum pertinent tenori consonare sufficit. Non tamen vituperabile, immo plurimum laudabile censeo, si concinentes similitudinem assumptionis ordinationisque concordantiarum inter se prudenter evitaverint. Sic enim concentum eorum multo repletiorem suavioremque efficient.’

On this note, it may interest those involved in the performance of repertoire around the turn of the sixteenth century that the second and third parts of Johannes Tinctoris’ ‘de Arte Contrapuncti’ have been translated and uploaded as part of this wonderful project:

'Scriptorum de musica medii aevi nova series a Gerbertina altera, 4 vols., ed. Edmond de Coussemaker (Paris: Durand, 1864-76; reprint ed., Hildesheim: Olms, 1963), 4:76–119.' Translation from “Johannes Tinctoris — Complete Theoretical Works — De Arte Contrapuncti Lib. 1,”, accessed January 2, 2021,

The image is 'Zangers in een el,' formerly attributed to Hieronymus Bosch from the end of the fifteenth century.

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