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Vicentino, Nicolalocked

  • Henry W. Kaufmann
  •  and Robert L. Kendrick

(b Vicenza, 1511; d Milan, c1576). Italian composer and theorist. He helped to free theory from its adherence to the ecclesiastical modes and experimented with harmonies which anticipated many later innovations. Little is known of his early years in Vicenza, but he probably came under the influence of the humanist Giangiorgio Trissino there. Perhaps the proximity of Vicenza to Venice allowed ready access to the ideas and teaching of Willaert. On the title-page of his first book of madrigals he called himself ‘pupil of the one and only Adrian Willaert’, an association confirmed in the preface to the same work. At some time during this period he was ordained to the priesthood, but his interest seems to have been chiefly in the theoretical examination of the diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic genera, and their use in practice.

It is not known when Vicentino arrived in Ferrara. Since his name does not appear in the account books of the Ferrarese court, he was probably employed by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este rather than by the court chapel – a theory supported by later documentary evidence. Although he lacked an official connection with the ducal court, Vicentino, according to his treatise, gave musical instruction to several members of Duke Ercole II’s family; the duke himself participated in the singing and playing of Vicentino’s music.

The succeeding years saw the growing recognition of Vicentino’s work. In 1546 his first book of five-voice madrigals appeared at Venice. The central event in his life was the famous debate with the Portuguese musician Vicente Lusitano which took place in 1551 at Rome where Vicentino had moved with his patron. Vicentino’s argument was based on a particular interpretation of the genera which he later amplified in his treatise. Instead of considering the diatonic, chromatic or enharmonic tetrachord as a unit, he maintained that the use of any one of its component members was sufficient to identify the genus. Thus, chromatic could be represented either by the complete series: minor 3rd–semitone–semitone, or by the minor 3rd alone or a semitone alone. Similarly, the use of the major 3rd could be interpreted as evidence for the existence of the enharmonic genus. In essence then, the music commonly sung was a mixture of the three genera. Lusitano disputed this, arguing that most music could be explained in terms of the diatonic gender. The final judgment signed by the papal singers Bartolomeo Escobedo and ghiselin Danckertswas in favour of Lusitano. That did not dissuade Vicentino from his experiment nor from completing his treatise L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica (Rome, 1555, 2/1557) in which his theories were more fully explained (see fig.1).

1. Nicola Vicentino: woodcut from his ‘L’antica musica’ (Rome, 1555)

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The events of the next few years are outlined in the treatise. Ippolito II and his entourage returned briefly to Ferrara, then settled in Siena for almost two years and after this moved frequently between Rome and Ferrara. By the year 1561, Vicentino had completed not only the arcicembalo discussed in the fifth book of L’antica musica but had also built an arciorgano constructed along similar lines and capable of reproducing the sounds of all three genera (described in a publication dated 25 October 1561).

In this publication, Vicentino served notice of his availability for a new position, probably occasioned by the frequent absences of his patron on official ecclesiastical business; by 1563 he had left the service of the cardinal and assumed the post of maestro di cappella at Vicenza Cathedral. This position apparently did not please him for he remained there only until the end of the following year.

Where Vicentino went after he left Vicenza remains unclear. Vincenzo Galilei indicated that he had a number of private pupils who sang his music ‘in all the principal cities of Italy’ (see Palisca, pp.341–2). He was perhaps in Milan as early as 1565. Certainly by the end of 1566, probably through the agency of Nicolò Ormaneto (Carlo Borromeo’s vicar in Milan), Vicentino had been found a place as the second rector (with a small salary) of S Tommaso in Terra Amara, a parish in a populous and poor northern quarter of the city; his service there is documented for the next decade. However, his request to the cardinal for the higher-paid rectorship was not granted, his clerical work was criticized in curial visitation reports, and in 1574 Borromeo made S Tommaso into a collegiate church, effectively cutting Vicentino off from chances of ecclesiastical promotion. Before that, he applied in 1570 to Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria, requesting a better position. The Bavarian archives later record payments to Vicentino, but it is not clear whether for personal appearances or for compositions sent to the court.

The year 1571 saw the publication of his fourth book of motets (of which only the quintus partbook is extant) by the Milanese printer Ponzio; several of the motets seem related to Milanese devotion. Together with evidence for at least one student, this shows that he remained active as a composer and a teacher in his later years. In 1572 Vicentino’s fifth book of Madrigali a cinque voci appeared. In the same year a madrigal, Passa la nave mia calma d’oblio, was printed in an anthology at Paris by Le Roy & Ballard; it is the only Italian work in the collection and its inclusion gives direct evidence of the esteem in which the French held Vicentino. Ercole Bottrigari in Il Desiderio (1594) stated that Vicentino died during the plague of 1575–6; his pastoral activities would certainly have exposed him to infection, and his post was vacant by 1577. Still, his memory continued in Milan, as his arcicembalo passed into the ownership of Prospero Visconti, and he was respectfully mentioned by Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (Rime, 1587), in Federico Borromeo’s musical miscellany (I-Ma G.309 inf., c1595), and by Girolamo Borsieri (Il supplemento della Nobiltà di Milano, 1619).

Vicentino’s extant musical legacy consists chiefly of two books of madrigals. To these may be added a few isolated sacred and secular works in both published and manuscript sources, and several incomplete compositions including the quintus of a collection of motets. His fame, however, rests on the treatise L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica. The work as a whole is divided into two main parts. The first, a single book ‘della theorica musicale’, is based chiefly on Boethius but with an emphasis on those elements that support Vicentino’s own ideas. The other part contains five books ‘della prattica musicale’, the first of which concentrates chiefly on a discussion of various intervals in their melodic functions, extended to encompass the possibilities of the three genera. The second concentrates on vertical function of intervals in contrapuntal practice. The third deals chiefly with the eight diatonic modes and their extension into chromatic and enharmonic forms. The bulk of the fourth applies all of these concepts to the actual construction of musical work and serves as a manual of composition. The fifth submits the principles and theories of the previous books to the definitive test of performance on an instrument, the arcicembalo, which was so constructed that any type of microtonal composition could be played on it. Vicentino’s instrument is provided with two keyboards, each containing three ranks or orders of keys. The diagram (fig.2) shows the disposition of the orders and the notation used by Vicentino for each sound. The names of the notes make clear the progression from one order to the next, the denomination of each note in the succeeding orders being derived from the name of the note in the first. Thus, in moving from A la mi re primo (A, in the first order) to the second order, the notation is given as G♯, but the note is called A la mi re secondo. In other words, Vicentino preferred to think of the location of his notes with reference to the keyboard rather than to the staff. The first order is made up entirely of white keys that correspond to those found in most keyboard instruments. The second order contains the black keys most frequently used in the 16th century: F♯, G♯, B♭, C♯ and E♭. The keys of the second order are split and raised to provide for the third order, which is then completed by the insertion of shortened black keys between the semitones E–F and B–C. This order contains the less commonly used semitones: G♭, A♭, A♯, B♯, D♭, D♯, E♯.

2. Diagram showing the disposition of the orders and the notation used by Vicentino for his arcicembalo

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The second frame begins with the fourth order, which contains the same white keys as the first order, but pitched a diesis higher. This interval, equal to half a minor semitone or a fifth of a tone, is represented notationally by a dot over the note. The notes of the fifth order are G♭, A♭, B♭, D♭ and E♭, all a diesis higher than the corresponding notes in the second and third orders. The sixth order resembles the first diatonic order by using plain notes, but is a comma (equal to half a diesis) higher in sound than the first order. The notes are G, A, B, D and E, with the symbol of a comma over each note.

Vicentino’s novel and visionary concepts remain a witness to the battle of those musicians of 16th-century Italy who sought a new and contemporary art. From their innovations emerged the free chromatic style of the seconda pratica of the 17th century and the stabilization of tuning into the equal temperament of more modern times.



N. Vicentino: Opera omnia, ed. H.W. Kaufmann, CMM, xxvi (1963)

Madrigali, 5vv, libro primo (Venice, 1546)

Moteta, 5vv, liber quartus (Milan, 1571)

2 in I-MOe

Madrigali, 5vv, libro quinto (Milan, 1572)

2 madrigals

Solo e pensoso i più deserti campi, Vnm, inc.; Passa la nave mia, 6vv, 1572²

2 motets

Heu mihi Domine, 6vv, PL-WRu; Infelix ego omnium, D-Rp

Intabulation of La pastorella mia from 1546 print in 1548¹²


  • L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica (Rome, 1555/R1959, 2/1557; Eng. trans., 1996)
  • Descrizione dell’arciorgano (Venice, 1561); trans. in Kaufmann, JMT, v


  • O. Chilesotti: ‘Di Nicola Vicentino e dei generi greci secondo Vincentio Galilei’, RMI, 19 (1912), 546–65
  • H. Zenck: ‘Nicola Vicentinos L’antica musica (1555)’, Theodor Kroyer: Festschrift, ed. H. Zenck, H. Schultz and W. Gerstenberg (Regensburg, 1933), 86–101
  • C.V. Palisca: The Beginnings of Baroque Music: its Roots in Sixteenth Century Theory and Polemics (diss., Harvard U., 1954)
  • G. Mantese: Storia musicale vicentina (Vicenza, 1956)
  • H.W. Kaufmann: ‘The Motets of Nicola Vicentino’, MD, 15 (1961), 167–85
  • H.W. Kaufmann: ‘Vicentino’s Arciorgano: an Annotated Translation’, JMT, 5 (1961), 32–53
  • H.W. Kaufmann: ‘Vicentino and the Greek Genera’, JAMS, 16 (1963), 325–46
  • H.W. Kaufmann: The Life and Works of Nicola Vicentino (1511-c.1576), MSD, 11 (1966)
  • D. Kämper: Studien zur instrumentalen Ensemblemusik des 16. Jahrhunderts in Italien, AnMc, no.10 (1970)
  • H.W. Kaufmann: ‘More on the Tuning of the Archicembalo’, JAMS, 23 (1970), 84–94
  • D. Harrán: ‘Vicentino and his Rules of Text Underlay’, MQ, 59 (1973), 620–32
  • M.R. Maniates: ‘Vicentino’s “Incerta et occulta scientia” Reexamined’, JAMS, 28 (1975), 335–51
  • K. Berger: Theories of Chromatic and Enharmonic Music in Late Sixteenth Century Italy (Ann Arbor, 1980)
  • C. Dahlhaus: ‘Musikalischer Humanismus als Manierismus’, Mf, 35 (1982), 122–9
  • M.R. Maniates: ‘What's in a Word? Interpreting Vicentino's Text’, Music and Civilization: Essays in Honor of Paul Henry Lang, ed. E. Strainchamps, M.R. Maniates and C. Hatch (New York, 1984), 444–56
  • M.R. Maniates: ‘Bottrigari versus Sigonio on Vicentino and his Ancient Music Adapted to Modern Practice’, Musical Humanism and its Legacy: Essays in Honor of Claude V. Palisca, ed. N.K. Baker and B.R. Hanning (Stuyvesant, NY, 1992), 79–107
  • D.B. Collins: ‘Fugue, Canon, and Double Counterpoint in Nicola Vicentino's L'antica musica’, Music and the Church, ed. G. Gillen and H. White (Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 1993), 276–301
  • P. Niedermüller: ‘La musica cromatica ridotta alla pratica vicentiniana: Genus, Kontrapunkt und musikalische Temperatur bei Nicola Vicentino’, Neues musikwissenschaftliches Jb, 6 (1997), 59–90
Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana
Die Musikforschung
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Rivista musicale italiana
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Musica disciplina
Wrocław, Uniwersytet Wrocławski, Biblioteka Uniwersytecka
Journal of the American Musicological Society
Journal of Music Theory
Musical Quarterly