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date: 13 November 2019

Cantus firmus (Lat.: ‘fixed melody’; Ger. fester Gesang; It. canto fermo)locked

  • M. Jennifer Bloxam


(Lat.: ‘fixed melody’; Ger. fester Gesang; It. canto fermo)

A term, associated particularly with medieval and Renaissance music, that designates a pre-existing melody used as the basis of a new polyphonic composition. The melody may be taken from plainchant or monophonic secular music, or from one voice of a sacred or secular polyphonic work, or it may be freely invented. Cantus firmus composition is now understood to encompass a wide range of rhythmic and melodic treatments of an antecedent tune within a new polyphonic texture.

Early theorists used the term ‘cantus firmus’, in both its Latin and its Italian forms, with a variety of related meanings. Frobenius identified three broad stages in its usage:

(1) From the 13th century to the 17th the term had three related meanings. The original one, used by theorists from Boncampagno da Signa (Rhetorica novissima, 1235) to Zarlino (Le istitutioni harmoniche, i, 1558) and Forkel (Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik...

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