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Aaron [Aron], Pietro [Piero]locked

  • Bonnie J. Blackburn

Updated in this version

updated and revised

(b Florence, c1480; d after 1545). Italian theorist and composer. Nothing is known of Aaron’s early training, his teacher, or his career before 1516. He claims to have had ‘the greatest friendship and familiarity’ with Josquin, Obrecht, Isaac, and Agricola in Florence (most likely between 1487 and 1495, and not necessarily at the same time). By 1516 he was a priest in Imola, where he wrote his first book, Libri tres de institutione harmonica, translated into Latin by the humanist Giovanni Antonio Flaminio. A contemporary poem by Achille Bocchi praises Aaron for rescuing music ‘from squalor and dismal neglect’. By March 1520 he was a singer in Imola Cathedral and from the next year a chaplain; he was also paid by the city to teach music to those who wished to learn. His career in Imola ended abruptly in June 1522 when he was wounded in a factional uprising and his chapel in the cathedral destroyed (Blackburn, forthcoming). By February 1523 at the latest he was in Venice as a tutor in the household of Sebastiano Michiel, Grand Prior of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, to whom he dedicated his Toscanello, calling himself a member of the same order and canon of Rimini. Michiel died in 1534, and after a short period in Padua, Aaron became a Crutched Friar in a monastery near Bergamo in 1536, much to the shock of his friends; he claimed that his life there was much better since he enjoyed more esteem. He lived to see his Lucidario published in 1545, but not his undated Compendiolo, in which the Lucidario is mentioned.

Apart from his three years at the cathedral in Imola, Aaron held no formal position as singer or choirmaster, an unusual situation that might be due to his Jewish origin (a hypothesis explored in Blackburn, Lowinsky, and Miller, and further strengthened in Blackburn (forthcoming): he was almost certainly the son of the Florentine banker Bonaventura di Aronne da Este, who himself converted between 1493/4 and c1501). Born in tenuous circumstances (Toscanello, preface), Aaron seems to have been largely self-taught; this may be the reason for his less systematic approach and questionable statements (especially in his first treatise), but also for his valuable insights into contemporary practice: from his first treatise onwards he promises to divulge ‘many of the secret chambers of this art, never heretofore revealed’. He is especially informative on counterpoint and compositional process (distinguishing older and newer procedures), the modal system in polyphonic music, and the application of musica ficta. He is one of the first theorists to discuss mean-tone temperament. His Toscanello, among the earliest vernacular music treatises, was highly successful and ran to four editions.

Aaron spans the generation between Franchinus Gaffurius and Gioseffo Zarlino. His roots lie in the teachings of John Hothby, Johannes Tinctoris, and above all in Gaffurius’s Practica musice. Despite the humanistic trappings of his first treatise (undoubtedly owing to his translator), his orientation is largely practical. No theoretical innovator, he sought to apply the standard teachings on mode, counterpoint, and musica ficta to contemporary music when doing so was becoming ever harder. His observations on the problems involved are particularly illuminating. The publication drew sharp criticism from Franchinus Gaffurius, directed not to Aaron but to Flaminio and implicating Giovanni Spataro (Blackburn, 2015); some copies of the Libri tres include a four-page errata sheet, in which Aaron thanks a certain ‘very kind reader’ but blames the errors on the printer’s proofreader.

Aaron owes much to his friend and fellow theorist Giovanni Spataro. Mostly by letter (only Spataro’s survive; at least 32 letters by Aaron are not extant), they discussed notation, composition, and arcane uses of accidentals. Their early exchanges on notation, prompted by the errors in the Libri tres, led to an improved treatment in the Toscanello, which Spataro reviewed in nine letters (six survive). Aaron took Spataro’s comments into account (without acknowledgement) in the 1529 edition. Spataro also wrote a lengthy critique of the Trattato (now lost; SpataroC, no.27), which he called ‘without order and truth’, a cause of their temporary falling out. In the Lucidario Aaron quotes Spataro frequently, this time by name.

In his most original treatise, the Trattato of 1525, Aaron tried to apply Marchetto of Padua’s modal theory to the existing polyphonic repertory, citing numerous compositions in Petrucci’s publications (Judd, 1995). For him, as for Tinctoris, the mode was borne by the tenor and determined by final, range, and species of 5ths and 4ths. He explained endings on a, b, and c′ not due to transposition (which did not fit Marchetto’s system) by confinals and psalm tone differences, with preference given to the latter – seemingly a measure of desperation, for want of the new modes later proposed by Glareanus. He then showed how every syllable of the hexachord could be found on each note of the Guidonian hand. Severely criticized by Spataro for using only the flat coniuncta (e.g. ut on D is D♭, not D), in 1531 he published a revised treatment – an untitled pamphlet bound with some copies of the Trattato and the Toscanello, partially written in fact by Spataro (Blackburn, 2013) – in which all the syllables are derived from mi or fa. The theory had been covered by Hothby, but Aaron’s explanations are much clearer. In the Lucidario Aaron considered the possibility of F♭, C♭, B♯, and E♯ (a subject discussed with Spataro), but as a confirmed Pythagorean did not equate them with E, B, C, and F. The manuscript Delli principii compares Aaron’s, Stephanus Vanneus’s, and Gaffurius’s initial notes for each mode (given its Greek name).

Despite similar content, the Toscanello is not a translation of the Libri tres: some sections are omitted (on chant, solmization, mutation), some duplicated (fundamentals), some improved (notation), some expanded (notably on counterpoint and composition), and some added (division of the monochord, tuning of keyboard instruments). The new edition also has the advantage of music examples, lacking in the Libri tres. The ‘aggiunta’ of 1529 counsels composers to sign accidentals, citing with approval numerous examples of flats written to mitigate melodic tritones (normally less tolerable than diminished 5ths) or avoid diminished perfect intervals: accidentals are said to be like sign-posts, necessary even for the learned (Bent, 1994).

The Lucidario is an interesting and unusual treatise on a wide range of theoretical disputes: plainchant, notation, and counterpoint, and further thoughts on topics discussed in his earlier treatises, with replies to some of Gaffurius’s criticisms of the Libri tres. Book 4 incorporates the 1531 pamphlet, a few more questions of notation and accidentals, a disquisition on the Greek mode-names and the famous list of singers ‘a libro’ and ‘al liuto’ (for identifications see Marchetti, 2016, pp.344–6). The book is dedicated to the Brescian nobleman Fortunato Martinengo, with whom Aaron spent a happy month making music in Brescia in 1539 (SpataroC, no.64).

The undated Compendiolo, an elementary manual largely derived from his first two treatises and Gaffurius’s Practica musice, was directed to beginners. It was dedicated, probably by the Milanese printer, Giovanni Antonio da Castelliono, to Monsignor Traiano da San Celso (Traiano de Alicorni). He was connected with the abbey of San Celso in Milan from May 1549 (SpataroC, p.85), and therefore the treatise dates from 1549 or later. It is clearly posthumous, as is indicated also by the motto ‘In memoria ęterna erit Aron, Et nomen eius nunquam destruetur’.

Aaron’s influence extended throughout the 16th century, most notably in his pupil Illuminato Aiguino’s treatises on modes in plainchant (1562) and polyphony (1581).


Io non posso più durare, 4vv, 15056

Lost works (mentioned in letters)

Credo, 6vv (SpataroC, nos.38–9)

In illo tempore loquente Jesu (mentioned by Aiguino; SpataroC, no.30)

Letatus sum (SpataroC, nos.35–6)

Mass, 5vv (SpataroC, no.36)

Motet on c.f. Da pacem (SpataroC, nos.49–50)

Motet on St John the Apostle (SpataroC, no.36)

A ‘concento con varie parole’ (SpataroC, no.55)

Other ‘canti’ and madrigals (SpataroC, nos.30, 32, 33, 39, 41)


  • Libri tres de institutione harmonica (Bologna, 1516/R) [ded. to the Bolognese patrician Girolamo San Pietro]
  • Thoscanello de la musica (Venice, 1523/R) [ded. Sebastiano Michiel]; 2/1529/R with suppl. as Toscanello in musica … nuovamente stampato con l’aggiunta, 3/1539/R, 4/1562 [the 1557 edn is a ghost]; Eng. trans. collating all edns by P. Bergquist (Colorado Springs, CO, 1970)
  • Trattato della natura et cognitione di tutti gli tuoni di canto figurato (Venice, 1525/R) [ded. to the Venetian patrician Piero Gritti]; Eng. trans. of chaps. 1–7 in StrunkSR
  • untitled treatise on mutations (Venice, 1531) [attached to some copies of Toscanello and Trattato]
  • Lucidario in musica di alcuni oppenioni antiche et moderne con le loro oppositioni et resolutioni (Venice, 1545/R) [ded. Fortunato Martinengo]
  • Compendiolo di molti dubbi, segreti et sentenze intorno al canto fermo, et figurato (Milan, 1549 or later/R) [ded. Monsignor Traiano (Alicorni) da San Celso]
  • Delli principii di tuti li tono secondo mi Pietro Aron (MS, after 1531, GB-Lbl) [not autograph], bound with Bonaventura da Brescia: Regula musice plane (K.1.g.10)
  • 9 letters in I-Rvat Vat.Lat.5318, F-Pn Ital.1110, D-Bsb; ed. in SpataroC


  • Grove6 (‘Mode’, §III, 3; H.S. Powers); SpataroC
  • E. P. Bergquist: The Theoretical Writings of Pietro Aaron (diss., Columbia U., 1964)
  • P. Bergquist: ‘Mode and Polyphony around 1500: Theory and Practice’, Music Forum, vol.1 (1967), 99–161
  • C. Dahlhaus: Untersuchungen über die Entstehung der harmonischen Tonalität (Kassel, 1968; Eng. trans., 1990)
  • M. Lindley: ‘Early 16th-Century Keyboard Temperaments’, MD, vol.28 (1974), 129–51
  • B. Meier: Die Tonarten der klassischen Vokalpolyphonie (Utrecht, 1974; Eng. trans., 1988)
  • E. Apfel: Diskant und Kontrapunkt in der Musiktheorie des 12. bis 15. Jahrhunderts (Wilhelmshaven, 1982)
  • K. Berger: Musica ficta: Theories of Accidental Inflections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino (Cambridge, 1987)
  • B.J. Blackburn: ‘On Compositional Process in the Fifteenth Century’, JAMS, vol.40 (1987), 210–84
  • C. C. Judd: ‘Modal Types and Ut, Re, Mi Tonalities: Tonal Coherence in Sacred Vocal Polyphony from about 1500’, JAMS, vol.45 (1992), 428–67
  • H. Powers: ‘Is Mode Real? Pietro Aron, the Octenary System and Polyphony’, Basler Jb für historische Musikpraxis, vol.16 (1992), 9–52
  • A.M. Busse Berger: Mensuration and Proportion Signs: Origins and Evolution (Oxford, 1993)
  • M. Bent: ‘Accidentals, Counterpoint, and Notation in Aaron’s Aggiunta to the Toscanello’, JM, vol.12 (1994), 306–44
  • C.C. Judd: ‘Reading Aron Reading Petrucci: the Music Examples of the Trattato della natura et cognitione di tutti gli tuoni (1525)’, EMH, vol.14 (1995), 121–52
  • C.C. Judd: Reading Renaissance Music Theory: Hearing with the Eyes (Cambridge, 2000), esp. ch. 3
  • B.J. Blackburn: ‘The Dispute about Harmony c.1500 and the Creation of a New Style’, Théorie et analyse musicales 1450–1650/Music Theory and Analysis:, Louvain-la-Neuve 1999, ed. A.-E. Ceulemans and B.J. Blackburn (Louvain-la-Neuve, 2001), 1–37
  • A.-M. Ceulemans: ‘Instruments Real and Imaginary: Aaron’s Interpretation of Isidore and an Illustrated Copy of the Toscanello’, EMH, vol.21 (2002), 1–35
  • A.-M. Ceulemans: ‘Le Lucidario in musica de Pietro Aaron’, Uno gentile et subtile ingenio: Studies in Renaissance Music in Honour of Bonnie J. Blackburn, ed. M. J. Bloxam, G. Filocamo, and L. Holford-Strevens (Turnhout, 2009), 729–39
  • B.J. Blackburn: ‘Publishing Music Theory in Early Cinquecento Venice and Bologna: Friends and Foes’, Music in Print and Beyond: Hildegard von Bingen to the Beatles, ed. C.A. Monson and R.M. Martin (Rochester, NY, 2013), 39–61
  • B.J. Blackburn: ‘Theorists as Primedonne: Reviewing Music Theory in the Early Cinquecento’, Studi musicali, vol.6 (2015), 263–82
  • P. Marchetti: ‘“Alli spiriti armonici, et gentili”: Fortunato Martinengo e il Lucidario in musica di Pietro Aaron’, Philomusica on-line vol.15/1 (2016),
  • A.-M. Ceulemans: ‘Pietro Aaron et la notation proportionnelle’, Le notazioni della polifonia vocale dei secoli IX–XVII, ed. A. Delfino (Pisa-Pavia, 2017)
  • B.J. Blackburn: ‘The Peripatetic Career of a Converted Jew: the Music Theorist Pietro Aaron’ (forthcoming)
B.J. Blackburn, E.E. Lowinsky and C.A. Miller: A Correspondence of Renaissance Musicians (Oxford, 1991)
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Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France
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