Music Cantus Firmus
Michael Alan Anderson, Aaron James
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0268


A cantus firmus is a preexistent melody that forms the basis of a larger musical work. Source melodies in the cantus firmus tradition have generally been selected from the vast corpus of plainchant, but secular tunes also provide a supply of monophony for use. The term is synonymous with cantus prius factus, canto fermo, and fester Gesang. Polyphonic settings of a cantus firmus may augment appropriate liturgies or may be found in other contexts. The foundational melodies sometimes signal extramusical or allegorical meaning when cast alongside other texts. In pedagogical contexts, cantus firmi appear as a fund of fixed musical subjects for teaching oral or written counterpoint. The first exercises in counterpoint against a cantus firmus may be found as early as the 10th century, when a note-against-note style prevailed. By the 12th century, and certainly in polyphony emanating from Notre Dame in Paris, florid counterpoint over a plainchant cantus firmus may be witnessed. As discant voices were added above a fixed song, the preexisting melodies became rhythmicized for the sake of coordination. In the 14th century, composers of motets subjected cantus firmi to isoperiodic treatment, abstractly manipulating them into repeating rhythmic and melodic cells. A heyday for settings of cantus firmus can be seen in the 15th century with the proliferation of Mass Ordinaries based on a variety of melodies. Transformations of preexistent song are taken to greater lengths with experiments in ornamentation, fragmentation, transposition, migration, retrograde, and inversion. Polyphonic mass traditions based on the Caput melisma and the L’Homme armé song famously emerge in this context. Although the most familiar and frequently studied examples of cantus firmus technique occur in sacred Latin works, the technique was adapted for polyphonic works in other languages, notably German chorale settings by Lutheran composers. Cantus firmi also undergird numerous secular genres, including the French-texted chanson rustique and combinative chanson as well as the German Tenorlied. Among instrumental works using cantus firmus technique, the most obvious examples are compositions for organ based on liturgical melodies, which have formed a central part of the instrument’s repertoire from the 16th century to the present day. However, cantus firmus techniques also featured in works for instrumental ensemble, including the famous In nomine fantasia. Since 1600, the use of a cantus firmus (especially in long note values) has typically been regarded a historicist gesture, serving as a religious topos or referring to specific techniques from medieval and Renaissance music.

General Studies

Studies of cantus firmus have long remained in the purview of 15th- and early-16th-century music, examining composers’ techniques for incorporating preexistent melodies into polyphonic fabrics. Sparks 1963 has held the high ground among the earliest layer of broad studies, which also includes Elders 1968 and Wolff 1956. Caldwell 1992 and Rothenberg 2011 each span several centuries of early music, while Dremel and Poetzsch 2015 survey the Lutheran chorale from a similarly broad but later chronology, namely the 16th through 18th centuries. Weber 1994–2007 expands the chronological scope of study above all, traversing the topic of cantus firmus in brief essays on music from the late Middle Ages through the 20th century. Pack 2005 identifies a large group of late 15th- and 16th-century motets and masses that exhibit particular cantus firmus positioning. The topic of cantus firmus is only narrowly addressed in Meconi 2004, an overview of musical borrowing. Polk 1992 is an exception among these examples as a study of early instrumental music involving improvisation on a cantus firmus.

  • Caldwell, John. “Plainsong and Polyphony 1250–1550.” In Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony. Edited by Thomas Forrest Kelly, 6–31. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    An examination in five sections of the interaction between plainsong and polyphony in the late Middle Ages. A survey of chant-related terminology leads to questions of plainsong rhythm and a discussion of plainchant melodies as cantus firmi, including transpositions of the original melody.

  • Dremel, Erik, and Ute Poetzsch. Choral, Cantor, Cantus Firmus: Die Bedeutung des lutherischen Kirchenliedes für die Schul- und Sozialgeschichte. Halle, Germany: Verlag der Franckeschen Stiftungen, 2015.

    A collection of ten essays plus introduction on the social importance of the Lutheran chorale and Lutheran music in the circulation of Reformation ideology, within schools in particular. The scope of the contributions covers topics from the 16th through the 18th century. Essays on the use of the chorale in works by Michael Praetorius, Hugo Distler, and Ernst Pepping will be most useful for study of the transformation of preexisting material.

  • Elders, Willem. Studien zur Symbolik in der Musik der alten Niederländer. Bilthoven, The Netherlands: A. B. Creyghton, 1968.

    This monograph highlights the notion of symbolism and opens questions of meaning in mid-15th- to late-16th-century Netherlandish music. Compositional structures and processes (like canon and ostinato), as well as the use of number, are explored as ways of communicating extrinsic meaning in music in connection with cantus firmus technique. There are references to dozens of works, with particular emphasis on those by Josquin.

  • Meconi, Honey, ed. Early Musical Borrowing. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    This collection of eight essays plus introduction broadly deals with musical borrowing in 15th- and 16th-century polyphony. The majority of essays are concerned with polyphonic (not monophonic) models as the basis for polyphonic works. Meconi’s introduction exposes the imprecision of analytical terminology found in studies of borrowed musical material before 1600, including the meaning of “cantus firmus” itself.

  • Pack, Timothy S. “Axial-tenor Composition in the Renaissance.” PhD diss., Indiana University, 2005.

    Survey more than one hundred motets and masses by some sixty different composers between 1460 and 1590, illuminating the “axial-tenor” repertory. Beginning with the five-voice cantus firmus motets of Johannes Regis, the phenomenon of the axial tenor refers to a setting with two voices above and two below the cantus firmus. Other characteristics accompany the style, including the use of sparse textures and textural delineation of the tenor by long-note values.

  • Polk, Keith. German Instrumental Music of the Late Middle Ages: Players, Patrons and Performance Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    The concluding chapter of this book discusses theories of improvised counterpoint and instrumental performing practices against a cantus firmus. Rules of counterpoint and the role of an instrument’s use of divisions are put forward. The chapter is heavily reliant on Tinctoris’s Liber de arte contrapuncti (1477).

  • Rothenberg, David J. The Flower of Paradise: Marian Devotion and Secular Song in Medieval and Renaissance Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    A monograph that explores the reconciliation of secular song in the context of Marian devotional polyphony from the 13th through the 16th centuries. The introduction explains that the allegories found between sacred and secular registers are achieved via cantus firmi, defined for these purposes as preexistent melodies borrowed in full within polyphonic textures. Cantus firmi represent starting points for analysis as clear musical signifiers.

  • Sparks, Edgar H. Cantus Firmus in Mass and Motet, 1420–1520. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

    An early, head-on study of the topic of cantus firmus, broadly understood. The book is organized into three parts: a systematic discussion of development of the cantus firmus procedure before 1450; a collection of close readings of select works by Du Fay, Ockeghem, and contemporaries; analysis of cantus firmus in masses and motets, limited to Obrecht and Josquin. The study centers on ways that borrowed material is deployed and recontextualized.

  • Weber, Édith. Itinéraires du cantus firmus. 10 vols. Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1994–2007.

    Dozens of brief studies based on colloquia convened by a French research group organized by Édith Weber and devoted to exploration of the cantus firmus tradition, widely conceived, from the late Middle Ages through the 20th century. The essays, often centered on composer or repertory, are astonishing in scope when taken as a whole, if less so in substance individually. The studies draw on early and later manifestations of the topic.

  • Wolff, Hellmuth Christian. Die Musik der alten Niederländer. Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1956.

    Now primarily of historic interest, this monograph narrates the development of Franco-Flemish music from Du Fay to Lasso. Cantus firmus techniques are discussed primarily in relation to the history of the polyphonic mass, with examples drawn from works by Du Fay, Obrecht, Josquin, La Rue, and Monte.

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