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Primus Liber [Septum librorum] Viginti missarum, 1532

Primus Liber [Septum librorum] Viginti missarum, 1532

Pierre Attaingnant, compiler. Douai, France, ca. 1494 – 1551/52 Paris. Primus Liber [Septum librorum] Viginti missarum. Parisiis in vico Cithare : apud Petru[m] Attaingnant, 1532. Choirbook (265 folios), 42 x 30 cm. Eighteenth-century French binding in full red morocco, with blue paste paper endleaves. All edges gilt. “Boston Athenæum” stamped in gold on center of front board. Purchased as part of the library of General Henry Knox, 1809.


Pierre Attaingnant’s 1532 collection of masses is one of the great monuments in the history of music printing. It consists of seven volumes that were issued separately throughout the year 1532, each of which contains three masses except the sixth, which contains only two. The final collection, therefore, consists of twenty mass settings, most of which were written by French composers active at the time of the publication. (The set now in the collection of the Boston Athenæum was subsequently bound together in a single volume).

Music printing developed later than did text printing. While there was no “Gutenberg” of music, the commonly cited first example of music printing is Harmonice musices odhecaton A, published by Ottaviano dei Petrucci (1466-1539) in 1501. The work is a collection of ninety-six chansons (not the one hundred implied by the word “odhecaton” in the title) and other secular pieces by various leading composers of Petrucci’s time. The Odhecaton was the first example of mensural notation to be printed with movable type and to make use of either a double- or a triple-impression system of printing.[1]

There had been still earlier examples of music printing but interesting as they are, they lead nowhere when one attempts to trace the development of the art. Progress in the field was to fall to Pierre Attaingnant, who developed the system of single impression printing that would become the standard in Europe for over two hundred years (and that would remain in use until into the twentieth century, even after it had been supplanted by other techniques). In the brief period before Attaingnant, printers such as Petrucci made a first impression by printing blank musical staves, a second impression that added text, and, finally, a third impression that added notes to the staves. Sometimes the second and third impressions were combined into a single second impression, but in any event the complexity of this process limited the production runs of the very earliest printed music.

In 1527-1528 Pierre Attaingnant, hitherto a printer of liturgical books in Paris, published his Chansons nouvelles, a work that revolutionized the printing of music. Printed music suddenly became available to a very large public. It is interesting to note the extent of this revolution. Over the course of his career—he remained active until 1550—Attaingnant produced what music historian Daniel Heartz describes as a “staggering” amount of music, which was disseminated all over Western Europe. Heartz gives as an example the numbered-series of chansons. Of these, Attaingnant produced thirty-six volumes, many of which eventually appeared in second or third editions. The print run for each of these is estimated to have been in excess of 1,000 copies. Such an amazing level of production required the establishment of relationships with distributors and booksellers all over Europe.[2] In addition to the thirty-six numbered volumes of French chansons mentioned above, Attaingnant produced a lengthy list of other music, including collections of chansons, psalm settings, motets, masses, instrumental music, and works in tablature for organ and for lute.

Missa plurium motetorum, from Attaingnat, Primus liber viginti missarum, Claudin de Sermisy


What, then, was Attaingnant’s great innovation that made this vast output possible? Essentially what Attaingnant did was to break the five-line musical staff into tiny cross-sections, each cross-section containing five lines plus a single musical note of a particular pitch and rhythmic value. These cross-sections then became the blocks of print type, and when strung together created a continuous line of music. When one looks closely at examples of Attaingnant’s publications (and at most of the other music published over the next two hundred years), one can make out the individual blocks of type in the slightly discontinuous appearance of the five-line staves.

Despite the slight irregularities in the staves, Attaingnant’s publications are admired for their general high level of printing quality and their editorial accuracy.[3] This level of quality and accuracy was not to be found consistently in the subsequent history of music printing from movable type. In the early eighteenth century, movable type was superseded by engraving, in which the music was printed from copper plates on which it had been incised with steel point.

During the course of his research on Attaingnant, Heartz made it his quest to examine every surviving copy of Attaingnant’s prints. It is in this context that his description of the Boston Athenæum masses takes on particular significance: “The most important event of Attaingnant’s career was the publication in 1532 of an imposing collection of Masses in large choirbooks.” He goes on to say, “Whoever has seen the unique complete copy at Boston in the Athenæum must account it one of America’s graphic treasures.”[4]

Several things are outstanding about the Athenæum’s Attaingnant. Although there is one other copy in existence, the Athenæum’s is the only complete copy. The other copy, which is in Vienna at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, is lacking the title-page to volume one and the dedicatory pages. This title-page, being largely a woodcut, may not be significant in its relation to the technology of music printing, but it is important iconographically. The magnificent woodcut by Oronce Fine (1494-1555) is one of the most reproduced and instructive drawings illustrating music performance practice during the Renaissance. It is also a wonderful portrayal of key personages of the court of François I while at worship. After a detailed analysis of this scene, Heartz concludes that a “glance at this splendid scene suffices to proclaim the semi-official nature of the publication.”[5]

The 1532 masses were printed in the large folio size, unlike the majority of Attaingnant’s works, which were printed in oblong octavo size. Its public was the much narrower one of royal chapel and cathedral choirs. The larger folio size allows for the printing of the music in “choirbook” format rather than in “part-book” format. As can be seen in the often-reproduced title-page woodcut, chapel choirs generally gathered around one large book, which was placed on a stand so all could read from it. During this period music written in parts (e.g., for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) did not appear in modern score format, but rather in either choirbook format or in part-books. In the typical choirbook arrangement, the soprano part appears on the top of the left-hand page; the tenor appears on the bottom of that same page; the alto part is on the top of the right-hand page; and the bass is at the bottom of that page.[6]

The first volume of the 1532 masses contains a dedicatory address, in Latin, to Francis, Cardinal of Tournon, together with a Sapphic ode, also in Latin, written by Nicolas Bourbon as the dedication of the work. Tournon’s influence in François I’s court was considerable and led to Attaingnant’s receiving a royal privilege in 1531. (This was tantamount to being given a monopoly on music printing in France.) This royal decree, printed in French, is also reproduced in the first volume of the 1532 masses.[7]

The Athenæum’s copy of Attaingnant’s great masterwork came to the institution as part of the library of General Henry Knox, which was purchased by the Athenæum in 1809 (see cat. no. 19).[8]


Hugh H. McCall from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 72-75. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.


[1] For example, a Roman gradual known as the Constance Gradual was printed with movable type in 1473 making use of a double impression system of printing, but consisted only of unmeasured plainchant.  Examples of mensural music printed from woodcuts began to appear around this time also. Some of these complex creations were carefully and beautifully created.
[2]Daniel Heartz, Pierre Attaingnant, Royal Printer of Music: A Historical Study and Bibliographic Catalogue (Berkeley, California, 1969), 120-125.
[3]D. W. Krummel and Stanley Sadie, Music Printing and Publishing (London, 1990), 155.
[4]Krummel and Sadie, 68.
[5]Daniel Heartz, “A New Attaingnant Book and the Beginnings of French Music Printing,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 14 (Spring, 1961): 19-20.
[6]Heartz, Attaingnant, Royal Printer, 71. The excellent condition of the Athenæum’s copy of Attaingnant’s publication suggests that it was probably never actually used for performance.
[7]These historically significant documents are reproduced and translated in Heartz’s studies. See his Attaingnant, Royal Printer, 174-178, and his  “A New Attaingnant Book,” 22-23.
[8]In at least two articles on Attaingnant, Gaston Allair cites Margaret Hackett, who was the Boston Athenæum’s reference librarian from 1946 to 1966. Hackett believed that the volume had been brought from Europe to Boston in 1796 by Père Matignon who, Hackett thought, later gave it, along with several other volumes, to the Athenæum. See Gaston G. Allair, “Les messes de Claudin de Sermisy (c. 1490-1562),” Revue de musicologie 53 (1967): 39; and by the same author, “L’essor de l’imprimerie musicale en France sous François Ier,” Revue de l’Universite de Moncton 2 (September 1969): 155.