Discantare Super Planum Cantum

New Approaches to Vocal Polyphonic Improvisation 1300-1470

Niels Berentsen
Supervising team:
Prof. Frans de Ruiter (promotor), Gérard Geay (promotor)
Musician type:
composer, voice
composition, counterpoint, improvisation, musical education, performance practice, renaissance music, voice
13th century music, 14th century music, 15th century music



Today’s performances of medieval polyphony have a lot in common with those of other ‘classical’ or ‘early’ music. Ensembles perform pieces written by known or lesser known composers, which the listener can revisit by listening to recordings or reading a score.

In the middle ages, however, the performance of compositions was only one of the ways available to singers for creating polyphonic music. The ability to improvise a second or third voice above a plainchant melody, called discantare super planum cantum (‘singing above the plainchant’) or cantare super librum (‘singing on the book’), was a crucial skill for a church musician in the middle ages, and singers were trained at this from an early age.

Niels’ project aims to expand our knowledge of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century polyphony, through music-historical scholarship as well as practical experiences. An in-depth investigation of the material remains of late medieval musical culture—compositions and theoretical writings about music—forms the basis for experiments with polyphonic improvisation above plainchants together with colleague-singers and students. The project has developed new ways of understanding late medieval polyphony, which are useful not only for teaching and analysis, but which may form a stimulus for contemporary performance practices of early music as well.

Related events

December 13 2016 (17.30)

PhD lecture & masterclass by Niels Berentsen

New Approaches to Polyphonic Improvisation 1300-1470

On December 13th will publicly elucidate his artistic work through a lecture-presentation with ensemble and an open masterclass in which he will teach volunteers at the Lutherse kerk in Leiden.