Vincenzo Galilei

I’ve been reading about early music. I ran into Vicenzo Galilei, an Italian lute player, composer, and music theorist who lived during the late Renaissance and helped start the Baroque era. Of course anyone interested in physics will know Galileo Galilei. And it turns out Vicenzo was Galileo’s dad!

The really interesting part is that Vincenzo did a lot of experiments—and he got Galileo interested in the experimental method!

Vicenzo started out as a lutenist, but in 1563 he met Gioseffo Zarlino, the most important music theorist of the sixteenth century, and began studying with him. Vincenzo became interested in tuning and keys, and in 1584 he anticipated Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by composing 24 groups of dances, one for each of the 12 major and 12 minor keys.

He also studied acoustics, especially vibrating strings and columns of air. He discovered that while the frequency of sound produced by a vibrating string varies inversely with the length of string, it’s also proportional to the square root of the tension applied. For example, weights suspended from strings of equal length need to be in a ratio of 9:4 to produce a perfect fifth, which is the frequency ratio 3:2.

Galileo later told a biographer that Vincenzo introduced him to the idea of systematic testing and measurement. The basement of their house was strung with lengths of lute string materials, each of different lengths, with different weights attached. Some say this drew Galileo’s attention away from pure mathematics to physics!

You can see books by Vicenzo Galilei here:

• Internet Archive, Vincenzo Galilei, c. 1520 – 2 July 1591.

Unfortunately for me they’re in Italian, but the title of his Dialogo della Musica Antica et Della Moderna reminds me of his son’s Dialogo sopra i Due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo (Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems).

Speaking of dialogs, here’s a nice lute duet by Vincenzo Galilei, played by Evangelina Mascardi and Frédéric Zigante:

It’s from his book Fronimo Dialogo, an instruction manual for the lute which includes many compositions, including the 24 dances illustrating the 24 keys. “Fronimo” was an imaginary expert in the lute—in ancient Greek, phronimo means sage—and the book apparently consists of dialogs with between Fronimo and a student Eumazio (meaning “he who learns well”).

So, I now suspect that Galileo also got his fondness for dialogs from his dad, too! Or maybe everyone was writing them back then?

25 Responses to Vincenzo Galilei

  1. Always good to read about early music! Interestingly, although most of the Renaissance stuff is not bad, I prefer earlier (medieval) or later (baroque) music.

    One thing I like about England is that there is an unbroken, living tradition of folk music going back several hundred years. Although it became more visible during the folk revival of the late 1960s, it was there before and is still there today.

    Although there is some good music still being made today, and while there has always been bad music, 50 years ago much popular music was quite good and vice versa, as in the example above.

    • John Baez says:

      I like Renaissance music because of the complex polyphony. The details of the distinction between polyphony and the later counterpoint of the High Baroque are still a bit mysterious to me, but the latter seems to have more independent melody lines, and the earlier doesn’t follow all the rules of “common practice” laid down by Bach and his ilk.

      For me, Palestrina alone makes Renaissance music just as interesting as medieval and baroque. His music is so complex yet smooth! I also like the British polyphonists: Byrd, Tallis, Taverner and others. I love The Sixteen’s 10-CD set The Golden Age of British Polyphony, which weirdly omits Tallis and Byrd, but has a lot by Taverner and Shepphard, and a bit of Fayrfax and Mundy.

      I got into this sort of music really heavily a few months after the pandemic started, and I’m still digging deeper into it. This is how I bumped into Vicenzo Galilei.

  2. lukebarnes says:

    Wikipedia tells me that that’s a photo of Kepler:

    Lovely music!

  3. Charles Clingen says:

    Thank you for starting my day so pleasantly. I can listen to this music and study at the same time. But I think that may be because the structure is still unfamiliar; that may change as I listen more. We shall see …

    • John Baez says:

      If you want some more familiar music by the same lutenist Evangelina Mascardi, try her version of Bach’s Partita in C minor, BWV 997:

      I find that Bach partitas and sonatas sound less noble and thrilling on the lute than the violin, but also more warm and organic.

      • The above was originally written for violin, and Bach himself transcribed it for lute. It is probably my all-time favourite piece of music. Maybe Bach’s own favourite as well, as he also used it in the instrumental part of a cantata twice (BWV 29 and 120a). The BWV 29 version was the basis for the Walter/Wendy Carlos recording of it on the Moog synthesizer as part of the Switched-On Bach record. The most recent incarnation I’ve noticed is that Deep Purple borrow from it heavily on their most recent album.

        The version above is by Lutz Kirchhof. I own the recording and also seen him live several times, sometimes with his wife Martina, who plays the viola da gamba.

  4. Keith Harbaugh says:

    There’s certainly a lot of great music written before 1800.
    For a complex example, written circa 1680, Biber’s Misss Salisburgensis is outstanding:

    Richard Atkinson has analyzed the counterpoint in BWV 80:

    Some playlists of the masters:





    From the 19C, Mussorgsky

    And finally, a compendium of pre-1900 Western music

  5. lucarobymo says:

    I’ve found this commentary and translation of “Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna” by Robert H. Herman, M. M. (August, 1973):

    Great post, anyway

  6. Halbeisen’s Combinatorial Set Theory uses quotations from Vincenzo Galilei as chapter epigraphs.

    • John Baez says:

      Neat! Here’s something a student in his dialog says after the teacher explains a lot of complicated math connected to scales:

      Your lofty principle represents to me, instead of a secure cove, that part of the earth under the south pole which is called unknown, because the things which you just now mentioned are so new to my ears that if I did not have so faithful a pilot as my guide I would abandon hope of the port.

      I wish my math students would talk like that!

    • Oops. Misremembered. The epigraph is from Zarlino, though Halbeisen mentions his pupil Vincenzo.

      “Under the south pole”? I guess, inside the earth?

    • John Baez says:

      I guess anyone who spoke of the south pole back then knew the Earth was round? Maybe “under” the south pole was just meant to intensify the sense of remoteness, without much focus on where that would be.

      Here’s what Wikipedia says about the antipodes:

      Pomponius Mela, the first Roman geographer, asserted that the earth had two habitable zones, a North and South one, but that it would be impossible to get into contact with each other because of the unbearable heat at the Equator. The Terrestrial Sphere of Crates of Mallus (c. 150 BCE), showing the region of the antipodes in the southern half of the western hemisphere

      From the time of St Augustine, the Christian church was skeptical of the notion. Augustine asserted that “it is too absurd to say that some men might have set sail from this side and, traversing the immense expanse of ocean, have propagated there a race of human beings descended from that one first man.”

      In the Early Middle Ages, Isidore of Seville’s widely read encyclopedia presented the term “antipodes” as referring to antichthones (people who lived on the opposite side of the Earth), as well as to a geographical place; these people came to play a role in medieval discussions about the shape of the Earth. In 748, in reply to a letter from Saint Boniface, Pope Zachary declared the belief “that beneath the earth there was another world and other men, another sun and moon” to be heretical. In his letter, Boniface had apparently maintained that Vergilius of Salzburg held such a belief.

      The antipodes being an attribute of a spherical Earth, some ancient authors used their perceived absurdity as an argument for a flat Earth. However, knowledge of the spherical Earth was widespread during the Middle Ages, only occasionally disputed—the medieval dispute surrounding the antipodes mainly concerned the question whether people could live on the opposite side of the earth: since the torrid clime was considered impassable, it would have been impossible to evangelize them. This posed the problem that Christ told the apostles to evangelize all mankind; with regard to the unreachable antipodes, this would have been impossible. Christ would either have appeared a second time, in the antipodes, or left the damned irredeemable. Such an argument was forwarded by the Spanish theologian Alonso Tostado as late as the 15th century and “St. Augustine doubts” was a response to Columbus’s proposal to sail westwards to the Indies.

      • Lars Dietz says:

        I suppose by “under” the south pole they meant the pole of the sky? In that time, people presumably had more occasion to talk about the celestial poles than those of Earth, as the former could easily be seen while no European had even come close to the latter. As this was after Vasco da Gama and Magellan, the southern sky was also already known to Europeans at the time.
        So by “that part of the earth under the south pole which is called unknown”, they would probably have meant the extreme southern part of the earth, unknown to Europeans at the time, which was under the celestial south pole. According to Wikipedia, the hypothetical continent “Terra australis incognita” was already being depicted on maps in the 16th century.

  7. Renate Quehenberg says:

    Dear John Baez, I just wanted to forward your interesting posting on Vincenzo Galilei; previously I was wondering first that he would have looked more like Kepler then his famous son, now I see, that the link you are using leads to a site with the wrong portrait.

    | | | | Vincenzo Galilei. “Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna”

    They use erroneously this portrait of Kepler

    Kind regards,

      _____________________________________ Dr. phil. Renate C.-Z.-Quehenberger email:

    • John Baez says:

      Yes, I had that picture on my blog article here, but Luke Barnes told me that it was a picture of Kepler, and I removed it. It’s pretty funny to use a picture of Kepler as a picture of Galileo’s father.

  8. Keith Harbaugh says:

    Concerning Renaissance polyphony, this CD from the Huelgas Ensemble has some excellent examples:

    Utopia Triumphans

    See the Gramophone review here:

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks! I plan to blog about some of my favorite polyphonic composers, but you can get a preview of what I plan to say by looking at my diary:

      • John Baez, Diary, April 2021.

      • Keith Harbaugh says:

        Let me add a personal favorite, Ockeghem’s Deo Gratias. The audio is on the above, but here some gorgeous visuals add immensely to the feeling of timeless serenity.

      • Keith Harbaugh says:

        Regarding the Obrecht Maria Zart, a google on
        obrecht tallis scholars
        turned up a 1:08:44 YouTube video with scrolling score

        which purports to be of the Tallis Scholars performance of that mass.
        The description for that video contains extensive notes from Peter Phlilips.

        • John Baez says:

          Thanks! A while back I bought the Tallis Scholars’ Missa Maria zart, which is so far the only thing I’ve seriously listened to by Obrecht. I’ll need to listen to it many more times to understand it! It’s very strange and interesting. Someday, when I’m starting to understand the piece, it’ll be fun to listen to it on YouTube while watching the score.

          Ockeghem’s Deo Gratias is amazing: it sort of knocks your socks off, with the echo-like effect. Here is a version with a score:

          I don’t think this is the only way to perform the piece; some of this is the Huelgas Ensemble’s own idea:

          In this rendition by Paul Van Nevel no more than 18 voices are singing contemporarily, due to the canonic response that makes upper voices to complete the melody while lower voices start singing. As soon as the first voice of the fourth chorus (B1, on the bass chorus) reaches its final note every voice “freezes” at its current line in melody, eventually bringing the canon to a halt and forming the final chord.

          That could be a bit of a modern invention.

      • John Baez says:

        Laudate Dominum by Pierre De Manchicourt, on that Utopia Triumphans collection you pointed me to, is also very easy to love. I hadn’t heard of Pierre De Manchicourt before! He’s also from the Franco-Flemish school that I’m trying to get to know, but from a later era than I’ve been looking at: his dates are 1510– 1564.

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