The Caron Website

What do we know about Caron?

The Caron Website

Music historicism (indeed, pretty much any kind of historical inquiry) is often presented with puzzles some of which, for varying reasons, seem to defy full resolution. Determining the given name of the composer to whom we attribute five polyphonic mass settings and maybe as many as 20 chansons, is an acute example. That his family name is Caron is not in dispute: but is his given name Philippe, or Firminus or something else?

The problem essentially lies in the arena of archival research. Even though the influential 15th-century music theorist Johannes Tinctoris lists among others a Firminus Caron in his treatise on Counterpoint (see Introduction and [21] below) and the opening initial of the ascription in the VatSP B80 transmission of a Missa L'homme armé cycle might be interpreted as the letter F (see Caron's Masses - L'homme armé), no archival evidence to support the existence of a mid-15th-century composer with the name Firminus Caron has as yet been uncovered[1].

Concerning Caron's given name there are several shifts in the modern historicist position that are evidenced in lexicon entries such as the standard English reference Grove's. The period October 1927-February 1928 saw publication of the third edition of this reference[2]. The 21-line entry commences as follows:

CARON, Philippe (b. circa 1420)… The name is French or Flemish, and
a chorister 'P. Ph. Caron' is mentioned as a member of the cathedral choir
of Cambrai[3].

As a footnote to this entry, the author - Mademoiselle M. L. Pereyra - refers to three other historicists Haberl[4], Fétis[5] and van der Straeten[6].

In 1954 under the editorship of Eric Blom, and where the dictionary expanded from five volumes plus a supplementary volume to nine, the 5th edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians was published. Included is a short entry for Caron[7]. Its heading reads: "CARON, Philippe (or Firmin) (b. ?; d.?)". Following this heading is:

A chorister "P. Ph. Caron" is mentioned as a member of the cathedral
choir at Cambrai. He may or may not have been the musician mentioned
as "primus musicus" at the cathedral of Amiens in "1422" — a mistake
for 1472[8].

The remainder of the item, some 14 lines, proceeds to inform readers on an incomplete catalogue of Caron's works and lists several sources. Two interesting changes occur between the 1927/8 and 1954 publications:

- the given name of our composer is provided without qualification in the 1927/8 edition, but while being preferred in the 1954 edition is qualified by the inclusion of "(or Firmin)" — even if an approximate date, one is given in the earlier edition; none are suggested in the 5th edition.

Seemingly the Amiens document (see [1]) is now working as a kind of elixir whereby its potency allows for the dismissal of a twice clearly written date as being an error; and conveniently the date is changed to half a century later thus providing a neat and contemporaneous connection to the Firminus Caron listed by Tinctoris (see [20]).

The query now established as to our composer's given name is important for it is a position that gains currency through common usage.

It is not until 1980 that the much heralded and awaited The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians made its appearance on the reference shelves of libraries. In this major publication the entry under Caron commences: "Caron, Philippe [Firmin] (fl 2nd half of the15th century). ?French composer"[9]. The opening of the main body of the entry then seeks to impress the idea that Philippe is not the Jean Caron mentioned by van der Straeten[10] nor another Jean Caron discussed by Marix[11]. Through perhaps a careful syntax, a Philippe Caron named by Houdoy[12] is left to hover as a possibility for our composer.

While this not entirely unequivocal position had seemingly already gained currency through the 1954 publication of Grove's, it also seemingly gained substantial cogency with the publication of Thomson's edition of the collected works[13]. Pertinent passages from the second paragraph of the Preface are as follows:

One of the very interesting points in reference to Caron is the uncertainty about his Christian name. Tinctoris called him Firminus, while the accounts of the choir-boys at the cathedral at Cambrai in the fifteenth century refer to a Philippe (le) Caron, who is probably our composer…[the date 1444 is included with reference to this Philippe]
It also appears that there was a musician by the name of Firminus le Caron at the cathedral of Amiens in 1422, but neither he nor his musical style would belong in the second half of the fifteenth century… If, as we believe, the composer of the Masses and chansons transcribed in the following pages was indeed the same person as the choir-boy at Cambrai in 1444, and not the mature musician at Amiens in 1422, we must conclude that Tinctoris may have confused the latter with the former[14].

In this now established environment of almost four decades that sought to identify our composer as Philippe but with qualification, it is perhaps surprising to find a 1994 publication which lists Caron's given name without any caveat. An updated edition of The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music was published in that year[15]. The entry for Caron begins as follows:

Caron, Philippe (fl 2nd half of the 15th century). ?French composer.
Possibly he was trained at Cambrai…[16]

In an attempt to confirm that our composer is Philippe, the inclusion of a Philippi Caron in a list of names in an obligation dated 5 January 1477 was brought into the debate[17], but three years earlier than the "Concise" entry [18]. That the individual in the Vatican source is our composer [19] has been vigorously challenged [20]. Importantly, this challenge also ultimately dismisses all other Philippes mentioned in the historicist debate as being our composer.

While it is at this point, that is 1999, that the name Firminus[21] resurfaces as a real contender rather, than as Thomson puts it, for example, a mistake, Montagna had raised the issue some 12 years earlier[22]. Within the body of a substantial study to do with transmission, Montagna writes:

Incidentally, the issue of Caron's forename is hardly as thorny as it has
been made to seem…The ease with which scholars have dismissed Tinctoris is disconcerting; is it likely that the most erudite and careful musical scholar of the
Burgundian era would confuse a contemporary composer with a minor
musician at least a generation older?[23]

Subsequent to Haggh's critique of Roth's research, is the 2001 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. In this encyclopaedia the opening for the Caron entry by David Fallows is as follows:

Caron, Firminus (fl c. 1460–75). French composer. He was one of the
most successful composers of his time.[24]

The entry is the longest and most comprehensive to be found in this primary English encyclopaedia, yet the repositioning of Caron's given name is without reference to any archival documentation.

Thus when we get to the bottom line and ask the question what do we know about the composer of five extant polyphonic mass settings and upwards to 20 chansons our answer is: we increasingly and in many respects usefully know more about who he isn't, but not much more as to who he is. And as to his given name: perhaps at this time it is more correctly recorded as Firminus?

It is little wonder, therefore, that Caron has, as it were, great difficulty in being accepted into the musicological canon - assuming of course that membership is in itself desirable. Most certainly, let's continue our efforts in trying to identify who this Caron is - a composer so laudably acknowledged in his day: but let's also take advantage, in all sorts of ways, of this site and engage with the music as an aural experience and hear what it is that historians are talking about when they variously describe his music (in context of his contemporaries) as showing less artificiality, more spontaneity, greater melodic sense and as Fallows puts it: "unusually rich in metrical flexibility"[25].



1. A Firminus le Caron is mentioned in a document held in the Bibliothèque municipale, Amiens. The page in question, folio 183 of MS 516, is reproduced in Thomson, J. The Work's of Caron, A Study in Fifteenth-Century Style, University Mircofilms International, Ann Arbor, 1960, after p. 14. This document clearly gives the date, 1422, twice and thus while we may consider it likely that such a musician was at the Cathedral of Amiens, it is unlikely that this Firminus is the mid-15th-century Caron; for further discussion of this document see, Thomson, ibid., pp. 13-15.
2. Colles, H. C. (ed.) Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 3rd edition (in 5 volumes), Macmillan, London, 1927-1928.
3. ibid.,vol. I, p. 568.
4. Haberl, F. X. "Wilhelm du Fay", Vierteljahrsschrift für Musikwissenschaft, I, 1885, p. 409.
5. Fétis, F-J. "Caron (Firmin)", Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique, 2nd edition, Paris, 1861, vol. II, pp. 193-194.
6. van der Straeten, E. Histoire de la musique aux Pay-Bas, Brussels, 1867.
7. The Macmillan Press, London, vol. 2, p. 89.
8. This revised entry is also by Marie Louise Pereyra.
9. Thibault, G. "Caron, Philippe", The New Grove Dictionary of Msic and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie, Macmillan Publishers Limited, London, 1980, vol. 3, pp. 816-817.
10. see note 5 above; also note 4.
11. Marix, J. Histoire de la musique et des musiciens à la cour de Bourgogne sous le règne de Philippe le Bon, Strasbourg, 1939, pp. 193 ff.
12. Houdoy, J. Histoire artistique de la cathédrale de Cambrai, Lille, 1880, f. 83.
13. Thomson, J. Les Oeuvres Complètes de Philippe(?) Caron, Collected Works, VI/1 and 2, The Institute of Mediæval Music, Ltd., New York, vol. 1, 1971 and vol. 2, 1976.
14. Thomson, ibid., vol. 1, p. I.
15. ed. Sadie, S., The Macmillan Press, London. I am most indebted to Dr Richard Peter Maddox who both drew my attention to this volume and also made available the 3rd and 5th edition volumes of the Grove's… used above.
16. ibid., p. 142.
17. Archivio Segreto Vaticano, LA 25, ff. 95v-96r: reproduced in Roth, A. Studien zum Frühen Repertoire der Päpstlichen Kapelle unter dem Pontifikat Sistus' IV (1471-1484)…, Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1991 pp. 542-542, and Haggh, B. "Busnoys and 'Caron' in Documents from Brussels", in Antoine Busnoys: Method, Meaning and Context in Late Medieval Music, ed. P. Higgins, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999, p. 301.
18. Perhaps it was the discovery of this document and the scholarly argument surrounding it (at that time) that gave confidence to reassert Philippe as the given name for the Caron entry in The Grove Concise….
19. Roth, Studien…, pp. 290-293; for a useful overview of inquiry concerning Caron's identity as Philippe and ensuing argument see: Thomson, J. The Works of Caron, A Study in Fifteenth-Century Style, pp. 5-25, and for more recent inquiry along these lines see: Haggh, "Busnoys and 'Caron'…", p. 296, n. 5.
20. Haggh, "Busnoys and 'Caron'…", pp. 299-315.
21. It is perhaps interesting to note that during the period 1477 (the time of Tinctoris's Liber de arte contrapuncti) to 1552 (the time of Coclico's Compendium Musices) and thus including Hothby's Dialogues Johannes Hothbi Anglicic in arte musica and Sebald Heyden's De arte canendi of 1537, only Tinctoris lists Caron as Firminus. In an earlier treatise, Complexus Effectuum Musices (1472-5), Tinctoris had already listed a Firminum Caron among 9 other composers including Johannem Okeghem, Anthonium Busnois and Johannem Regis in context of the 19th chapter of the book, De nono decimo effectu; (see Seay, A. (ed.), Johannis Tinctoris, Opera Theoretica, Corpus Scriptorum de Musica, American Institute of Musicology, 22, 1975, vol. II, p. 176). Although Tinctoris mentions the composer several more times, he is identified by his family name only: a second time in the Liber de arte contrapuncti (Seay, ibid., pp. 143 and 144) and twice in the Proportionale musices (Seay, ibid., vol. IIa, pp. 10 and 49). Noteworthy, however, is that in these citations when Caron is included in a list, he is always accompanied with names such as Ockeghem and Busnoys. When Binchois and Du Fay, for example, are included, the are noted either as the teachers of Caron et al., or their names precede those with whom Caron is included. This surely implies that when Tinctoris includes the name Caron, he is referring to someone contemporaneous to himself, not a composer of an earlier generation.
22. Montagna, G. "Caron, Hayne, Compère: a Transmission Reassessment", Early Music History, vol. VII, 1987, pp. 107-157.
23. ibid., p. 120.
24. Fallows, D. "Caron, Firminus", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition, ed. S. Sadie, Macmillan Publishers Limited, London, 2001, vol. 5, p. 176; also "Firminus Caron", The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online, ed. L. Macy, (access requires either personal or institutional subscription).
25. ibid., (hardcopy version).