November 14, 2012

Trecento Italy

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 7

Jacopo da Bologna: Italian Madrigals of the 14th Century. Ensemble PAN. Ars Musici

We’ve seen already in this history that Dante Alighieri (c1265-1321) was a great admirer of the troubadours, and this opinion held true among the Italian aristocracy generally. Troubadours and joglars, including those fleeing the Albigensian crusade in the early part of the 13th century, had been welcome at the Italian courts, and the local musicians who succeeded them not only imitated their musical style but also continued to set verses in Occitan. Aside from the spiritual laude there was no tradition of Italian song in the vernacular. Around 1306, Dante wrote his treatise De vulgari eloquentia, in which he cited the troubadours as well as classical poets as exemplars in his attempt to devise rules for the creation of vernacular poetry. He also suggested that poetry and music should be distinct – that profound poems of the high style shouldn’t be set to music because this would distract from the text, whereas pastoral, descriptive poetry would be ideal for those who wished to compose great music. It’s not until the 1330s that we see the flowering of vernacular Italian art song, in the form of a genre called the madrigale (which may be translated as meaning “in the mother tongue”), practiced most notably by Jacopo da Bologna, Giovanni da Cascia, and Maestro Piero in the northern cities of Verona and Milan in the 1340s and 1350s. In its formal structure, the madrigal comprised several three-line stanzas, each of them with the same music, with a short ritornello to conclude, this being one or two lines with new music and a different meter; madrigals invariably had a rustic subject, inspired by the bucolic images of classical poets such as Virgil. Unlike vernacular songs elsewhere, the madrigal was a polyphonic form from its inception, although it’s not certain whether it evolved from monophonic songs with accompaniment or had its origin in 12th-century conductus, which it in some way resembles. One notable musical feature of the madrigal is the presence of long melismas at the very start and very end, but not in between so that the text could easily be understood. Related to the madrigal was the caccia, written for two equal voices in canon, often with an accompanying instrumental part; although the caccia had the same poetic structure as a madrigal, musically it was quite different.

A Laurel for Landini”. Gothic Voices; Andrew Lawrence-King. Avie (link)

The wider social context sheds light on the development of trecento music generally. The universities of northern Italy were centers for law rather than theology, which meant that academics were not usually clerics; moreover, the Italians did not share the Parisians’ interest in combining music with mathematics, and so there was no environment for the isorhythmic motet to thrive. The pope was absent from Italy for much of the 14th century, and there was greater participation by laypeople in religious observances, the musical needs of which were served by the popular laude described in Part 4. The secular relation of the lauda in the 13th century was the ballata, a monophonic song with choral refrains that was performed to accompany dancing. The ballata developed as a lyrical form but also remained in its popular guise, as seen in Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in Florence in the early 1350s, which depicts the singing of ballate as part of the evening’s entertainment. Florence was a republic, and its rulers were businessmen rather than nobles, which may help explain why the ballata, with its origins in folk music, rose to prominence as a musical art form here in the 1360s, joining the madrigal and caccia as the three types of secular compositions of trecento Italy. No musical examples of early ballate exist, and there are only a handful of monophonic pieces: like the madrigal, the ballata as art-song was essentially a polyphonic form. The most significant composer of ballate – and the one with the largest number of works that have survived – was Francesco Landini (ca. 1325-97), a painter’s son, blind from childhood as a result of smallpox, who worked as an organist and was renowned for his virtuosity on this and other instruments. Of his 140 or so ballate (he also wrote a small number of madrigals), about two-thirds (presumed to be the earlier ones) are in two-part form and somewhat resemble madrigals, while the rest are in three parts, many of them being for solo voice with two accompanying parts and resembling French ballades.

Chominciamento di gioia”. Ensemble Unicorn. Naxos (link)

The sort of music that the characters of The Decameron might have danced to can be found in a late 14th-century manuscript with the unmemorable title of British Library, Additional 29987. This source contains over 100 pieces of trecento music, of which fifteen are monophonic dances. Eight of these dances resemble the French estampie (the Italian word is istanpitta), and they all bear distinct titles that, according to the writer of Naxos’s liner notes, may make them the earliest known examples of programmatic music. There are also four shorter pieces labelled saltarello and another called trotto, names that come from the Italian words for jump and trot, respectively, indicating a lively tempo. Finally come two slow pieces, Lamento di Tristano and La Mafredina, each of which is followed by a faster variant called La Rotta. In The Decameron, Boccaccio mentions the lute, fiddle, and bagpipes, but the pieces in Ms. 29987 bear no indication as to how they should be played, and so as with the French dances of the troubadour age, today’s performers make their own decisions.

I dilettosi fiori”. Corina Marti. Ramée (link)

The diversity of approaches to medieval instrumental music can clearly be seen by comparing the albums by Ensemble Unicorn and Corina Marti. Whereas the band makes considerable use of percussion and occasionally deploys some atmospheric instrumental effects, Marti relies solely on her recorder in the four pieces from Ms. 29987 played here. Most of the other works on this album come from an early 15th-century manuscript called the Codex Faenza, which represents the oldest known collection of keyboard music (the 14th-century Robertsbridge Codex also contains keyboard music, but this is a two-leaf fragment). The 14th century saw the development of stringed keyboard instruments, the clavichord and harpsichord; until that time, the only keyboard instruments were the various types of organ, from the small portative organ that could sit on the player’s thigh to the large organs installed in churches, described by Guillaume de Machaut as “the king of instruments”. Corina Marti plays the earliest version of the harpsichord, called the clavisimbalum. The Codex Faenza includes keyboard adaptations of secular music by known composers including Machaut, Jacopo da Bologna, and Landini, as well as pieces based on chants for the Mass.

The Saracen and the Dove”. Orlando Consort. Archiv (link)

The resemblance between Landini and his contemporaries’ ballata and the French ballade wasn’t coincidental, and may well have been a response to changes in public taste. There was considerable cultural interchange between Florence and the French-speaking world, not just among bankers and businessmen but also among clerics at the papal court in Avignon (and, from 1377, at Rome too). Although the Italians and French used different systems of notation, the Italian system – as set out by Marchetto of Padua in a treatise of 1319 – allowed for the use of French features, and the Italian madrigal composers would often combine French and Italian meters in their compositions, giving the pieces great rhythmic richness. As the century progressed, the gallicization of Italian music increased as Italian composers adopted more of the French style as well as French notation. But there was also an Italian influence on French music. Many of the Ars subtilior composers in France were Italians, and they found that certain features of the Italian system were useful for the complex notation required by their compositions. The close of the 14th century saw a further aspect of international exchange, with the appearance of French and Flemish composers at Italian courts. One such was Johannes Ciconia, born and educated in Liège, who, it is thought, was employed by the Viscontis at Pavia in the 1390s before moving on to the cathedral of Padua in 1401. In his music we can hear Ars nova, Ars subtilior, and the Italian style, and the fusion of these styles pointed the way to the ‘international’ style of the 15th century. The final component of this mix will be the subject of the next chapter: England.

Selected tracks from the above albums are available in a mix at

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1. Gregorian chant (8tracks mix)
Part 2. From chant to polyphony (8tracks mix)
Part 3. Troubadours and trouvères (8tracks mix)
Part 4. Troubadour influences (8tracks mix)
Part 5. The 13th-century motet (8tracks mix)
Part 6. Ars nova (8tracks mix)

Filed under A History of Classical Music, Classical