The Black Death of 1348 in Europe brought death to some 25 million people. It played a part in the ending of an out-dated way of life governed by religious dogma and at the same time gave impetus to new currents of thought in the cities of Northern Italy, where humanism, more democratic forms of government and trade flourished. Nobles and citizens grew rich with the cloth industry, which provided the necessary wealth for cultural development, financing the establishment of universities where discoveries were made by creative experiment and philosophical investigation. The modern age was born.
The queen bade bring instruments of music, for that all the ladies knew how to dance, as also the young men, and some of them could both play and sing excellent well. Accordingly, by her commandment, Dioneo took a lute and Fiametta a viol and began softly to sound a dance; whereupon the queen and the other ladies, together with the other two young men, began with a slow pace to dance a branl; which ended, they fell to singing quaint and many ditties. (First Day, Introduction).
In another place a lady sick for love is consoled with music:
Now this Minuccio was in those days held a very quaint and subtle singer and player and was gladly seen of the king; ...(he) came to her and having somedele comforted her with kindly speech, softly played her a fit or two on a viol he had with him and after sang her sundry songs ...(Tenth Day, Seventh Novel).
On the one hand the ars musica was no longer a speculative interpretation of the writings in monastic scriptoria for the proof of the existence of God and his praise, but an art applied in everyday life. On the other hand, just as Boccaccio had raised vernacular and popular stories to a level of art, so the dances of the lower classes, learned by ear and played extempore, might be shaped into artistic performances.
One of the earliest manuscripts containing examples of such art dance-music comes from Northern Italy and is found in the British Library in London (Ms.29987). Apart from several madrigals, the language and notation of which date the copy to c.1390, there are fifteen monophonic instrumental pieces at the end of the manuscript. They are all in the characteristic form of the dance-music of the period: several parti varying in number and form (parts independent of each other, often extempore in nature) always end with the same aperto (imperfect cadence) and with a chiuso (perfect cadence) after the repeat. The specific naming of the dances, moreover, - istanpitta for the first eight pieces, saltarello for the next four, and trotto for the thirteenth - suggests the steps involved, stamping, hopping and trotting. The last two pieces, however, raise questions as to their suitability for dancing. The Lamento di Tristano and La Manfredina are solemn in mood, followed by quick variations, the so-called rotta. The trotto and the saltarello can be identified most easily as dance-music, their structure being simpler and catchier than the istanpitte. These last pose certain questions. First they stand apart from the others in their length. Long extempore paraphrases of the melodic lines and frequent leaps of a fifth or a fourth are quite in accordance with the then instrumental customs derived from Arab culture and lie well under the hand for instruments of the time, fiddle, recorder, harp, ud, bagpipes and so on. Sometimes they give the istanpitte a touch of minimalism. On the other hand the parti are sometimes lost in melodic flights of fancy, with changes of accidentals which remind us of modern chromaticism, shifting rhythms and a range of more than two octaves, nearly beyond the possibilities of dance or performance on instruments of the period. It almost seems as if the istanpitte represent experimental music of the fourteenth century, seeking to define the boundaries of the new art of music. It is the first time in the history of music that titles are supplied that seem programmatical: Bellicha (the war-like woman), Parlamento (talk), Tre fontane (Three Springs), Ghaetta (the cheerful woman), In pro (Please), Principio di virtú (Principle of Virtue), Isabella and Chominciamento di gioia (Beginning of Joy). It seems possible that these compositions might represent a great leap forward into the future, a forerunner of art for art's sake.
The present recording includes all the instrumental titles of Ms. 29987. In the interpretation the style of the time and the appropriate instruments have been used, bearing in mind the questions raised above. The extempore nature of the music and the attempt to present the fifteen titles as an entity to modern audiences have allowed the regrouping or shortening of certain parts of the manuscript. The underlying principle of interpretation has always been that of joy in music and of creativity - Il chominciamento di gioia.
Charming ladies, as I doubt not you know, the understanding of mortals consisteth not only in having in memory things past and taking cognizance of things present; but in knowing, by means of the one and other of these, to forecast things future is reputed by men of mark to consist the greatest wisdom. (Tenth Day, Tenth Novel).
English version by Uta Henning
(Quotations from the Decamerone are taken from the translation by John Payne, London, 1903)
The Ensemble Unicorn consists of five musicians specialising in early music. Together with guest-musicians the Ensemble is dedicated to the interpretation of music from the Middle Ages to the Baroque and of works of their own. The aim is always lively authenticity, avoiding the merely pedantic. An original feature of the Ensemble is the approach towards contemporary popular music in new compositions and interpretations of Medieval and Renaissance works, played on original instruments. The compositions by the Ensemble are based on Medieval and Renaissance dances, cantigas and chansons, reflecting the amalgamation of Oriental and European cultural trends.
The recorder-player Michael Posch was born in Klagenfurt and is musical director of the ensemble Musica Claudiforensis. He studied at the Carinthian Academy, at the Vienna Musikhochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst and at the Trossingen Musikhochschule. He is also a member of a number of early music groups, including Oni Wytars, Accentus and the Clemencic Consort.
Marco Ambrosini plays the keyed fiddle, fiddle, mandorla, kuhhorn, shawm and ocarina in the Ensemble. Born in Forli, he studied violin and viola at the Pergolesi Insti