MILANO: Fantasias, Ricercars and Duets
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Francesco Canova da Milano (1497 - 1543)
'The prince among lutenists'
His contemporaries called him 'Il divino', 'a miraculous lute player', he wasthe most famous lutenist of the Renaissance. Francesco Canova da Milano, was theson of a musician, Benedetto Canova, and was born in the small town of Monza,near Milan on 18th August 1497. Francesco, was possibly given some earlyinstruction in the lute by Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa, one of the most renownedlutenists working for the Gonzaga family of Mantua, but he must have been aprodigious young player, for by 1519 he was already receiving payments from thepapal treasury, having secured what must have been the most prestigious positionfor a lutenist in Italy. In all, Francesco spent most of his adult life in Romeworking in the service of popes Leo X, Adrian VI, Clement VII and Paul III. Atsome time between February 1526 and 1528, perhaps after the sack of Rome in1527, he appears to have left papal employment and moved to Piacenza. Shortlyafter this, in 1530, he may also have been engaged as the organist at MilanCathedral. By 1535, however, Francesco was once again in Rome, this time as alutenist in the service of Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici; he was also teachingOttavio Farnese, the grandson of Paul III. In 1536 the first four printededitions of Francesco's music appeared in Venice, Milan and Naples. These werethe only publications of his music to be published during his lifetime, but itwas to prove to be only a small part of his total achievement as a composer.
More music survives by Francesco than any other lutenist of the time; it can befound in over 40 printed tablatures, produced between 1536 and 1603 in Italy,France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands. His music is also foundin 25 manuscripts of equally diverse provenance, including three Englishlutebooks. Francesco's surviving output includes fantasias and ricercars,idiomatic and free-ranging pieces written specifically for the lute, and a largenumber of intabulations or arrangements of chansons, madrigals and motets. Apartfrom the duet version of La Spagna, however, there are no survivingdances by Francesco, but it seems unlikely that they were not part of hisrepertoire. It is quite probable that he invariably improvised his variations onthe well-known dances of the day. In fact, Francisco de Salinas, in his 'Demusica' of 1577, recollects hearing Francesco at the court of Paul III improvisea galliard on a ground.
In 1538 Francesco was working in the household of another of the pope'sgrandsons, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. He is described as 'Messer Francesco daMilano, musico', and mentioned as being among the 'gentilihomini etcamerieri' ofthe Cardinal. In June of that year, Francesco, accompanied Paul III to Nice forhis meeting with Charles V and Fran?ºois I. He played before Fran?ºois, whorewarded him handsomely with 225 livres for the pleasure he gave with hisperformance. Interestingly, one of the most reliable sources of Francesco'smusic attributes two of his compositions to one 'Francesco da Parigi' and it ispossible that Francesco's success in France was such that he stayed on afterPope Paul's departure from Nice, long enough in fact to be called 'Francesco ofParis'. By 1539, however, Francesco's name appears once more on the papalaccount books. Francesco, very likely remained in the service of Paul III untilthe end of his life. During these later years in Rome he had as his pupil theyoung Florentine, Perino degli Organi. Perino's name first appears on the papalexpense accounts in 1537, when he was only thirteen years old; he was later tobecome Francesco's most distinguished pupil. In 1546, Perino, published one ofthe most reliable and thoroughly annotated editions of Francesco's music.
Francesco died on 15th April 1543, survived by his father, Benedetto. Amemorial tombstone for Francesco was erected by his father at the church ofSanta Maria della Scala in Milan, but the church was destroyed to make way forthe now world famous opera theatre, La Scala.
Although the influence of earlier lutenists can be found in Francesco'sworks, the complexity and quality of his music far exceeds those of all but afew of his contemporaries. His fantasias and ricercars range in style from thealmost improvisatory works popular with his predecessors to finely honed pieceswhich employ point-of-imitation techniques. Throughout Francesco's work one isimpressed with his skill in manipulating and developing a few musical ideasuntil every permutation has been explored, but all the while maintaining aperfectly balanced structure within the composition. His music is oftenflamboyant, virtuosic, passionate and complex, yet for the player, these demandsare always well placed upon the instrument and sound well, not something thatcan be said about the compositions of many of his contemporaries.
There are many descriptions of Francesco's consummate skill as a performer,those that heard him were transfixed by the 'angelic sound of the divineFrancesco'. None, however, is more telling than that of Pontus de Tyard, who indescribing the powers of music, relates the story told him by Jacques Descartesde Ventemille of a performance by Francesco:
'Music is the sovereign mistress for solacing grief, appeasing wrath, curbingboldness, tempering desire, healing sorrow, easing the misery of poverty,dispelling weakness, and soothing the pangs of love. You could relate a greatnumber of ancient stories on this subject, but you would hardly find one of amore striking proof than that which was recently told us to the same end byMonsieur de Ventemille... who while staying in Milan... was invited to asumptuous banquet given in honour of one of the most illustrious groups of thecity and in the house of the same elegance where, among other pleasures of rarethings assembled for the happiness of these select people, appeared Francesco daMilano - a man who is considered to have attained the end (if such is possible)of perfection in playing the lute well. The tables being cleared, he chose one,and as if tuning his strings, sat on the end of a table seeking out a fantasia.
He had barely disturbed the air with three strummed chords when he interruptedconversation which had started among the guests. Having constrained them to facehim, he continued with such a ravishing skill that little by little, making thestrings languish under his fingers in his sublime way, he transported all thosewho were listening into so pleasurable a melancholy that - one leaning his headon his hand supported by his elbow, and another sprawling with his limbs incareless deportment, with gaping mouth and more than half closed eyes, glued(one would judge) to those strings (of the lute), and his chin fallen on hisbreast, concealing his countenance with the saddest taciturnity ever seen - theyremained deprived of all senses save that of hearing, as if the spirit, havingabandoned all the seats of the senses, had retired to the ears in order to enjoythe more at its ease so ravishing a harmony; and I believe (said M. deVentemille) that we would be there still, had he not himself - I know not how -changing his style of playing with a gentle force, returned the spirit and thesenses to the place from which he had stolen them, not without leaving as muchastonishment in each of us as if we had been elevated by an ecstatic transportof some divine frenzy.'
Although a considerable collection of Francesco da Milano's music hassurvived, a testament to the regard that contemporary publishers and collectorsof lute music had for his compositions, a large part of his music mustpresumably have been lost. This could, as in the case of his dance music, besimply that few if any of the pieces were