Music of the Italian Renaissance

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Music of the Italian Renaissance
Shirley Rumsey - Voice, Lutes, Viola da mano, Cittern & Renaissance Guitar
\But above all, singing poetry accompanied by the viola (da mano)
seems especially pleasurable, for the instrument gives the words a really marvellous charm and effectiveness."
(Baldesar Castiglione, 'The Book of the Courtier', 1528)

During the first part of the 15th century, music in Italy had been completely dominated by Flemish composers, but in the 1470's a blossoming of native composers occurred. A new style of song was developed in the courts of Mantua and Ferrara called the 'frottola'. The term 'frottola' was derived from the medieval Latin 'frocta', meaning a conglomeration of random thoughts and was used to cover a wide variety of compositions. Many of these songs were composed by singer-lutenists, like Marchetto Cara and Bartolomeo Tromboncino, but this popular style was imitated by many composers including Josquin Despres.

The singer-lutenist occupied a central role in court life, not only did they play and sing for the entertainment of their own partrons, but they also performed for noble visitors at court, accompanied their lords on journeys, and were loaned to other courts. They performed both indoors and outdoors, at banquets, in dramatic presentations and for the dance. Documents from Mantua and other courts indicate that lutenists played a wide spectrum of instruments. Lutes were of course their principal instruments, and these were built, even in the late 15th century, in a variety of sizes. Different sizes were used in order to match a song to the particular range of the singer.

With the accession of Francesco Gonzaga as Marchese of Mantua in 1484 and, more particularly, with the arrival of his wife, Isabella d'Este from Ferrara in 1490, the size of the Mantuan musical establishment was increased and a greater emphasis was put on vocalists and native Italian musicians. Isabella's taste in music was sophisticated, she played the lute and the viola da mano, and according to contemporary descriptions she possessed a fine voice.

"When she sings, especially to the lute, I believe that Orpheus and Amphion, who knew how to bring inanimate objects to life with their song would be stupefied with wonder on hearing her, and I do not doubt that neither of them would have known how to do as well as she does in keeping the harmony most diligently so that the rhythm never falters, but rather measures the song, now rising, now falling and keeps the harmony on the lute and at once according her tongue and both hands with the inflections of the song. "

This describes Isabella at a time when she was said to be 'not much (older) than twenty-three', in Giangiorgio Trissino's 'I ritratti' published in 1524.

Isabella did much to foster the new style of music and performance by commissioning poems and then having them set to music by various composers. Two of the foremost composers of 'frottole' were the singer-lutenists, Marchetto Cara and Bartolomeo Tromboncino. They were working within a tradition of performance style that went back to the middle decades of the 15th century. Self-accompanying singers such as Leonardo del Chitarino, Nicolo Tedesco and the famous Ferrarese 'cantor al liuto', Pietrobono, were certainly early models for Cara and Tromboncino. Cara became the 'maestro di cappella' in Mantua and was clearly a versatile musician as well as a persuasive performer. Baldesar Castiglione in his 'Libro del cortegiano', describes how evocative his singing must have been when he says,

"in a manner serene and full of plaintive sweetness, he touches our souls, gently impressing a delightful sentiment upon them. "

The contrast between the lives of Cara and Tromboncino could not be more striking. While both were very important to Mantuan music and music making, Cara seems to have been an integral part of music there, while Tromboncino was constantly on the move and never far from trouble. He is perhaps most well-known for killing his wife; "with great cruelty for having found her at home alone in a room with Zoanmaria de Triomfo"

Further north in Venice, Adrian Willaert, the 'maestro di cappella' there from 1527 to 1562 was at the centre of a closely knit circle of composers, printers and theorists. Willaert's sphere of influence attracted the patronage of various nobles for whom he organised brilliant musical evenings which acquired great fame and had a lasting effect on the private musical life of the city. Willaert was a teacher and friend of relatively unknown or young composers from Italy and his native Flanders whose works he introduced and promoted in his publications. As interest in the 'frottole' declined, northern Italian composers found a source of inspiration in the unique form of 'musica popolaresca' imported from Naples, where it had been developed by Gian Domenico da Nola. Nola's songs were well-received by Willaert and his disciples, who even arranged some of them in a madrigalesque style to suit the taste of the prosperous Venetian society.

Venice, like every major city in Italy, had its renowned and accomplished courtesans whose homes were often the scene of those brilliant literary and musical events. For the talented courtesan, musical performance could be a widely recognised artistic achievement. One of the most famous of all courtesans was the remarkable Polissena Pecorina, who was always a welcome guest at these Venetian soirees. She is described by Antonfrancesco Doni, an amateur musician and writer as;

"so clever and cultivated that I cannot find words to praise her. One evening I heard a concert of viols and voices at which she sang and played with other outstanding personalities; the perfect master of this music was Adriano Willaert. "

Willaert dedicated the first edition of his 'Musica Nova' to this outstanding interpreter of his music, La Pecorina. However, despite the popularity of these 'Napolitana' they were repeatedly condemned by moralists who argued that they were lascivious and demoralising songs sung to stimulate unhealthy passions. The Venetian libertine, Pietro Aretino certainly understood this, he felt that;

"the sounds, songs, and literature which women know are the keys which open the door to their modesty. "

Most of the earliest surviving Italian lute music also comes from Venice. It was there that the right to print lute music was first given by the Doge to Marco dall Aquila in 1505. However, he does not seem to have taken advantage of this privilege and the first two publications of lute music by Francesco Spinacino were printed in 1507 by Ottavio Petrucci. Spinacino's books primarily contain arrangements of well-known vocal pieces and each concludes with a selection of recercars. In contrast, Joan Ambrosio Dalza's book of the following year is nearly all dance music, but it also includes a few arrangements of 'frottole' and some recercars as well as a few improvisatory 'tastar de cordes', which roughly translates as 'touching the strings'. As well as these important printed sources there are a number of early manuscript lute books, again originating from Venice. The 'Calata', comes from a manuscript which seems to be the collection of a professional lutenist, it contains solos as well as a large number of song accompaniments. The 'Calata' may be the name of a piece derived from the Italian word, 'calle', meaning a path or small street, and it is quite possible that the calata was used as a 'repriesa', music that alternated with a dance or a song. The 'Ballet to', by the Brescian nobleman and lutenist, Vincenzo Capirola, comes from a manuscript that was compiled by one o
Disc: 1
Se mai per maraveglia
1 La pastorella mia
2 Ti partir cor mio caro
3 Fantasia 16
4 Mal un muta per effecto
5 Perla mya cara
6 Fantasia 31
7 Piva
8 Quella bella e biancha mano
9 Balletto
10 Vecchie letrose non valete niente
11 Racercare
12 A la guerra a la guerra
13 Ricercar 84
14 La traditora
15 El grillo
16 Racercare
17 O mia cieca e dura sorte
18 Thochata
19 Fantasia
20 Scaramella
21 Tastar de corde
22 Calata
23 Fontana che dai acqua
24 Cara cossa
25 Se mai per maraveglia
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