Ballate monodiques de l'ars Nova Florentine
Performers: Esther Lamandier (voice, portative organ, harp, viol, lute)
Recording date: February 1980
The present program is based on music described in the Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-c.1375), which provides one of the most significant looks at upper class merriment in medieval Italy.
All Music Guide
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Although Boccacio may not have inspired musicians to the same degree as his contemporary Petrarch did, he is none the less for us one of the most important characters of XIVth century music, one of those who have passed on to us many a precious piece of information concerning the use to which secular music was put, where it was played, in what society, on what instruments. In this respect, the DECAMERON is a better source of information than the severe cogitations of most theoreticians: it shows us that, along with church music, there flourished a spontaneous form of art that had adopted everyday language (the vulgare), following its rhythm and expression admirably. This art, which was to become the greatest glory of Italian music, was practiced as a diversion by the merry group of ten young men and women who. fleeing the city ravaged by the plague, had taken shelter in a villa in the Florentine hills. Each "giornata" of the DECAMERON begins and ends in music at the invitation of the sovereign of the day. On these occasions, each one will show what he can do: Dioneo plays the lute, Fiammetta the viol, Tindaro the rebeck or the bagpipes and each of them accompanies in turn the songs of Lauretta or Emilia. But the kind of music they play can only be surmised. However, Boccacio specifies that the performers of the troop are required to sing and play "ottimamente" (in thorough perfection), so they must have played "learned" music. Finally, the fact they should often dance to these canzoni and that, although most of the songs are backed by an instrument, some should also be sung "a voce sola", allows us to infer that they were certainly the Ballate that are the object of this recording.
The monodic Ballata, which constitutes the most important genre in the Italian An Nova - at least so far as quantity is concerned - was probably derived from the popular Canzone a ballo\ however, after it was polished and refined by the Court musicians, it soon became the favourite pastime of the small circles of initiates that practised as elaborate a music as that of An Nova. The form of the poem is that of the French virelai and includes two musical sections: the first at the Ripresa (refrain) which opens the piece, followed by the first and second Piedi made up each of two or three lines on the second musical section thus repeated twice (concluding on the aperto and then on the chiuso); it is rounded off by the Volta which takes up the first musical formula, that of the Ripresa. Towards the end of the XIVth century, the Ballata became polyphonic, often in two parts as exemplified on this record by Angelica bilta, Io son un pellegrin and Donna, tu pur invecchi. For the most part, they are trite love songs, rather superficially lyrical, addressed to the poet's Donna (Niccolo Soldanieri's I' vo' bene a chi vol bene a me being an exception to the rule by its freer and prouder tone); yet, more realistic texts can also be found such as Io son un pellegrin, a kind of selfportrait of a street-singer who, "cantando con la voce bella", collects alms in his moneybag; or even ironic texts in Donna, tu pur invecchi, a lovers' dialogue that is not a love's dialogue since the Donna's "cor duro" never relents. The poems are always a real "poesia per musica" often written by the musicians themselves, therefore inseparable from the music, with which they harmonize happily to form these little pictures of indisputable charm. One cannot but be struck by the freedom of the melodic line with its long melismas on one syllable alternating with kinds of rapid recitatives by the art with which the voice is brought out in its whole tessitura, by the variety of rhythms passing from the binary (aer ytallicum) to the ternary (aer gallicum), (the latter being maintained however, as required by the words, throughout Amor mi fa can tar a la Francesco), finally by a precocious sense of modern tonality as in Lucente Stella, che 7 mio cor desfai. Most of the Ballate have been passed on to us by two prestigious manuscripts, the first and the last manuscripts of An Nova. The Ms. Rossi 215, kept in the Vatican Library, contains the earliest repertoire and is one of the rare testimonies to a musical activity in North Italy in the XIVth century; it is marked by the somewhat popular flavour of the poems characteristic of the small courts of this region, text and music being all anonymous. On the contrary, the Ms. Med. Pal 87 of the Biblioteca Laurenziana of Florence is one of the last, if not the last monument of An Nova, copied in that city about 1440, possibly under the impetus given by the organist of Santa Maria del Fiore, Antonio Squarcialupi - whose name appears in the manuscript, hence its designation as Codex Squarcialupi. It contains an enormous repertory of the Florentine Ars Nova which, by then, had completely fallen into obsolescence, and thus appears as a sort of memorial to a vanished art. With its rich miniatures, the composers' portraits at the head of their works, the many unica by the most famous musicians, it cannot have been intended but for one of the humanist Florentines in the Medici circle.
Three composers only are represented on this record, all three from Florence: Ser Gherardello, about whom nothing is known except that he probably died towards 1362-64 and that he left, besides his secular compositions, a few religious pieces. Lorenzo Masii, or Masini, a priest who must have taught at Florence Cathedral since he was given the title of Magister, ranked among the illustrious citizens of Florence according to the historian Villani. He proved his literary taste by giving preference to the great poets (it is to him we owe the only Ballata on a poem by Boccacio: Non so qual i' mi voglia). Finally, Francesco Landini (dead 1397), no stranger to us since this blind organist of San Lorenzo left an important work and was hailed by this contemporaries as one of the "beacons" of this time. Both a poet and a musician, he is said to have been crowned at Venice with a wreath of laurel by the King of Cyprus in 1364, and there were many legends telling how he seduced even the birds when playing his portative organ in the gardens of Florence.
Indeed Esther Lamandier has not chosen the easiest genre to decipher the mysteries of the interpretation of ancient music, but she may be considered as the young heiress to this Sollazzo, a character created by the poet Simone Prodenzani, who sang like a lark, played the harp, the lute and the organ. She perpetuates the memory of "Troilo Cantore", the hero of Boccacio's Il Filostrato, considered as "the first singer who entered Italian art", or the famous Minuccio who was "renowned as a good singer and talented player on all string instruments" (Decameron, 97 th tale). Her interpretations moreover are authenticated not only by literature but also by the fine arts. Not to mention the numerous illustrations to the DECAMERON, let us just recall the "Illustrious Women" portrayed as musicians by the miniaturist (Ms. Fr. 599): Medusa and her rebeck, Cassandra and her dulcimer, Sapho the poetess with her harp. So it is under the aegis of these illustrious ancestors that she brings back to life the music played by Boccacio's merry "brigata", reaching "the full agreement between the heart and the mouth and the perfect concordance between the heart and the thought" that were wished for by Pierre d'Ailly.
(translated by Josine Monbet)