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Program Notes: Isabella's Court

Please find an excerpted version of the Program Notes for Isabella's Court below. The complete text of the program notes is available as a downloadable PDF in the "additional information" section in the right sidebar.


The Italian Renaissance The influence of Renaissance and classical literature and the sheer sonorous beauty of musical culture in Italy around 1500 make its identification with all the arts patronized by Renaissance princes quite clear. But in a way, one could point to the Italian music published in the early sixteenth century as containing the seeds of an evolution toward what we now call the baroque. There was a lively native Italian tradition in the fifteenth century of improvised singing and playing, while at the same time Italian courts vied with each other in hiring the great singer/composers from France and Flanders for their court chapels.

The Humanist Tradition

Not coincidentally this was a time when many ruling families were proud of educating their sons (and sometimes daughters) in the new humanistic values of the Renaissance. When these students of the classics, educated in classical and Italian literature, art, and music, became rulers in their own right, it was natural that they would patronize all kinds of writers, thinkers, and musicians themselves. So in several courts and cities, conditions were perfect for the development of new kinds of music with a humanistic flavor combining the learned music of the north with the native tradition. We will see, in this program, evidence of this fortunate phenomenon in several cities. We will have a look at the court of Ercole I in Ferrara, Lorenzo de Medici’s circle in Florence, and most importantly the court of Isabella d’Este in Mantua.

About Isabella

Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) was the daughter of Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. At the age of sixteen she was married to Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, and established her own brilliant court there. There are connections between all these cities, along with Rome, Venice, and Milan, and many of the musicians whose music we will hear this evening traveled freely and often from one city to another. But Ferrara, Florence, and Mantua do seem to be central to the development of the new music of the sixteenth century. Isabella likely received her early musical training from Johannes Martini. Martini was in Ercole’s chapel and although he visited Milan (where he sang with Josquin) and Mantua, he remained associated with Ferrara until his death in 1497. Martini was probably Isabella’s music tutor and because of his early influence on Isabella, he is extremely important in our story.

Renaissance Woman

Isabella had wide-ranging interests. After moving to the small court at Mantua as a young bride, she began an active career of literary, artistic, and musical patronage. She corresponded with Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, and other artists, in letters brimming with wit and intellect. She encouraged poets like Serafin dall’Aquila to supply her musicians with poems to be set to music. Musically, she was equally active, singing and playing, dealing with instrument makers, and having Johannes Ockeghem’s canon "Prenez sur moi" inlaid in parquet on the floor of her study. But her major musical accomplishment was something different and new. Isabella was likely trained as a girl in the native tradition, prized by the humanist courts, of improvising song/poems to the accompaniment of lute or lyra and she employed at her court in Mantua some of the first native Italian composers who began writing out a music based on the humanistic improvisatory practice. This style, which became known generically as frottola, sets the same kinds of poems used by the improvisers in a tuneful and chordally accompanied texture very different from the intricate web of northern polyphony.

Sphere of Influence

The most important composers of this style were Marchetto (known as Marco) Cara and Bartolomeo Tromboncino, both of whom were employed by Isabella. Since the most important secular form of the sixteenth century, the madrigal, essentially grew out of a synthesis of frottola and northern style, Isabella’s importance to the entire course of sixteenth-century music cannot be questioned. 
Michielle Harton. Lute. Padua, 1598.

Additional Information

Complete Program Notes | Isabella's Court


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