Artistic Director's Notes

This program marks the start of a Folger Consort season entirely devoted to the music of Italy.  For this concert we want to paint a picture of Florentine musical life during the lifetime of Machiavelli under Lorenzo de Medici, Savonarola, and back to the Medicis. There was plenty of music making during this period in Florence.  Lorenzo, for instance, owned four organs, an organetto, and other keyboard instruments, fiddles, lutes, and a harp.  And music making was available to various levels of Florentine society.  In 1432 three musicians advertised that they would “teach the playing of harp, lute, and all other instruments to all people who came to their studio to learn.”   

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was a central figure in Florentine life.  Known today mostly as a politician and for his political writings, he was also a humanist, poet, and playwright. For the 1526 revival of his 1518 comedy La Mandragola, Machiavelli added a canzona after each act, and we have musical settings for a few of them by Phillipe Verdelot.  We include two of these on our program.  Among his other writings, five carnival songs have come down to us, and we perform two of them here.   Florence during Machiavelli’s lifetime was full of great musicians, including Verdelot.  We will feature the best of them: Heinrich Isaac, the great Flemish composer beloved of Lorenzo de Medici, Alexander Agricola, and also the natives Alessandro Coppini and Bartolomeo degli Organi.  A lot of the music we perform is for public festivals.  Although there will be some lofty and erudite compositions, most of the program is very accessible—pop music in the best sense.  A centerpiece of the program is the Florentine song Fortuna desperata, which became famous all over Europe. We will have six versions of the song by various composers.

We generally think of musical culture in Italy around 1500 as belonging securely to the high Renaissance, and that is of course true.  The influence of Renaissance and Classical literature and the sheer sonorous beauty of this music 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 16th century as containing the seeds of an evolution that culminates about 100 years later.  There was a lively native Italian tradition in the 15th 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.  We do not know a whole lot about the way much of the music on our program was performed in the early 16th century. But we do have evidence of contemporary practices in Isabella d'Este's court in Mantua, where frottole were performed either in four equal parts or with a single voice accompanied by bowed or plucked string instruments. It is this texture, in contrast to the equal voices of northern polyphony, that sounds modern for music composed around 1500—a melody, with carefully declaimed text, probably quite decorated, accompanied by chords.  This is indeed the new texture of the Baroque advanced by Giulio Caccini and his contemporaries in Florence almost 100 years later.

Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450–1517) is often regarded as the second-best composer of his time, after Josquin des Pres.  Regardless of that opinion, it cannot be denied that Isaac was the most versatile of all his contemporaries, rivaling Flemings, Germans, and Italians in their respective musical idioms.  This international flavor is exemplified by Isaac’s career.  Born in Flanders, the first document referring to him dates from 1484 in Innsbruch.  Shortly thereafter, he arrived in Florence at the invitation of Lorenzo di Medici.  Isaac remained in Florence, truly his adopted city, for much of his life.  He sang in the Cathedral choir, possibly tutored Lorenzo’s children in music (including the future Pope Leo X), married a Florentine, and in general was the brightest musical star in Lorenzo’s constellation of artists during the city’s golden age.  After Lorenzo’s death in 1492 and the rise of Savonarola, Isaac obtained the appointment as court composer to Maximilian I.  This position apparently did not require Isaac’s presence at the imperial court in Vienna, for he traveled extensively during the next decade or so, spending time in Innsbruck, Constance, possibly Ferrara, and of course, Florence.  Most of the pieces by Isaac performed here have a direct Florentine connection.  The well-known Canto delle dée was composed for the lavish festival celebrated on the Feast of St. John the Baptist, Florence's patron saint. 

Philippe Verdelot was born in France, but probably came to Italy at an early age, most likely spending some time in Venice before coming to Florence.  He was maestro di cappella at the Baptisterium San Giovanni by 1523, and he probably also worked at the adjacent Duomo.  He seems to have been a sympathizer of the reformer Girolamo Savonarola. He composed music for the poem In te, Domine, speravi, based on Psalm 31, which was one of the subjects Savonarola wrote about before he was burned at the stake (we perform the exquisite setting of this poem by Josquin later on in the program).  Machiavelli, in spite of his misgivings about Savonarola, generally sided with the Florentine Republic against the Medici.  The 1526 performance of La Mandragola, however, was dedicated to the Medici Pope Clement VII.  It was a delicate political balancing act, but Machiavelli did write the book about that sort of thing.  At any rate, Verdelot’s settings of the canzones Machiavelli added after each act of the play for this revival are generally considered to be the first madrigals.  The play itself is certainly in character for the author of The Prince.   The musicologist Susan McClary calls it an

… extraordinarily cynical work—a bedroom farce in which the clergy, the medical authorities, a woman’s mother, and even the duped husband himself conspire in arranging an adulterous liaison between Lucrezia, a paragon of chastity, and Callimaco, her scheming suitor. Lust, self-interest, and ruthless strategy win out over every abstract virtue, as Callimaco finds a way to satisfy his desires with the full sanction of family, church, state, and, finally, even Lucrezia herself.

The song after the first act, Chi non fa prova, Amore, warns of the dangers of romantic love.  O dolce notte, which comes after the fourth act of the comedy, follows the ambiguous resolution of the plot: Lucrezia is in bed with Callimaco.  The poem on the face of it is a celebration of the fact, but Verdelot’s music seems to respond to the ambiguity of the situation. Callimaco, after all, has achieved this, again in the words of McClary, “at the expense of every criterion of human decency.” 

After our first Machiavelli song, we have an instrumental work from a Florentine manuscript that has been shown to be for the use of instrumentalists.  Ranges in many of the pieces, including French chansons, have been adjusted to fit the normal ranges of wind instruments.  The anonymous piece Venus, Juno, Pallas is named for the same three deities as Isaac’s carnival song.  We follow this with one of the most famous tunes of the 15th century.  Fortuna desperata is a Florentine song which was set over 30 times by various composers as well as providing material for masses by Josquin, Obrecht, and others.  The poem first appears in a manuscript from the 1470s linked to the Medicis and is described as a “canzonetta intonata antica,” an ancient intoned song.  The version in our first group of pieces is most likely close to the original, and we have included five more versions later in the program, which add parts, change the mode, or as in the setting by Isaac in our last group of pieces, add additional texts.   

Alexander Agricola (c. 1445–1506) was active in Italy, France, and his native Low Countries.  Like Isaac, he composed in all the genres popular during his lifetime, and his music was known everywhere in Europe.  His early studies were in his hometown of Ghent.  He was famous as a string player and may have been a member of the soft-instrument guild in that city.  After working at Cambrai Cathedral he must have been employed at the French court because Charles VIII of France wrote a letter to Piero de’ Medici in 1492 requesting the return of “Alexandre Agricola, chanter de nostre Chappelle.”  He passed in and out of Florence for several years.  Agricola wrote a considerable amount of instrumental music for a composer of his generation, and even his sacred music seems to have a lot of the rapid figuration we associate with instrumental writing.  He often used famous songs as a starting point for his secular music, and the six-part Fortuna desperata we perform here is a good example, with three parts added to the original song. 

Our last group of pieces before intermission introduces two native Florentine composers.  Bartolomeo degli Organi (1474–1539) was employed as a singer by the age of 13 at the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata.  He acquired his nickname as a result of his employment as organist at several Florentine churches, and in 1509 he became the principal organist at the Duomo, where he remained until his death.   A contemporary called him “the prince of musicians of our city,” and one of his pupils was Machiavelli’s son Guido.  Alessandro Coppini (1465–1527) was a theologian as well as a composer and organist.  Like Bartolomeo, he was associated with Santissima Annunziata and possibly studied with Agricola and Isaac, both of whom were also employed there.  Although the style of his carnival piece Canzona de’ naviganti is very much in the native homophonic tradition, Coppini’s sacred music shows that he was one of the first Italian musicians to incorporate elements of sophisticated northern polyphony in his works. 

The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) urged the establishment of a “popular” republic in Florence which would become the New Jerusalem.  In 1494, the Florentines expelled the Medicis, and Savonarola’s puritanism, anti-corruption, and opposition to their despotic rule led to the establishment of the Florentine Republic.  Because he was a cleric born in Ferrara he could not hold office in Florence himself, but his political party did in fact dominate the new government at first.  Savonarola wanted to replace the carnival songs popular in Lorenzo’s day with devotional songs, and he wrote several himself.  Laude al crocifisso is an example.  His influence, and life, did not last much longer.  In 1498, in the midst of conflict with the Pope and his alliance against the French, Savonarola fell out of favor, and with two associates he was imprisoned and tortured.  It was from his prison cell just before being hung and burned at the stake that he composed his meditation on Psalm 31 which inspired Josquin’s In te, Domine, speravi. The Florentine Republic lasted until 1512 and ended with the return of the Medicis, although the conflict between them flared again in 1527 when the Medicis were again forced out for three years.  Machiavelli had this comment about Savonarola in The Prince

If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long—as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately when the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.

Josquin des Pres, or "Josquin Incomparabilis," as he is called in a motet about musicians by a younger contemporary, was quite simply a towering genius whose art transcends its time and achieves true universality.  There is not space here to go into detail, especially since he never worked in Florence and he is represented here only by one piece.  Suffice it to say that Josquin displays absolute mastery of every compositional style and genre.  He certainly belongs to the northern tradition of Flemish polyphonic composition, but he also stands at the very beginning of Italian text-driven humanistic influence on art music. In te, Domine, speravi is testimony to the Italian influence on Josquin’s music, and indeed to his ability to out-Italian the Italians. 

To represent the very prominent role that dance and dance music played in Italian culture during this time we turn to a slightly later source, the Opera nova de balli of the Sienese composer Francesco Bendusi.  This collection was printed in 1553 and is the earliest Italian collection of ensemble dances.  Some seem based on earlier popular songs.  We use two of these dances, the Pass’e mezo ditto il Romano and the Pass’e mezo ditto il Compasso, as background for a recitation of Machiavelli’s carnival song about hopeless lovers and ladies since no music for the song survives.  

We conclude with more music by Isaac, by his own choice as Florentine as any of the other characters in this story.  When Lorenzo died in 1492, the great humanist poet Angelo Poliziano wrote the lament Quis dabit capiti meo aquam, which Isaac set to music in stunningly effective declamatory fashion, using the Phrygian mode most often associated with sadness and mourning by the humanist composers.  The lively instrumental work Palle, palle refers to the six balls, five red and one blue, on the Medici coat of arms.  Alla battaglia, presto may commemorate the battle between Genoa and Florence for the castle of Sarzanello in 1487.  Niccolò Machiavelli was 18 at the time. Sixteen years later he would be responsible for the Florentine citizen army, which, under his command, would defeat rival Pisa.

--Robert Eisenstein