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8.220401 - Early Italian Lute Music

Early Italian Lute Music


In the late 15th century, not long after Johannes Gutenberg put aside the quill to print with metal type, lute players in Europe put aside the quill to pluck with fingertips. This made it possible to render a texture of chords or simultaneous melodic lines with far more nuance than on that mechanical wonder of the age, the renaissance organ. The lute became not only a superb instrument to accompany the solo voice, but also a solo instrument of exceptional refinement in its own right (The violin and piano were yet to be developed).

Early in the 16th century a Venetian music publisher, Ottaviano dei Petrucci, found an elegant solution to the problem of printing Italian lute tablature. His movable type was the finest since Gutenberg’s and his lute books (1507–09) sold well to the Italian nobility and merchant citizens or their families, even though the players whose music he published—Dalza, Spinacino, Bossinensis—were not renowned. In the mid-1530s other printers began to publish for the lute, and a golden age of lute music followed. The present recording illustrates its Italian origins.

Marco dall’Aquila, who evidently came from the town of L’Aquila in central Italy, was described by one contemporary as “a worthy lute player living in Venice and a man of much intelligence”. He obtained in 1505 the legal right to publish lute music, but may not have used it; his music survives in manuscript. The publisher who first printed Francesco da Milano’s music, in 1536, described Marco as one of the most notable players of the day, together with Francesco and Alberto da Ripa.

Marco’s dance settings are so straightforward that one can readily imagine people actually dancing to them; for this recording Mr. Lei has chosen a saltarello (Saltare means “leap”) and a galliard. His chosen ricercars are free preludes: lyrical, introspective, nicely mixing bits of tune into an exploration of the most idiomatic possibilities of the instrument (ricercare means “search”). They bring to mind the remark in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, well know in 16th-century Italy, that players of the aulos would, like an orator, “begin by playing whatever they can execute skilfully, and connect it with the keynote”. The fantasia, on the other hand, is more in the vein of a vocal motet transcribed for lute.

Vincenzo Capirola, born in 1474 to an aristocratic family at Brescia, may have been the Brescian lutenist who made a sensation at Henry Vill’s court in 1515, and in any case was active in Venice as a lute teacher during the next five years. His music was not printed, but compiled in a sumptuously illustrated manuscript by one of his Venetian pupils. The ricercars are more extrovert than Marco’s; free-wheeling chordal passages are laced with expressive melodic gestures in which the thumb and index finger imitate the alternation of down-and up-stroke in the old plectrum technique. Traces of that technique are reflected aso in the pair of settings, one each in duple and triple beat, of “La Spagna”, a pattern of chords for accompanying songs and dances.

Francesco Canova da Milano (1497–1543) was one of the greatest of all the Italian lute composers. His contemporaries called him “Il Divino”, as they did Michelangelo, and said he played “with such ravishing skill that little by little, making the strings languish under his fingers in his sublime way, he transported all those listening into a pleasurable melancholy”. His music appeared in more than forty publications throughout the century and in six countries; he was earliest of the many Italian musicians who were to become internationally renowned. He served at the court of four popes, starting with the first Medici pope Leo X (who excommunicated Luther and for whom Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel).

Practically none of Francesco’s pieces are dance settings. His achievement as a composer was to develop the lute ricercar and fantasia to classical perfection whether as a quasi-improvisation of moderate proportions (as in Nos. 84 and 16) or as a full-textured quasi-motet (as in Nos. 33 and 34). The music often calls to mind Cicero’s remark, well known in 16th century Italy and particularly in Venetian academic circles, that in order to be persuasive an orator should begin with something “careful, pointed, significant,… not taken from some outside source but from the very heart of the case”. The style of Francesco’s toccata, however, is more like that of the earlier ricercar.

Pietro Paolo Borrono, who flourished in the 1530s and ‘40s, and Giovanni Paolo Paladino, who died in 1566, were both from Milan and both went to France, where Borrono was in the service of Francois I in the early 1530s. His music was published in Germany and the Netherlands as well as in Italy. His dances, of which Mr. Lei has chosen a pavane and two saltarellos, are rather more elegant than those of Marco dall’Auila. Paladin spent his later years in Lyons, where his lute music was published (in Italian tablature, however); the fantasia chosen by Mr. Lei has a remarkably lively opening motif and develops beautifully.

Alberto da Ripa was born at Mantua and probably studied lute there (at the musically renowned court of Isabella d’Este) with Francesco da Milano’s teacher, the famous Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa, none of whose own music has survived. In the 1530s and ‘40s Alberto served the Court of Francois I, where he was very handsomely paid and was highly praised (as Albert de Rippe) by several well-known poets, including Marot and Ronsard. If the ricercars of Vincenzo Capirola and Marco dall’Aquila seem boldly experimental, and those of Francesco da Milano embody the classical ideal of the genre, then the best of Alberto’s fantasias, which are full of expressive, quasi-vocal melodic and harmonic gestures, may represent the romantic apogee of the early Italian lute school.

Mark Lindley

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