About this Recording
8.573320 - FROTTOLE - Popular Songs of Renaissance Italy (Ring Around Quartet and Consort)
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Popular Songs of Renaissance Italy


Certain periods in human history seem to be particularly marked by epoch-making events. The transition between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is seen as the end of the Middle Ages and the blossoming of the Renaissance: it witnessed the discovery of the New World and the start of the great geographical expeditions, the Christian Reconquest of Spain and the expulsion of the Moors and Jews from the Iberian peninsula and, in Florence, the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the execution of reforming friar Girolamo Savonarola…

There are analogous patterns at a micro-historical level too. Between the 1400s and 1500s European music underwent equally significant changes—developments that were destined to alter its course: in 1503, Spanish forces occupied Naples, and the royal chapel of the previous, Aragonese, rulers was dissolved; meanwhile, at around the same time, the chapel of the D’Este family in Ferrara was becoming increasingly influential. The year 1501 saw the first printing, in Venice, of polyphonic music using movable type, and, thanks to the printing press, the fame of the greatest composer of the day, Josquin des Prez, who by this time was active in Italy, was spreading far and wide. Josquin’s death in 1521 coincided with the end of the age of the frottola, which had begun forty years earlier in the courts of Renaissance Italy.

Frottola is a generic word referring to a range of polyphonic accompanied songs that were improvisatory and chordal in nature and which set fairly straightforward lyrics (even today, the plural “frottole” in Italian means “trifles”, “unimportant things”). Despite its apparent simplicity, however, the frottola inspired improvisations from vocal and instrumental virtuosos whose names have gone down in legend: Antonio Guidi, Serafino Aquilano and Pietrobono dal Chitarrino, among others—musicians who travelled from court to court, introducing audiences to this completely new form of song. The Aragonese court in Naples attracted some of the best singers and composers in Europe, providing a stage on which they could not only measure themselves against their fellows but also draw on the local musical genre of gliommeri (pieces in Neapolitan dialect).

The famous manuscript anthology of songs known as the Montecassino 871 is a record of the music that would have been heard at the court of Naples in the late fifteenth century, giving us an insight into contemporary tastes for songs and rhythms drawn from the folk tradition: Alle stamegne, donne [9] is in strambotto form, and its narrator’s offer to serve the ladies of the village by sifting their grain has the double meanings common to the genre. La vida de Culin [1], meanwhile, provides the only musical source, in a northern Italian idiom, of a then fashionable dance called La vita di Cholino.

The close links between Naples and Spain were also reflected in music, as demonstrated here by Ahimè sospiri, contained within the Cancionero El Escorial IV.A.24, and by the folk-based lyrics of Un cavalier di Spagna [11], set to music by Francesco Patavino.

Naples had ties with the northern Italian courts, too, in particular Florence, Milan and Ferrara, and music and musicians travelled freely between north and south. After the Spanish conquest of Naples in 1503, however, the frottola lost its footing in the south, and many of the musicians from the Neapolitan royal chapel took up posts in the northern courts.

It was Mantua that became the central hub for the new genre, thanks primarily to the Marchesa Isabella Gonzaga, daughter of the Duke of Ferrara and granddaughter of the last king of Naples, who became the patron of Marchetto Cara and Bartolomeo Tromboncino, the most important figures in the history of the frottola. As far as aristocrats such as Isabella were concerned, frottole and other music produced by those who worked for them was their private, non-transferable property. The birth of music printing, however, rendered the concept of exclusive ownership obsolete by producing multiple copies and thereby enabling a repertoire once enjoyed only by the élite to become successful all over Europe.

This “democratic” revolution of the way in which music was disseminated and consumed was brought about in Venice by publisher Ottaviano Petrucci, the first to use movable type and the triple-impression technique to print copies by the hundred. His first publication, Odhecaton Canti A (Venice, 1501), opened with music by Josquin and included 94 polyphonic compositions by the greatest Franco-Flemish composers of the day.

Just three years later, Petrucci published his first book of frottole, containing 64 pieces, most of them by either Cara or Tromboncino, in the typical a libro corale style (i.e. with the soprano and tenor parts on the left-hand page, the alto and bass on the right-hand page, and the rest of the strophes of the text below). It was such a commercial success that Petrucci launched a new enterprise in 1507, producing his first two Intabolatura de lauto publications, both dedicated to works by Francesco Spinacino: the first ever printed books of instrumental music.

After publishing four books of lute music in two years, Petrucci surpassed himself with the last of his commercial inventions: two collections (1509 and 1511) of works composed or arranged by Franciscus Bossinensis entitled Tenori e contrabassi intabulati col sopran in canto figurato per cantar e sonar col lauto in which the vocal line is printed in mensural notation and the instrumental accompaniment in lute tablature: 140 ready-to-perform frottole, laid out in the ideal format for amateur musicians to use in their own home. This recording includes two pieces from the first volume: Cara’s Non è tempo d’aspettare [16], a strongly rhythmical piece in traditional strambotto form, and Tromboncino’s more literary and delicate Zephiro spira e ’l bel tempo rimena [8] (a paraphrase of Petrarch’s Zephiro torna, e ’l bel tempo rimena, itself inspired by Catullus’s poem 46), both accompanied by a lute in A.

Meanwhile, Petrucci was continuing to produce volumes of frottole in the same four-part corale format, issuing a total of 11 in the years up to 1514. This album offers a representative selection of the Petrucci output from one of the Bossiniensis collections and from three of the surviving books of frottole (vols VII, VIII and X are lost). From Book II (1505) we have the anonymous Occhi miei, al pianger nati [5] and an unusual piece with a text in Bergamasque dialect and featuring idiomatic imitations of the lira da braccio: Lirum bililirum [18] by Rossino Mantovano. From Book VII (1507) we hear L’amor, dona, ch’io te porto [2], a barzelletta by Jacopo da Fogliano (L’amor, dona ch’io te porto [2] which was very widely known, and D’un bel matin d’amore [17] by Giovan Battista Zesso, which probably accompanied a folk dance. Finally, from Book XI (printed in Petrucci’s native Fossombrone) come Che faralla, che diralla [4] (an improvisatory comic narrative attributed by musicologist Francesco Luisi to Michele Pesenti) and Cara’s languid Per dolor me bagno el viso [12].

In Venice, Petrucci had managed to acquire a “privilege” (the equivalent of modern copyright) from the Senate, which gave him the exclusive right to print polyphonic music, using movable type, and lute tablatures, thus preventing anyone else from profiting from his commercial innovations. When he later returned to Fossombrone, in the Papal States, he applied to the pope for a similar privilege, which did not however include the printing of keyboard music. His fiercest competitor, Andrea Antico, immediately took advantage of this. Antico had been running a publishing enterprise in Rome since 1510 (his frottola collection entitled Canzoni nove, which includes Tromboncino’s Virgine bella [15], had been printed using the older woodblock technique).

Antico, having obtained his own, different papal privilege, became Petrucci’s rival in 1516 with the publication of an influential anthology of Masses by Franco-Flemish composers, chief among them Josquin, and then, in 1517, his Primo libro di Frottole intabulate da sonare organi, the first book of Italian keyboard music ever published (this album includes its version of Tromboncino’s Su, su, leva, alza le ciglia [10]—a Renaissance hit that has been revived in the modern era). Rome, Florence and Naples, which had remained outside Petrucci’s northern circuit, began to play leading roles again in the second decade of the 1500s, producing not only printed scores but manuscripts, a business never completely supplanted by printing. Sebastiano Festa was one of the first Italian polyphonic composers, together with his near namesake Costanzo Festa, to join the so-called “Orti Oricellari”: an “academy” of musicians and intellectuals (named after the gardens where they used to gather) established in Florence shortly before the arrival in that city of the Flemish composer Verdelot, a prime mover in the early days of the madrigal. Festa’s L’ultimo dì di maggio [7] reflects the tastes of that Florentine ambience.

Petrucci, meanwhile, had realised that tastes had changed, and in 1520 devoted his final secular publication not to frottole, but to a collection of settings of Petrarch. The final flourishes of a fashion that had lasted four decades were the Neapolitan edition of the Fioretti di frottole…Libro II published by Giovanni Antonio de Caneto in 1519 and the Frottole de Misser Bortolomio Tromboncino et de Misser Marcheto Carra con tenori et bassi tabulati et con soprani in canto figurato per cantar e sonar col lauto issued in Venice by Antico in collaboration with fellow printer Luc’Antonio Giunta: a late triumph for Petrucci’s long-term rival, who was now able to use the latter’s techniques in the city where for twenty years they had been his exclusive domain.

The Italian wars brought the age of the frottola to a definitive end, and little was printed until the dawn of the even more astonishing age of the madrigal, in the early 1530s. The legacy of the frottola, with its improvisatory and chordal scheme, was passed down to other forms, primarily the Neapolitan villanella, which first appeared in 1537 (curiously, although the irreverent Vecchie letrose [3], set by Flemish composer Willaert, was not all that well known in its day, it became one of the most popular works of the early music revival). But this is another microhistory, one only partially written.

Dinko Fabris
English translation by Susannah Howe

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