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Francesco LANDINI (ca.1330-1397) ‘L’occhio del cor’: Songs of Invisible Love
Christophe Deslignes (organetto).
rec. 2018, Church of San Teonisto, Treviso, Italy
Sung texts and translations included. Booklet essay in English, French and Italian. ARCANAA462 [64:56]
Francesco Landini was the son of the painter Jacopo del Casentino (fl.1315-1349), who was essentially a follower of Giotto, sufficiently accomplished and respected to become the subject of a short (and somewhat inaccurate) biography by Giorgio Vasari in his highly influential book Le Vite de’ più eccellentiarchitetti, pittori, et scultori italiani (The Lives of the most excellent Italian architects, painters and sculptors) (1580 and later editions) and to have been elected, in 1339, one of the initial councillors of the newly established Florentine Confraternity of Painters, the Compagna di S. Luca. The son of an established artist or craftsman would, in the fourteenth century (the Italian trecento) normally have taken up his father’s profession. Perhaps the young Francesco would, indeed, have become a painter, save for a traumatic episode in his childhood. Around the age of seven he contracted smallpox, and the disease led to the loss of his eyesight. Though this obviously precluded a career in the visual arts it didn’t prevent Landini displaying artistic talents of other kinds. He went on to achieve great fame as a musician, both as a performer – as a singer, a player of several instruments, most notably the organ and the organetto (or portative organ) – and as a composer. He held a number of significant musical posts. By 1361 he was organist at the Benedictine monastery of Santa Trinità in Florence and in 1365 he became choirmaster at the important church of San Lorenzo, retaining this post as long as he lived. He also worked as an organ tuner, builder and repairer, in Florence and elsewhere.
Alongside his musical career he also became an assured writer of both Italian and Latin verse. In 1364 (some accounts say 1368) he was awarded, in Venice, a laurel wreath in recognition of his work as a poet - and perhaps for his musical skills too. This was an age very conscious of the close relationship between poetry and music believing, as the Elizabethan poet Richard Barnfield put it, that the two arts were “sister and brother” and that “one god is god of both”. Landini was active amongst the cultural élite of contemporary Florence, his friends including the humanists Luigi Marsili and Collucio di Piero, the latter an important classical scholar and Chancellor of Florence from 1375-1406, as well as a poets such as Franco Sacchetti (an autograph manuscript of Sachetti’s Libro delle rime includes a poetic correspondence with Landini) , Guido Tommaso del Palagio and Giovanni da Prato. The latter gives an account in his unfinished verse narrative Il Paradiso degli Alberti, of an occasion in Florence in 1389 when, at a gathering of learned men in the garden of Antonio degli Alberti’s villa (Alberti was a wealthy poet and politician), the Villa del Paradiso, “…the sun was coming up and beginning to get warm; a thousand birds were singing. Francesco was ordered to play on his organetto to see if the singing of the birds would lessen or increase with his playing. As soon as he began to play, many birds at first became silent, then they redoubled their singing and, strange to say, one nightingale came and perched on a branch over his head” (translated thus by Leonard Ellinwood in the New Oxford History of Music, Vol. III, p.36 (1998). While da Prato was a friend of Landini and therefore not unbiased, and the account is a fanciful use of a common figure, so as to make Landini seem positively Orphic in his powers, the enthusiasm and the affirmation of Landini’s popularity seem to carry a certain truthfulness. It is surely significant that a quarter or more of all the surviving polyphonic music from the Italian trecento is by Landini, especially significant when one considers that he would have been unable to write out his own music.
The popularity is not hard to understand, even now. Much of Landini’s music has a directness and sensuousness, a limpid beauty of melodic line that has an enduring freshness. There have previously been a number of fine recordings of Landini’s music – two that come to mind are by Anonymous 4: The Second Circle: Love Songs of Francesco Landini (HARMONIA MUNDI 507269) and Gothic Voices: A Laurel for Landini – 14thCentury Italy’s Greatest Composer (AVIE AV2151); but this new recording by the excellent and much-admired Italian ensemble La Reverdie is special for at least two reasons – first, for the intelligent sensitivity with which instruments and voices are blended (it helps, I suspect, that five of the six instrumentalists on the CD are also heard as singers) and secondly because the material performed is presented in terms of a particularly well-conceived programme. The booklet essay by the Italian musicologist Davide Daolmi examines the chosen pieces in relation to Landini’s blindness, exploring the use of eyes as a recurrent motif in the poems set. The love poetry of the dolce stil nuovo, of which Landino was very much an heir (he was born just four years after Dante’s death and the aged Petrarch was a member of the committee which awarded him his laurel wreath) made extensive use of the imagery of the eyes. It was often the initial sight of the beloved’s eyes that stimulated the poet’s love; the ‘science’ of the trecento (with which the learned Landino would certainly have had some acquaintance) was much fascinated by the phenomena of light and seeing. All of this must have had particular and forceful resonances for a blind, but evidently highly intelligent and sensitive, poet and composer.
Of the fifteen tracks on this new CD, two (‘Non arà may pietàquesta mia dona’ and ‘Che pena è questa al cor’) are purely instrumental. Of the other thirteen (mostly ballate, with just one madrigal), the texts of ten are, by my count, concerned with eyes, with ‘seeing’ and ‘not-seeing’ in various senses. Whether any of these ten poems were written by Landini himself we have no way of knowing; but in at least cases (‘Mostrommi Amor già fra le verdi fronde’, ‘Muort’oramai deh misero dolente’, ‘ Non per fallir di me tuo vista pia’ and – less directly – ‘Che cosa è quest’amor che ’l ciel produce’) might be read as having reference to the events of Landini’s own life, so that we might at least imagine them to be his words. The other six texts were, of course, chosen for setting by Landini, so we are perhaps entitled to assume that he found in them a kind of personal significance or relevance.
To return to one of the pieces which may have been written – words and music – by Landini, ‘Non per fallir di me tuo vista pia’ begins thus (quoting the booklet’s English translation by Kate Singleton) “Through no fault of mine, I can no longer / Enjoy the lovely sight / You once made possible: / But I shall never leave you” and ends as follows, “Have mercy, O Lady and Lord, let me feel / The joy and delight / I once had on seeing you, / And that you now wrongly deny me”. The language is very much that of the love poetry of the dolce stil nuovo (many analogous phrases might be cited from, for example. Petrarch’s Rime Sparse, but if one understand the ‘you’ of this poem as being the “Lady and Lord” (the Virgin Mary and Christ?) of its closing lines, it becomes clear that the conventions of contemporary love poetry have been turned to a kind of religious use in which the poet (Landini?) envisages the restoration of his sight in the afterlife. The CD’s title, with its reference to the ‘eyes of the heart’ alludes to Ephesians I:18, the eyes of the heart being able to ‘see’ truths inaccessible to the physical eyes, a matter of ‘enlightenment’ rather than mere ‘light’. A very similar sense is found in ‘Mostrommi Amor già fra le verdi fronde’; the text (in English) reads thus “Love showed me among the leafy branches / A peregrine falcon in the shadows / That wanted to be free. // Fortune kept its eyes closed / And it struggled in every manner / To achieve its goal // And I realized that nature intended / it should fly aloft”. The central image of the hooded falcon – robbed of its sharp eyesight not by ‘Fortune’ but by the falconer – serves both as an expression of Landini’s struggle to achieve so much despite his blindness and (perhaps less obviously to the modern reader/ audience) of his hope for light and sight after death. Beryl Rowlands’ book on the ‘language’ of birds in the middle ages (Birds with Human Souls: a Guideto Bird Symbolism, 1978) tells us (pp.62-63) that “the hooded falcon was a symbol of hope, illustrating the phrase post tenebris sperolucem (I hope for light after darkness”. Landini’s texts, in short, are important. It is easy to be seduced by the sheer beauty of his music and consequently pay little real attention to the words being sung, but one needs to realize that words and music here exist in a complete and powerful synergy, and therefore pay careful heed to the sung texts. This is made easier by the clarity of diction in these performances. These are singers thoroughly at home with medieval Italian.
The members of La Reverdie, Claudia Caffagni (who also plays the lute), Livia Caffagni (recorders and vielle), Elisabetta De Mircovich (rebec and vielle), Teodora Tommasi (harp and recorders) and Matteo Zenatti (harp and tamburello) all sing quite beautifully, at all times emotionally expressive (without ever being sentimentally indulgent) and persuasively idiomatic. The integration of their voices is perfect and when they stop singing and play their instruments one hears the instrumental lines in much the same way as one listens to the vocal lines.
The ravishing beauty of the music (and words) contains a great poignancy when one relates it to the life-circumstances of Landini. It is clear that both as a poet and a musician he is a distinguished member of two special traditions. He earns, very readily, an honoured place in the roll-call of blind poets, which begins, according to legend, with Homer and includes such later poets as the great Persian poet (and musician) Rudaki (c.859-941) as well as such later figures as the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) and John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006) – whom I was lucky enough to know in his later years. As far as I know (I would welcome correction), Landini was the earliest in the line of blind organists of distinction, which includes (amongst others) Konrad Paumann (1410-75), Antonio de Cabézon (1510-66), John Stanley (1712-86), Jean Langlais (1907-91) and Helmut Walcha (1907-71).
I have lost count of the number of times I have already listened to this CD. The performances by La Reverdie (joined by Christophe Deslignes playing the organetto – the instrument his contemporaries most associated with Landini – the Wikipedia entry on Landini reproduces a miniature of Landini at his portable organ, from the Squarcialupi Codex, compiled in Florence c. 1412) are superb and, for me at least, make the nature and greatness of Landini’s genius clearer than any other recordings I have heard.
The very name of the ensemble heard here seems completely appropriate – the name comes, of course, from the poetic term ‘reverdie’ – a dance song which celebrates the arrival of spring; the word might literally be translated as ‘re-greening’. I suggest that the name of this ensemble is ‘appropriate’ to the music of Landini, since Landini and the Florentines with whom he was associated did much to prepare the ground for that great cultural ‘re-greening’ which we call the Renaissance.
1. Poiché partir convienmi, donna cara [4:14]
2. Tante belleçe in questa donna stanno [3:10]
3. Che cosa è quest’amor che ’l ciel produce [4:45]
4. Nella tuo luce tien la vita mia [4:19]
5. Non arà may pietà questa mia dona [2:52]
6. L’alma mie piang’e mai non può aver pace [4:30]
7. Gramˑpiant’agli ochi, greve doglia al core [5:41]
8. Per un amante rio tal pena sento [3:58]
9. Divennon gli ochi mien el partir duro [4:54]
10. Ochi dolente mie che pur piangete [3:49]
11. Mostrommi Amor già fra le verdi fronde [3:31]
12. Che pena è questa al cor [3:25]
13. Non per fallir di me tuo vista pia [6:09]
14. Muort’oramai deh misero dolente [4:59]
15. Guard’una volta inciàverso ’l tuo servo [4:38]