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Marco DALL’AQUILA [c.1480 – post.1538]
Bella incognita: The imagination of Marco Dall’Aquila
Lukas Henning (lute)
rec. 2018, St. Sebastian, Schlatt, Germany
GLOSSA GCD923518 [53:40]

I am happy to welcome this new CD devoted (almost) entirely to the music of Marco dall’Aquila. Dall’Aquila, it seems to me, has had less praise and attention than he deserves and the more often his works are played and recorded, surely the more likely it is that he will get his just deserts.

Little is known of his life. He was probably born around 1480 and as his name suggests, his origins were in L’Aquila in the Apennines, a city much damaged by several earthquakes since the fourteenth century, most recently in 2009. Dall’Aquila was in Venice by 1505 – perhaps earlier – since it was in that year that he successfully petitioned the city authorities for permission to print lute music in tablature, through a process of his own devising. If he ever did so, none of the resulting books survive. He was still alive in Venice in 1537 (as evidenced by a letter of that date). I have seen 1544 given as the date, and Venice the place, of his death, but I don’t know what the evidence for this is.

Contemporaries often coupled dall’Aquila’s name with those of Francesco da Milano and Alberto da Mantova (also often referred to as Alberto da Ripa) as the leading lutenists in the city. One of the achievements of these musicians, as they took their instrument - to put it in over-simple terms - from the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance, was to find ways of writing and playing polyphonic music. If their birthdates are correct – dall’Aquila is thought to have been born around 1580, da Milano in 1597, and Alberto da Mantova around 1500 – then dall’Aquila was the oldest of the three. That has always encouraged me to imagine that he was probably the pioneer in these developments. Coming to review this disc devoted to his music, I was wary of making that claim merely on the basis of what is little more than a hunch. Some research was needed – not easy in the midst of the COVID lockdown. I could use only materials on my own shelves or what I could find online. Fortunately, I still have an association with the University for which I formerly worked and through that was able to access some specialized scholarly resources not freely available on the internet. Through such means I found a copy of the doctoral dissertation of the musicologist A.J. (Arthur Joseph) Ness, completed at New York University in 1984: The Herwarth Lute Manuscripts at the Bavarian State Library, Munich: with Emphasis on the Works of Marco dall’Aquila and Melchior Newsidler. I was keen to read this, since a manuscript in that collection (BSB is a major source of dall’Aquila’s music. My enthusiasm was tempered somewhat when I discovered that this dissertation was over 800 pages long. Though necessarily reading selectively, I was pleased to find Ness, who is far more knowledgeable than I about the Venetian lute music of this period, writing things which seemed to ‘confirm’ my hunch, as, for example, “Marco dall’Aquila lived during a crucial period in the history of instrumental music, contributing significantly to its development” (p.410) and “Marco dall’Aquila and not Francesco da Milano must be given credit for establishing the balance between the compositional methods of renaissance polyphony and the requisites of a purely lutenistic idiom” (p.384). A similar judgement is found in another source I was able to access, Douglas Alton Smith in his History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance (2002); “The earliest masters of the polyphonic ricercar on the lute are Marco dall’Aquila, Francesco da Milano, and Alberto da Ripa … of these the earliest innovator was probably Marco” (p. 121).

My ‘hunch’ as to dall’Aquila’s historical importance seemed to be justified in terms of serious scholarly opinion - but is it enough to make him worth listening to? Not on its own, of course, though it may be part of the reasons for listening to his music. A more compelling reason is the quality of the best of that music. Dall’ Aquila’s finest pieces have a pleasing clarity, even when he writes in three - or four-voice textures. In 1536, Francesco da Forli observed that in his playing of the lute, Marco dall’Aquila had by “the tenderness of the music which is born” the power to make it felt “in the soul and move the senses of him who hears it”. This may not be the kind of critical language we use nowadays and, of course, we can no longer hear the composer play his music, but more than a little of that power survives for us -or at least I find that it does - when the music is well played - which brings us back to the CD under review. Lukas Henning’s performances are top class and he and his 6-course lute – a 2014 copy by Martin Shepherd of an instrument by George Gerle (1520-1591) – have been well recorded - our gratitude should go to engineer Alex Foster.

Though, as suggested above, dall’Aquila was trying to do something new, for the most part his music is admirably lucid, the textures clear even when he is writing in three- or four-voice counterpoint. He is capable of producing compositions striking for their concise logical structure. Listening to some of his ricercars one is reminded of the etymological origins of the term in the Italian verb ricercare (to look for, to search), both because there is a real sense of an artist seeking to develop something new and because they also have something of an improvisatory air, as though the composer/player is in search of solutions to the compositional questions he has set for himself. At the same time the music has that ‘tenderness’ of which Francesco da Forli wrote, perhaps one might say ‘sweetness’ which be felt in both soul and senses, a communication achieved between the composer’s inner life and that of the hearer. Listen, for example, to the complexities of the ‘Fantasia de Maestro Marcho da Laquila’ as played here by Lukas Henning.

However, the moods of dall’Aquila’s music are quite varied, so, for example, ‘Il e bel et bon’ has an attractively folk-like lyricism; there’s a subtle dancing vitality in pieces such as the galliard ‘La Cara Cossa’ and the salterello ‘La traditora’; a deep thoughtfulness distinguishes ‘Sesquialtera Ricercar’ (‘Sesquialtera’ can probably be translated as ‘hemiola’ here) and the sublime ‘Caelorum Regina Ricercar’. The album closes with ‘La battaglia’, a witty variant on Jannequin’s famous chanson, re-imagined for an instrument hardly well-suited to imitate the noises of battle.

Lukas Henning was born, in 1992, in Georgia but grew up near Freiburg in Germany. Musically active from his childhood he went on to study lute with Hopkinson Smith at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. He has worked, and in some cases, recorded as theorbist or lutenist, with such ensembles as Il Gusto Barrocco, Il Dolce Conforto and Cappella Sagittariana Dresden, but this his first solo recording – and what a good debut it is.

My only minor quibbles are with the interesting but eccentric booklet essay by Henning himself, which spends as much - or more - time talking about Giorgione than about dall’Aquila, and with Henning’s decision to include two pieces of his own. Both, I suspect, have connections with works by dall’Aquila and neither is incongruous in this context, but given that this interesting and significant composer is so relatively neglected, it would, I think, have been preferable to create an entire album of dall’Aquila’s work.

I prefer this new disc by Lukas Henning to the other CDs devoted to Marco dall’Aquila with which I am familiar. Paul O’Dette’s Dall’Aquila: Pieces for Lute (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907548) is spoiled by a distractingly reverberant acoustic which muddies the clarity of dall’Aquila’s music and in which the lute sounds rather too distant. The recording was originally planned for a church in L’Aquila, but that location was badly damaged in the earthquake of 2009, and the session was switched to another building, with less than fully suitable results. The two CDs of dall’Aquila’s music recorded by Sandro Volta, Music for Lute (Brilliant Classics 94805) and La Battaglia (Brilliant Classics 952601) are perfectly acceptable in terms both of playing and recording, but lack the extra spark Henning brings to (or finds in) the music. The same applies, I think, to the tracks by dall’Aquila on Christopher Wilson’s Dall’Aquila / Da Crema: Ricercars / Intabulations / dances (Naxos 855078). Henning discovers, and communicates, a great subtlety and inventive verve in the music; perhaps this was what he had in mind in the subtitle of his disc: ‘The Imagination of Marco dall’Aquila’?

I hope that we shall have more recordings of dall’Aquila’s music – perhaps Paul O’Dette may be able to make a second dall’Aquila album under happier circumstances, for example? I also hope that there will be more solo recordings by Lukas Henning - a disc of Alberto da Ripa perhaps?

Glyn Pursglove

Marco DALL’AQUILA (c.1480-post 1538)
Phrygian Ricercar [2:04]
La Cara Cossa [2:04]
La Santa Anna [3:33]
Sesquialtera Ricercar [3:48]
Nous bergiers (after Clément Janequin) [2:14]
Frottolesca [0:56]
Priambolesca [0:31]
Dorian Ricercar [3:28]
La traditora [2:00]
Hypodorian Ricercar [1:33]
Hypolydian Ricercar [1:47]
Caelorum Regina Ricercar (referencing Josquin Desprez) [1:22]
Senza canto, sonata & mezana [1:30]
Senza tenore, bordun & contrabasso [1:29]
La Cara Cossa sul contrabasso [2:34]
Recercar de Maestro Marco da Laquila–caro–a–H–HE [1:34]
Il est bel et bon (after Pierre Passereau) [2:41]
Senza canto [2:32]
La compagna della solfamifa [1:14]
Solfamifa Ricercar [4:19]
Tocha la canella [1:06]
La cara cossa sul tenore [1:50]
Fantasia de Maestro Marcho da Laquila [3:28]
La battaglia (after Clément Janequin) [3:53]

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