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Laudario: Musique au temps de saint François d’Assise
Canticum Novum / Emanuel Bardon
rec. 2018, Egliseneuve prés Billom, France
Texts and Translations included.
AMBRONNAY AMY052 [62:11]

It would be difficult to overstate the extent to which the influence of St. Francis (1181-1226) permeated Italy (especially, but not exclusively, Tuscany and Umbria) in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, not least in the arts. His influence on the thought and poetry of Dante (c.1265-1321) has long been discussed; so much so that one recent scholar, Ronald B. Herzman, writes “as everyone knows … Francis and the Franciscan vision are at the theological and religious center” of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The influence of St. Francis was also strongly felt by painters such as Giotto (1267-1337) and Duccio (c.1257-c.1319) and sculptors such as Arnolfo da Cambio (c.1250-c.1305) and Giovanni Pisano (c.1250-c.1315). One dimension of this Franciscan influence was a new attention to the humanity of Christ and the Virgin Mary and a new respect for each human individual. But it wasn’t only amongst intellectuals and professional artists that St. Francis’s influence had an artistic impact.

One important consequence of the rise of the Franciscans had social, religious and artistic dimensions. Merchants and other middle-class folk began to come together in confraternities, some of which had a building of their own. These confraternities of lay people sometimes had the guidance and assistance of one of more Franciscan friar. The confraternity would meet to pray together and developed their own devotional practices, alongside those of the church. While the church conducted its services in Latin, the devotions of the confraternities used Italian. The confraternities also organized charitable alms for the sick and destitute, organized processions etc. We know that laude were often sung in the evening in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Their texts were in Italian - since their singers would not generally have known Latin - and are amongst the earliest poetic texts in Italian. Their music was indebted to popular traditions, being a good deal less sophisticated than the more ambitious music often to be heard in the larger churches, as well as being much more readily accessible (being in Italian) than the Latin plainchant of the church. Blake Wilson’s book of 1992, Music and Merchants: The Laudesi Companies of Republican Florence, while it deals mainly with a later period than the present CD, is full of useful information.

On the present CD the laude (plural of lauda) come from the Umbrian hill town of Cortona, rather than Florence. Indeed, they are all taken from one manuscript – now usually referred to as the Laudario di Cortona. This manuscript appears to have been produced between 1260 and 1297. It consists of 171 sheets and contains 66 laude, 46 of which have their music. It has been speculated (though it can only remain a plausible speculation) that the compilation of the original collection was organised by Elias of Cortona (c.1180-1253). He was a close companion of St. Francis. He was in some respects a controversial figure, but he succeeded Francis as the head of the Franciscan order, although he was a lay Franciscan rather than an ordained friar. Originally the manuscript was preserved in a Franciscan monastery in Cortona. It was only rediscovered and identified. in 1876 in the City Library of Cortona, where it is now Codice 91. It is one of only two surviving manuscripts containing a collection of laude with both texts and music (the other is Codice Banco Rari 18 in the Bibloteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence).

Emanuel Bardon and his ensemble Canticum Novum (the two singers are Bardon and Barbara Kusa, accompanied by an instrumental group made up of a nyckleharpa, fiddle, lyre, oud, recorders, cornamuse and percussion) have recorded 14 of the laude from the Laudario di Cortona, interspersing them with five instrumental pieces. The programme is presented under five headings: ‘Annonciation’, ‘Maternité’ (i.e. Motherhood), ‘Passion’ (i.e. Crucifixion) and ‘Nativité’. These headings, and the texts they relate to, suggest an affinity with the kind of ‘affective devotion’ which characterised (in part because of Franciscan influence) much of the popular religion of the time; a devotion, that is, which encouraged worshippers to visualise or imagine themselves present at, key points in the Biblical narrative which revealed the divinity and (perhaps especially) the humanity of Christ and the Virgin Mary. So, for example, the text of Lauda 24, ‘De la crudel morte de Cristo’ (About the cruel death of Christ) focuses the attention of singers and hearers alike on the Saviour’s physical suffering:

S le Colonna fo, spoliato,
per tutto’l corpe flagellato,
d’ogne parte fo’ nsanguinata
comme falso, amaramente.

(On a column he was stripped, all of his body scourged, every part bitterly covered in blood, like a thief).

Elsewhere, in Laude 15, the Virgin Mary is ‘painted’ in terms which would have been readily accessible to the unlearned:

O divina virgo fiore
aulorita d’ogne aulore

Tu se fior ke sempre grane
molta gratia in te permane
tu portasti’l vino e pane,
ció è’l nostro redemptore.

(O divine white flower, perfumed with every scent. You are an always fecund flower, in you there dwells an immense grace; you brought the wine and the bread that are our redeemer).

Given that the music of the laude was not written for the well-trained singers of a Cathedral choir, but for the ‘ordinary’ people of central Italian towns and cities, it does not go in for complex or spectacular effects. Modern performers of this repertoire are, thus, not faced with great challenges to their technique but, rather, with questions about quite what ‘forces’ to use. Some, such as Giovanni Caruso and the vocal ensemble ‘La Dolce Vista’ (Laudario di Cortona, TACTUS TC 270001) have used a choir of four or five voices, used both as soloists and a kind of chorus, along with a fairly basic instrumental ensemble. On the whole I find this a suitable solution, since I imagine, perhaps without very much evidence, that the members (at least those with decent voices) of the kind of fraternity for which these laude were written, would want to be participants, not just listeners. Bardon and his ‘Canticum Novum’ use only two voices, often singing in unison, but sometimes as soloists, with a relatively elaborate instrumental group – one, indeed, which deploys a combination of instruments which would not readily have been found in thirteenth century Umbria, comprising as it does, both the Islamic oud and the nyckleharpa, a traditional Swedish instrument, along with recorders, the fiddle and cornemuse, plus percussion. The resulting sound is pleasant, but not perhaps quite what the members of a Cortona confraternity would have expected. A very different approach can be heard on the 4CD set (Laudario di Cortona 91) from Brilliant Classics, which naturally contains many more of the laude; unfortunately, the style adopted by conductor Franco Racicchi is often too liturgical in nature and insufficiently ‘popular’ in idiom.

My own favourite recording of laude such as these is by Denis Raisin Dadre and Doulce Mémoire on Zig Zag Territoires (Laudes: Confrèries d’Orient et d’Occident, ZZT 090901). This has, I suppose, to be described as an ‘odd’ CD, since while 10 of its 13 tracks are performances of Italian laude, the remaining 3 are given over to chants of the Persian tarīqahs, Sufi brotherhoods with some similarities to the Italian confraternities, here performed by the excellent Iranian singer Taghi Akhbari and the vocalists of Doulce Mémoire. (Being married to an Iranian and thus relatively well-steeped in Persian culture, I find this an added attraction rather than a hindrance to my enjoyment of the CD). Dadre believes the laude to be a music of ecstasy, in which “the popular fervour, the vocal style [which] we can imagine was fairly crude, the primacy accorded to the text, and even the bodily participation encouraged by the often lively rhythms” all contribute to the production of a state of ecstasy. There is certainly more fervour and a closer approach to ecstasy in the performances by Doulce Mémoire than in those on the CD under review. For all that, this disc by Canticum Novum will serve as an introduction for those unfamiliar with this fascinating area of medieval music.

Glyn Pursglove

Sia laudato San Francesco (Lauda No. 38) [3:35]
Stella nova’n fra la gente (Lauda No. 21 [3:30]
Gloria’n cielo pace'n terra (Lauda No. 20) [3:12]
O divina virgo flore Lauda No. 15 [2:17]
Trotto –Istampitta [1:48]
Cristo è nato et humanato (Lauda No. 19) [4:45]
Saltarello II – Istampitta [1:488]
Da ciel venne messo novello (Lauda No. 7) [3:17]
Amor dolze senza pare (Lauda No. 45) [2:51]
Fami cantar l’amor di la beata (Lauda No. 9) [4:28]
Chomiciamento di Gloria – ‘Istampitta’ [7:06]
Ben e crudele e spietoso (Lauda No. 23) [3:00]
De la crudel morte di Cristo (Lauda No. 24) [3:25]
Onne homo ad alta voce (Lauda No. 26) [3:33]
Lamento di tristano / La Rotta – Istampitta [3:58]
Saltarello III: Altissima Luce (Lauda 8) [1:57]
Altissima Luce (Lauda No. 8) [2:44]
Laude novella sia cantata (Laude No. 2) [2:18]
Venite a laudare (Lauda No. 1) [3:21]

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