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Antonio ZACARA DA TERAMO (c.1360-1416)
Enigma Fortuna - The complete works
La Fonte Musica/Michel Pasotti
rec. July 2017 and October 2018, Pieve di San Zaccaria, Rocca Sissella, Italy
ALPHA 640 [4 CDs: 237:53]

Antonio di Berardo di Andrea, dit Zacara da Teramo, has only become better known in the last decade or so, and is emerging from the total obscurity allotted to most medieval composers. We have here about sixty of his pieces: not as many as Landini or Machaut but still much compared to most composers from that time.

When listening to these pieces, I began to realise that Zacara da Teramo is a distinct link between Machaut (d. 1377) and Dufay (b. c.1400). He lived in the times of the double and triple papacy, and during the period we now call ars subtilior. His music is not entirely unknown. There was Un fior gentile, a beautifully presented 2008 album of secular and sacred works by Ensemble Micrologus on their label (CDM00023/08 - review). In 2011, the Norwegian label LAWO issued Currentes, ten secular pieces (LWC 1026 - review). The former takes the slightly forced and aggressive manner of performance in which Mictologus specialise, while the latter is rather gentle and elegant. Both have their place.

This recording, it seems to me, follows a middle path. Instruments and voices are used very sensitively and musically in a way that makes one want to listen on. I agree with Michel Pasotti who tells us in his fascinating booklet essay that he considers this to be ‘great music’, so he has devoted so much time to its transcription and recording.

Interestingly, we know a lot about Zacara from what he tells us in his secular music, for example the fact that his hands and feet only amounted to ten digits. He also probably suffered from dwarfism, and may have had a spinal deformity. A possible self-portrait – he was a skilled illuminator – appears in the booklet and on the website. He had more crosses to bear: it seems he lost his wife and small son during a riot, as he tells us in the moving two-part madrigal Plorans ploravi.

We can think of Antonio Zacara as the most significant Italian composer immediately after Landini. He seems to have preferred native styles in all but one of his works here, even to the point of folklorism as heard in the three-voice Ciaramella. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Philippus da Caserta who adopted the French style of the period, he seems to have continued to write in the Italian style for his entire career. Zacara served the Roman popes from 1391 as a copyist and illuminator. Later he can be found at the chapel of antipope John XXIII at Bologna during the period of the three-fold schism in 1413-1414.

More of Zacara’s secular music has survived than his sacred. He tends to favour the form of the ballata. The pieces are mostly to be found in what we now know as the Lucca Codex and Squarcialupi Codex. But the texts are set in such an original and striking way that your interest will be consistently kept. For example, the Credo II moves around, seemingly at random, between solo voices, two parts and three parts. Some texts are repeated and some are rushed through, with consequent contrasting rhythms. One can certainly detect word painting of sorts, and there is never a dull moment. In an era of bizarre music, Zacara stands out as even more eccentric and bizarre than the rest.

It is not only the music. Often the words, apparently written by the composer, are quite mad. Take D’amor languire. Amongst what is mostly nonsense come the lines “I scratch mangily (sic) and I don’t have scabies / I gather myself every melancholy”. This song is presented immediately after the Credo subtitled Scabioso on the disc of sacred parodies. So, he quotes and re-uses material from his own secular music in his sacred works, and vice versa. (Most of his contemporaries, by contrast, tended to quote each other rather than themselves.) An example would be Una Fior gentil, an ambiguous love song which he converts into the brilliant Gloria Fior gentil. Another is the Credo Deus deorum, oddly eccentric music based on the song Deus doerum Pluto with a suitably obscure and eccentric text.

I will give examples of perhaps the most exciting and vivid among these performances. The only caccia here, Cacciando per gustar / Ay cinci / ay toppi, with three texts and three voices, vividly captures the buzz of a busy village where various conversations cross and interleave. Amor né tossa begins with ‘One can’t hide love or a cough / Or walking with a limp’. There follow almost ten minutes which deliver animal noises and birdcalls and human cries in a virtuoso display of imaginative part writing. Movit’a pietade and Non voler, donna show another side of the composer’s character: an elegant beauty of line and delicate harmony. Spesse, Fortuna and Ad ogne vento show a mind that can create strong musical witticism.

I have lived with Antonio Zacara da Teramo for well over three weeks. I feel that I have come to comprehend him and indeed love him in many ways. He was probably a difficult man who can be gentle but also crass and rude. One takes pity on him and one is also intimidated by his technique and intellectual ability. He is no longer a footnote at the bottom of a page of a weighty textbook; he calls out to us after six hundred years and through these wonderful, if occasionally over-stylised performances. One can think of him as amazingly close and appealing for our understanding.

La Fonte Musica in this box set has eighteen musicians. Eight of them are singers who share the duties. The others play such instruments as trombones, trumpets, shawms, a Gothic harp and a fiddle. (The booklet shows pictures of eleven of the group members.) They vary the performances, sometimes a capella, sometimes adding instruments either doubling or playing their own line, depending on their fancy or on the apparent instructions of the manuscripts. There are also some short pieces for instruments alone, and sometimes interludes between verses.

As you can see, I am mightily impressed by this box set: not only the music but the care and sympathy taken in the performance of Zacara’s highly complex part-writing. It appears out of the darkness of six hundred years as fresh as when it was first conceived. All texts are clearly given and well translated. There are three fascinating scholarly essays worth reading before you start to listen: Some notes on Zacara’s music by Jason Stoessel; Zacara, An overview by Francesco Zimei who offers a little more musical analysis; and Why Zacara? by the group’s director Michel Pasotti.

Gary Higginson


Gloria I
Credo II
ANON: Ave Maris Stella (instrumental)
Gloria ‘Angelicana’
Credo ‘du village’
ANON: Constantia (instrumental)
Gloria: ‘Gloria laus honor’
Credo III
Gloria: ‘Ad ongi vento’
Credo I
ANON: Untitled (instrumental)
Gloria: ‘Micinella’
Credo: ‘Cursor’
Gloria: ‘Rosetta’
Credo: ‘Scabioso’
D’amor languire
ANON: Rosetta (instrumental)
Deducto sey
Nostra Avocata
ANON: Deducto sey (instrumental)
Un fior gentile
Gloria: Un Fior gentil
Deus doerum Pluto
Credo ‘Deus deorum’

CD 3 SECULAR MUSIC 1 [54:54]
Cacciando per gustar/Ay cinci, ay tuppi
Nel cucul
Amor né tossa
Deducto sey (instrumental)
Plorans ploravi
Le temps verrá
Nuda non era
Ad ogne vento
ANON: Rosetta (Instrumental)
State a Dio
Benché Lontan
Non voler, donna
CD 4 SECULAR MUSIC 2 [52:59]
Sumite karissimi
Movit’a pietade
Viver ne puis (instruments only)
Sol mi trafigge
Aymé per tutto l’or
Spesso, Fortuna
Dime, Fortuna
Donna poss’io sperare
Dicovi per certança
Sol mi trafigge (instrumental)
Ferito giá
Be’llo sa Dio
E’ardo in un fuogo
Spinato intorno al cor
Je suy navrés/Gnaff’a le guagnele

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