The Florentine Renaissance
The Orlando Consort
rec. 8-9 January 2020, Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, Loughton, UK
HYPERION CDA68349 [72:37]
No matter how often one goes to Florence, “the Jewell of Europe”, it keeps its magical, stirring atmosphere. There is a view from the hill above the road from Fiesole: the Duomo dominates when one looks across the city. Or one can see the cathedral from the surrounding streets – as I first did on a frosty February night with the light glinting from the full moon.
After over a century, the construction of the Duomo was completed to plans of the genius who was Filippo Brunelleschi. Its dedication in 1436 on Lady Day, March 25th, was also marked with new specially composed isorthymic motets by the still relatively young Guillaume Dufay. He had left his native Brussels for more international fame several years earlier. The first work on this disc is Nuper rosarum flores / Terribilis est locus iste, first heard in the Duomo on that March day. He also composed Salve flos Tuscae gentis / Vos nunc Etruscae, probably for the same celebrations. Since one of its texts concerns the beauty of the Florentine women, it may have rather been heard later, at a more secular event. Both works appear to represent the cathedral’s architecture in music. I have never really grasped why, but on reading Patrick Macey's brilliant and detailed booklet notes I think I am now much nearer, although I do not have access to a score. Here is the basic formal plan of the motets: each of the eight segments spans twenty-eight breves, and these measurements relate to the “modular elements of the cathedral”. One has to read up the details for oneself but it does make some sense.
It is not just the architecture of Florence that holds our attention. It is the history of one family in particular, the Medicis, especially Lorenzo the Magnificent, who spent a huge fortune on the arts. There also was Girolamo Savonarola, who in 1498 was put to death for heresy, but whose powerful religious message strongly affected the city. This disc, divided into two contrasting sections, covers much of this history. It demonstrates the importance of music and how it was affected by Florentine personalities and politics, and it does it, more or less, in chronological order of the fifteenth century.
The Lauda was a significant form of religious music especially promoted by Savonarola. Dufay and Binchois are important in this context. For example, the text of Binchois’s Vanne mio core ‘Pour Prison’ translates “Go my heart, to my Lord/Jesus Christ, mild and loving”. But this was also a Burgundian chanson, which can found in one of Lorenzo’s secular songbooks.
Heinrich Isaac is another composer from the north who was highly significant in Florence later in the century. He was much employed by the Medicis for his secular music, which later was to develop into the frottola. The carnival songs, performed on what we call Shrove Tuesday, are intriguing: texts are attributed to Lorenzo and music is almost certainly by Isaac. Some have needed careful editing because the manuscripts are missing parts. As secular songs, they are littered with double entendres as, for instance, Canto dello zibetto. But the music also can work as a contrafactum, so with the use of one of Lorenzo’s more religious texts the piece becomes a Lauda. First we hear Canto de’ profumi (“We are dandies from Valenza”) which becomes O maligno e duro core, a lament on the death of Jesus, appropriately performed here at a slower tempo.
The Lauda rhythms can be quite syncopated and dance-like, because they were used as carnival songs. It is hard to imagine that instruments were not originally involved but here these often three-part homophonic pieces work fine a capella. A good example is Ben venga maggio (Welcome to May). Life must have seemed joyous after the rigours of Lent. By the way, Savonarola cancelled carnival in his last three years.
Returning to Henrich Isaac, Prophetarum maxime is a motet performed probably in the Baptistery, Giotto’s 14th century campanile, on the morning of June 24th, the feast of St. John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint. Imagine standing in that stunning space, perhaps the most beautiful in Florence, surrounded by superb artefacts and mosaics, listening to this work for the first time! In the streets after mass, following the carnival floats, the jesters extravagantly attired and decorated, fire eating and juggling, one might have heard Isaac’s Trionfo delle dée ‘Ne piu bella di queste’ (“Florence, you will be the most famous city the sun has seen”). In a way, who can argue with that sentiment?
I am not sure if the Orlando Consort, whose diction is always immaculate, can consistently capture the mood and excitement of this music, but it is great to have it drawn together on one very generously filled disc. Not only is there also an exemplary essay worth reading with care, but the booklet has illustrations, including those of boys singing from a Choirbook and a sculptural relief by Luca della Robbia, to be seen in the Duomo. All texts are included and translated well.
Florence’s years of peace and artistic flourishing ended with the sudden death of Lorenzo in April 1492. One of the last tracks here is Isaac’s lament on his death Quis dabit capiti meo aquam, perhaps the highlight of this fascinating album.
1430s-1450s: Dufay and Binchois
Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1484) Nuper rosarum flores/Terribilis est locus este [5:41]
DUFAY? (chant) Nuper almos rosae flores [2:54]
DUFAY Salve flos Tuscae gentis/Vos nunc Etruscae iubeo/ Viri mendaces [6:50]
DUFAY Vanne mio core ‘Va t’en mon cueur’ [1:12]
Gilles BINCHOIS (c.1400-1460) Vanne mio core ‘Pour prison’ [2:36]
DUFAY Mirandas parit haec urbs Florentina [4:08]
1460s-1490s: Lorenzo de’Medici, Isaac and Savonorola
ANON Hora mai che for a son’ [1:49]
ANON Quando riguardo el nostro viver rio [2:31]
ANON/ISAAC (c.1450-1517) Canto di profumi [2:19]
ANON/ISAAC Canto dello zibetto [5:08]
ANON/ISAAC O maligno e duro core [2:00]
ANON Benvenga maggio [1:26]
ISAAC Prophetarum maxime [6:48]
ISAAC Trionfo delle dée ‘Ne più di queste’ [4:28]
ISAAC Corri, Fortuna [2:13]
ISAAC Lasso quel ch’altri fugge [3:08]
ISAAC Quis dabit capiti meo aquam [5:28]
ANON Ora mai sono in età [2:44]
ANON Che fai quel core? [1:44]
ANON Viva, viva in nostro core [2:28]
ISAAC Quis dabit pacem populo timenti [4:52]
Matthew Venner (counter-tenor), Mark Dobell (tenor), Angus Smith (tenor), Donald Greig (baritone)