It was a redeeming feature of Italian comedy that ballets, pantomimes, and concerts were presented as intermezzi between the acts. For next to love itself, music was the chief recreation and consolation of every class in Italy. Montaigne, traveling in Tuscany in 1581, was “astounded to see peasants with lutes in their hands, and, beside them, shepherds reciting Ariosto by heart”; but this, he adds, “is what we may see in all of Italy.”99 Renaissance painting has a thousand representations of people playing music, from the luting angels at the Madonna’s feet in so many Coronations, and Melozzo’s serenading seraphim, to the quiet exaltation of the man at the harpischord in The Concert; and note the boy—whom we can hardly believe to be the painter himself—in the center of Sebastiano del Piombo’s Three Ages of Man. The literature likewise conveys a picture of a people singing or playing music in their homes, at their work, on the street, in music academies, monasteries, nunneries, churches, in processions, masques, trionfi, and pageants, in religious or secular plays, in the lyric passages and interludes of dramas, in such outings as Boccaccio imagined in the Decameron. Rich men kept a variety of musical instruments in their homes, and arranged private musicales. Women organized clubs for the study and performance of music. Italy was—is—mad about music.

Folk song flourished at all times, and learned music periodically rejuvenated itself at that fount; popular melodies were adapted for complex madrigals, for hymns, even for passages in music for the Mass. “In Florence,” says Cellini, “people were wont to meet on the public streets of a summer night” to sing and dance.100 Street singers—canton di piazza—strummed their sad or merry notes on handsome lutes; people gathered to sing laudes, hymns of praise, to the Virgin before her street or roadside shrines; and in Venice mating songs rose to the moon from a hundred gondolas, or throaty lovers hopefully serenaded hesitant lasses in the mystic shadows of labyrinthine canals. Almost every Italian could sing, and nearly as many could sing in simple vertical harmony. Hundreds of these popular part songs have come down to us under the picturesque name of frottole, little fruits; usually short, usually amorous; arranged for a dominant soprano supported by tenor, alto, and bass. Whereas in previous centuries the tenor voice had “held” the melody and so derived its name, now in the fifteenth the air was carried by the soprano—so called because its music was written above the rest. This part did not need a female voice; as often as not it was sung by a boy, or by the falsetto of an adult male. (Castratidid not appear in the papal choir till 1562.)101

Among the educated classes considerable knowledge of music was required. Castiglione demands of his courtier or gentleman some amateur proficiency in music, “which not only doth make sweet the minds of men, but also many times doth wild beasts tame.”102Every person of culture was expected to read simple music at sight, accompany himself on some instrument, and take part in an impromptu musicale.103 Sometimes people joined in a ballata that involved a union of singing, dancing, and instrumental music. Universities after 1400 offered courses and degrees in music; there were hundreds of music academies; Vittorino da Feltre founded a school of music at Mantua about 1425; our “conservatories” of music are called so because in Naples many orphanages(conservatori) were used as music schools.104 Music was further spread by the adaptation of printing to musical notation; about 1476 Ulrich Hahn printed at Rome a complete missal with movable type for notes and lines; and in 1501 Ottaviano de’ Petrucci began at Venice the commercial printing of motets and frottole.

At the courts music was more prominent than any other art except those of personal adornment. Usually the ruler chose a favorite church, whose choir became the object of his care; he paid goodly sums to attract to it the finest available voices and instrumentalists from Italy, France, and Burgundy; he trained new singers from their childhood, as Federigo did at Urbino; and he expected the members of the choir to perform also for his state ceremonies and court festivities. Guillaume Dufay of Burgundy directed music at the court of the Malatestas in Rimini and Pesaro, and at the papal chapel in Rome, for a quarter of a century (1419–44). Galeazzo Maria Sforza about 1460 organized two chapel choirs, and brought to them from France Josquin Deprès, then the most famous composer in western Europe. When Lodovico Sforza welcomed Leonardo to Milan it was as a musician; and it is to be noted that Leonardo was accompanied, in going from Florence to Milan, by Atalante Migliorotti, a celebrated musician and maker of musical instruments. A still more famous maker of lyres, lutes, organs, and clavichords was Lorenzo Gusnasco of Pavia, who made Milan one of his homes. The court of Lodovico was flush with singers: Narcisso, Testagrossa, Cordier of Flanders, and Cristoforo Romano, chastely loved by Beatrice. Pedro Maria of Spain conducted concerts in the palace and for the public; and Franchino Gaffuri founded and taught in a famous private music school in Milan. Isabella d’Este was devoted to music, made it the chief theme of decoration in her inner sanctum, and herself played several instruments. When she ordered a clavichord from Lorenzo Gusnasco she specified that the keyboard should respond to a light touch, “for our hands are so delicate that we cannot play well if the keys are too stiff.”105 At her court lived the leading lutanist of his day, Marchetto Cara, and Bartolommeo Tromboncino, who composed such alluring madrigals that when he killed his unfaithful wife no punishment was meted out to him, and the matter was passed over as a discord soon to be resolved.

Finally the cathedrals and the churches, the monasteries and the nunneries resounded with music. In Venice, Bologna, Naples, Milan, the nuns sang Vespers so movingly that crowds flocked to hear them. Sixtus IV organized the famous Sistine Chapel choir; Julius II added, in St. Peter’s, a capella lulia, or Julian chapel choir, which trained singers for the Sistine choir. This was the summit of the Latin world’s musical art in the Renaissance; to it came the greatest singers from all Roman Catholic countries. Plain chant was still the letter of canon law in church music; but here and there the ars nova of France—a form of complex counterpoint—made its way into the Roman choirs and prepared for Palestrina and Victoria. Once it had been held undignified to have any other musical instrument than the organ accompany a church choir; but in the sixteenth century a variety of instruments were brought in to give church music some of the grace and adornment of secular performances. At St. Mark’s in Venice the Flemish master, Adrian Willaert of Bruges, presided over the choirs for thirty-five years, and trained them to such performances as made Rome envious. At Florence Antonio Squarcialupi organized a School of Harmony, of which Lorenzo was a member. For a generation Antonio reigned over the cathedral choir, and the great duomo rang with music that stilled all philosophic doubt. Leon Battista Alberti was a doubter, but when the choir sang he believed:

All other modes of singing weary with repetition; only religious music never palls. I know not how others are affected; but for myself those hymns and psalms of the Church produce on me the very effect for which they were designed, soothing all disturbance of the soul, and inspiring a certain ineffable languor full of reverence toward God. What heart of man is so rude as not to be softened when he hears the rhythmic rise and fall of those voices, complete and true, in cadences so sweet and flexible? I assure you that I never listen… to the Greek words (Kyrie eleison) that call on God for aid against our human wretchedness, without weeping. Then, too, I ponder what power music brings with it to soften us and soothe.106

Despite all this popularity, music was the one art in which Italy lagged behind France during most of the Renaissance. Shorn of papal revenues by the flight of the popes to Avignon, and with the courts of the despots still culturally immature in the fourteenth century, Italy lacked then the means and the spirit for the higher grades of music. She produced lovely madrigals (a word of uncertain derivation), but these songs, modeled on those of the Provençal troubadours, were set to a musical frame of such strictly regulated polyphony that the form died of its own rigidity.

The pride of trecento music in Italy was Francesco Landini, organist of San Lorenzo in Florence. Though blind from his childhood, he became one of the finest and most loved musicians of his time, honored as an organist, lutanist, composer, poet, and philosopher. But even he took his lead from France; his two hundred secular compositions applied to Italian lyrics the ars nova that had captured France a generation before. The “new art” was doubly new: it accepted binary rhythms as well as the triple time previously required in the music of the Church; and it devised a more complex and flexible musical notation. Pope John XXII, who hurled his thunderbolts in all directions, aimed one at the ars nova as fanciful and degenerate, and his prohibition had some effect in discouraging musical development in Italy. However, John XXII could not live forever, though at times it seemed possible; after his death at the age of ninety (1334) the new art triumphed in the learned music of France, and shortly thereafter in Italy.

At Avignon French and Flemish singers and composers constituted the papal choir. When the papacy returned to Rome it brought with it a large number of French, Flemish, and Dutch composers and singers; and for a century these alien musicians and their successors dominated the music of Italy. As late as Sixtus IV all the voices in the papal choir were from beyond the Alps; and a like foreign supremacy ruled in the music of the courts in the fifteenth century. When Squarcialupi died (c. 1475), Lorenzo chose a Dutchman, Heinrich Ysaac, to succeed him as organist in the cathedral at Florence. Heinrich wrote music for some of the canti carnascialeschi, and for Politian’s lyrics, and he taught the future Leo X to love—even to compose—French songs.107 For a time the chansons of France were sung in Italy, as once Italy had recited the lays of the troubadours.

This invasion of Italy by French musicians, preceding by a century its invasion by French armies, produced toward 1520 a revolution in Italian music. For these men from the north—and the Italians whom they trained —were steeped in the ars nova, and applied it in setting to music the lyric poetry of Italy. In Petrarch, Ariosto, Sannazaro, and Bembo—later in Tasso and Guarini—they found delectable verses crying out for music; indeed, had not poetry always intended itself to be at least a recitative, if not a song? Petrarch’s canzoniere had already lured musicians; now every line of it was set to music, some stanzas a dozen times or more; Petrarch is the most completely musicked poet in world literature. Or there were little lyrics of unknown authorship but simple and viable sentiment, that touched the chords of every heart, and invited the strings of every instrument. E.g.:

One from the other borrowing leaves and flowers,

I saw fair maidens beneath summer trees,

Weaving bright garlands with low love ditties.

Mid that sweet sisterhood the loveliest

Turned her soft eyes to me and whispered, “Take!”

Love-lost I stood, and not a word I spake.

My heart she read, and her fair garland gave;

Therefore I am her servant to the grave.108

To such verses the composers applied the full and complex music of the motet: polyphony in which all four parts—sung by four or eight voices-were of equal value, instead of three parts subserving one; and all the complex subtlety of counterpoint* and fugue wove the four independent rivulets of sound into a stream of harmony. So rose the Italian madrigal of the sixteenth century—one of the fairest flowers of Italian art. Whereas in Dante’s time music had been a handmaid to poetry, now it became a full-fledged partner, not obscuring the words, not slurring the sentiment, but uniting them with a music that made them doubly stir the soul, while delighting with its technical skill the educated mind.

Almost all the great composers of sixteenth-century Italy, even Palestrina, turned their art now and then to the madrigal. Philippe Verdelot, a Frenchman living in Italy, and Costanza Festa, an Italian, contest the honor of having first developed the new form, between 1520 and 1530; soon after them came the Arcadelt—a Fleming in Rome—mentioned by Rabelais.109 In Venice Adrian Willaert relaxed from his duties as choir master at San Marco to compose the finest madrigals of his time.

Usually the madrigal was sung without instrumental accompaniment. Musical instruments were innumerable, but only the organ dared compete with the human voice. Instrumental music slowly developed in the early sixteenth century out of music forms originally intended for dances or choruses; so the pavane, the saltarello, and the saraband graduated from dance accompaniments to instrumental pieces, alone or in suite; and the music for a madrigal, played without song, became the instrumental canzone, the distant progenitor of the sonata,109a and therefore of the symphony.

The organ was already in the fourteenth century almost as highly developed as today. The pedal board appeared in Germany and the Low Countries in that age, and was soon adopted in France and Spain; Italy delayed acceptance of it till the sixteenth century. By that time most large organs had two or three keyboards, with a variety of stops and couplers. Great church organs were themselves works of art, designed, carved, and painted by masters. The same love of form went into the making of other musical instruments. The lute—the favorite instrument of the home—was built of wood and ivory, shaped like a pear, pierced with sound holes in a graceful pattern, with a finger board divided by frets of silver or brass, and ending in a pegbox turned at a right angle to the neck. A pretty woman plucking the strings of a lute held in her lap made a picture that went to the head of many a sensitive Italian. Harps, citherns, psalters, dulcimers, and guitars were also favorites with musical fingers.

For those who preferred fiddling to plucking there were viols of diverse sizes, including the tenor viola da braccio, held on the arm, and the bass viola da gamba, resting against the leg. The latter became the later violoncello, and the viol, about 1540, became the violin. Wind instruments were less popular than the stringed; the Renaissance had the same objection that Alcibiades had raised to making music by puffing out the cheeks; nevertheless there were flutes and fifes (“pipes”), bagpipes, trumpets, horns, flageolets, and the shawm or oboe. Percussion instruments—drums, tabors, cymbals, tambourines, castanets—added their fury to the ensemble. All Renaissance musical instruments were of Oriental origin except for the keyboard that was added to other instruments besides the organ to indirectly strike or pluck the strings. The oldest of these keyboard instruments was the clavichord (clavis meaning key), which appeared in the twelfth century and had a sentimental resurrection in the days of Bach; here the strings were struck with little brass tangents operated by the keys. In the sixteenth century it was displaced by the clavicembalo or harpsichord, whose strings were plucked by points of quill or leather attached to wooden “jacks” that rose when the keys were depressed. The virginal was an English, the spinet an Italian, variant, of the harpsichord.

All these instruments were as yet subordinate to the voice; and the great virtuosos of the Renaissance were singers. But at the baptism of Alfonso of Ferrara in 1476 we hear of a feast in the Schifanoia Palace, at which a concert was given by a hundred trumpeters, pipers, and tambourine players. In the sixteenth century the Signory of Florence employed a regular band of musicians, of which Cellini was one. Performances by several instruments in concert were given in this period, but they were still for the aristocratic few. On the other hand solo instrumental performances were almost fanatically popular. Men went to church not always to pray but to hear a great organist like Squarcialupi or Orcagna. When Pietro Bono played the lute at the court of Borso in Ferrara the souls of the listeners, we are told, flew out of this world into another.110 The great executants were the happy favorites of a day, who asked no fame of posterity but received all their renown before their deaths.

Musical theory lagged a generation behind practice: performers innovated, professors denounced, then debated, then approved. Meanwhile the principles of polyphony, counterpoint, and fugue were formulated for easier instruction and transmission. The great musical feature of the Renaissance was not theory, nor even technical advances; it was the increasing secularization of music. In the sixteenth century it was no longer religious music that made the advances and experiments; it was the music of the madrigal and the courts. Side by side with philosophy and literature, and reflecting the pagan aspect of Renaissance art and the relaxation of morals, the music of sixteenth-century Italy escaped from ecclesiastical control, and sought inspiration in the poetry of love; the old conflict between religion and sex was resolved for a time in the triumph of Eros. The reign of the Virgin ended, the ascendancy of woman began. But under either rule music was the handmaid of the queen.

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