Archive for December 2013
This blog post is part of a blog hop on the subject of light and illumination, to celebrate the Winter Solstice. To read other posts that are part of the “hop,” check out the links at the end of my post, or follow this one (after you read my piece, of course): http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/21st-december-one-day-blog-hop.html
Once a week, I sing Gregorian chant. It’s a wonderful, ancient, simple, deep, and deeply satisfying thing to do regardless of religion. We’re a motley crew with only one practicing Catholic among us, but singing Gregorian chant isn’t about the religious nature of the music. It’s about preserving an ancient tradition, about connecting to the earliest of Western music’s roots, and about being part of a loving community that accepts us all despite bumps and snaggles, regardless of musical experience or education, regardless of religion or spiritual practice. It’s a place where people come to SING.
There are thousands of Gregorian chants. They were collected in many different ways over the millennia, but most who sing Gregorian chant today sing from the Liber Usualis, which was collected by the Benedictine Abbot Andre Mocquereau (1849-1930) at Solesmes, France in 1896. But he didn’t write them—he only collected them in one tidy place. The chants have been heavily used from the earliest days of Christianity, documented by order of Pope Gregory (c540-604) in the 6th century (and from whom they get their name), and performed as part of every Mass and every Divine Office, until Vatican II in 1962 allowed the Catholic Mass to be performed in the vernacular, and chant lost its ubiquity.
In the spirit of the changing light at the Winter Solstice, I thought it would be fun to look at one particular chant, one of my favorites, called Lux Aeterna. It’s the communion piece of the Requiem Mass, and therefore, only something you’d hear at a funeral. But it’s incredibly sweet and it’s about eternal light, which is something that feels absent on these dark winter days.
First, a little background.
In the Beginning
Sometime around the 4th century CE, in Carthage, the practice developed of singing from the book of Psalms in the Old Testament during the collection and blessing of the offering, and during the distribution of the bread and wine in communion. Saint Augustine (354CE-430) mentions this psalm-singing as a new practice, and also mentions that it was the Schola, a trained group of priest-musicians, who did the singing.
The Schola sang a chunk of a psalm, the doxology (Gloria Patri et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum—if you’ve heard any Christian service, you’ve heard this doxology in some form, in English, Latin, or the vernacular of the service in question. Sometimes it’s sung, sometimes it’s spoken), and then a repeat of the psalm verse. During the singing, the congregation lined up for their individual portions of bread and wine, and if the chant ended, the rest of the people took communion in silence.
In the 7th century or so, the practice of giving individual communion was abandoned, and they also abandoned the need for such a long piece of music. But music was evolving and by the 8th and 9th centuries, the communion portion of the Mass had become an impressive piece of music. You have to remember that music of this time was memorized—music notation wasn’t invented until the 10th century (for more on this, see my post on the History of Music Notation), so a long and complex chant was exciting on many levels. It might be different every time you heard it.
At first, the communion chant was sung as a responsory, with the congregation singing back certain predictable phrases to the Schola. But it evolved into something more complex and interesting, a chant worthy of contemplation and consideration by the congregation during this holy portion of the Mass service.
By the 12th century, only the initial verse of the psalm and the doxology remained, with psalm tones (verses sung on a reciting note) included to lengthen the piece to accommodate the entire congregation stepping forward for communion. Eventually, even the psalm tone disappeared, except in the Mass for the Dead, which uses Lux Aeterna, the subject of this blog post. (Yay! I’m finally getting to it!)
A Look at the Chant
The Requiem Mass, as you might imagine, tells stories of life eternal, of peace and light being part of a permanent slumber, and offers comfort to the survivors. And the Communion, the last piece of the Propers (the music that changes daily, as opposed to the Ordinaries—the Kyrie, Credo, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei—that are part of every Mass), is the final opportunity to impart wisdom.
This is what the chant looks like:
The neumes that make up the notes have been used since the late 11th century and people who sing chant today still use them. There’s a lot of information there: the intervals between the notes, the duration of the notes in context of the rest of the notes (not rhythm, just length), when to change notes and how the text syllables line up, when to breathe, and what mode the piece is in (for more on modes, read my post on Church Modes), and there’s even a cool little thing called a custos, that tells the singer what the first note on the next line will be. I don’t know why this little gem didn’t make it into modern music, as it’s incredibly useful.
You can see that the notes all have similar shapes, mostly square blocks, some with dangly bits, a few diamond-shaped notes, and the occasional squiggle. There are some vertical lines that break up phrases, and others that group the neumes into groups of two and three notes. There are only four lines on the staff (modern staves have five), and the clef, the one that tells where the scales begin and end, is only roughly similar to a modern clef. In truth, this early music offers all the information you need. Modern notation adds key signatures, another staff line, rhythmically countable measures, and a greater variety of note types and lengths, but those things weren’t necessary before about the 13th century, when polyphony began to develop. (You can read more about polyphony in Chords versus Polyphony.)
The Sound of Lux Aeterna
This is what Lux Aeterna sounds like:
- This version was sung by Giovanni Vianini at the Schola Gregoriana Mediolanensis in 2008: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vm0x3EtFcf8. What I like about it is that it’s unhurried; he enjoys letting each note, each word, each phrase float out into the space and resonate there.
- Here’s another version, sung by a group of men in unison: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bytwTiBIsM. They hurry a little through each clump of words with long pauses at the end of each phrase, so I don’t like it as well as the solo performance, but the chant is much more likely to be sung by a group than as a solo, and I thought you should hear it.
The words they’re singing are:
Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine; cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua, luceat eis.
That translates (according to my 1949 Liber Usualis) as:
May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord, in the company of your saints for eternity, for you are full of goodness.
Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them.
Now here’s the interesting bit. Unlike most chant texts, this one comes from a book of the New Testament that was written in Hebrew rather than Greek and isn’t included in the New Testament of most Christian denominations.
I asked a Bible-scholar friend about context for the text, as the Liber Usualis cites a chapter and verse of a book that none of my Catholic friends had heard of. Lux Aeterna is from the fourth chapter of Esdras or Ezra, my scholarly friend reports, a deuterocanonical work. That means that it was written by Christians to be part of the Old Testament before the New Testament was available. None of the original texts have survived and the only existing copies are in Latin, so they’re all translations from Hebrew. That means that no one knows what words were originally written.
My friend found the chapter in the Latin Vulgate Appendix and in the Slavonic Bible. Its presence in the Vulgate means that it was known to Latin Christendom by the late 5th century, so Saint Augustine (354-430) wouldn’t have read it or heard this specific chant. It’s about a hundred years too late.
The text is purported to have been written by Ezra the Scribe (fl 480-440 BCE), who led a group of Judean exiles from Babylonia and reintroduced the Torah to Jerusalem.
I received a command from the Lord on Mount Horeb to go to Israel. When I came there, they rejected me and refused the Lord’s commandment.
Therefore, I say to you, “O Nations that hear and understand; wait for your shepherd; he will give you everlasting rest, because he who will come at the end of the age is close at hand. Be ready for the rewards of the kingdom, because perpetual light will shine on you forevermore.”
The relevant words in Latin (not the original Hebrew) are these, from Ezra 2:35:
Parati estote ad praemia regni, quia lux perpetua lucebit vobis per aeternitatem temporis.
Which translates to:
Prepare for the rewards of the kingdom, for the everlasting light shall shine upon you forever.
You might notice that there’s no literal quotation here to match the one I offered earlier. It’s fairly safe to assume that this difference is caused by a different translation—varying interpretations are always a problem with translations.
The story Ezra tells is about going to Israel to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is rejected, and tells the Israelites of the promise of eternal light if they behave themselves. The Liber Usualis version is less of a compelling argument and more of a promise to the already faithful, which may be the interpretation of someone who was convinced that the Messiah had already come—the main difference between Christians and Jews.
A Little Historical Context
At the end of the 4th century, the nomadic (and violent) tribes from the north (such as Goths, Frisians, and Franks) began to adopt Christianity and abandon some of their pagan ways. Clovis I (c466-c511) had a battlefield conversion, and he and his wife convinced other Germanic tribes to convert. By the end of the 5th century, Catholicism—especially monastic Catholicism—had made its way to Ireland and became hugely popular there. Saint Brigit (c421-525) and Saint Patrick (dates unknown, but in the 5th century) were both seminal figures in Irish history, and both embraced a monastic lifestyle.
Also in the 5th century, the Catholic Church held synods that declared Mary the mother of the Christ but not the mother of God Himself. Those who disagreed fled east, eventually forming what we today call Oriental Orthodoxy (the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches—basically Byzantium).
It was at that same synod in the 5th century that Greek was abandoned as the language of scholars and Latin was adopted. Also in the 5th century, the tradition of monasticism, which came from certain strains of Judaism, was refined and broadly adopted—Saint Benedict, who wrote the seminal (and eponymous) Rule, was born near the end of the 5th century.
As you can see, this little Lux Aeterna chant came to being during a tumultuous and interesting time and allows us to peek at a change in attitudes toward Christianity itself.
The story of this chant doesn’t end there. It’s time to settle yourself into a comfy chair and do some listening!
These polyphonic and chordal offerings are based on the Gregorian Lux Aeterna (they’re alphabetically listed by composer, so you’ll be leaping around in time), and you can hear the chant in them:
- Ivo Antognini (b. 1963) wrote a haunting piece with elements of the chant mixed in with such a full sounding choir that it sounds like an orchestra. The piece resolves in a surprising way. Listen twice! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e21Xt4xtBmM
- Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) wrote an incredible Requiem where the chant is very present throughout. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voVqgfbkfdM
- Morten Lauridsen (b 1943) wrote an elaborate Funeral Mass and included the Lux Aeterna movement. The total recording is about half an hour, and this is the third 10-minute portion of it, as performed by the Lost Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izsW6LjExEQ. The Lux Aeterna movement begins at about 3 minutes in, and you can hear the original chant only slightly.
- John Rutter (b. 1945) has the chant in it as performed by a soloist against more complex large-choir and orchestra backdrop. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86qJSIYxV_g
- Z. Randall Stroope (b.1953) wrote this version for women’s voices and organ accompaniment. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FKRxDM7dFo. There are nice nods to the chant, and lots of interesting dissonances. Sadly, an abrupt ending to the recording leaves us not knowing if we’ve heard the last note and it’s musically weird enough that it’s impossible to guess.
- Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote a version, performed here by the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m-5_2NAUxc It’s very much based on the chant, until it evolves into something more operatic. Love love love Nicolai Ghiarov, the bass (but they’re all good). So delicious, it felt almost naughty, that’s how much I liked it.
- Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611, biography to come) wrote a Lux Aeterna movement in his Missa Pro Defunctis. You can hear it performed by the Gabrieli Consort here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNyKKH5wzA4. In this piece, you can hear each movement of the Mass announced first by chant, and it’s up to you to decide whether he stayed true to the chant in the polyphony or not.
Other pieces by the same name had no chant reference in them at all, but it was an interesting study (again, alphabetical):
- Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) wrote a chant-like piece, only there’s rhythm (some chants have rhythm, but Gregorian chant never does). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh6oPghFnt0 This was recorded in the Vatican Basilica.
- David Briggs (b.1962) wrote a Requiem, here performed by Euphony and members of the Northern Chamber Orchestra http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbPFN6_GgbY. It’s chant-like and haunting.
- Steve Dobrogosz (b1956) uses chant elements, although he doesn’t quote the chant exactly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCOCT0264sE
- Sir Edward William Elgar (1857-1934) wrote a movement that’s chant-like, although it doesn’t use the Gregorian chant. Lots of interesting things happen melodically, including a return to the sense of lightness from leaping high notes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnE_2_7XOPk
- Gabriel Fauré wrote a Requiem in D Minor (Op. 48). This version was performed by the Orchetre de la Suisse Romande with the Chorale de la Tour de Peilz, conducted by Robert Mermoud. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xePppyFyLc The Agnus Dei is compelling even though it’s not at all chant-based. The Lux Aeterna begins at about 2:05, and continues the trend of not being based on the Gregorian chant.
- György Ligeti (1923-2006), wrote a note-clustering style for 16 solo voices that resolves into a familiar chord only occasionally. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgRZnsAgKng
- Clint Mansell’s (b.1963) movie version Requiem for a Dream is repetitive and intense, and frankly, I enjoyed a metal version of it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Exsu5a-rvz0 more than the intended orchestral version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbS-Zhz31CA. The Kronos Quartet did a version as well, which I also liked better than the movie version. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpL7YqtD28o
- Fernando Moruja (1960-2004) wrote an exquisite offering that I thought was too short. I want more, but it looks like he had a short life. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=No822zwTUp0
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote a Lux Aeterna movement in his Requiem Mass, which he meant to have performed at his own funeral. This version is conducted by Karl Richter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CE2oyU3fBP8. There’s no real evidence of the chant melody in this rather staunch version.
- Pawel Szymansky (b.1954) wrote a splinky bells, harp, and random vocal notes version that sounds simple but is probably devilishly hard to perform. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T–mACkxMz8
- This last one is uncredited. There’s dreadful (in my opinion) organ chording underneath the chant, and then it bursts into thankfully unaccompanied polyphony. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hR5e-vQ2LvQ When the chant starts up again, so does the organ. Too bad. (I suppose some might like it, but it sounds very wrong to my ears.)
Recordings That Might Interest You
These are some recordings I had on my shelf, so I can vouch for their yumminess. They’re in no particular order.
- Tallis Scholars “Requiem,” which includes Victoria’s (c1548-1611) Requiem Mass (exceprted above), Duarte Lobo’s (1565-1646) Requiem Mass, and Manuel Cardoso’s (1566-1650) Requiem Mass.
- Athestis Chorus, conducted by Filippo Maria Bressan, which includes the Requiem in the Venetian Manner, by Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739).
- Ensemble Organum, conducted by Marcel Peres, on a recording of Johannes Ockeghem (c1420-1497), Requiem, 11th track. Yay. Very chant based, and only barely polyphony, as polyphony was in its infancy.
And now for something completely different: Having (perhaps) nothing to do with the chant, but using the name Lux Aeterna, here’s a nice dance company. There are no credits for music or dancers, but it was intense and fun to watch! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zkzYVdBVO0
“Gregorian Chant,” by Willi Apel. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990.
“Liber Usualis,” edited by the Benedictines of Solesmes. Society of St. John the Evangelist, Tournai Belgium, 1949.
“New Revised Standard Bible,” edited by Bruce M. Metzger. Oxford University Press, New York, 1991.
Blog Hop Offerings
Visit these other interesting authors!
- Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Prue Batten : Casting Light….
- Alison Morton Shedding light on the Roman dusk Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Anna Belfrage Let there be light!
- Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
- Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the Chant of Eternal Light
- Janet Reedman The Winter Solstice Monuments
- Petrea Burchard : Darkness – how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Richard Denning : The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Pauline Barclay : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
- David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
- David Pilling : Greek Fire Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
- Derek Birks : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
- Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
- Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
- Wendy Percival : Ancestors in the Spotlight
- Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves Plus a Giveaway Prize
- Suzanne McLeod : The Dark of the Moon
- Katherine Bone : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
- Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
- Edward James : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
- Janis Pegrum Smith : Into The Light – A Short Story
- Julian Stockwin : Ghost Ships – Plus a Giveaway Present
- Manda Scott : Dark into Light – Mithras, and the older gods
- Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
- Lucienne Boyce : We will have a fire – 18th Century protests against enclosure
- Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey?
- Sky Purington : How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
- Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression
Bartolomeo da Bologna (also Bartholomaeus de Bononia) is another one of those composers you should have heard of, one of those who changed music forever because his innovation was part of the change from Medieval to Renaissance sensibilities. You’re going to find this subtle, but I think you’ll also find it interesting: Bologna invented the parody form.
Yup, I know you’re thinking that parodies are one of those things, like the names for the notes (see Odo of Cluny), and do-re-me (see Guido D’Arrezzo) that have always existed (except they haven’t), but they’re really only about 700 years old. In the musical sense, parodies are very young.
The obvious interpretation of what I mean is those fabulous comedic skits where something serious is turned into something ridiculous. In music, it’s more the other way—something frivolous is turned into something sacred. In truth, it should be called the paraphrase form, where a secular song is reworked into something to be used as part of liturgy.
Another thing about Bologna is that he’s one of the rare Italian composers of the early 15th century to have been reliably attributed. There were few composers native to this region for nearly the whole century—there was a musical dry spell in Italy for about a hundred years. Elsewhere in Europe, composers in France, Flanders, and Germany, along with England and other British Isles, were plenty productive. Most of the musicians composing in Italy at the time were imports from the north (see Johannes Ciconia).
Very little is known about Bologna’s private life. We can presume that he is from Bologna by his name, and it’s known that he spent part of his life in Ferrara. He was a Benedictine, possibly a monk or even the prior of San Nicolo in Ferrara, and he was definitely organist at the cathedral from 1417. His name still appears in the cathedral’s records in 1427, but he disappears after that.
He’s also associated with the chapel of the Antipope John XXIII (c1370-1419). One of Bologna’s ballades (Arte psalentes) is thought to address to the singers in the antipope’s chapel choir.
Another composer, Antonio “Zachara” da Teramo (c1350-c1415, biography to come), probably overlapped Bologna in his service to John XXIII. Zachara’s work influenced Bologna, but his parodies are freer, less literal. Bologna quoted large and contiguous sections of his own secular music and composed new melodies around them.
Only seven of Bologna’s pieces have survived (although there are probably more that didn’t have attribution). He wrote two ballata (Vince con lena and Morir desio), one ballade (Arte psalentes), one rondeau (Mersi chiamando), one virelai (Que pena maior), and two mass movements in parody of his other works (the Gloria, based on Vince con lena, and the Credo, based on Morir desio). All of his pieces are related to the ars subtilior style that flourished in Avignon, Bologna, and other regions held by the antipopes during the Western Schism.
He wrote one Italian- and one Latin-texted ballata, and both his rondeau and virelai have Italian texts and have much simpler musical forms. It was the end of the 14th century, and music notation had evolved far enough (see The History of Music Notation) to produce rhythmic nuance and virtuosity. The timing of both ballatas makes it clear that he wrote them expressly for Antipope John XXIII.
Parody began with Bologna in the Renaissance, but it hardly stopped there. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750, biography to come) borrowed well-known folk tunes to set a chorale, and these proved popular enough that he parodied himself repeatedly—if you listen to Bach chorales, you’ll find that they’re very much alike (the text is the only aspect with significant changes), and many of his cantatas house familiar themes from his chorales and others of his own sacred works. Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (c1525-1594, biography to come), probably the best known 16th century Italian composer of all, wrote a parody Mass, Missa Assumpta est Maria based on his own motet by the same name. So it was an idea that endured.
Bologna’s music shows the influence of the rhythmically straightforward, melodious Franco-Flemish style of the early 15th century, although sadly, none of his French-texted works have survived. There was a serious shortage of Italian innovation at the time, and there was a happy invasion of Franco-Flemish musicians (like Johannes Ciconia) from the north, keeping Italy fresh with new works.
“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” By Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.
“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.
“A Dictionary of Early Music, From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.
Between 1414 and 1418, the Catholic Church held a council at Konstanz (now in southwestern Germany right on the Swiss border). This council ended the papal schism and elected Pope Martin V (1369-1461), condemned and executed Jan Hus (1369-1415, considered the first church reformer), and ruled on wars, the rights of pagans, and national sovereignty. But the most important thing it did, as far as I’m concerned, is that it moved the center of musical innovation from diverse parts (Flanders, Paris, Burgundy, and Avignon), to Rome.
Music was a part of the event, with Oswald von Wolkenstein (c1376-1445, biography to come) accompanying Emperor Sigismund (1368-1437, King of Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Italy, and Germany, Holy Roman Emperor, and the last Emperor of the House of Luxemburg) and the English delegation bringing its choristers to be admired in Köln along the way to Konstanz.
But even before that, a few northern musicians were making their way to Italy. One of the first northerners to make a career in Italy was Johannes Ciconia. His welcome there marked a change in attitude toward foreigners and the beginning of a true renaissance in music and art. And, of course, he brought the northern aesthetic with him, changing Italian music forever.
Ciconia’s work marks a stylistic change from soloistic polyphony (multiple melodic lines rather than the chord-based harmony that came later) to polyphony for choruses. This meant that complex and rhythmically animated melodic lines from the late Medieval period had to become smoother and more readily singable, the sound that we recognize as Renaissance music today.
He composed in all the popular genres of the time, and, like his contemporary Leonel Power (c1370-1445, biography to come), and superstar Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474), he represents the musical span from the Franco-Flemish Renaissance to the Italian Renaissance.
Three men with the name Johannes Ciconia lived in Liege in the 14th century, and it’s probable that our Johannes’ father was the eldest, born in 1335. That Johannes Ciconia was a priest and is thought to have had a child with a local noblewoman. She named him Johannes Ciconia like his papa and that’s probably the boy we’re interested in. (I found no details about the third person.)
The elder Johannes was in service in Avignon in 1350, and accompanied Cardinal Albornoz (1310-1367) on an Italian campaign between 1358 and 1367. He returned to Flanders and was assigned to Liege in 1372, where he held a prebend (a stipend from the church) and was a priest at St. John the Evangelist. He stayed there until 1401. It isn’t known when he died, but 1401 makes sense, considering his age.
Johannes junior was born in Liege in about 1373 and trained there and in Flanders. A document in Liege in 1385 refers to a choirboy called Johannes Ciconia who became a cleric, but it’s uncertain whether or not he became a priest like his father.
In 1391, there are records of young Ciconia serving Pope Boniface IX (c1350-1404), but it’s not known in what capacity. He served Cardinal D’Alençon in Rome in the 1390s as clericus capella (the cleric of the choir), an important post, and usually one occupied by promising young musicians. Ciconia then went into the service of Giangaleazzo Visconti (1351-1402) at his court in Pavia in the late 1390s. Visconti was busy creating a dynasty and came to rule nearly all of Italy, which didn’t hurt Ciconia’s visibility any.
Big patrons explain some of Ciconia’s stylistic choices. While he was in Padua, he developed close connections with the politically powerful Carrara family and became a canon there. He later received commissions from Venice (which conquered Padua in1406) and he dedicated a madrigal to the Lord of Lucca (probably Paulo Guinigi, 1400-1430) in Tuscany.
Comfortably settled in Padua by 1398, he became chaplain at the cathedral in 1401 and cantor by 1403, a post he held until his death in 1412. In the years following his appointment at the cathedral, Ciconia was granted benefices (both payment and a retainer for future services) at nearby churches, including at St. Biagio di Roncalea Church. Only a handful of his works date to this period.
Ciconia wrote three theoretical treatises, although some sources say it was only two. I only found two titles, Nova Musica and De Proportionibus but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a third book. More sources said three treatises than two.
Although much of his music is lost, there is still plenty that remains for us to marvel at. He wrote 11 Mass sections, 11 motets, and 20 secular pieces with texts in both French and Italian. His sacred music included motets (a religious version of the madrigal using Biblical passages) and Mass movements (mostly Glorias or Credos). His secular music included French virelais (a specific song pattern, often instrumental), Italian ballata (a danceable song), and Italian-styled madrigals (unaccompanied part songs). Of his 11 motets, four are isorhythmic (where a rhythmic phrase or pattern is repeated throughout in one voice or several) but others are closer to Italian songs and were more rambunctious in nature. Most were written to celebrate important events or as eulogies.
Ciconia claimed that his greatest inspiration was Guillaume Machaut (1300-1377) a fellow Franco-Flemish composer. Ciconia’s three-part canon, Le ray au solely, is a typical exercise of northern ingenuity in fond imitation and development from Machaut’s work. And the music went in the other direction too; Franco-Flemish Guillaume Dufay (c1400-1474) wrote motets that imitate Ciconia’s.
Within individual pieces, musical imitation was the new style, and Ciconia led the way. Imitation means that a particular melody was produced in one voice and then repeated, slightly changed (perhaps on different notes, perhaps the same notes with a different rhythm, and rarely, repeated identically) in other voices. Occasionally, the line was passed from voice to voice, so that to the listener, the phrase is always heard. Imitation soon became a central feature in Renaissance music.
Practically all of Ciconia’s secular works are settings of Italian poems. He particularly cultivated the ballata in two or three parts, with plenty of coloratura (wiggly and flexible soprano lines) on the upper parts. When the madrigal had a resurgence of popularity at the beginning of the 15th century, Ciconia was quick to participate.
Ciconia’s motets can practically all be dated by the persons and events to which they refer during the first decade of the 15th century. Two are for voices only, both singing the same Latin text; these are stylistically indistinguishable from madrigals. Two others are monotextual, with two equal voices singing with free or canonic imitation over an instrumental tenor. The rest have two or three different texts all sung simultaneously, as in the older style.
Ciconia combined elements of French Ars Nova (a French style that flourished in France and the Burgundian Low countries in the early 14th century) with Italian 14th century style. His synthesis would strongly influence other early 15th century composers.
His Italian songs, including four madrigals and at least seven ballate, show aspects of the French style that was fashionable then in northern Italy, probably made fashionable by Ciconia himself. Chansons, of which only two of his virelais and a canon survive, exploit the rhythmic complexities of the Ars Subtilior (an intricate style from Avignon in the 14th and early 15th centuries).
Ciconia wrote a good many of his works for wealthy patrons, like Francesco Zabarella (1360-1417), who was a good friend and mentor. One of his laments, Con Lagrime bagnadome, was written upon the death of Francesco of Carrara, referring to Francesco il Nuovo (the new) sometime after 1406.
It’s possible that the last years of his life were quite comfortable and he was possibly even wealthy.
Just for fun, Ciconia translates as a stork, a long-legged bird. Perhaps this family was tall?
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