Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Composer Biography: Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412)

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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?

Sources:

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude Palisca. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2010.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W> Norton and Company, New York, 1988.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“A Dictionary of Early Music,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music,” by Manfred F. Bukofzer. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1950.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume I: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

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