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Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Composer Biography: Lorenzo da Firenze (d 1372/1373 before 1385)

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(also Lorenzo Masini, Lorenzo Masi, Magister Laurentius de Florentia))

Lorenzo da Firenze was a trecento composer from Florence, Italy. He was a close associate of Francesco Landini in Florence and part of the ars nova movement. His secular pieces draw on texts from all the hot poets of his day, including Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), who’s probably most famous for The Decameron.

Nothing is known about Lorenzo’s childhood or family. People didn’t have last names back then, so there’s no way to trace him, and any records that might have been kept are either too unclear to be helpful or they’re lost altogether. It isn’t known when or where he was born, and sadly, it’s not even known when he died.

The first record of Lorenzo is when he became a canon in 1348 at San Lorenzo, which is the largest basilica in Florence. While there, he was possibly either a pupil or a teacher of Francesco Landini (since we don’t know his dates, we can’t use age to determine which was more likely and the records are muddled, but Landini is most certainly the most famous composer of the period). It’s presumed that he remained at San Lorenzo for the rest of his life, although there’s evidence that he also worked at various other Florentine churches between 1350 and 1370.

His secular music includes five ballate, a lively caccia (called A poste messe), and 10 two-part madrigals. One of these is famous among madrigalists, called Da da a chi avareggia, and includes virtuosic ornamentation and imitation. There is also a pedagogical piece called the Antefana, that mentions his role as a teacher.

It’s hard to know exactly how much music Lorenzo wrote because most sacred music of the period was unattributed. His works are represented in the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come), which was an illuminated manuscript that contained all the big composers of the day. Sixteen of Lorenzo’s pieces are included, consisting of the 10 madrigals mentioned above, six monophonic (chant) ballate, the caccia named above, and two Mass movements.

His music tends to be complex and experimental, with extended melismas (where the music wiggles around on an open syllable), imitation (where one voice repeats what another has done, perhaps in a different place along the scale), part crossing (where a lower voice follows the scale upward while a higher voice follows the scale downward until the lower voice is higher than the higher voice), and accidentals (notes outside those that define the scale of the piece). In fact, he used chromaticism (a melody that follows all the notes of the scale—like all the white and black notes on a keyboard–in order) to a degree that is rare in the 14th century before the ars sublitor period. (See Carlo Gesualdo for more on chromaticism.)

Lorenzo played with heterophony, where two voices simultaneously perform variations of a single melody. The round Dona nobis pacem (no composer known, but nearly everyone today has heard it) is like this to some degree, where the main melody is still apparent even when it’s not being sung. He also used parallel fourths and fifths (where the melody’s movement is paralleled a few notes off from another voice. This creates an interesting kind of harmony, like the melody being played in chords with the middle note missing) that was a relic of organum and conductus (early forms of harmony).

There is some French influence in his music, such as isorhythmic passages (where each melodic line has an identical or very similar rhythm), like those employed by Guillaume Machaut, and that are not usually found in Italian music. The notation he used in some of his works is in the French style. It isn’t known how the French style got to Florence, though, because it wasn’t until nearly a generation after his death that Johannes Ciconia began what would become a musical Franco-Flemish invasion of Italy.

Most collections from the period contain primarily secular songs. Like Lorenzo, a great number of otherwise ecclesiastical composers wrote secular polyphony—they had freedom in secular music to choose their own texts, to earn money writing for patrons and public events, and to experiment with some of the new techniques that I mentioned earlier. Motets (the sacred form of madrigals) by Italian composers during this period are very rarely preserved or attributed, and only a handful of Mass movements remain.

Lorenzo wrote a single Sanctus (a Mass movement). It’s in two voices, and like other Mass movements by other composers of the period, both parts sing the text. On a few occasions, the voices sing specific phrases of text at different times, and alternate singing successive phrases. The style is called “restrained madrigal” and includes short and unobtrusive melismas (where the tune wiggles around on an open syllable, remember?). He uses slightly longer and more elaborate melismas than other composers of sacred music, but there’s a restraint about it that is characteristic of his madrigals. Gherardello da Firenze’s secular pieces are much like Lorenzo’s in quantity and genre, but Gherardello occasionally uses three voices.

Along with Donato da Cascia (fl c1350-1370), the pieces Lorenzo wrote are considered in our time as the pinnacle of the Italian madrigal virtuosic singing, the peak of the Italian ars nova. Melismas are long in the upper part—sometimes very long—and the lower voice provides the cantus firmus (a slow version of the chant on which the piece is based).

Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340-c1386) set the style of having successive rather than simultaneous declamation of the text. This makes each voice similarly—and equally—important (unlike today’s style of carrying the melody in the soprano line).

Lorenzo uses a lot of imitation, sometimes short motives of one or two measures (imagine the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and that’s the length we’re talking about here). Longer phrases are imitated with a distance of several measures between them, in the style of the caccia. The number of repetitions of words and phrases often reflect a descriptive or humorous intention, especially apparent in his setting of Da, da a chi averigia, which is from a madrigal by Nicolo Soldanieri (d1385, also from Florence).

Like other composers of the era, Lorenzo used texts that had already been used in the madrigals and ballata of well-known Florentine or Tuscan poets, such as Antonio degli Alberti (c1360-1415), Boccaccio, Franco Sacchetti (c1335-c1400), and Soldanieri. But the great majority of the texts are of unknown origins, perhaps eve his own.

Only Lorenzo and Gherardello continued the tradition of monophonic ballate this late in the 14th century. Each wrote five monophonic pieces, all less florid than their madrigals. Melismas do occur, particularly on the first and penultimate syllables of poetic lines. When the intervening text is set syllabically, as is usual in chant, the stylistic influence of the madrigal is more obvious.

Just as obscure as his birth, the actual date and place of Lorenzo’s death is not known.

Sources:

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hippin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.

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2 Responses

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  1. […] de Florentia is an obscure composer but for his one Credo movement, once attributed to Lorenzo da Firenza. He may have been the first Italian to compose a polyphonic Mass movement, but the documentation is […]

  2. […] Composer Biography: Lorenzo da Firenze (d 1372/1373 before 1385) […]


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