LA BELLA FRANCESCHINA in the best cd shops from today!

a new Renaissance music release for Novantiqua Records

La bella Franceschina

Popular Inspiration in the Italian Renaissance Music

Renata Fusco | voice

Domenico Cerasani & Massimo Lonardi | Lute


The basic idea is to present themes, motifs and suggestions of the popular music of the Italian Renaissance, having as the main reference a manuscript collection of dances preserved in London. The result is this composite programme which alternates dances and bicinia for two lutes with vocal pieces based on the same musical motifs and compositions for solo lute.

As mentioned, the starting point for this popular musical fresco are the dances contained in the so-called Royal Appendix 59-62 of the British Library in London. These are manuscript part-books of four-voice music of extraordinary interest: the collection, brought to England by Earl Henry Fitzalan on his return from Italy in 1560, contains over 40 of the most popular dances of the time and is one of the most important testimonies of this musical genre. There is no firm date for its compilation but, given certain concordances with other codices and prints, it can be presumed to have been compiled between 1520 and 1540. Volumes of this type provide us with a fascinating snapshot of musical tastes in past eras and, sometimes thanks to specific omissions, important indications of musical practice. The most conspicuous of these omissions is, in our case, the indication of the instruments on which to perform the dances. The four-part writing does not account for any particular instrument, which was typical in the Renaissance, and the texture of the voices is well suited to a variety of interpretations, both with instruments of the "high chapel" (bombard, cornett, flute, sackbut, dulcian) and with those of the "low chapel" (lute, viola, flute). The two-lute elaboration we propose is part of a long tradition regarding the instrument: the iconographic sources are rich in images of pairs of lutenists, a typical practice in which one lutenist played a repeated bass, generally the tenor and contrabassus voices, and the other had the opportunity to indulge in melodies and improvisations, with the possibility of naturally exchanging roles. This practice must have been very much in vogue at the turn of the 15th century and we find confirmation of this in one of the first printed publications entirely devoted to the lute, the Intabolatura de Lauto by Joanambrosio Dalza, published by Ottaviano Petrucci in 1508. Here, in fact, at the conclusion of the volume, some dances for two lutes are proposed, in which the performance approach described above is masterfully exemplified. In rendering the dances on this disc we have approached this tradition, an interpretation that is somewhat distant from those with wind instruments that are more commonly heard today, and which we imagine to be suitable for the "chamber" of a Renaissance palace, reserved for the purer ears of princes, in the words of a musician of the time, Adrianus Coclico. 

The dances contained in the Royal Appendix are an extensive collection of well-known pieces for practical use, so the parallel with the modern jazz Real Book does not seem out of place. In the same way as the standards are collected here for study and improvisation, in the London manuscripts we find an anthology of the most popular pieces of music of the time. La Traditora, La Gamba, the Passo e mezzo, to mention only the best-known pieces, were part of the common vocabulary of musicians and their audiences, and here we find well-prepared but not particularly elaborate versions, which lend themselves well to being enriched with diminutions. This term refers to a technique typical of Renaissance and Baroque music, i.e. the variation of certain passages by means of melodic figures made up of shorter notes. Many treatises from the 1500s and 1600s focus on this art, often containing tables for use as handbooks in which the intervals and passages suitable for diminution, or passaggiati as they were known, are proposed with the most appropriate models of variation. Following these examples, we enriched with diminutions the dances of this disc, which are not standardised versions of the pieces but possible realisations of the musical material contained in the manuscripts in question. Alongside the best-known pieces there are others that are less well-known today, such as La Monina or Zorzi, which help us to have a clearer picture of the musical trends of the time. 

Following the thread of the songs contained in the London manuscripts, we came across many counterparts of vocal music of the period. The folk-inspired material of the dances is transfigured in various ways in compositions in which the voice is present, sometimes as a simple addition of text, sometimes with the use of a simple melodic segment or even as a quotation within a different context. In the refined Italian culture of the Renaissance, the game of cultured reference to popular instances was widely practised in the musical area, with results that naturally also affected the textual part.

There is a certain fluidity in the terminology referring to compositions of a popular nature, especially in the first decades of the 16th century, and thus the terms villotta, villanella, villanesca initially define pieces of a similar nature, and gradually become differentiated on the basis of certain specificities, without losing the programmatic reference to the peasant world, that of the "villani". The villanella, in particular, soon took the definition of neapolitan and found its own well-defined identity from the first printing of Canzoni villanesche by Johannes de Colonia (Naples, 1537). Thanks to certain specific characteristics, such as the writing in three voices, the parallel fifths and the use of the Neapolitan language, the villanella became one of the most successful genres from the mid-1500s onwards and was widely cultivated in the cultured sphere by the greatest musicians of the time. The situation is somewhat different with regard to the villotta: the term seems to refer to genuinely popular compositions from northern Italy, above all from the Veneto area, which from the 1520s onwards we find in the so-called commedie villanesche. These are theatrical performances in which actors, musicians, dancers and acrobats staged the world of the “villani”, a caricatured representation of the peasant world designed for the entertainment of the lords. For example, Marin Sanudo, in his Diarii, tells us about the performances of Ruzante's company at the Este court in Ferrara in 1524, and how they performed "vilote".  The tenor of these performances is well described by Sanudo, who, referring to another performance by Ruzante, recounts how "then Ruzante and Menato from Padua disguised as peasants did a comedia vilanesca totally lascivious, and with very dirty words [...]The whole point was on sex and cheat on husbands". The process of transformation from purely popular modes and the ennobling of the genre seems to have continued around the middle of the century, the villotta became in that period something deeply different, as evidenced by the publication between 1557 and 1569 of the three volumes of Villotte del fiore in four voices by Filippo Azzaiolo (c. 1530 - after 1570). We know very little about the life of this author, who was apparently born in Bologna and sang in one of the chapels of his native city, but his collections established a canon that was to become indispensable for the villotta genre. The extraordinary success of the first two printings, published anonymously, led the author to reveal himself in the third and thus link his name to some of the best-known pieces of this repertoire. Within these collections we find compositions that have a precise correspondence with some of the instrumental dances proposed on the disc. We have thus placed the two versions side by side, entrusting only the soprano line to the voice and writing the other voices in tablature for the lutes, a practice that was already well documented at the time and which seems to have been the main mode of performance for the "villanesco" genre. The pairs Ti parti cor mio caro / La Torza, Gentil Madonna (same title for vocal and instrumental), Chi passa per sta strada / Padoana detta Chi passa offer mirrored yet very different versions of the same pieces, in a play of cross-references that illuminate the various musical and textual facets. The pair Al dì dolce ben mio / La gamba plays on a different mechanism of recall: in the vocal piece the citation of the instrumental piece, the famous theme known as La Gamba or La cara cossa, introduced by an invitation to dance and defined in the text as gagliarda, is set in a privileged position.

In addition to the pieces from Azzaiolo, we have included in the programme two of the best-known compositions from the 16th century, La bella Franceschina and La Girometta. These are two popular themes by an anonymous author, found in a large number of manuscripts and prints from the 16th and 17th centuries, which were then reworked in various ways by famous composers. La bella Franceschina, which gives its title to the disc, is a theme with a complex musical and textual tradition, including instrumental and vocal music in no less than 12 different printed versions between 1520 and 1597. Interestingly, in almost all these versions there are substantial differences in the melody of the piece. Luca Marenzio gave his own version in the madrigal Diversi linguaggi from the collection Selva di varia ricreatione by Orazio Vecchi (1590), and from this version onwards the melodic profile of the piece seems to have stabilised. This is the version we have referred to, interpreting it freely. The text of Franceschina is also attested in many variants, but all of them contain the nonsense wordplay that characterises the piece.

Domenico Cerasani

Posted in :

News,Latest news