Monday, August 27, 2012

Lowde Mynstralcyes

Lowde mynstralcyes, indeed.  That's what Chaucer calls a huge gathering of minstrels and jongleurs he wrote about in his work House of Fame.  He describes it as a dream sequence, but some musicologists believe that he must have been a witness to one of the annual Lenten minstrel schools that took place in Europe throughout the 14th century and a bit beyond (and which some say began as early as the 12th century). 

I want to tell you something about these gatherings.  It's an arresting thought:  minstrels, particularly instrumentalists, coming together from many countries to share repertoire, learn new techniques, trade or purchase instruments, recruit new players, and form personal connections, all at the expense of the lords or municipalities who employed them, and who wanted their musicians to be au courant for the honor, prestige, and pleasure of their masters at home.

I want to and I will, but I'm late in posting this, and time is at a premium for me just now.   So let me just - for now - share with you a bit of personal history that probably explains why the idea of such international musical gatherings so intrigues me.  In a week or so, as time permits, I'll write that blog post; meanwhile, consider this the preamble.

I have some idea of what this extraordinary week-long experience might have felt like to the musicians.  For years, my husband and I attended a week-long medieval music workshop every summer.  We brought along our shawms, crumhorns, and recorders.  We traveled halfway across the continent to get there, and it was a major investment of time and money.

Once there, we found friends from far-flung places, people we never saw at any other time, and greeted them happily.  We plunged into a frenzy of intense musical activity, forming classes and performing groups according to our most immediate needs and interests.  We pushed ourselves, not wanting to miss a moment.

Trying to do it all

All of us ate together, slept in spartan dormitory rooms, and lived and breathed music from the moment we awakened to when we finally collapsed, late at night.  We learned, experimented, performed, clowned around, partied, and shared experiences.

It must have been very much the same for the minstrels.

Was it intense for them too?  I should think so.  Was it exhausting?  It must have been, especially on top of all the rigors of travel in the 14th century.

Tired musicians

Was it exhilarating?  I'll bet it was.

One thing we found at our workshop was the phenomenon of the Wednesday Meltdown.  That was the point, midweek, when we had all crammed our heads so full of new information and experiences that we suddenly couldn't remember which end was up.

That fingering?  I dunno - am I trying to play a D soprano shawm with the same fingerings I used yesterday for a G alto recorder?  What's the chance that it might actually work?

Are we transposing?  Which line is that C-clef on, and what does that mean if I'm on the bass line?  If we're reading period notation, how do I know how many units of perfection there are if I don't know whether that's a dot of augmentation or a dot of division?

Are all of us in the same hexachord here?  And if we aren't, who's going to do what with the ficta to make the cadence work?  If we're improvising, can I play a 6th above the tenor here or not, if it's 3-part discant?

This is the point where you believe in all sincerity that you've forgotten everything you ever knew, including your name.  In the end, you just pick up an instrument and honk on it until something works.

Oddly enough, I've seen people drop out of classes they think are too demanding, but only on Monday or Tuesday.  I've never seen somebody give up on a Wednesday.  I think by that time we're all so deeply involved in what we're doing that it simply doesn't occur to us.

Ah, but Thursday...  Thursday is different.  We wake in the morning, and somehow something has shifted.  We know what we're doing again.  In fact, it's really not so hard, after all.  And I've got some new ideas I want to try...

Then at the end of the day, after listening to strains of Machaut, Dunstable, and Landini issuing from the classrooms, we gather on the porch at night, relaxing and sharing a bottle of wine (okay, several bottles of wine), and singing what must sound to an outsider like Beatles tunes, of all things.  Until the listener realizes that the words are something like, "Machaut, ma beau, these are words that well together go, ma Machaut..."

Was it like that for the minstrels?  I'd like to think it was.  (Possibly minus the Beatles songs.)  Check back for the post that's the Real Thing, where we delve into this phenomenon in detail.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Comic Opera, or Medieval Tabloid Fodder?

Scene from Gianni Schicchi

 Both, actually.

Opera fans know Gianni Schicchi as a one-act comic opera by Giacomo Puccini, written in 1917-18 and with a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano (an Italian dramatist whose later association with Benito Mussolini and the fascist regime irreparably damaged his career and reputation).

Giacomo Puccini

 Operas are notorious for ending with one or more dead characters, but this charming little work begins with one.  It's set in Florence in the year 1299, and it tells the story of how Gianni Schicchi, a clever man with a gift for mimicry, successfully impersonated the just-deceased Buoso Donati in order to dictate a will that left the deceased's estate to his family.  Buoso's family had recruited Gianni to help them out because Buoso's actual will gave most of his money to the church - not an unusual thing to do when someone reached the end of his life believing that he had practiced usury, and thus had to make amends for the sake of his soul.

In the course of enriching Buoso's family, Gianni managed to enrich himself quite a bit as well, leaving money and possessions to himself (while disguised as a dying Buoso).  Buoso's relatives could hardly object without giving away their own part in the deception, so the mimic and those who employed him all profited, with only the church losing out.

The opera also adds a love story between Gianni's daughter Lauretta, who is in need of a dowry, and Rinuccio, a relative of Buoso's, whose family opposes the match.

Florence Easton as Lauretta, December 1918

 Hijinks ensue, including hiding Buoso's body and putting Gianni Schicchi in the dead man's bed and clothes, the better to fool the notary.  Various members of the Donati family take turns secretly proffering bribes to Gianni, each wanting a larger cut of the inheritance.  Naturally Gianni outsmarts them all, pulls off his performance brilliantly, provides his daughter with a generous dowry, courtesy of the late Buoso, and they all live happily ever after.

I've known this opera for years, and I'm embarrassed to say how long it took me to realize that it was talking about real people and - very likely - a real incident, or at least a very venerable and persistent urban legend.

I know a little something about the Donati family around that time.  They've been a focus for my research for years:  Gemma Donati, who married Dante, and her tempestuous cousin Corso, a knight and a leader of the Guelf party, who came alarmingly close to becoming the Signore of Florence.

The Donati were numerous, their clan consisting of lots of different branches.  They were old nobility in Florence in Dante's time.  The contemporary chronicler Dino Compagni (see recent post) said of the Donati, comparing them to the nouveau riche
Cerchi clan, that they were "of more ancient lineage, but not so rich."

So - where else, besides an early 20th century opera, can we find this story?

It all goes back to Dante.  (In this blog, it usually does.)  Dante placed Gianni Schicchi in the Inferno, Canto XXX, the Circle of the Impersonators.  There the wretched Gianni has been driven mad with rage, and he "ran biting in the manner of the pig when the sty is opened."  (Translation by Robert M. Durling.)

Gianni Schicchi in hell
As Dante watches, Gianni sinks his teeth into Capocchio, another damned soul, whose body was burned at the stake in Siena in 1293 for his alchemical pursuits, which is how he finds himself among the falsifiers in Dante's hell.

One suspects Dante may not have appreciated the humor in Gianni's escapade.  All Dante tells us of Gianni Schicchi is that he acquired "the queen of the herd" by posing as Buoso Donati and dictating a will.

We know the Gianni Schicchi story, as it turns out, from several early commentators on Dante's Divine Comedy.  They tell us that Gianni Schicchi and Simone Donati (Buoso's son, or in other versions his nephew) conspired to commit their fraud, that Simone hid Buoso's body, and that Gianni willed himself Buoso's prize mare (some say she-mule).

The chronicle the opera libretto is based on was written around 1400 by a person known as Anonimo Fiorentino.  His chronicle stood out among others for the wealth of historical background he provided about the persons and events Dante wrote of.

A page from Anonimo Fiorentino's commentary on Dante's Commedia
Digression alert:  Some of you know that I enjoy employing automatic translation from time to time, amusing myself with the garbled results.  It is said that the Anonimo Fiorentino was not particularly strong in literary analysis, but someone writing about him apparently was, to judge from this automatically-translated quote:

"...but well clear, even to a hasty reader of ancient exegetical tradition as long as practical, the character of its own cento undoubtedly the work, although the definition, because the methods of commentary and the usual technical compilatoria of the middle, does not imply a priori a value judgment."  Very - um - professorial, I'm sure.

End digression, and back to our friend Anonimo.

Anonimo tells us that Gianni Schicchi was from the Calvalcanti family.  Although the opera libretto suggests that the Donati considered Gianni to be their social inferior, the Cavalcanti were a wealthy and distinguished family, including knights.  Guido Cavalcanti, Dante's "first friend,"  poet and intellectual, was the son of a knight, and certainly he moved in the highest social and political circles of Florence in the latter part of the thirteenth century.

Gianni Schicchi's partner in plotting was Simone Donati, says Anonimo, who calls Simone Buoso's son.  (We will, in a moment, attempt to figure out exactly who Simone and Buoso were, historically.)

We learn from Anonimo that Gianni Schicchi, imitating the late Buoso's voice, dictated to the notary a will in which he left to his dear friend Gianni Schicchi his valuable mule, as well as 500 florins.  Simone attempted to demur, but Gianni was having none of it, and Simone "kept silent out of fear."

So.  Who was this Simone?  Some say it was Corso's father (remember Corso?), a knight, a prominent Guelf, and a man who had served as capitano or podesta in several other cities, a mark of considerable distinction.  That Simone died in the mid-1290s, which would rule out the opera's purported date of 1299.  (Not that one expects much historical accuracy from operas.)  But almost every generation of Donati ever recorded has at least one Simone, and there are also at least three Buosos in two different generations in the thirteenth century.

Since historians claim that Gianni Schicchi was dead by 1282, that pushes our date back even further.  The opera, by the way, states Simone's age as 70, and calls him Buoso's cousin.  The historical Simone-Corso's-father was probably at the very least in his mid-twenties when Corso was born in about 1250.  If we posit that he was born in, say, 1225, and that the incident took place in, say, 1280, he would have been only 55.  (However, had he lived until 1299, he would indeed have been close to 70.)  But hey, it's an opera.  Let's get back to the historical record.

What about Buoso?  There was a Buoso Donati mentioned in a document in 1213; he had no sons.  In the next generation we find two Buosos:  one was Buoso son of Ubertino, who lived at least until 1308; the other was his cousin Buoso son of Vinciguerra, who died in about 1280.  The latter was married to one Adalina.

Kathleen Howard playing Zita, one of Buoso's relatives (1918)
To complicate matters, in the next generation we find Buoso son of Forese, Forese also being the father of Simone-Corso's-father.  (The Donati had a lot of Foreses, too.)  This Buoso was the father of Gasdia and Taddeo.

None of our Buosos has a son named Simone.  How about a nephew?

Why, yes.  Buoso son of Vinciguerra is brother to Forese, who is father to Simone-Corso's-father.  Thus, Simone is that Buoso's nephew.  And that Buoso died in 1280, so he has my vote.

Yet another reason to disbelieve the opera on the date, by the way, is that the Cavalcanti and Donati families were on opposite sides of the political fence by 1299, siding with the White and the Black Guelfs respectively.  Not so back in 1280.

I should note that some historians believe it was Simone's brother Buoso, the father of Gasdia and Taddeo, who died, and Taddeo who conspired with Gianni.

But I think the best case is this:  Buoso di Vinciguerra died in 1280, and his nephew Simone-Corso's-father perpetrated the fraud with the help of Gianni Schicchi, a member of the Cavalcanti family.  Simone would have been at least 55, and his son Corso (who by then was married to a member of the Cerchi family - remember the Cerchi?) was 30 or thereabouts.

What did Dante know, personally, of Simone?  Dante would have known that Simone gave his daughter in marriage to a political foe as part of a peacemaking initiative (it didn't work out very well; the peace didn't last, and Simone's son-in-law was executed); that he was warned by city officials against troublemaking and inconveniencing a parish church on at least one occasion; and that he was said to have forced a young girl to accede to his desires by accusing her father (probably falsely) of horse theft, imprisoning him, and putting him to the torture. All of these things happened before 1280.

And yet, Simone also played a major role in peace negotiations with Cardinal Latino, the papal legate, in 1279-80.  He was known as a skillful warrior and orator, he went on various missions as an ambassador, and he was knighted by the Guelf party for his leadership.  A complex man, Simone had suffered exile for a period in the 1260s, following the Ghibelline victory at the battle of Montaperti, and lost (with his brothers) a great deal of property:  two towers and houses in the parish of Santa Maria Alberghi, and in a nearby rural area another tower, two palaces, and two mills, at a total value of 2200 lire.  

We should bear in mind that these men - Simone and Gianni Schicchi - were almost certainly men Dante knew personally, from his neighborhood, his church, and his political party.  Florence, a major city at that time, was a mid-size town by modern standards, probably approaching a population of 100,000, and most people in the noble or knightly class did know each other.  If Dante believed this tale of Simone and Gianni, there may well have been something to it.  Certainly many other people back then knew the story.

I don't know if this background makes the opera any more enjoyable for you; it does for me.  Here is a clip of a short excerpt:  Gianni is singing to the assembled Donati family, warning them that they dare not expose him because by so doing they would expose themselves to the penalty for fraud:  exile ("like a Ghibelline") and the loss of a hand.

Images in this post are in the public domain.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

They really knew how to make a guy feel welcome

Giostra del Saracino, Via Larga, Firenze

Recently, while researching another topic entirely, I found a description of a fifteenth-century Florentine party that absolutely boggled my mind, and I couldn't resist sharing it here.

I was doing some reading about late medieval wind bands, and I picked up a book by musicologist and music historian Timothy McGee, called The Ceremonial Musicians of Late Medieval Florence.  In the course of describing some of the elaborate ceremonies with which the Florentines marked special occasions - religious holidays, celebrations of military victories, knightings, investiture of officers, visits by foreign dignitaries, and so forth -  he gave us a detailed description of two overlapping visits in 1459 that illustrates the lengths to which fifteenth-century Florentines would go to do honor to their guests (and by so doing, bring honor to their city).

The first visitor:  the young Count Galeazzo Maria Sforza, fifteen-year-old son of Duke Francesco I of Milan, sent to Florence to meet Cosimo de' Medici and help cement the alliance between the two cities.  Young Galeazzo was also to have the opportunity to meet the second visitor, Pope Pius II (Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini), who was to stop at Florence on his way to Mantua for a church council. 

Here are Florence's two honored guests, that spring of 1459 (though the portrait of Galeazzo Maria was painted about twelve years later than the visit:

Portrait of Galeazzo Maria Sforza by Piero Pollaiolo, ca. 1471

Pope Pius II

And what do we know about these two distinguished gentlemen?

The Pope is described (elsewhere, not by McGee) as intellectually gifted and ambitious, a man of letters (with poetry, a comedy, and a slightly naughty novella entitled The tale of two lovers to his credit, as well as the surprisingly frank memoirs of his papacy), a womanizer, a skillful and pragmatic political strategist, and a talented town planner who turned the village of his birth (Corsignano) into the exquisitely-designed Renaissance city of Pienza.

And Galeazzo?  He does not fare so well, at least in his later years.  Wikipedia tells us that he was famous for being lustful, cruel and tyrannical, and he was eventually to be assassinated by a group of men with a surprisingly eclectic collection of grievances.  The year after this visit he took as his mistress the lovely Lucrezia Landriani, who was the wife of his close friend, and she bore him several children, including the redoubtable Catherina Sforza.  Besides a certain proclivity for viciousness, however, he did have a more positive side:  a lover of music, he was patron to some of the finest musicians of his day, including Alexander Agricola, Johannes Martini, Loyset Compere, and Gaspar van Weerbeke.

Lucrezia Landriani
This portrait can be found attributed variously to Domenico Veneziano and to Antonio del Pollaiuolo.  I tried to check online to see which was right, but kept turning up gems like "Lucrezia Landriani (572 years old) is a famous Duke..."  So I gave up.  Next time I get to the university art library, I'll check it out and edit this, if I remember.

Anyway, on the Florentine side, we have Cosimo de' Medici, 70 years old, holding the reins of government (albeit unofficially).  His grandson Lorenzo, later to be dubbed Il Magnifico, was at this time ten years of age and probably more precocious and cute than magnificent, but he was working on it. 

But on to The Party.  It all began when Galeazzo arrived at the gates of Florence on April 17, 1459.  He had brought a few people with him:  500 of them, in fact, including the Archbishop of Milan, the captain-general of the Milanese army, a bevy of barons, knights, counts, and other nobles, and all of the various people required to take care of, cosset, and entertain all of these important folks.

Galeazzo's party was met by a mounted delegation of over 300 distinguished Florentine citizens, as well as the Priors, the Podesta, the Capitano del Popolo, the herald, and all the civic musicians (which at this point amounted to three different groups:  the trombadori, which consisted of six large trumpets, a shawm, and nakers [small kettledrums], for fanfares and announcements; the trombetti, players of smaller trumpets which had more notes available to them and therefore more musical possibilities; and the pifferi, or shawm band, which consisted of three shawms and a slide trumpet at that time).

Wind band (this configuration is a little late for 1459)
If this suggests to you that a lot of music was to take place during this visit, that's absolutely correct.  Francesco Sforza, Galeazzo's father, had a band of 18 trumpeters, at least some of whom would have come with his son, and Cosimo de' Medici had his own household musicians and singers from the church choirs, to add to the mix.

In Florence that day the shops were closed, and people filled the streets to greet the visitor.  Among the greeting committee was a group of a hundred boys, dressed in silver with pearls.  Galeazzo's carriage was preceded by fifty mules wearing his heraldic colors, but it's not clear to me whether these mules were Florentine or Milanese.  After a lot of fanfaring and church bells ringing, the whole bunch processed to the Piazza della Signoria for the official welcoming ceremony.

The order of the procession through the streets is known to us:  first Florentine famiglia (staff - civil servants, actually), then Galeazzo's famiglia; next the trombetti; the Florentine boys and the Milanese foot soldiers; the pifferi with the civic herald; Galeazzo with the Florentine Priors; the knights from both parties; and then all the other Florentine citizens.  After much more fanfaring and some speechifying, the young Galeazzo was taken to the Medici palace, where he would stay during his visit and where, presumably, he would meet the even younger Lorenzo.

And here I will digress for a moment.  Benozzo Gozzoli, who painted the magnificent fresco of The Journey of the Magi in the Medici Palace, is said to have incorporated images of both of those young men in the panel depicting the journey of the youngest king.  Some art historians dispute these attributions, but let's have a look at the images anyway.  Here's the Young King, said to be a portrait of Lorenzo:

And here, on the white horse, is the young man said to be Galeazzo:

 Some art historians believe that the second picture actually depicts Lorenzo and his younger brother Giuliano.

The Pope was not to arrive until April 26, but there is little doubt that the Florentines kept Galeazzo well entertained in the meantime, with music, feasting, various performances, and courtly dances, such as the one pictured below (note the shawms accompanying the dancers).

When the Pope did arrive, he also brought a large contingent:  many nobles from different cities, ten cardinals, sixty bishops, and quite a few priests.  Officials of the Guelf Party met him  at a monastery outside the gates of the city and escorted him, under their banner, to the gates, where the civic leaders received him.  He was then seated on a throne covered with gold brocade and carried through the streets on a litter.  (He requested that the litter be carried by the Priors; Florence said no.  I would love to have been there for that discussion!  Instead, various princes and nobles in the Pope's party served as litterbearers, and Florence's civic dignity remained untarnished.)

The Pope's entry was treated as a religious procession, complete with relics, torches, and sacred music.  All of the important people from Galeazzo's entry were there, and Galeazzo himself followed behind the Pope's litter on horseback, and behind him came the cardinals and the other churchmen.  After the welcoming ceremony at the Piazza della Signoria and a stop for the Pope to pray in the Duomo, the procession took the Pope to Santa Maria Novella, where he was to reside in the papal apartments. 

The next day, April 26, another procession took place, from Santa Maria Novella to the Duomo, where he spoke to the people and received many valuable gifts.   And on an unspecified day soon afterwards, yet another procession occurred, this one including sacre rappresentazioni (dramatic presentations of sacred stories) and floats, an ephemeral art form in which Florence excelled, all carried on a total of 46 carts. 

By April 29, they were ready to liven things up a little.  After all, Calendimaggio, the May Day festival, was almost upon them.  So that day they held a joust in the Piazza Santa Croce, with platforms for the audience.  Tapestries hung from the windows of the surrounding buildings, and each contestant was greeted by a trumpet fanfare and preceded by pages carrying standards bearing their heraldic insignia.  All the horses (and the people) were lavishly decorated.  Antonio Boscoli and Braccio Guicciardini  took first and second place, respectively, and received decorated helmets.  All finally left the field to the music of the pifferi.

The next day, April 30, involved a massive ball, with an estimated 20,000 persons in attendance.  Held in the Mercato Nuovo, this splendid occasion included lavish costumes and decorations, an elaborate dais set up for Galeazzo and the Pope, rich carpets and cloths everywhere, another raised place for the pifferi to play the music for the dancing, All sorts of banners and twenty trumpeters who saluted the arrival of each and every lady with a fanfare.  (Galeazzo got a fanfare, too.)

On May 1, Galeazzo was invited to dine with the Priors, at a particularly lavish meal  with "every kind of splendid food and elegant wine." ( The next day the Pope was the guest of honor at the Prior's mensa, and again there would have been musical performances for their dining pleasure.)

That afternoon, the visitor was treated to a caccia, a sort of bear-baiting on steroids, in which a cordoned-off Piazza della Signora contained cows, bulls, horses, wolves, wild boar, wild dogs, a giraffe, and either twelve, sixteen, or twenty-six lions, depending upon whose account you believe.  As you can imagine, this was not a particularly pacific mix.  And in the midst of this mess was a man in a large round ball about two and a half meters high, able to propel the ball where he wanted it to go and to chase the lions and wound them through openings in the ball, while remaining safe inside.  This was described by an observer as "a beautiful, grand, and ingenious thing, never before done in Italy.  And this idea came from a Florentine who had seen it done in the countries of the Sultan and in Syria."  No comment.  (Also, unfortunately, no pictures.)

That evening, in case Galeazzo wasn't entertained enough by then, the Florentines held an armeggeria for his amusement.  (That's an equestrian exhibition, featuring stylized war games and contests.)  It was held on Via Larga, and was much like the picture at the beginning of this post.  The ten-year-old Lorenzo was the signore for the event, wearing a golden jacket and cape like the Youngest King in the Gozzoli fresco.  The armeggeria also involved a certain amount of processing, this time by torchlight, and a trionfo consisting of fifty costumed youths leading The Triumph of Love, a four-sided tower three meters tall, decorated in gold and silver, on a wagon.  It featured large gold balls with falcons, fire spewing from openings on both sides, and a youth dressed as Cupid perched atop it all.

Once everyone (except for a lot of the animals) had survived May Day, things began to wind down a little.  On May 2, Galeazzo received from Florentine officials gifts that included two silver basins decorated with the emblem of the city of Florence, two tankards, and twelve engraved cups, all of which weighed 125 pounds and was valued at 2,000 florins.  (Also two boxes of candy - he was, after all, fifteen.)

Finally, on May 3, Galeazzo headed for home.  Not that he managed to just slip quietly away, of course - his departure included ceremonies and extended processions through the city streets.  Two days later, the Pope also left to continue his journey to Mantua, and then, too, there was much pomp and circumstance.

Not too shabby, for the young count, especially.  Florence had done itself proud, and finally everyone could kick back and relax and let life get back to normal.  The stores could reopen, and people could get back to doing what they did best, even better than partying, which was making money.


Postlude:  Galeazzo did make another visit twelve years later, but it was during Lent and there was no Pope in evidence, so things were much quieter and calmer.  This time he brought his wife, and an entourage of over a thousand people, with 1,500 horses and mules.  Both the Duke (as he was by then) and the Duchess, Bona of Savoy, had their own extravagant households.  An eyewitness described their entry this:  "There was a livery for his greater Camerieri, all dressed in crimson, and each one well mounted on horseback, with a greyhound on a leash.  There were also sixty pages, all dressed in green velvet, on huge coursers, all with fittings of gold and silver, and saddles covered with brocade of various colors and crimson..."  There's more, but you get the gist. 

Images in this post are all in the public domain.