Tom Strini
Early Music Now

Ferrara, Renaissance music’s avant-garde hotbed

By - Mar 17th, 2012 10:35 pm
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The d’Este Castle, Ferrara, Italy. Archivio Fotografico Provincia di Ferrara.

Want to understand music history? Follow the money.

Until the end of the 16th century, the d’Este family ran the Italian town of Ferrara. The d’Este family had tons of money and were fond of all the arts. Dukes Ercole I (1471-1505), Ercole II (1534-1559) and Alphonso II (1559-1598) spent lavishly on music, and guess what? Ferrara became the leading musical city of Italy, especially the cutting-edge stuff. Alas, Alphonso died without an heir, the pope grabbed control and that was that. It was fun while it lasted.

I know all this because Early Music Now put on a fascinating program about music in 16th-century Ferrara Saturday afternoon at the UWM Zelazo Center. The King’s Noyse, a string quintet, and Pifforo, a Renaissance wind band in which everyone seems to blow into at least four different instruments at one time or another, joined forces for this program to form an ensemble of 12, plus soprano Ellen Hargis. They just played and sang; this was no lecture-demonstration. But the program notes were helpful, and the music piqued my curiosity and I looked up the rest. Which is the whole point of a concert such as this.

Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565) was the Arnold Schoenberg of the Ferrara school. Cipriano, despite the Italianate name, grew up in the Flemish school of brainy counterpoint. Like so many Burgundian School trainees, he followed the money to Italy and began to train the locals in northern musical esoterica. He took to Italian culture and, in addition to his churchly duties, composed secular madrigals in Italian that appealed to melodically-inclined southerners. In those days, all the parts could be sung, or some could be sung or played on instruments, or all could be played.

Noyse and Piffaro exercised these liberties extensively throughout the concert. Usually, they took turns; sometimes they intermingled.

But back to Cipriano. If Saturday’s polyphonic examples are typical, he preferred to pack complex lines into relatively narrow ranges.This dense, virtuosic music is tricky, indeed, to sing or play. But the d’Estes could afford very good players, and Noyse and Piffaro are very good. Simplicity held in one piece, Anchor ceh co’l partire, which Hargis sang in her light, clear voice accompanied by modest lute and harp parts. That nearly homophonic bit wasn’t so different from playing chords on a guitar and singing, which got me to thinking: If the Ferrara school was the cutting edge, Cipriano et al were probably inching away from the old church modes toward the tonal major-minor system.

Turns out they were at the forefront of bending and stretching the once-pristine modes of Gregorian chant in all sorts of exotic ways. Cipriano, Lodovico Agostini, Luzzacho Luzzaschi and the infamous Carlo Gesualdo (he murdered his ex and her lover while they were doing it!) all had their ideas about music theory. And their ideas were influential. As the music progressed chronologically through these composers Saturday, it sounded more and more modern, even played on shawms, sackbuts, dulcians, recorders and short bows on gut strings.

In Ferrara, they played all that brainy music I’ve described thus far, the subject of learned debate by musical insiders then and now. But they danced in Ferrara, too. Piffaro and King’s Noyse played lots of dance music between rounds of the more refined stuff. The beat and lively syncopation drive the dance music, which is much more repetitive that the spiraling polyphony. Dance music leaves room for improvisation, in the divisional style, and the players took creative advantage of that. The gagliardas, pavanes, sartorellas and so on were lots of fun. They were also anonymous. Which tells you that when Cipriano and his successors played for the court balls, they probably put together informal, semi-improvised numbers based on tunes everyone knew. If they penned new ones, they felt no special need to put their names on them.

I’m guessing that in those days, there wasn’t much money in dance music.

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