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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento
Richard Taruskin

Besides motets and madrigals, Jacopo mentions a third musico-poetic genre in the Oselleto salvagio text—the ballata, which gradually stole pride of place from the madrigal over the course of the century. Ballata is the past participle of ballare, “to dance,” identifying the genre as a dance(d)-song with refrain, thus associating it with the French chanson balladé or virelai. The French and Italian dance songs were counterparts in every way, and there is good evidence that as an “art” genre the ballata was directly influenced by the virelai.

Unlike the “learned” madrigal, cultivated in universities, the ballata began as a folk or popular genre, which is to say an oral and monophonic one. The beginnings of its literate tradition can be found in a favorite book of the period, the oft-translated Decameron by the Florentine Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75), the trecento’s great prose classic. Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (for which it served as model), the Decameron is a collection of tales motivated by a situation that brings together a social microcosm, whose members regale one another with titillating, often ribald stories that vividly expose contemporary mores and social attitudes.

Ballata Culture

ex. 10-3 Gherardello da Firenze, Tosto che l’alba (caccia)

The setting is Florence in 1348, the year of the plague. A group of seven young ladies and three young gentlemen have fled the infested city to the suburbs, where they go from villa to villa, enjoying the sybaritic pleasures of the countryside as they wait out the epidemic. On each of ten days each member of the party tells a tale, and the day’s entertainments are formally concluded with the performance of a ballata—either one known by heart or, in some cases, one improvised on the spot—by a member of the company, accompanied by others (again, extemporaneously) on various instruments. It was in ostensibly “transcribing” the fruits of the oral culture, as it were, that Boccaccio made literary genres out of the secular prose tale, on the one hand, and the ballata, on the other.

The ten ballate inset within Boccaccio’s narrative consist of strophic stanzas with a refrain that either frames the lot or comes between each stanza and the next. (As usual, the oral tradition is not fully known to history.) One of them (Io me son giovinetta, “A girl am I [and gladly do rejoice at springtime]”), became a “classic,” widely set by composers of a later age (beginning in the sixteenth century), when ballate were no longer used for actual dancing, and when (therefore) their form as such was no longer heeded by composers who set them to music.

Only one ballata by Boccaccio (not in the Decameron) was set by a contemporary: Non so qual i’ mi voglia (“I know not which I would”; Ex. 10-4), with music by a Florentine composer who went by the name of Lorenzo Masini (“Lawrence, son of Thomas,” d. 1372 or 1373). Like the virelai as practiced by Machaut, the ballata remained at first a largely monophonic genre even when written down by artistically trained composers.

Non so qual i’ mi voglia resembles the ballate in the Decameron, and thus might be thought of as the “purebred” Italian ballata. But it was precisely Lorenzo’s generation of trecento composers that began showing symptoms of musical Francophilia (as a credential, perhaps, of literacy and learnedness). Lorenzo wrote a famous caccia called A poste messe (“After Mass”) in three parts, all of them canonic—in other words (but for the language of the text and the form of the poem) a chace. He also wrote a madrigal over an isorhythmic tenor in which each phrase is immediately followed by a syncopated rhythmic diminution—in other words, a madrigal-motet. And he even wrote a ballata to a French text—in other words a virelai.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 1 Apr. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 1 Apr. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010005.xml