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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


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

Jacopo da Bologna’s madrigal Oselleto salvagio (“A wild bird”), of which the first tercet is shown in Ex. 10-2a, is one of those music-about-music pieces that cast such a fascinating sidelight on the esthetics of fourteenth-century art. One also gets from it a sense of what are sometimes called “the uses of convention.”

Romantic esthetics (which we have inherited) tends to disparage conventions as being nothing but constraints on creative freedom. All that a convention is, however, is something agreed upon in advance by all parties. A contract—obviously a constraint—would be one sort of example, but so is language, especially in its semantic aspect. (Words mean what they do because we have tacitly agreed upon their definition—that is, by convention.) And so is an established artistic genre.

When artists work within well-established genres, they have made an unspoken contract with their audience, and, like the parties to a legal contract, have an awareness of what is expected from them. Yet there are many ways of honoring an expectation, in art if not in law. Not all of them are straightforward. Agreements can be honored “in the breach” as well as in the observance. Thus artists who work within established genres have the possibility of teasing their audience’s expectations and producing irony. (There can be no irony, or even humor, in the absence of conventional expectations, as a moment’s reflection will confirm.)

The “Wild Bird” SongsThe “Wild Bird” Songs

ex. 10-2a Jacopo da Bologna, Oselleto salvagio, set as madrigal, mm. 1-30

The “Wild Bird” SongsThe “Wild Bird” Songs

ex. 10-2b Jacopo da Bologna , Oselleto salvagio, set as caccia, mm. 1-12

Jacopo’s poem begins as if setting the expected pastoral scene. The wild (or forest) songbird is a standard ingredient of “pleasant places.” But having introduced the bird, the poet immediately turns it into a metaphor for song and proceeds to deliver a little sermon on the art of singing—an entirely nonconventional use of a conventional genre, but one that is tied intelligibly to the convention that is being “bent” or “sent up.” By being the medium for a discourse on good singing, Jacopo’s music thus becomes “exemplary.” It must demonstrate the sweetness and moderation it proclaims.

Therefore it eschews the kind of “florid” virtuosity we saw in Giovanni’s madrigal. It is cast in a meter—senaria perfecta, as Italian theorists would have called it—that characteristically moves exactly twice as slowly as Giovanni’s duodenaria. In Jacopo’s very lyrical setting, the fixed breve is divided into six semibreves grouped in pairs (rather than twelve grouped by four), hence eighth notes within time in transcription. One particular melodic feature that is especially characteristic of trecento music arises directly out of the senaria perfecta division. Note how frequently the paired notes take the form of descending seconds in the cantus part, cast in sequences (or, to revert to the familiar analogy, strung in garlands) with the first note in each pair repeating the second note of its predecessor in a sort of stutter. (The first instance is the delightfully syncopated initial “clump” of words in m. 5; compare it with the rhythmically more straightforward and typical clump in m. 23.)

This type of melodic motion may have been considered symbolically expressive; in later music it is called a “sigh-figure,” which puts it in the category of “iconic” representation. That is, it symbolizes emotion by mimicking the behavior of a person responding to emotion. The idea that art expresses through imitation is an old Greek idea (hence the word mimic itself, one of several English words that come from the Greek mimesis, “imitation”; others are “mime,” “mimetic,” even “[m]imitation,” which lost its initial m by being filtered through Latin). But it does not contradict the imitation theory in the slightest if we also notice that the sigh-figure falls very naturally under the hand of somebody playing on an organetto, a tiny “portative” (portable) organ held perpendicular to the body and played with one hand on the keyboard, the other on the bellows. To judge from the illuminations in the Squarcialupi Codex (including two given here as illustrations), rare was the trecento composer who did not play it. (To judge by the more detailed depictions of the portative in fifteenth-century paintings, it was fingered 2–3–2–3, etc., which would make a sequence of “sighs” virtually the easiest thing in the world to produce on it.)

But now a new irony, a new twist: Jacopo ostensibly eschewed virtuosity in his “wild bird” madrigal only to indulge it to the hilt in another setting of the same poem, in which the text is spat out so quickly that the first tercet (shown in Ex. 10-2b) takes only 12 measures in transcription. This version of Oselleto salvagio is a caccia. The word being so clearly cognate to the French chace, we may expect a canon. And a canon it is, albeit with a difference. For Italian poet-musicians the caccia was a type of madrigal (which is why Jacopo could recycle a madrigal poem in writing one). That meant a form in two sections (terzetti and ritornello), and it meant a texture consisting of a cantus (in this case running against itself in canon) over a tenor. So the Italian caccia, unlike the French chace, always had a “free” part.

But of course it was not literally free, since it had to concord harmonically with the canon that it accompanied. In fact it was more “bound,” which is to say constrained harmonically and contrapuntally, than the canon itself. For obvious reasons, a voice accompanying a canon is generally written last. So the caccia was, of all fourteenth-century genres, the most necessarily and rigorously (and literally) “top-down” in compositional or generative method. Unlike the tenors of madrigals, those of caccias never carry the text. Does that mean that they were performed by instruments? The musicological jury is still out on that one, but it is clear enough that assumptions are risky. There are many proven instances in which the presence or absence of text is not a reliable indicator of performance medium. It is worth mentioning, therefore, that literary references to the performance of madrigals or caccias never use any verb but “sing.”

Like the word chace, the word caccia had a built-in “extramusical” association, and so its subject matter frequently involved the hunt. (And like the chace, it frequently resorted to onomatopoeia, dog-language, and the like; compare Ex. 9-19 with Ex. 10-3). So again, the standard definition of the genre enabled a sophisticated composer like Jacopo to ring ironic changes on the genre’s implications. A “wild bird” in the context of a caccia meant something different from what it meant in the context of a madrigal: not song but prey. But here, too, the topic was appropriate and relevant, and so its instant metaphorization is again suitably ironic.

Also ironic, of course, is the insistence on sweet, soft, and elegant singing, since the usual caccia text (like the one tendentiously excerpted in Ex. 10-3, replete with quail, dogs, and hunter’s horn) contained so many invitations to “loud shouting.” To sing the virtuosic music in Jacopo’s caccia smoothly and in “lovely” fashion requires (as the poem warns) the ultimate in vocal control. Notice, too, that in the caccia setting of Oselleto salvagio the octonaria semibreve (that is, one-eighth of a breve, represented in transcription by a sixteenth note) gets to carry individual syllables of text. (In Giovanni de Cascia’s madrigal, that level of duration was found only in melismas.) In its caccia guise, Jacopo’s song could well have been a test for singers—or (as we have every reason to suspect) a contest piece.

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. 18 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010004.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 18 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010004.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 18 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010004.xml