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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


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

Nevertheless, it is not until the next (last) generation of trecento composers that we begin to find ballate in a truly gallicized style—that is, ballate with their form adapted to the French manner by means of a “contained” refrain (or, to put it another way, with a “turnaround” or volta consisting of a new verse sung to the refrain melody), with open-and-shut cadences for the inner verses, and a three-part texture that included a contratenor. Such ballate could be called Italian virelais, and their great master—regarded by all his contemporaries as the greatest musician of the trecento—was a blind Florentine organist named Francesco Landini (1325–97).

Of all trecento composers Landini has by far the largest surviving body of works—though it is hard to say whether that fact reflects his greater productivity or the greater zeal with which his compositions were preserved. Out of more than 150 compositions by him that have come down to us, only fifteen (twelve madrigals, a caccia, and a couple of miscellaneous songs, one in French) are anything but polyphonic ballate. Of the ballate, about forty, or one-third, have the French three-part texture.

This enormous emphasis on what was originally the humblest and least literary of the trecento genres reflects a changed social setting. Where the early madrigalists had competed for laurels at the courts of the northern Italian nobility, Landini and his Florentine contemporaries made music for the Florentine ruling class, which was an urban mercantile and industrial elite. (As Dante noted sadly, there was no central court or noble residence in Florence; it was a republican city-state.) Landini’s Frenchified ballata style may have reflected the tastes of that class, which maintained a lively commerce with their French counterparts. Florentine businessmen spent much of their time in French-speaking centers to the north and west, and learned the French language as a matter of business necessity. The later fourteenth century was a period during which the Tuscan vernacular language itself, to say nothing of the local art-music, suffered a great influx of gallicisms.


ex. 10-4 Lorenzo Masini, Non so qual i’ mi voglia (ballata; text by Boccaccio)

Like many of the troubadours, Landini was born into the artisan class, which in Florence was no impediment to social prominence. His father had been a church painter, and he himself earned his living (and much of his local fame) as an organ technician. So it is not surprising that the works of an artisan musician within an urban industrial community should have differed greatly from those composed by literati (university-trained clerics) for dynastic courts. Landini’s ballate do not so much evoke bountiful pastoral surroundings or extol voluptuary pleasures or narrate venereal conquests as communicate personal feeling—often the conventionalized love-longing of the troubadours (by the fourteenth century more a “bourgeois” affectation than a noble sentiment). Therein lay the difference between the “madrigal culture” of the noble north and the “ballata culture” of the Tuscan trading centers.

The three-voiced, thus presumably later Non avrà ma’ pietà (“She’ll never pity me,” Ex. 10-5) was one of Landini’s most popular ballate, and it is one of the most thoroughly gallicized as well. The texture, with a single texted cantus accompanied by an untexted tenor and contratenor, is indistinguishable from that of a virelai. The open and shut cadences of the middle verses or piedi (first on the “supertonic,” then on the final) are reminiscent of Machaut. Besides the language of the text, only the “clumping” of the poem’s syllables between melismas at the beginnings and ends of lines remains characteristically Italian.

And yet Landini’s fingerprint is unmistakable, owing to the use of a cadential ornament originally so peculiar to him as to bear his name, though it eventually became a stylistic commonplace in the thoroughly internationalized music of the fifteenth century. Every one of the three standard “double leading-tone” cadences in the ripresa (refrain or “A” section) of Non avrà ma’ pietà (mm. 10–11, 16–17, 28–29), and the final cadences (both open and shut) in the piedi show the same melodic progression to the final, in which the subtonium (or note-below-the-final) proceeds down an additional scale step (from the seventh degree above the final to the sixth) before leaping up to the ending note, its behavior resembling what we would now call an “escape tone.” (Besides the structural cadences as noted, one can see the ornament in mm. 3–4 and 46–47 as well; all occurrences of it are bracketed in Ex. 10-5.)

This 7–6–1 cadence, sometimes called the “under-third” cadence, is more commonly called the “Landini cadence” or “Landini sixth.” As the counterpoint in Non avrà ma’ pietà shows, moreover, it is often allied with a hemiola pattern ( in the cantus against in the tenor and contratenor) that produces a characteristic precadential syncopation. (The syncopation, too, would become a standard feature of fifteenth-century counterpoint, eventually emphasized by a characteristic dissonance that we now call a suspension.) For once the personalized term is not a misnomer. “Gregorian chant” may not have much to do with Gregory, nor the “Guidonian Hand” with Guido, but the Landini cadence is fairly associated with Landini, whose ballate were, as Michael Long has put it, “the first body of polyphonic works in which it appears with systematic regularity and structural weight”5structural because the cadences it decorates are typically, though not exclusively, those that correspond to the ends of verse lines.


ex. 10-5 Francesco Landini, Non avrà ma’ pietà (ballata)

And yet the cadence can also be viewed as a typically trecento melodic pattern, found even in monophonic Florentine ballate, like Donna l’altrui mirar (“O Lady, who belongest to another”) by Gherardello da Firenze (d. 1363), where it seems to recall the “sigh-figure” of expressively descending paired notes (Ex. 10-6). Gherardello, an older contemporary and countryman of Landini’s, was also the author of the caccia Tosto che l’alba, sampled in Ex. 10-3. What Landini did was to give the “under-third” cadence a home within the newly Frenchified polyphonic texture, thus making it exportable.

One of the ways we know that Landini’s ballata Non avrà ma’ pietà was exceptionally popular is its inclusion in the Faenza keyboard manuscript, put together about two decades after Landini’s death. We first met this manuscript in chapter 9 as a source for the Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor and for a ballade by Machaut. The mixed contents of the book is another indication that Italian and French styles were fast interpenetrating by the end of the fourteenth century. When we remember that Landini was the foremost organist in Italy, and that this had been his chief claim to contemporary fame, it is hard not to speculate on the extent to which the keyboard arrangements in Faenza may reflect his improvisatory skills.


ex. 10-6 Gherardello da Firenze, Donna l’altrui mirar (monophonic ballata), cadences embellished with “Landini sixth”


ex. 10-7 Faenza version of Non avrà ma’ pietà

Like the arrangement of Machaut’s De toutes flours (Ex. 9-10), the arrangement of Non avrà ma’ pietà (of which the first section is given in Ex. 10-7) consists of a virtuoso filigree over the original tenor. The filigree in this case conforms rather more to the outlines of the original cantus part than in the case of Machaut’s piece; compare the notes marked “+” in Ex. 10-7 with the cantus of Ex. 10-5.

Certain features of the florid part in this setting have struck some commentators as unidiomatic for the keyboard. One is the tendency of the parts to cross, or to occupy the same note (= key). Another is the use of rapid repeated notes, as in the first cadence of the first part. These features would seem less problematical, the same writers have suggested, if the piece were re-imagined as a duet for two lutes, played (as was then the custom) with quills or plectrums. But if this is a notated lute duet, it is a completely isolated specimen. Nor are lutenists ever shown reading from sheet music in pictures before the sixteenth century.

At any rate, we may have here a kind of chance aural snapshot of the kind of music-making for which Landini was especially distinguished in his daily life as a musician, which was ineluctably “oral,” not literate. (For one very obvious physical reason Landini could not have read any music, not even his own, from this or any book; it is worth mentioning, too, that he was only the first of many famous blind organists in the history of European music—the line extends right up to the twentieth century, with the organists Helmut Walcha and Jean Langlais, the latter also a noted composer.) But of course there is no reason to assume that this particular intabulation is a transcription of Landini’s actual performances. On the contrary, the intabulator seems not even to have known that the work in question was a ballata: the sections after the first main cadence are marked “second part of the first part” and “second main part”; there is no indication that the “first part” is the one that actually ends the piece.


(5) Michael Long, “Landini’s Musical Patrimony: A Reassessment of Some Compositional Conventions in Trecento Polyphony,” JAMS XL (1987): 31.

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. 4 Aug. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010006.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 4 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010006.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 4 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010006.xml