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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 17 Commercial and Literary Music
Richard Taruskin

And what were the songs like that the early printers printed, the early collectors collected, and the early consumers consumed? They differed markedly, like their languages, from country to country, in contrast to the sacred lingua franca of the ars perfecta. At first they all reflected the earlier courtly fixed forms in their poetry, but their novel musical textures reflected the new conditions of trade.

The Italian part-song or frottola as published by Petrucci in the early years of the century was a lightweight affair; the name was derived from the Latin frocta, meaning a motley group of trifling objects. A whiff of that slightly pejorative nuance clung to the genre. The best translation of frottola might be “a trifling song.” Formally speaking, it was very much like the last Italian vernacular genre we encountered, several chapters back, in the late years of the fourteenth century. That was the ballata, the “dance song,” which (like the French virelai) consisted of a number of strophic ballade-like stanzas (aab) and a ripresa or refrain with music corresponding to the “b” of the stanza. As noted in chapter 4, a representation of the form that truly reflected its structure would be B aab B, but since convention requires that the first letter in any representation of a formal scheme be an A, the scheme usually given is A bba A.

With the frottola—or, to be a little more precise, the barzelletta (possibly named after the French bergerette), the most popular refrain form of several—the scheme is actually a little simpler, since the refrain now takes in all the music of the stanza. Thus the barzelletta can be straightforwardly represented as AB aab AB, which begins to look a little like the old French rondeau. If it helps, then, one could think of the barzelletta as a modified ballata or a hybrid virelai/rondeau. As that old-fashioned pedigree attests, of all sixteenth-century vernacular genres the frottola was the most aristocratic. As a sample, Ex. 17-1 contains a barzelletta from Petrucci’s seventh book of frottole (1507).

Vernacular Song Genres: ItalyVernacular Song Genres: Italy

ex. 17-1 Marco Cara, Mal un muta per effecto

The suave but simple music of this song was the work of Marco Cara (d. ca. 1525), one of the two leading frottolists employed at the smallish court of Mantua in the north-central Italian area known as Lombardy. The mistress of that court was the duchess Isabella d’Este, the daughter of Ercole I of Ferrara, famous in music history as the patron whose name Josquin des Prez turned into a Mass tenor (see Ex. 14-3). Isabella, who probably would have hired famous Flemings if she could have afforded them, instead became the patroness who oversaw—through Cara and his colleague Bartolomeo Tromboncino (“the little guy with the trombone”)—the rebirth of Italian song as a literate tradition.

Everything about Cara’s song, however, bespeaks its origin in oral practice. And that is the answer to the famous question posed by the apparent gap between the late fourteenth-century ballata, obsolete by 1430, and the early sixteenth-century frottola. What happened to the fifteenth century, the quattrocento, when Italian music seemed to disappear? The answer is that the frottola was a quattrocento genre that for want of prestige and noble patronage had not managed to establish itself as a literate one. The sudden explosion of frottola writing was just that: an explosion of writing (or writing down), stimulated by the printing trade, not a sudden or unprecedented explosion of creativity.

Oral genres, as we have long since learned, are formulaic genres. The attractively lilting or dancelike rhythms in Cara’s frottola are all stock formulas, common to dozens of barzellette, that were originally devised for the musical recitation of poetry in the so-called ottonario, a popular eight-syllable trochaic pattern favored by Italian court poets and musicians. The original rhyme scheme of the ottonario verse (somewhat modified in Cara’s song) is abab/bcca; the music supplies three phrases—a, b, and c (plus a decorative flourish for the end of the refrain)—keyed to the specific requirements of the rhyme scheme. Each line or pair of lines takes the musical formula corresponding to its place in the rhyme scheme; and each formula ends with a cadence, made emphatic by a pitch-repetition on the last trochee. The cadences thus create a pattern of open and closed phrases that works tonally to define and project the poem’s formal scheme. Such formulas were “popular” both in the sense that they were widely used and enjoyed and in the sense that, compared with the lofty poetry of the trecento, they represented in their obvious and jingly rhythms a debased poetic tone—even an “antiliterary” one, as their leading American historian, James Haar, has put it.3

A musical composition like the one in Ex. 17-1, then, was not so much a song as a kind of matrix for song-making; a melodic/harmonic mold into which countless poems could be poured. The song as it appears in print is a sort of transcription from life: a snapshot of an improvisation, or of a pattern abstracted from countless improvisations. The “improvisatory hypothesis” is strengthened by the inclusion in several Petrucci frottola prints of textless aere or modi—“arias” or “ways,” recitation formulas for declaiming poems in various meters (see Ex. 17-2 for the “way of singing sonnets” as given textlessly in Petrucci’s fourth book)—and by the inclusion of what the publisher called giustiniane: lavishly ornamented “Giustinian songs,” named after Leonardo Giustiniani or Giustinian (1383–1446), a Venetian courtier who was famous for extemporizing florid impromptu arias to his own accompaniment on the lira da braccio or “arm-held lyre,” a sort of bowed lute much favored by humanists for its pseudoclassical associations. Again the impression is that of a model for decorative singing, a style of improvisation that could be learned from such examples and applied to other songs—indeed, to any song.

The appearance of Cara’s songs in Petrucci’sbook as four-partpolyphonic settings in correct if rudimentary counterpoint might seem to contradict the improvisatory hypothesis. Anything is possible with practice, of course, but improvisation is generally a soloist’s domain. Closer inspection of Ex. 17-1 lessens the apparent contradiction. Only the cantus part is texted. The other parts do not always have enough notes to accommodate the words, particularly at cadences. Now there is no reason to think that singers could not easily have adapted the lower parts to the words for a fully texted vocal rendition; but that does not seem to have been the primary medium for these songs. Rather, putting them in part books was just the most versatile or adaptable or presentable (or—perhaps more to the point—saleable) way of marketing them.

Vernacular Song Genres: Italy

fig. 17-2 Poetry recitation to the accompaniment of a lira da braccio: woodcut from Luigi Pulci’s epic Morgante maggiore (Florence, ca. 1500).

As to the primary medium, connect these facts. Petrucci issued three books of frottole arranged by a lutenist named Franciscus Bossinensis (“Francis from Bosnia”) con tenori et bassi tabulati et con soprani in canto figurato, “with the tenors and basses written in lute tablature and the sopranos in staff notation.” One of the primary tasks for which the Regola rubertina, Silvestro di Ganassi’s mid-century viol treatise, trained its readers was that of reducing notated part-songs to solo songs with instrumental accompaniment. Especially pertinent: in several contemporary writings, including Baldesar Castiglione’s famous Book of the Courtier, Marchetto Cara is described as a renowned “singer to the lute”4 — that is, a self-accompanied vocal soloist, if not an improviser.

Vernacular Song Genres: Italy

ex. 17-2 “Modo di cantar sonetti” from Ottaviano Petrucci, Strambotti, ode, frottole, sonetti. Et modo de cantar versi latini e capituli. Libro quarto (1505)

The conclusion is virtually inescapable that frottole were originally and primarily solo songs for virtuoso singers to lute or other instrumental accompaniment; that Bossinensis, far from arranging Cara’s and Tromboncino’s part-songs for a secondary medium, was in fact returning them from a printer’s all-purpose adaptation to their original medium for the benefit of amateurs—parvenus who could not “intabulate” by ear or at sight like professionals (or true aristocrats); and that this soloistic mode of performance was a standard option throughout the century. (From which it will follow that the “monodic revolution” of the early seventeenth century that, as we shall soon see, ushered in the “Baroque era” was no revolution at all, and that “Baroque” singing styles—“improvised” ornaments and all—were perfectly familiar and available to “Renaissance” musicians.)

The frottola was the first literate musical genre since the fourteenth century to be produced by Italians for Italians. Its style was so different from that of the oltremontani, the northerners (from “over the mountains”) in Italy who furnished the wealthier Italian courts and churches with polyphonic music, that one senses a deliberate opposition of taste, one that was maintained all through the quattrocento when, as Haar has observed, “one expected the polyphonists to be oltremontani, the improvisatory music makers to be Italian.”5 Only in the sixteenth century did crossovers begin to occur. The Italian pupils of Willaert and others of their generation eventually took over the ars perfecta genres, as we have seen. Crossover in the opposite direction was much rarer. The very act of converting the frottola repertory into a written repertory like that of the oltremontani could of course be viewed as a crossover phenomenon; but frottole actually composed by oltremontani were veritable hen’s teeth.

It is quite revealing of some stubborn biases of music historiography that these hen’s teeth—especially the two items out of the six hundred or so in Petrucci’s collections that bear the name of “Josquin Dascanio”—are now the most famous representatives of the genre. And very unrepresentative representatives they are! This is especially true of the one frottola that every “early music” enthusiast is likely to know: El Grillo (“The cricket”), from Petrucci’s third book (1504), of which the refrain is given in Ex. 17-3.

Josquin Dascanio, if re-spelled with an apostrophe after the “D,” translates as “Ascanio’s Josquin”—in other words, Josquin des Prez during his period of service to Ascanio Sforza, the bishop of Milan. It would be too much to say that El Grillo would never have become famous were it not for the brand name it bore; it is a delightfully amusing composition and deserves its popularity. And yet the fact remains that it was not singled out for popularity in its own day. It is found only in the one source from which it is quoted here, whereas many other frottole and related items (including the other Josquin Dascanio number printed by Petrucci, a Latin-refrained but otherwise Italian lauda called In te Domine speravi) were copied and recopied dozens of times.

And the fact also remains that the piece shows Josquin Dascanio to have been very much of an outsider where the frottola was concerned, perhaps even a little “unclear on the concept.” Cara’s song (Ex. 17-1), a typical frottola, is basically an elegant medium for the poem. It does not compete with the words, so to speak, in rendering their meaning. It is not, to recall Haar’s useful distinction, a “literary” song. Josquin’s setting is literary through and through. It was probably meant as a carnival song, to be sung in costume, and with appropriate (not overly decorous) gestures.

Vernacular Song Genres: Italy

ex. 17-3 “Josquin Dascanio,” El Grillo, mm. 1-21

The music corresponds in clear (and clearly intentional) ways with the semantics of the text: chi tiene longo verso (“he holds out his verses long”) is illustrated by literally holding out the verse long; the hockets and the patter on dale, beve grillo, canta (“go on, cricket, drink and sing”) is so clearly meant as a literal imitation of the cricket’s actual “chirping” (or leg-rubbing) that we get the point even though the imitation is far from literal or even in any way accurate. Such “imitations of nature” are delightfully amusing. It will be well to keep in mind, though, when we come shortly to a later Italian repertory that relied heavily on “musico-literary” imitations and illustrations, that no matter how seriously they may be intended, such things operate, as they do in Josquin’s clever nonsense song, on mechanisms of wit—the drawing of unexpected or unlikely correspondences—and are basically a form of humor.


(3) James Haar, Essays on Italian Poetry and Music in the Renaissance, 1350–1600 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), p. 32.

(4) Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Charles S. Singleton (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday [Anchor Books], 1959), p. 60.

(5) Haar, Essays on Italian Poetry and Music, p. 36.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 2 Aug. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 2 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 2 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017002.xml