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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism
Richard Taruskin

One of the first practical demonstrations, or tests, of the new radical–humanist esthetic came in 1589, when Count Bardi was asked to organize the entertainment for the wedding of the Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici of Tuscany, the brother and successor (some said the murderer) of Bardi’s original patron Francesco, to the Princess Christine of Lorraine. Seizing the opportunity, he put his friends to work on a colossally extravagant set of intermedii, allegorical pageants with music to be performed between the acts of a spoken comedy (La pellegrina, “The pilgrim girl,” by the court poet Girolamo Bargagli).

Such entr’actes were a North Italian theatrical specialty. Their original purpose was utilitarian and the music correspondingly modest: since the curtain was not lowered between the acts, the musical interludes (often instrumental, played from the wings) merely signaled the divisions of the play. Particularly in Florence, and especially at court celebrations, the intermedii became increasingly lavish and costly—a form of conspicuous consumption meant to impress invited guests with their noble host’s wealth and liberality. Their height was reached at Medici family weddings, each successive one striving hard to outdo the last.

The first Florentine ruler to glorify himself in this way was Lorenzo de’ Medici (not “the Magnificent” but his grandson, the Duke of Urbino), in 1518. The first Medici wedding for which the music survives was that of Cosimo I in 1539. It was composed by the madrigalist Francesco Corteccia, and consists of motets and madrigals for up to 24 voices, doubled by full family choirs of instruments. This was “concerted” music before its time, so to speak; but the instruments did not yet have independent parts. Between the concerted numbers, a singer representing Apollo sang to the “lyre,” probably a lute or harp. His music is not notated; presumably it consisted of “arias” improvised over a ground, according to a method that (as we know) went back to the fifteenth century.


fig. 19-2 Ventura Salimbeni, Wedding of Ferdinand de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine (1589). This was the occasion for which members of the Florentine Camerata devised their intermedii.

From then until 1589 no intermedio music has survived, but souvenir books contain copious illustrations of the sets, descriptions of the action, and lists of participants, from which one can get an idea of the scale on which the musical entertainments were cast. The souvenir book from the 1565 wedding of Francesco I, Bardi’s friend and patron, for example, lists thirty-five instruments, including four double manual harpsichords (suggesting that continuo-style accompaniments were already in practical use decades before such a thing was ever written down) and two lyre da braccio, chord-playing bowed string instruments that were used to accompany Apollo’s solos.

The 1589 nuptial festivities for Ferdinand were the most lavish of the Medici extravaganzas. Texts for the six intermedii—composed by, among others, Ottavio Rinuccini, a famous poet and, like Bardi, a noble “academician”—were a sort of mythological history of music. They represented, respectively: the harmony of the spheres; the song contests of the Muses; Apollo slaying the Dragon; the coming of the Golden Age (this one unrelated to the theme but required by noble-nuptials protocol); the story of Arion, a semilegendary poet who, according to a myth, was saved from drowning by a dolphin responding to his song; and a concluding allegory, “The Descent of Rhythm and Harmony from Heaven to Earth.” The staging was by Emilio de’ Cavalieri, who had been director of music for Ferdinand during the latter’s years as a cardinal in Rome before his accession to the Tuscan ducal throne.

The big concerted numbers—for up to thirty voices in seven choirs, often fitted out with instrumental ritornellos or sinfonie—were mainly the work of the great madrigalist Luca Marenzio and of Cristofano Malvezzi, the organist of the Medici chapel and a friend of Bardi, to whom he had dedicated a book of ricercari. Cavalieri, as Ferdinand’s personal musician, was given pride of place. He composed the opening madrigal (Dalle più alte sfere, “I, Harmony, come down to you from highest spheres,” words by Bardi), with a fiercely embellished part for the virtuoso singer Vittoria Archilei, his protégée (Ex. 19-1a); and, to close the show, a grand panegyric finale directly addressed to the grand duke and his bride (O che nuovo miracolo, “O what newest miracle is this!”), a ballo or concerted dance-song for the whole company (Ex. 19-1b is the main ritornello) over a ground bass that would live on for a while in other compositions as the “Aria di Fiorenza” (Air of Florence) or the “Ballo del Gran Duca” (the Grand Duke’s Ball) or the “Ballo di Palazzo” (the Palace Ball).

And yet Bardi nevertheless managed to work in a few numbers by his younger friends, the musicians who frequented the meetings of his Camerata and were involved with Galilei’s neoclassical experiments. Giulio Caccini (d. 1618), a well established singer at the Medici court, later claimed that he learned more from the “savant speeches” of the poets and philosophers who met at Bardi’s “than I had in over thirty years’ study of counterpoint.”5 He contributed a solo aria for a sorceress (sung by his wife) to open the fourth intermedio, one of the first original “continuo” compositions ever to be written down (Ex. 19-1c). Jacopo Peri (1561–1633), technically an aristocratic dilettante but a highly accomplished musician, was a pupil of Malvezzi and a self-styled “Orphic singer” who accompanied himself on a specially constructed giant lute (or archlute) that he called the chitarrone, after the Greek kithara or lyre (Fig. 19-3; more casually, it was known as the theorbo, literally “hurdy-gurdy”). He both composed and sang to the chitarrone the show-stopper from the fifth intermedio: an aria for Arion, lying at the bottom of the sea, with echo effects to suggest his waterlogged condition (Ex. 19-1d).


ex. 19-1a From the intermedii of 1589, opening aria, mm. 5–9


(5) Giulio Caccini, preface to Le nuove musiche (1601), ed. Angelo Solerti, in Le origini del melodrama: Testimonianze dei contemporanei (Turin: Fratelli Bocca, 1903), p. 56, trans. Piero Weiss in Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, 2nd ed., p. 143.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019004.xml