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Micrologus Searches for Variety in Italian Quattrocento Court Music


The seven members of the Italian ensemble Micrologus, presented as part of the Boston Early Music Festival, joined guest lutenist Crawford Young Wednesday afternoon, June 10, in a varied and colorful program of 14th-century secular music that included songs by Franco-Flemish composers active in Italy along with home-grown songs and dances. Founding member Patrizia Bovi (voice and harp) and the other musicians of the ensemble all doubled on one or more instruments, including representatives of the traditional “soft” group such as lute, harp, vielle, and psaltery, and the loud instruments – bagpipes, tambourines, and nakers (small kettledrums) — associated with outdoor performance and military as well as dance bands.

The treatise by the famous Jewish dancing master Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro includes dances that served as the basis for collective improvisation according to standard patterns, and Micrologus showed its virtuosic improvisatory skills in varied and highly colorful renditions of these dance tunes. Each of several instruments took a solo turn in  the ballo “Rostiboli gioioso” by Guglielmo’s teacher, Domenico da Piacenza, and Guglielmo’s “Amoroso” featured two buisines (long straight trumpets) along with bagpipes, nakers, and cymbals.

Colorful variety seems to work less well, however, for 14th-century polyphonic songs in the courtly tradition. Since performance indications are notoriously lacking in late medieval sources, most of our knowledge of performance practice comes from surviving pictorial representations. These can be misleading, however. Are we looking at a documented performance of a particular repertory, or simply at an idealized roster of musicians associated with a particular court? Although we know that instrumentalists sometimes performed polyphonic vocal music, very likely adding idiomatic ornamentation, we have practically no evidence of singers and instrumentalists collaborating in the performance of a single polyphonic song. Varying the instrumentation with each stanza of a single rondeau, as in “Amours, amours” by the Flemish composer Hayne van Ghizeghem, distracted attention from the inherent tension of the rondeau form, in which the complete music of the refrain in two sections is heard at the beginning and again at the end, but interrupted by three statements of the half refrain that end “up in the air” on a suspensive cadence. Surviving instrumental arrangements of polyphonic songs point to a different approach, in which the supporting tenor part of the original song becomes the basis of a more or less new piece. Alexander Agricola produced no less than five different instrumental settings of the tenor of Hayne van Ghizeghem’s “De tous biens plaine.”  Micrologus performed two of these following the performance of the vocal original by solo tenor and two lutes. Alongside more serious songs, narrative songs featuring direct discourse in a “popularizing” tradition were also favored at court. Dufay’s “La belle se siet au pied de la tour,” in which a young girl laments her lover and refuses to marry the man chosen for her, was beautifully sung by Patrizia Bovi with harp and lute on the ornamented accompanying parts.

Micrologus offered a varied and sonically colorful program of a consistently high performance standard. If their search for variety sometimes seemed to overreach, we were never bored and often captivated. The ensemble appears again on Friday night, June 12, 2009 at 11 pm at Emmanuel Church in a program of fourteenth-century Italian songs songs and dances.

Ed: This is one of 11 full reviews by Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers of concerts from the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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