The ottava rima, epitomized by Boccaccio in his pastoral Ninfale fiesolano (Story of the nymphs of Fiesole), was a stanza form consisting of eight eleven-syllable lines, rhyming abababcc. Used in improvised recitations by courtly poet-musicians in fourteenth-, fifteenth-, and sixteenth-century Italy, it seems to have persisted in popular poetry down to the present day. Taking their cue from Boccaccio, Avery Gosfield and Francis Biggi of Ensemble Lucidarium presented a lively and varied program of late medieval music and poetry at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Wednesday, June 15, as part of the Boston Early Music Festival. Titled Ninfale: Ovid, Poetry, and Music at the End of the Middle Ages, it drew on traditional melodies as well as written sources.
Verses from the “Battle of the women of Florence” by the fourteenth-century poet Franco Sacchetti were sung alternately by sopranos Gloria Moretti and Marie Pierre Duceau to a tune identified as “traditional Tuscan.” A virtuosic elaboration of the formulaic melody was created by Moretti, whose expressive vibrato and vividly incisive delivery contrasted nicely with Duceau’s sweet-toned lyricism. Accompaniment was provided alternately by Francis Biggi on the cittern, a wire-strung plucked instrument, and Bettina Ruchti’s lira da braccio, a bowed-string instrument featuring a violin shape, flat bridge, and five strings plus two drone strings that was traditionally used to provide chordal accompaniment for sung or recited ottava rima poetry. Moretti was equally eloquent in elaborations of two more traditional Tuscan melodies, one of them sung to a sixteenth-century ottava based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the other to a latter-day ottava by a twentieth-century peasant, demonstrating the persistence of a popular Ovidian tradition in our own times.
Interspersed among these “creative reconstructions” of an unwritten repertory were selections from the written repertory of songs by fourteenth-century composers from Italian courts and monasteries that have survived in a small number of manuscripts. Precisely notated and intended for a sophisticated audience, these madrigals (stanzas of three lines followed by a concluding couplet) and ballatas (stanzas with a recurring refrain framing repeated couplets) were composed for one, two, or three parts, with no indication of any instrumental accompaniment. In Marie Pierre Duceau’s beautiful rendition of Francesco Landini’s madrigal Non a Narciso, the second, simpler voice part was played on the lute by Francis Biggi. The addition of a small drum, although skillfully played by Massimiliano Dragoni, seemed somehow intrusive and better suited to a dance than to this lyrical piece with its sinuously ornate melodic line. In Jacopo da Bologna’s madrigal Si chome al canto the two sopranos were reinforced, to my mind superfluously, by vielle (a medieval fiddle, played by Bettina Ruchti), winds (Avery Gosfield and Marco Ferrari), and tambourine. Jacopo’s Non al suo amante is the only contemporaneous musical setting of Petrarch’s poetry to have survived. Here the second voice was played on the vielle. Avery Gosfield, recorder, and Marco Ferrari, transverse flute, played an instrumental variation on the same piece, probably intended originally for a small organ, that appears in an early fifteenth-century Italian manuscript. The performance of an anonymous early two-voice madrigal, Pianze la bella iguana, by the two sopranos without accompaniment, was a delight, their voices complementing each other in perfect intonation. A three-voice ballata, performed by Duceau with Gosfield and Ferrari on tenor recorders offered a nice conceit in praise of part music: “No greater pain had Dido / Who killed herself for Aeneas / Than the pain of hearing melodies without polyphony.”
Only a few medieval dance tunes were written down, since instrumental players were often not literate, and at any rate, skilled at individual and collective improvisation and elaboration of well-known melodies. A medieval jam session involving all members of the ensemble brought the first half of the program to a rousing close with a “saltarello” (a leaping dance) played by vielle, cittern, bagpipes, pipe and tabor, triangle, and tambourine, and the next-to-last number, another saltarello, featured a colorful ensemble of soprano recorder, pan pipes, lute, vielle, and tambourine.
The program also included three examples of the “frottola,” a type of secular song cultivated extemporaneously toward the end of the fifteenth century at North Italian courts, and also collected in manuscript and printed editions. Poet-singers of these simple melodies often accompanied themselves on a lira da braccio or a lute; the lower parts could also be performed by singers. The text of Giovan Battista Zesso’s Ogni cosa ha el suo loco (Everything has its place / And returns to where it belongs) elaborates in traditional ottava rima form on the theme of perpetual change without progress, concluding the program on a suitably Ovidian note. All members of the ensemble took part, each providing a creatively ornamented version of the simple melodic and harmonic framework.
Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.