“This isn’t Renaissance, it’s Medieval!” a perplexed audience member was heard to exclaim during a concert of music by Johannes Ciconia given by Exsultemus at the University Lutheran Church, Cambridge, on Saturday, May 12th. (The program was repeated the following afternoon at the First Lutheran Church of Boston.) Known for their performances of Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, the Exsultemus singers and accompanying instrumentalists reached back this time to the period around 1400, when Franco-Flemish traditions of learned polyphony encountered Italian traditions of melodious song. Recent archival research, summarized in the New Grove Dictionary, 2nd edition (2000), has helped fill in the scant details of Ciconia’s biography. Born around 1370 as the illegitimate son of a priest in the bishopric of Liège, now in eastern Belgium, he entered the musical establishment of the papal legate, Philippe d’Alençon, following him to Rome in the early 1390s. Toward the end of the decade he joined the court of Giangaleazzo Visconti in Pavia, near Milan, and from 1401 until his death in 1412 held various positions at the cathedral of Padua, where he enjoyed the patronage of both secular and ecclesiastical authorities.
Throughout his career, Ciconia absorbed local styles where he found them and influenced his contemporaries and successors in turn. The first two songs on the program — I cani sono fuora (The dogs are out) and Caçando un giorno (While hunting one day) — demonstrated his absorption of 14th-century Italian madrigal traditions: the use of hunting imagery in the texts, alternation of syllabic declamation with elaborate melisma, and brief snatches of imitation between the voices. These carefully crafted duets for treble and tenor require a fine attention to tuning and articulation, ably provided by Gerrod Pagenkopf, countertenor, and Owen McIntosh, tenor in the first instance, and Shannon Canavin, soprano, and McIntosh in the second. The three-voice ceremonial madrigal Una panthera was performed on three recorders by Héloïse Degrugillier, Justin Gody, and Tom Zajac. Although they played beautifully, it was still disappointing not to hear this interesting text, which features emphatically scored heraldic references to the city of Lucca and its protector, Giangaleazzo Visconti.
Giangaleazzo was known for his Francophile tastes (and he had a French wife). In striking contrast to the Italianate style of his madrigals, Ciconia composed the virelai Sus une fontayne (Above a fountain) in the rhythmically elaborate French style known as ars subtilior. Furthermore, this song skillfully incorporates the opening measures —- both text and music — of three songs by Philipoctus de Caserta, one of the foremost exponents of the ars subtilior style, who was also active at the Visconti court. Countertenor Near sang the texted part, while Tom Zajac, harp, and Karen Burciaga, vielle, carried the contratenor and tenor parts. Medieval and early Renaissance manuscripts never indicate who is to perform untexted parts, so modern interpreters have to decide whether to use instruments or voices. While some have insisted on all-vocal performance, the often disjunct lines of contratenor parts can sound convincing on a plucked string instrument, with the harmonically essential tenor played on a bowed instrument such as the vielle. In the early 15th-century rondeau Ce jour de l’an (This New Year’s Day) by Baude Cordier, the choice of three recorders and vielle to accompany Near was less successful, the alto recorder doubling the voice and obscuring the articulation of the text.
Two Italian ballate dating from near the end of Ciconia’s career, along with a fragmentary — and skillfully reconstructed — ballata by the otherwise unknown composer Zaninus de Peraga de Padua completed the first half of the program. Certainly one of the highlights of the evening was McIntosh’s performance of Ciconia’s extraordinary O rosa bella (O lovely rose), which can take its place amongst the loveliest Italian songs of any period. His tenor in the haute-contre range brought out the expressive sweetness of the melodic line, intensified by repetitions, both literal and sequential, and smoothly swinging rhythms.
The second half of the program consisted primarily of motets, ceremonial pieces composed for persons and events connected with Ciconia’s career in Padua. By the early 15th century, a distinctly North Italian style of motet had developed, featuring two upper parts of equal range singing the same, or sometimes different, texts, with a tenor part that was more often freely composed than based on Gregorian chant (as in contemporaneous French motets). The melodious upper parts often began with a long passage in one part echoed by the second part, and the two parts often exchanged shorter motives that highlighted important text words. Countertenors Near and Gerrod Pagenkopf were perfectly matched as duet partners in O felix templum jubila ( Rejoice, O blessed church). The text apostrophizes the dedicatee, Stephano Carrara, and closes with a prayer that names the composer himself, followed by an elaborately imitative “Amen.” A much less public tribute was paid to Francesco Carrara upon his death in 1406, the family having been banished from Padua as the city came under Venetian rule. Con lagreme bagnandome nel viso (My face was bathed in tears) is couched in terms of a lament for a departed lover. The two parts were sung without accompaniment by Canavin and McIntosh. Three recorders sounded the motet O Padua sidus preclarum from the organ loft. An unlikely ensemble for early 15th-century Italy, they nonetheless provided a welcome change of focus. The last two motets on the program, both composed in honor of Ciconia’s patron Francesco Zabarella, were compositionally more ambitious, each with two upper voices singing two different texts, and each with two accompanying lower parts. Canavin and Pagenkopf were the singers in Doctorum principem/Melodia suavissima cantemus (The foremost of teachers/Let us sing in the sweetest melody), with Karen Burciaga’s vielle and Tom Zajac’s penetrating douçaine (an early double-reeded instrument) on the lower parts. Zabarella shared honors with his patron saint, Francis of Assisi, in Ut te per omnes celitus/Ingens alumnus Padue (So that we may follow you with the greatest veneration/Great son of Padua). Doubled by two recorders, Near and Pagenkopf sang the upper parts, with vielle and douçaine on the lower parts.
Mounting a program devoted to pre-Renaissance repertoire is always a daunting task. Ciconia’s music, engaging as it is, remains unfamiliar to most listeners, and the directors of Exsultemus, Shannon Canavin and Martin Near, are to be commended for assembling a group of topnotch musicians to perform this important music. If one can be allowed one wish for the future, it might be for more incisive text articulation, which tended to get lost in the search for tonal purity.