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Giving Musical Voice to Petrarch


Those brave enough to venture out into the freezing rain and snowy pileup Saturday evening found a warm welcome at the First Church Congregational in Cambridge from the incomparable Blue Heron Renaissance Choir. The program, “Un Petrarchino cantato,” devoted entirely to settings of poems from Francesco Petrarca’s Canzoniere, or Songbook, featured Blue Heron regulars Martin Near, countertenor, tenors Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, and Aaron Sheehan, and bass-baritone Paul Guttry were joined by lutenist Charles Weaver and soprano Jolle Greenleaf, director of the New York ensemble TENET.

Composed over a number of years beginning in the 1330s and compiled into a cycle around 1359, the Canzoniere’s 366 Rime sparse (Scattered Rhymes)—sonnets, canzonas, and sestinas—focus ostensibly on the poet’s love for the beautiful young Laura and her death from the plague in 1348. According to the excellent program notes by Music Director Scott Metcalfe, however, the real subject of the cycle is not Laura but Petrarch himself, “his psychology, his memories, his acute self-awareness and probing self-analysis, his transmutation of experience into verse . . . .” Only two early settings of poems from the Canzoniere have survived: Jacopo da Bologna’s “Non al suo amante più Diana piacque” from about 1350 and, from the 1420s, Guillaume Dufay’s setting of the first stanza of the cycle’s concluding prayer, “Vergine bella.” It was not until the late fifteenth century that settings of Petrarch’s Italian poetry became widely fashionable. As it happened, this trend coincided with the publication in Venice in 1501 of Cardinal Pietro Bembo’s edition of the Canzoniere, and beginning in the same year, with the first publications of the Venetian music printer, Ottaviano Petrucci.

The settings of Petrarch’s verses heard Saturday varied from simple and straightforward to intensely detailed and expressive. The first selection was a setting of the Canzoniere’s opening sonnet “Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono / di quei sospiri” (O you who hear within these scattered verses / the sound of sighs) by Giaches Wert, who was born in Flanders but trained in Italy. In this five-voice madrigal, chordal passages alternated with short imitations stressing the lover’s youthful complaints. More than twenty years later, Wert’s setting for five voices of “Mia benigna fortuna” contrasts his “kindly fortune” with “Crudele acerba inesorabil Morte” (Cruel, bitter, inexorable Death) in intensely dramatic style. Earlier in the program, we heard a more smoothly contrapuntal setting for four voices of the same virtuosic sestina text by another transplanted Fleming, Cipriano de Rore.

In strong contrast to the finely-wrought texture of these madrigals, the recitative-like declamatory style of two sonnet settings by “Monte Regali” was so generic that the same music served for both poems. (According to Howard M. Brown in The New Grove, the composer was more likely,  to have been Eustachius Romano than Eustachius de Monte Regali.) The songs were published in 1514 by Petrucci in his eleventh book of “frottole,” simple four-part settings performable as part-songs or, as on this program, for solo voice with instrumental accompaniment. Countertenor Martin Near was the skillful soloist, providing just the right amount of ornamentation to the bare-bones melody, with lutenist Charles Weaver taking the three remaining parts.

Interspersed between the musical performances, readings of the Canzoniere in Italian, by Dennis Costa, and English, by Joel Colodner, reminded us of the innate musicality of Petrarch’s poetry. One of the most haunting of his sonnets “Solo e pensoso i più deserti campi / vo misurando” (Alone and deep in thought I measure out the most deserted fields) was performed first in a restrained four-voice setting by Jacques Arcadelt, a French composer active in Venice in the mid-sixteenth century, and then in a late, “mannerist” setting for five voices by Luca Marenzio, published shortly before his death in 1599. This version opens strikingly with a scale in slow notes in the soprano moving up a ninth by half steps, and then descending back through a fifth, also by half steps, only to give way to coloratura ornamentation in all five voices. The ensemble’s perfect tuning and their perfectly coordinated voices did full justice to this extraordinary piece.

Halfway through the program, Joel Colodner read Petrarch’s account of first seeing Laura and then of her death. The canzone setting by the Florentine composer Matteo Rampollini from the 1540s that followed, ’Che debb’ io far? che mi consigli, Amore? . . . . Madonna è morta et ha seco il mio core” (What will I do? Can you advise me, Love? . . . . My lady’s dead and with her is my heart), employed skillful declamation interspersed with imitations to depict the poet’s anguished question. The answer comes in the Canzoniere’s final prayer to the Virgin with which the program concluded: “Vergine bella, che di sol vestita / coronata di stelle” (Virgin, so lovely, clothed in the sun’s light / and crowned with stars). Cipriano de Rore set all ten stanzas of this canzone and the final congedo or envoi as the opening cycle in his third book of madrigals for five voices (Venice, 1548). Blue Heron’s singers performed the first and tenth stanzas, with Jolle Greenleaf ceding the soprano part to Martin Near for the final congedo, a fitting conclusion to a magnificent program.

Unfortunately, Music Director Scott Metcalfe was unable to participate in Saturday’s performance, but the entire program reflected his commitment to Petrarch’s poetry, to its expression in music, to programming that is appealing and intelligible to a non-specialist audience, and to conveying these ideals to a group of talented performers. The Blue Heron singers are all soloists with many and varied commitments. Here they demonstrated yet again their ability to absorb a repertory and make it their own.

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

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