IN: Reviews

Music in Leonardo’s World

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The 2021 edition of the Boston Early Music Festival faced the same doubtful situation that confronted every other public event in the world this year—the question of whether the Covid19 epidemic would allow for audiences to gather. This concern especially threatened BEMF, because this biennial festival attracts performers, exhibitors, and audiences from all over the world, making the health risk obvious. A festival of this scope (always including a full-scale operatic production) requires months and even years of planning.

Given the uncertainties, the decision to make all the concerts for 2021 streamed events, filmed in various locations (to save the participators from unnecessary travel) worked handsomely, opening up the festival to the world. And the decision to allow ticketholders to view each show more than once over a period of a month (from the scheduled time of the original performance through July 11th) felt particularly generous. It offers the possibility of enticing newcomers to try out the festival conveniently, even spreading out viewings to suit busy schedules. Since the pandemic prevented the preparation of a new major opera production for this year, BEMF streamed the opera from 2020—André Campra’s Le Carneval de Venise. Many who saw it two years ago, like me, would be delighted to see and hear once more a previously unknown work of great musical beauty and theatrical richness. The BMInt review is HERE.

Having said all that, I am happy to report that during the first of the new streamed events I watched, the video director Jean-Baptiste Béïs and Prismédia took full advantage of the medium to enhance the French ensemble Doulce Mémoire’s theme that its director Denis Raisin Dadre designed to reflect the life and the musical passions of Leonardo da Vinci. He loved music, maintaining that it was better to be a painter than a sculptor because one could listen to music while working. He was reputed to be a more-than-competent performer himself. Vasari reported that he was a superb improvisor on the lira da braccio, a form of music-making that was used for singing or reciting poetry (virtually none of which survives, since the improvisations would not be written down.

Leonardo never referred to precise musical compositions, and no one ever notated his improvisations, so Dadre shaped this program by selecting compositions contemporaneous with Leonardo, and known in Italy. Most of the elevated music at the time, even in Italy, came from non-Italian composers, though a new beginning of Italian style was arising about the beginning of the 16th century, and in any case, Leonardo spent his last three years in Amboise, France, at the invitation of Francis I. The ensemble therefore decided to film at the Chateau du Clos Lucé in Amboise, with its park named for the artist.

The ensemble Doulce Mémoire, founded in 1989, consists of a singer and instrumentalists who reflect the music of the Renaissance in the late 15th and early 16th centuries (just the period of Leonardo’s activity): Clara Coutouly, soprano; Miguel Henry, lute; Baptiste Roman, lira da braccio; Béregěre Sardin, Renaissance harp; and Denis Raisin Dadre, recorders.

The film comprised nine sections, each linked to a famous works by Leonardo. During both the preconcert lecture and the streamed concert, Dandre showed each of these works (which are also included in the printed program book of the festival) and discussed the music linked to it in the concert.

The first two groups reflect Leonardo’s Annunciation, which was linked to the rise of a group of Italian composers in the early 16th century following a period when most of the serious musical creators in Italy had been imported from France and the Low Countries, bringing with them musical forms of elaborate counterpoint. The new Italians (Cara and Tromboncino) composed lyrical sacred works intended for private devotions rather than elaborate ecclesiastical events. Cara’s pellucid Ave Maria and another setting of a similar text by a composer identified only as “Brother Peter,”  were linked to Leonardo’s Annunciation. Cara’s Per dolor is not explicitly religious, though the text reflects a loss of past happiness in a somewhat Petrarchan mode.

The portrait of the beautiful Ginevra de’ Benci motivated the selection of Hayne van Ghizeghem’s chanson De tous bien playne (My mistress is full of every fine quality), a work by a northern composer that was widely known in Italy.

Mille regretz, a well-known chanson by Josquin Desprez (who died in 1521, so BEMF this year makes several references to him on the 500th anniversary of his death) is linked to a handsome Leonardo portrait of a musician, which Dandre suggested, during his lectrure, that recent proposals have linked it to Josquin, something I had never heard before. In any case, Josquin’s piece, and a response (so identified) by Tilman Susato came across in connection with it. I  was, however, surprised to note that the text of Josquin’s piece—a French love song (“A thousand regrets at leaving you”) appears in the program book with an unrelated translation as if it is a  sacred piece (“Fire me with splendor, gentle and merciful God”) It is true that sacred texts were often superimposed on works that were originally secular, but they seem to have gotten mixed up in this instance.

Bartolomeo Tromboncino, the other best-known composer of laude and frottole, wrote Non val acqua, another lament at parting, in the court of Mantua, whose leading female figure was Isabella d’Este, whose likeness is preserved in a drawing by Leonardo.

The ensemble delivered mostly dances of various genres—ballo, basse danse, gailliarde—performed in varying instrumentations by one or several of the instrumentalists.

The affect throughout varied from severe to vivacious; the range of moods and colors drew us back both visually and aurally into the world of that most renowned “Renaissance man.”

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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