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Parle qui veut - Moralizing songs of the Middle Ages

Sollazzo Ensemble
Download only 20 October 2017 ReleaseThis album is not yet available for download
Recording details: July 2016
National Centre for Early Music, York, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: 20 October 2017
Total duration: 46 minutes 2 seconds

Cover artwork: Laughing fool (c1500) by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (c1475-1533)
Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Massachusetts
Folios 121v-122 of the sumptuously illuminated songbook known as the Squarcialupi Codex contain a lament in the voice of the personified Music, deploring the way she is being abused and neglected by people who ‘grow accustomed to ignorance and vice’. While knights, barons and nobles used to praise her, now their noble hearts have been corrupted. Music’s moral outrage is such that she speaks in triplicate: that is, in the musical setting by Francesco Landini, Musicha son/Già furon/Ciascun vuol, the three-stanza poem that records Music’s grief is sung simultaneously by three different singers, greatly intensifying the text’s urgent message. This text participates in a wider tradition of complaining about the debasement of music, but in other cases the lamenting poetic voice is identified as that of the composer. The illumination on the manuscript page where this madrigal appears, however, merges the identities of the composer and the personified Music: it contains two images, one in the top initial, showing the composer at the keyboard, and the second, smaller image at the bottom margin, showing Lady Music in an identical stance at a keyboard of her own. The illustrations make it clear that the composer has adopted the persona of Music to make his own moralizing statements.

Magister Franciscus de Florentia, called ‘Landini’, was probably the most famous musician in Italy of his time. He is the subject of an extraordinary biographical account by his younger contemporary Filippo Villani, who included him in his Lives of Illustrious Florentines written in the early 1380s. Villani described with amazement Landini’s accomplishments in music, despite ‘the fear of being accused of making up stories’. Franciscus, he wrote:

… was hardly past the middle of his childhood when unjust fate suddenly struck him blind with the smallpox; music, however, re-formed him with the lights of fame … when he was grown, and when he understood the sweetness of melody, he began to first sing with his voice and then to play string instruments and the organ. And then, having perfected the art astonishingly, to everyone’s amazement, he handled a number of musical instruments which he had never seen as readily as if he could still see; he began to play the organ, with such great dexterity, but always following the measuring of time, and with such ability and sweetness that he far surpassed any organist in memory.

In addition to his fame as an organist he was a prolific composer of more than 150 surviving songs. He was also known as an intellectual, the author of a philosophical dream-vision text on William of Ockham and a commentary on Dante’s Divina Commedia.

Musicha son/Già furon/Ciascun vuol is likely the most serious of the moralizing songs collected on this album, most of which concern affairs of the heart, some in French and some in Italian. Both traditions grew from the Occitan poetry of the twelfth-century troubadours and the Old French trouvères of the thirteenth century. While the majority of their songs were love songs, (‘canso’ in Occitan and ‘chanson’ in Old French), typically lamenting the unattainability of a lady, or occasionally a man, a significant number treated politics, daily life, and morality, seemingly giving us a glimpse of issues that occupied everyday people. A common subtheme of troubadour and trouvère song was that of the harm done by slanderers, people whose gossip would damage the reputations of lovers. The theme of slanderers is taken up in a number of songs recorded here: in Le basile, the act of slander is compared to the fatal glance of the basilisk, and in Pour che que je ne puis, the poetic speaker is forced to leave his lover behind and move to a different city to escape the rumours put out by slanderers. The album’s title song, Parle qui veut, takes a more lighthearted approach to the problem: the speaker of this rondeau invites slanderers to say what they will but he determines to remain loyal to his sweetheart, who alone has the power to keep him from grief.

Troubadour and trouvère songs were sung monophonically (one voice singing a melody), and only a small number of the melodies were written down, since the poet-composers composed and performed largely from memory. By the second half of the thirteenth century, though, their songs became so culturally prized that they began to be collected in large and often sumptuous manuscripts so that they might be preserved. By the fourteenth century, a new system of musical notation permitted the writing down of elaborate polyphonic music, and a number of beautifully executed manuscripts, like the Squarcialupi Codex, survive that collect hundreds of polyphonic songs of both French and Italian composers. These songs range widely in affect and tone, in musical style, and in social register. All these songs followed new formal constraints, most involving a refrain; in French these forms were known as the ‘formes fixes’. In the Italian tradition, the madrigal and the ballata were both refrain forms. In the madrigal, the refrain is found at the end of the poem, and it contrasts in rhyme, form and musical meter to the (typically three) stanzas of the poem, while in the ballata, as well as the French virelai, the refrain begins the poem, is followed by one or more verses, and then returns at its end.

The album begins with a tiny song, Il megli’ è pur tacere, a so-called ‘ballata minima’, in which the refrain and verse are each only one verse long. Its main conceit, ‘He who speaks too much often errs’, is a well-known proverb, and it may be that originally this proverb was set to a simple tune that is now found as the composition’s tenor; on this recording the performers sing the tenor melody alone first before adding the highly ornamented cantus voice that it accompanies. The idea to use a maxim or a proverb as a starting point for poetry and oratory was a commonplace of medieval rhetorical training in both the Italian and the French traditions, and we often see it carried over into lyric composition as well. The composer Niccolò da Perugia is not very well documented in the historical record, but he seems to have been well acquainted with a circle of Florentine poets in the second half of the fourteenth century; he set a number of texts by the poets Niccolò Solderini and Franco Sacchetti. In light of his association with these authors of many more extended poetic forms, his preference for the diminutive form of the ‘ballata minima’ is intriguing.

Two other composers represented on this album had well-documented careers in and around Florence: Andrea and Paolo da Firenze. Andrea, a Servite monk, was prior of the monastery of Santissima Annunziata in Florence and later became the head of the Servite community. His 30 surviving compositions are all ballatas, and all are found in the Squarcialupi manuscript. This composer set a large number of moralizing and / or satirical texts, and his Dal traditor is composed in what appears to be a uniquely conflated genre, the ‘caccia ballata’. The caccia (‘hunt’) was composed of two canonic voices supported by a tenor, and they often set texts that onomatopoetically described hunting scenes, complete with the barking of dogs and shouting of hunters. The canonic structure, in which the second voice imitates the first at a short interval, normally gives the song a dialogic cast. Here, the form of the ballata is superimposed upon the canonic caccia, and the energy and excitement of the hunt is replaced by an excoriation of those who pretend to be good friends but then betray one’s trust. While most of the poem is couched as a general warning against this type of false person, the poetic speaker at one point confides that he himself has been the victim of such a traitor, whom he compares with a touch of hyperbole to Judas. The original listeners to this song must have been struck by its generic novelty, and possibly amused by the transfer of affect from the hunt to the decrying of traitors.

Paolo da Firenze, one of the great masters of polyphonic song writing at the turn of the fifteenth century, was another cleric of high station in the environs of Florence: he was rector of the church of Santa Maria Annunziata Virgine in Florence and abbot of the Benedictine monastery of San Martino al Pino near Arezzo from 1401 until well into the 1430s. His ballata Perché vendecta demonstrates the salient features of late trecento style: extremely florid writing, with expressive short sequential phrasing and long cascading melismas on the penultimate syllable of poetic lines, creating a driving feeling toward phrase endings.

The madrigal was the earliest genre of song cultivated in Italy, and as the author of the early fourteenth-century treatise Capitulum de vocibus applicatis verbis explains, their texts were rustic and pastoral: ‘de villanellis, de floribus, arbustis, sertis, utere …’ (‘concerning village life, flowers, trees, planting, animal hides …’). The author further suggests that the upper part be set in fast notes. The charming madrigal Angnel son biancho by Giovanni da Firenze does use pastoral imagery, but with a twist: the text is in the voice of a lamb, rather than the usual voice of a person in the countryside, and it comes complete with mimetic bleating sounds (‘bleating go, baa!’). Its innocent surface, however, is a screen for a clearly political intent: to send a moralizing message about proper comportment for the nobility.

A much more serious approach to morality is found in the anonymous ballata O pensieri vani, found uniquely in the early fifteenth-century Lucca Codex, a source that was begun in Padova but likely finished in Florence around 1410. This source contains a number of songs by the masters of the early fifteenth century: Johannes Ciconia, ‘Zacara’ da Teramo, and Paolo da Firenze. Although O pensieri vani is transmitted anonymously, its high poetic register and sophisticated musical style make it possible to imagine it as a composition by any one of these, or by a near contemporary. This piece has some of the affective gestures that we see in Johannes Ciconia’s Italian songs, such as Ligiadra donna, and its scoring for two equal voices is also reminiscent of that composer. The ballata’s refrain, the opening line ‘O pensieri vani, O sperança fallace’, is an Italian translation of an oft-cited line of Cicero, a phrase that seems to have had a long life as a proverb and as an example of the rhetorical device of apostrophe, a direct address to an imaginary interlocutor. The anonymous poet here continues the apostrophic mode of his quotation, giving the text a serious tone throughout. The two voices are equal in importance and trade off phrases in imitation in a number of places. The rhythmic intricacy between them is remarkable: the sophisticated use of syncopation to create a dialogic relationship between the two voices, as well as a memorable moment where the minim is texted, causing extremely rapid declamation, are rhythmic innovations that mark the song as having been composed likely in the early fifteenth century.

Antonio ‘Zacara’ da Teramo is another composer for whom we have a surprisingly vivid biographical account, from an eighteenth-century necrology from his home territory of Abruzzo. According to this notice, Zacara was famous throughout Europe, was small of stature, and was missing digits on his fingers and toes, only having ten in total between both. This account is corroborated by Zacara’s portrait in the Squarcialupi Codex, where he is shown with his arm in a sling and with prominently missing fingers. Cacciando per gustar/Ai cinci, ai toppi is a tour de force of caccia writing. It opens as expected with a narrator describing how he is hunting (‘Cacciando’) through harsh mountains and dangerous forests, but no sooner has the expected second canonic voice entered than the tenor bursts in with a second, unrelated, text that depicts a noisy marketplace, comically undermining the scene underway in the upper voices. Within moments the two higher voices have given up the hunt and join in the depiction of the market scene, to brilliantly humorous effect. Two earlier examples of the ‘marketplace caccia’ exist, both by Vincenzo da Rimini, but Zacara’s is even more inventive, not only using the tenor as a third singing voice to add to the din, but employing hocket (‘hiccups’, an alternation of notes and rests), very short texted notes, and clever dialoguing within the three parts.

The French songs on this album present a significant contrast in musical style to the Italian ones, even while their texts explore similar themes. The French ‘formes fixes’ include the virelai, whose form is shared with the balata; the rondeau, whose refrain begins and ends the song, and punctuates the middle with a half-refrain; and the ballade, the most elevated of the genres, comprising three stanzas whose shared last line serves as a refrain. The anonymous ballade Va, Fortune survives uniquely in the Chantilly Codex, a manuscript copied in Florence but containing elaborate French songs in the so-called ars subtilior style from the turn of the fifteenth century. The long syncopated lines and the frequent shifts from 3/4 to 6/8 time are indicative of the French style, but the careful phrasing and the sequential statements of a sighing gesture that so beautifully match the mournful text are reminiscent of the style of Italian composers of the early fifteenth century.

The anonymous ballade Pour che que je ne puis survives in a fragmentary manuscript in Cambrai containing French works from the middle of the fourteenth century. Scored unusually for two high voices that cross continually, this song provides unusually poignant harmonies and carefully notated phrasing on the words ‘Au departir’, with rests breaking up the word as if to depict a sob; similarly at the very end, the technique of hocket breaks up the final melody of the refrain in an unusually expressive way.

Nothing is known about the enigmatic composer Solage (whose name may be either a pseudonym meaning ‘solace’ or indicate that he hails from one of the myriad villages called Soulages in the Auvergne), except that he composed ten songs found uniquely in the luxurious Chantilly Codex. The ballade Le basile contains a cornucopia of personifications and mythological references. The first stanza is devoted to the drastic image of the basilisk, a fantastic creature that frequented ancient Roman and medieval bestiaries. Said to be a cross between a rooster and a venomous snake, the basilisk was so deadly that it killed with its gaze. In an elaborate metaphor, the basilisk is likened to envy, which motivates slanderers to destroy the happiness of lovers. The refrain invokes Barat, the deceiving trickster of medieval French literature, and claims that he dominates the world. The second stanza of the ballade changes metaphor to that of the law, imagining a scene in which the ‘King of Love’ officiates at the ‘palace of Righteousness’, condemning slanderers who jeopardize true love. The torturous harmonies and generally low tessitura of this ballade are hallmarks of Solage’s style, and well suited to the extravagance of the text’s imagery.

We know from numerous literary sources of the fourteenth century that songs like those found here were performed by and for noble men and women seeking leisure and also perhaps a bit of instruction. Boccaccio’s Decameron describes the singing and playing of songs by members of the brigata at the end of each of its ten days. At the end of the third day, one of the women performs a moving song describing the grief a widow who remarries unhappily, to which her companions ‘listened raptly and construed in different ways. There were those who took it in the Milanese fashion, to imply that a good fat pig was better than a comely wench. But others gave it a loftier, more subtle and truer meaning.’ We might imagine the songs collected here to have been similarly pondered for their apparent and hidden meanings, as well as for their delightful deployment of musical effects, from the bleating of the lamb and the cries of the marketplace to the polyphonic lament of Lady Music and the declamatory eloquence of the various lovers betrayed by slanderers.

Anne Stone © 2017

This album forms part of the Sollazzo Ensemble’s prize as winners of the 2015 York Early Music International Young Artists Competition. The biennial competition for early music ensembles takes place as part of the York Early Music Festival and is recognized as a major international platform for emerging talent in the early music world. The competition is supported by the Creative Europe programme through the Eeemerging project. This recording was made at the National Centre for Early Music, which is housed in the converted church of St Margaret’s, York. The NCEM offers excellent recording facilities to musicians of all kinds.

Linn Records © 2017

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