Music, like life, can offer a curious blend of opposites. The songs on this concert's program, while deeply expressive, counsel silence. Their expressions of love, whether celestial or base, show how fragile we humans are. Sentinels of timelessness, thousands of these songs found their way into printed books and manuscripts in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, demonstrating a flourishing of artful human expression in an era of intense cultural anxiety and change – a time of war in Italy, involving the great superpowers of western Europe, but also a time of scientific discovery and the exploration of the New World. Many frottole – for that is what these songs are – speak to war-time concerns, like keeping silent in the face of an unknown enemy or heralding advancing troupes. The repertory as a whole represents a rejection of French domination over the Italian peninsula in favor of the Italian language, its ancient poetic forms, and traditional practices of singing and reciting to the lyre. They offer a glimpse into Italy's ancestry and deep connections to the Kingdom of Aragon, and they give expression to Italian humanism. At the same time, these songs celebrate life and love in all its myriad forms, from the adoration for the blessed virgin Mary, to the illicit love of a devoted courtier, to the carnal lust of a rustic peasant for his girl.
Frottole are most often associated with Isabella d'Este, marchesa of the small city-state of Mantua in northern Italy. She collected verses written by such poets as Jacopo Sannazaro, Francesco Petrarca, the Spaniard Benedetto Gareth (known as Il Cariteo), the great improviser Serafino dell'Aquila, and many others, and she had them set to music. The thoughts expressed in these songs often resound in the art and architecture of Isabella's apartments in the Ducal Palace in Mantua, bringing the perils of the outside world into the protected confinement of her studiolo and grotta for Isabella's thought and contemplation. Carved into the wall of Isabella's grotta, for example, is the beginning of a chanson by Johannes Ockeghem that echoes the spectrum of love's delights represented in this concert's program:
Take me as your example in love. The beginning of love is sweet, the middle, full of pain and sorrow. The end is to have a pleasant mistress, but getting out of it is the dangerous part.
Like his wife Isabella, Francesco II Gonzaga also decorated his apartments with illustrations of the ideas evoked in frottole. The words of "Forsi che si forsi che no" appear in the famous Ceiling of the Labyrinth that once graced his city retreat, the Palazzo S. Sebastiano in Mantua. The image of the labyrinth offers a reminder that one is blind to the future and that life's directions frequently change, even while the strophic form of the barzelletta mimics the turn of Fortune's Wheel in its constant return to the refrain
Maybe yes, maybe no To remain silent can't hurt Maybe yes, maybe no, The world is ever like this.
The verses of Marco Cara's barzelletta offer veiled examples of why it might be wise to remain silent in the face of an uncertain future, culminating in a war-time warning that a ruby set in gold (that is, a well-funded army led by Pope Julius II) makes a poor meal for the rooster (the gallic King of France).
The intertwined concepts of love, music, silence, and caution find voice in the book Isabella's Aragonese tutor Mario Equicola dedicated to her in the early years of the 16th century. In the context of a discussion about the merits of not talking too much, Equicola wrote in his Libro de natura de amore that the ancient Greeks valued silence over speaking words that, once uttered, could never be revoked. These ideas, he wrote, are imitated in the impresa of "the most prudent Isabella d'Este, marchesa of Mantua, with all the rests of musica practica, which admonish and almost aloud say: "at times, hush." This impresa is seen throughout the ceiling of Isabella's grotta.
The use of equivocal language to convey secret meanings beneath the obvious permeates many of the songs on tonight's program. The peasant girl uses a mortar and pestle on her lover, as their sexual fervor mounts to religious ecstasy in the phrases "Exaudi nos! Kyrie eleyson, Christe eleyson, Kyrie eleyson!" The unnamed lover in the strambotto "Staralla ben cusi" begs his sweet signora that it isn't good like that, while the lover in "Sotto un verde e alto cipresso" urges his beloved to saddle her good horse and cross the (orgasmic) threshold.
Yet love often brings with it melancholy and reminiscence of absent loves and happier times. When Isabella herself performed, she portrayed the nobility of her royal ancestry by evoking tender feelings like these. In mid-December 1514, she had just come away from the wedding of an Aragonese relative in Naples. On her return to Rome, Isabella and her friends spent a winter's day in the coastal town of Pozzuoli, close to Naples, looking at antiquities. That evening, pleasantly weary from spending the day outdoors, they dined together. After dinner, Isabella's friends urged her to sing for them and, after some hesitation to demonstrate her modesty and gentility, she entertained them with a song. She chose well: an old song, filled with nostalgia and noble sentiments, written by the maestro of her husband's cappella, Marco Cara, on a sonnet by the Mantuan writer Baldassare Castiglione. A year later, one of the friends present that evening wrote to Isabella, asking her to send him the words and music of that song, so he might remember her and that enchanting evening in Pozzuoli. In this concert, we perform that song again, six hundred years later, to remember Isabella d'Este and the day she spent among friends: "Cantai mentre nel cor lieto fioria."