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Renaissance Portraits Program Notes

This program was inspired by photomontage artist Fran Forman’s extraordinarily reimagined Renaissance portraits. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as well as in numerous private collections. Her recent books, The Rest Between Two Notes and Escape Artist, have won several prizes, including the International Photo Award.  Fran Forman is also an Affiliated Scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center with me.


Renaissance portraiture featured white European people of means and usually of power, dressed in elaborate and expensive cloth, often holding significant or symbolic trappings that telegraphed their wealth and status to the world.  Fran Forman’s delightfully provocative Portraiture Redressed depicts contemporary subjects digitally inserted into these Renaissance contexts, providing an expanded sense of belonging within the world of fine arts. We’re not likely to have seen these faces in any museum over the past few decades.


Fran says it best: "Portraiture Redressed hopes to rectify and alter this arbitrary portrayal of one's worth. My portraits blur the boundaries between class and status, health and sickness, old and young, fear and joy, whimsy and solemnity."


These portraits made me think about the composers we champion, who were also marginalized and erased until recently. I have created what I hope is a marriage of image and sound, of enlightenment and provocation. We are forced to think about what it means to see how much of our own very real history has been left out of museums and concert halls.


Cappella Clausura’s contribution to this marriage is in large part secular works by Italian composers from the Renaissance and baroque. This is what we know about them: Maddalena Casulana, from the 1500's near Siena, was the first woman to have an entire book of her music printed. Raffaella Aleotti was a nun from Ferrara published a book of madrigals and another of sacred motets in 1619. Rosa Badalla of Milan, a fellow nun in the same convent as Cozzolani in the 1600’s, published a book of solo motets. Florentine composer and singer Francesca Caccini, daughter of composer Giulio Caccini, wrote her “primo libro de madrigali” for solos and duets in 1618. Venetian singer and composer Barbara Strozzi, born 1619, published  eight volumes of music, almost all secular. Finally, our one non-Italian is Margaret of Austria who, in the 15th century, composed a lament on the death of her brother in battle. It is a very simple rubric for  three voices, which I’ve arranged for our four voice parts with gamba accompaniment.


As is common at our concerts, we’ll have changing constellations of solos, duets, small groups, and large groups, performing with and without accompaniment. Our most visible feature in this concert will be three theorbos – the booming bass of the lute family, built, as our brilliant Catherine Liddell would put it, to accompany a singer or singers in every way possible, without getting in their way. 


Catherine Liddell, virtuosissma theorbo/lutenist, has worked with us since my debut in 2003, and continues to amaze me with her fount of knowledge on the subject of lutes and lute players.  Her innate sense of how all of this music should  sound is something I have often counted on, and thoroughly meshed with. I remain always in deep admiration of her musical sense and ability to read a singer’s back or breath.

No less virtuosic for this program, she has arranged to sprinkle the beauty and joy of  three theorbos – herself and her two students, Pablo Kennedy and Charles Iner, who also plays baroque guitar. When she invited CC to host these players, I readily agreed because, to my mind there can’t be too many theorbos in a room. The sound is so rich and warm. It can stand on its own, but augments any solo, duet, or group of singers because it can play both bass and harmony. Cathy and I have arranged accompaniments in many different ways that we hope show the composers’ intentions as well as the artistry of each of our musicians. 


The early baroque period of music began the use of a very specific blueprint for accompanists, called “figured bass”.  The accompanist sees only a simple bass line, underneath which are little numbers indicating the harmony- the chords to fill out. It’s a very efficient system, one which works equally well with songs or large works. It began in the 17th century when organists began to improvise more freely. This blueprint gives the player a lot of leeway to essentially ornament the given harmony at will. It was hugely popular in the baroque era when emotion – the affect of the poetry – began to play an important role in performance. 


Margaret of Austria (1480 – 1530) was Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. She was also a major patron of the arts, owning a rich library, including the works of Christine de Pizan. Her favorite composers were Obrecht, Ockeghem, Josquin de Prez, and Pierre de la Rue. She was, as was the custom for royal daughters, bounced around from spouse to spouse according to political alliances, finally marrying Philibert Duke of Savoy in 1504. He died of fever just three years later, leaving her heartbroken. In those days, when royalty throughout Europe used marriage and family to influence war and trades, and when women’s power came from being in charge of young future kings, Margaret wielded quite a lot of agency via her familial duties, culminating in being named Governor by Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I, and then duly elected. She was the only woman elected as Hapsburg’s ruler. 


Se je Souspire is a macaronic motet (in two languages). The bass line, Ecce iterum, in Latin, is probably a borrowed tenor line (tenor meaning “to hold”) from existing chant, a common practice amongst composers after 1200. She wrote the top two lines using her own text in French, a deeply moving lament on the death of her brother.


Maddalena Casulana (c. 1544 – c. 1590) was an Italian composer, lutenist, and singer of the late Renaissance. She is the first female composer in the history of western music to have had a whole book of her music printed and published. Il Primo Libro di Madrigali, published 1568, is dedicated to Isabella di Medici Orsina. A second edition was published in 1583, indicating its popularity and her renown in Milan. A book of 5 part madrigals has recently been discovered and edited by Laurie Stras (U. Southampton), and will be premiered in Boston very soon–  we anticipate performing these ourselves ASAP!


Ben Venga/A dio Lidia is a two-part quartet and Io felice Pastore/Per lei pos’in oblio are parts four and five of a free canzon.  Both are the very common “pastorale” written on themes of imaginary and highly idealized lives of shepherds and nymphs. Casulana follows in the long tradition of Italian composers setting the words of the remarkable poets of the day: in this book she sets poems by Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Giambattista Strozzi (no relation to Barbara), Serafino Aquilano, and Vincenzo Quirino. I voiced one as a vocal quartet, and the other as a choral piece.


Raffaella Aleotti (c. 1575 – after 1620), (named Vittoria before she entered the convent) was an Italian Augustinian nun at the convent of San Vito in Ferrara where she was composer and organist. As Vittoria, and a child of just 14, she wrote 18 madrigals (CC recorded all 18 in 2014: Love Songs of a Renaissance Teenager; available at our ticket table), published by her father in 1593 after she entered the convent. Interestingly, the final madrigal is what’s known as a madrigale spirituale – she was moving on from boyfriends to Jesus!) In San Vito she became a musician of some renown, and wrote sacred motets, publishing a book of 18 motets also in 1593. Diligam te Domine, Audivi vocem in Coelo, and Miserere mei are all quintets for voices and instruments ad libitum– depending on what instruments and players were available, as was common practice for nuns. Vatican officials regularly removed instruments from convents for reasons of “religious” impropriety. The resourceful inhabitants wrote their pieces with a great deal of flexibility to accommodate that fact, thus their works are highly flexible in terms of performance practice: one can use all voices, all instruments, some instruments, in different keys as necessary for the instruments that can only play in certain keys, etc. Often, with the help of their families, the nuns were able to resupply their trove of instruments until the next Vatican raid. It was an odd juxtaposition: that on the one hand, every village with a musical convent took great pride in its nuns’ talents and built their churches to accommodate performances; on the other, the church strictly forbade the use of instruments and even polyphony (music other than chant), while also allowing these musical convents to thrive because they were good for the purse and reputation of the church. 


Francesca Caccini (1587–1640) was an Italian composer, singer, lutenist, guitarist, poet, and music teacher of the early Baroque era. Born in Florence, she was raised amid the flourishing artistic world of the Medicis, educated by her better known father Giulio, and sang in an ensemble of three women modeled on the famous concerto della donne of Ferrara, which was the first court to allow– and in fact celebrate– women singing in public. These became a sensation in northern Italy– the women were professionals, although basically servants to their courts. Francesca first appears in historical writings in 1600 as a singer in Jacopo Peri’s Euridice. Her serious dedication to composition began in 1606, as she regularly supplied music for the court’s fests and balls, as well as forming her own scuola to teach young women. Il primo libro delle musiche, a collection of songs for one and two voices, appeared in 1618, and contains 36 pieces, both secular and sacred. Her best known opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero, was written in 1625– it is called the first opera written by a woman (I would argue that Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum was actually the first). 


The solos and duets I have chosen for this performance are a mix of serious and light; all of the ornamentation is thoroughly written by Caccini, whose voice no doubt was as flexible and able as this music demands. Io mi Distruggo, duet for soprano and bass, Dov’io Credea, for soprano (we alternate) and Lasciatemi qui solo, for soprano (we alternate again), are all slow madrigals on the timeless theme of heartbreak. Lasciatemi is inspired by both Rinuccini’s and Monteverdi’s Lasciatemi morire, from the L’Arianna, and is her best known song. I have voiced it for two alternating tenors to give it a universal quality– heartbreak happens to everyone! S’io men vo, moriro is a lighter canzonetta for soprano and bass with a refrain. Non so se quel sorriso, a canzonetta for soprano has again been given to two alternating men. Fresche aurette, canzonetta for soprano and bass is a strophic work with no refrain. Every one of these pieces is a small masterwork.


Rosa Giacinta Badalla (ca. 1660 – ca. 1710) was a Benedictine nun and from the Milan area. Not much is known about her, but this one work that survives is a small sacred opera in itself, a paean to the mother of Jesus’ birth in six sections, each vastly different from the other. I have voiced it for six treble voices to emphasize this sectionality and the individual beauty of each section, and of course the beauty of each of our individual voices!


It says so much about her that Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was musically confident enough to so cleverly set a reference to herself in her marvelous quintet Priego ad Amore: “e d’un cortese affetto alla Barbara mia feconda il petto” is a repeated line at the end asking Love to look with kind affection towards Barbara to make (my) heart fertile. This poem may have been written by her father, whose texts she often set, or perhaps by herself. 


As a composer who was NOT a nun, she stands out. Born in Venice of a single mother, it was clear from an early age that she was talented. Her biological father, Giulio Strozzi, arranged for her to study. She played lute and theorbo and sang. By the age of 15 she was being described as "la virtuosissima cantatrice di Giulio Strozzi" (Giulio Strozzi’s very virtuosic singer), and by 16 he was seeking dedications of works for her to sing. Her father created a new academy, Accademia degli Unisoni, with a group of his literate friends so that she would have a place to perform both their songs and her own compositions, for which she also wrote the poetry. As a young and struggling musician she sought patronage with little luck. She is said to be the “most prolific composer–  man or woman– in 17th c. Venice”. We are certainly glad to have made her acquaintance many years ago, and continue to program her works because they are timeless and complex, sometimes unbelievably so. Each work is a small treasure of compositional perfection. Scattered throughout our performances of Strozzi’s works for five voices you will hear our fine soloists take a line here, a line there, as seems appropriate to the affect. 

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