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The trappings of a 21st century Mardi Gras celebration.

What do the elaborate Mardi Gras parades of New Orleans, the famous Carnival of Venice, and the Jewish holiday Purim all have in common? Why, costumes, of course! This hour on Harmonia, we’re exploring the art of masquerades in music. In addition, on our featured release, we’ll hear the music of Giovanni Valentini, in a joint performance by the ensembles Les Canards Chantants and ACRONYM.

We heard music performed by The Orlando Consort, from their recording Food, Wine & Song: Music and Feasting in Renaissance Europe. 

Food, Wine & Song

Masks, wine, feasting and fun…the raucous celebration known as “Carnival” takes place in the time between the Christian feast day of Epiphany, soon after Christmas, and the beginning of Lent. Lent, which lasts for forty days, is a period of penitence and partial fasting, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter. Cities as diverse as Nice, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, Cologne, New Orleans, and Mobile, Alabama, are all home to well-known Carnival celebrations that are characterized by parades, costumes, feasting, and a great deal of debauchery! These celebrations, at which participants are frequently called upon to don masks, have deep roots in the pagan world, as so many Christian holidays do. This particular festival is also related to the Roman holidays Saturnalia and Lupercalia. Let’s listen to music for Carnival from Renaissance Florence.

We heard “Canto di donne maestre di far cacio,” a Renaissance Carnival song about cheese makers, performed by The Orlando Consort.

According to Jacques Chassebras de Cramailles, a Frenchman living in Paris at the end of the 18th century, “The carnival of Venice so much talked about in Paris and in every other city of Europe, is in fact an assemblage of all sorts of entertainments, with comedies, opera, gambling, balls, feasts, bull races and bullfighting, rope dancers, puppets, boatmen and jesters.” André Campra’s 1699 opera Le Carnaval de Venise is set in the composer’s idealized version of Venice. Let’s hear some music from Campra’s opera.

Music from André Campra’s Le Carnaval de Venise, performed by Le Concert Spirituel, led by Hervé Niquet.

Party All Year Long

Nowadays, most pre-Lenten celebrations last only a few days, but in 18th-century Venice, Carnival lasted nearly half the year! It started up in October and ran until Christmas, and then got started again after Epiphany and continued until Fat Tuesday. Let’s hear music from Antonio Vivaldi’s opera Tito Manlio, which was first performed as a part of Carnival in Venice in 1719.

We heard mezzo-soprano Debora Beronesi in Vivaldi’s Tito Manlio. That was from a 2005 recording on the naïve label.

Masks were, and remain, a popular feature of Carnival in Venice. Back in Vivaldi’s day, party-goers used masks to hide their identities – a nobleman could cast away his exalted social position and a tradesperson could pass himself off as a king, even if it was for just one night. Disguises featured prominently in operas composed for Carnival as well. Pietro Metastasio’s libretto for the opera Semiramide Riconosciuta features an Egyptian princess, Semiramide, who rules Assyria – dressed as a man. Metastasio’s libretto has been set by a number of composers including Salieri, Meyerbeyer, and Gluck. Let’s listen to music from Leonardo Vinci’s 1729 version of Semiramide Riconsciuta.

The aria “In braccio a mille furie,” from Leonardo Vinci’s opera Semiramide Riconsciuta, featuring countertenor Franco Fagioli.


The Jewish spring holiday of Purim celebrates the biblical story told in the Book of Esther. Traditionally, congregants dress up as characters from the story – from the heroine Esther to the villain Haman and his three-cornered hat. Nowadays, the holiday is celebrated with costumes, feasting, and lots of drinking!

Let’s hear guitarist Floy Jagoda’s rendition of a traditional Renaissance Purim song from Sephardic Spain.

We heard the traditional tune “El día de Purim,” from the 1995 Sono Luminus release, Music of the Sephardim and Renaissance Spain.

Many of the texts which are sung for Purim are also used throughout the rest of the year. One such prayer, used in morning services for the Sabbath since the 15th century, is “Adon Olam,” which means, “Ruler of the Universe.” Let’s listen to “Adon Olam” and instrumental music by Salamone Rossi, an Italian Jewish composer, who lived in Mantua during the time when the Renaissance era was giving way to the Baroque.

Music by Salamone Rossi, from the recording Jewish Baroque Music, performed by the Boston Camerata.

Valentini's Madrigals

Although he lived most of his adult life in Vienna, Giovanni Valentini grew up in Venice. He probably participated in the costumed events of Carnival throughout his childhood. Published in Venice in 1616, Valentini’s Secondo libro de madrigali is the first known published collection of madrigals that explicitly calls for instruments outside the traditional forces of singers and continuo instruments. Let’s hear two pieces from that book of madrigals, “Bella Isabella, bella,” and “Queste lacrime mie,” both from a 2016 recording by the ensembles Les Canards Chantants and ACRONYM.

Our featured release is the first recording ever made of Valentini’s Secondo libro de madrigali. To make this recording, two young ensembles chose to join forces: the solo-voice vocal ensemble Les Canards Chantants and the baroque string ensemble ACRONYM. That cleverly-named ensemble is not only called ACRONYM, but their name is, in fact, also an actual acronym – it stands for American-Australian-Alemannian Coalition for the Recollection of Opulent Nifty Yummy Madrigals! Clever, right?

We heard music from our featured release, a 2016 recording of Giovanni Valentini’s Secondo libro de madrigali.

Break and theme music

:30, Le Carnaval de Venise, Le Concert Spirituel, Glossa 2011, D. 2, Tr. 24 Le Bal, dernier divertissement: Bourrée

:60, Vivaldi: Tito Manlio, Accademia Bizantina, naïve 2005, D. 1, Tr. 1 I. Allegro 

:30, Jewish Baroque Music, Boston Camerata, harmonia mundi 2001, Tr. 12 Sinfonia

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia was Sarah Huebsch.

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