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The Musical World of Johannes Ciconia


This hour we’re exploring the work of a composer for whom more music survives than any other composer working around 1400 in Europe.  Join us for a sampling of the eclectic works of Johannes Ciconia.  Our featured release is a 2018 recording from Montréal Baroque, Bach: Cantatas for Luther.

We heard the first movement of Bach’s cantata, BWV 79, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, performed by Montréal Baroque.

Where's Johannes?

There were several men named Johannes Ciconia, making our composer’s life a very difficult one to piece together, but scholars today believe that he was born in Liège, a city in the French-speaking part of today’s Belgium, around 1370.  One of the first of a long line of composers from Northern Europe who followed such a path, Ciconia worked most of his adult life in Italy, particularly in the service of the papal chapel and at Padua Cathedral.

Some 45 compositions and two theoretical treatises survive by Ciconia. His music shows more stylistic variety than that of any other composer of his time, comprising both sacred music - mass movements and motets; and secular music - Italian, French and Latin songs in the formes fixes that gave structure to the poetry and music of his time.

Let us begin with a Latin motet of Ciconia composed in honor of Stefano Carrara, administrator of the Paduan see from 1396. It celebrates either the dedication of an altar to St. Stephen in Padua Cathedral by Stefano in 1400, or his assumption of the bishopric on April 10, 1402.  The attentive listener will be struck by the imitation between the two upper voices.  Near the end of the motet, the even more attentive listener will hear the voices come together as the composer names himself, asking Steven to deign to receive him, unworthy though he is.

We heard the Orlando Consort performing Ciconia’s “O felix templum jubila,” from their 1999 recording, The Saracen and the Dove.

All the surviving Mass movements attributed to Ciconia are Glorias and Credos, as is typical in contemporary sources, which present very few settings of the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus.  Let’s listen to one of his Glorias.  You will hear the repetition of the word ‘pax,’ which means “peace,” six times after the words ‘Et in terra,’ a very unusual occurrence in this repertory.  This may relate to specific curbs on this inflammatory word by the Visconti in 1409 or even to the papal Schism.

That was a Gloria by Johannes Ciconia, sung by the ensemble Diabolus in Musica, from the 2011 Ricercar recording, Johannes Ciconia: Opera Omnia.

Turning now to one of Ciconia’s best-known compositions, the influence of the rhythmically complex French ars subtilior is clearly evident.  A much-discussed aspect of the song is that some 20% of “Sus un fontayne” directly quotes the music of Filippotto da Caserta, Ciconia’s older Italian contemporary who also composed French songs.

Only the top part of the three-part piece is texted, a situation one frequently finds in secular music of the period that has led to much controversy about whether or not the other two parts should be sung or played on an instrument.  The performers here have chosen to have the upper, very florid part sung and the lower ones played instrumentally. “Sus un fontayne” is a virelai, a poetic form in which we hear the text, with the same music, at both the beginning and end of the song, giving us a different perspective on that text at the end of the piece.

We’ve just heard Ciconia’s “Sus un fontayne,” as interpreted by the ensemble Mala Punica from their 1996 recording, Vertù contra furore, on the Outhere label.

It is difficult for historians to precisely identify the dedicatee of Ciconia’s “O Petre, Christi discipule,” the only thing that is certain is that he was called Peter.  One of the most likely candidates is Ciconia’s acquaintance Pietro Filargo, who would go on to be crowned Pope Alexander V in 1409, and who would ultimately play a very important role in the resolution of the Great Schism.

We heard a contrafacta, “O Petre, Christi discipule,” performed by Diabolus in Musica, from their 2011 recording, Johannes Ciconia: Opera Omnia.

Varied Influences

Welcome back. This hour on Harmonia, we’re exploring the eclectic works of 15th century Italian composer Johannes Ciconia.  It is still not clear whether Ciconia was ever ordained a priest or truly became a canon of Padua Cathedral, but he was certainly closely identified with Padua from 1401 until his death in 1412.  Before that, he may well have been first in Rome, and from there he moved to Pavia, where he spent time at the court of Giangaleazzo Visconti; among several works that can be associated with the Visconti is the madrigal “Una panthera,” which refers to the armorial beast and mythical founder of the city of Lucca.  It was composed in May or June 1399 for the visit of a Luccan noble to Pavia to secure an alliance with Giangaleazzo.

That was the Ensemble Project Ars Nova in an all-vocal performance of Ciconia’s “Una panthera” from their New Albion CD of 1992.

We’ve heard an enormous eclecticism in Ciconia’s music, bringing together Italian and French influences.  And some of his music clearly looks forward to the renaissance, including his ballata “O rosa bella,” whose text is ascribed to Leonardo Giustiniani.

We’ve just heard the Studio der Frühen Musik, directed by Thomas Binkley, performing Ciconia’s “O rosa bella” on their 1972 recording of music of Johannes Ciconia.

The Ensemble Project Ars Nova also recorded Ciconia’s “O rosa bella” on their 1992 recording Homage to Johannes Ciconia, recorded twenty years after the recording we just heard by the Studio der Frühen Musik.  Because of the way music of the Middle Ages was transcribed, the manuscripts are far more open to interpretation with regard to tempo, dynamics, number of performers, and even instrumentation, than, say, the string quartets of Beethoven.  Let’s listen to another recording of “O rosa bella,” this one by the Ensemble Project Ars Nova.  Can you identify anywhere that this ensemble has made different choices?

We heard Ciconia’s “O rosa bella,” this time recorded by the Ensemble Project Ars Nova, from their 1992 recording Homage to Johannes Ciconia. (:10)

Bach: Cantatas for Luther

Our featured release this hour is a 2018 recording from Montréal Baroque, featuring cantatas composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in celebration of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church.  Lutherans around the world still celebrate this day, known as the Reformation, every year on October 31st.  This recording is the eighth in a series that will eventually boast recordings of all of Bach’s sacred cantatas.

We heard music by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Montréal Baroque, from the 2018 recording Bach: Cantatas for Luther.

Break and theme music

:60, Bach: Cantatas pour Luther, Montréal Baroque, ATMA Classique 2018, Tr. 8 Die Himmel Erzählen Die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76: VIII. 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 Wendy Gillespie.

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