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Welcome to Harmonia . . . I’m Angela Mariani.
Before they were tragic characters in nineteenth-century opera, courtesans were the original Renaissance women: highly educated, socially refined, independent figures with significant literary, artistic, and musical training. Many were expert practitioners of the improvisatory poetry and song traditions popular in their intellectual circles. This hour on Harmonia, we’ll explore the sound world of courtesans from Veronica Franco and Anne Boleyn to Li Xiangjun, Barbara Strozzi, and beyond.
Dialogo D’Amore: Frottolas for Isabella d’Este
Ensemble L’Amorosa Caccia, Fabio Antonio Falcone
Brilliant Classics | BC95759 (2020)
Tr. 10 Facto son per affanni (4:32) [really about 4:25]
Bartolomeo Tromboncino’s “Facto son per affanni,” a piece written for Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua from 1490 to 1539, performed by Giulia Valentini and L’Amorosa Caccia, led by Fabio Antonio Falcone. Brilliant and cultured from youth, Isabella d’Este became a lifestyle icon whose musical taste was widely imitated by fashionable women. Songs like this one circulated in both solo and ensemble formats and are often called “frottolas,” though their texts represent a wide range of poetic forms.
The term “sex workers”as we tend to use it today speaks to only one facet of the livelihoods of historical courtesans. This career choice often facilitated greater independence and wealth than were otherwise accessible to women at the time. In their 2006 essay collection on the artistic activities of courtesans, musicologists Bonnie Gordon and Martha Feldman define courtesanship as a social phenomenon that included [quote] “exclusive exchanges of artistic graces, elevated conversation, and sexual favors with male patrons.” [end quote] Their volume The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives informs several of the music pieces we’ll hear this hour.
A number of women who were part of the courtesan culture of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italy had relatively well-documented lives for the period, and surviving writings, portraits, and other artifacts tell us a lot about their musical practices. In some cases, their stories refer to unwritten music practices that were central to Renaissance music-making: Many composed and performed poetry, often to their own accompaniment on the lute, lira da braccio, or viol. Some played and improvised dance music and instrumental fantasies. Those who did engage with written music could be skilled chamber musicians, singing and playing polyphony from notation, or were even published composers.
Italian Renaissance Dances, Vol. 2
The King’s Noyse, David Douglass
Harmonia Mundi | HCX3957127DI (1994)
Tr. 2 Fammi una canzonetta capriciosa (2:23)
Philippe Verdelot: Madrigals for a Tudor King
Alamire, David Skinner
Obsidian | OBSID-CD703 (2007)
Tr. 5 O dolce notte (2:00)
David Skinner led Alamire on Philippe Verdelot’s setting of Machiavelli’s “O dolce nocte,” (O sweet night) written in honor of courtesan Barbara Salutati. Before that, Ellen Hargis and The King’s Noyse performed “Fammi una canzonetta capriciosa” from Orazio Vecchi’s second book of canzonettas published in 1580.
Martha Feldman, leading scholar on the music of early modern Italian courtesans, collaborated with The Newberry Consort on a program called “The Courtesan’s Voice”back in 2002. Part of that program was recorded as the companion album to (the book) The Courtesan’s Arts. Here, Ellen Hargis and John Lenti perform the poetry of famed Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco.
Companion album to The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross Cultural Perspectives
(Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon, eds.)
The Newberry Consort; Mary Springfels
Oxford University Press 2006 / recorded 2004
Cosimo Bottegari (lutebook of 1574); Veronica Franco (text)
Tr. 6 “Bottegari’s tune for a terza rima sung with Veronica Franco’s ‘Non più parole’ (excerpt)” (1:06)
Mary Springfels directed the Newberry Consort on Veronica Franco’s “Non più parole” (No more words) set to a formula for singing poetic tercets from the Bottegari lutebook. That was Recorded for [the book] The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross Cultural Perspectives, edited by Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon.
In 1588, Venetian keyboardist Marco Facoli published a book of dance and aria intabulations, thirteen of which are named after women believed to be courtesans and theatrical characters. As musicologist Drew Edward Davies has noted, Facoli’s combination of dance tunes, popular song, formulas for singing poetry, and virtuosic display are all hallmarks of music-making associated with courtesans.
Court and Dance Music from the Renaissance and Early Baroque
BIS | BIS-CD-126 (1996)
Tr. 1 Padoana Terza dita la Finetta - Hor ch'io son gionto quivi - S'io m'accorgo ben mio (Napolitana) - Aria della Comedia nuovo (5:09)
Lena Jacobson played Marco Facoli’s third pavan called “La Finetta,” song and napolitana intabulations, and an aria of the “comedia nuovo” on the 1610 Compenius Organ at Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark.
Italian courtesan culture was by no means limited to Venice. The social norms that became associated with the higher-class cortegiane oneste also developed around the Papal court in late fifteenth-century Rome. As papal courtiers were typically clergy who couldn’t marry, their female companions needed to be unmarriagable yet refined enough to keep up with the academic and artistic culture of court life. This was an avenue for social mobility for women like Imperia Cognati, the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan named Diana and the future Bishop of Pesaro. Her main client was Agostino Chigi, a banker to Pope Julius II and generous arts patron who was possibly the richest man in the world at the time. Imperia also enjoyed a close friendship with the artist Raphael, who painted her several times. She was able to secure honorable marriage for her own daughter by Chigi, Lucrezia. Lucrezia’s stepfather is named as Papal chapel singer Paolo Trotti. Here’s the late fifteenth-century Italian song “Ayme sospiri,” that survives in two versions suited to solo performance by women, and a motet from Trotti’s tenure in the Papal choir.
Triumpho de le Done: Late 15th Century Music from Italy
Pan Classics | PC19031 (2020)
Tr. 7 Ayme sospiri [Escorial, Ms IV.a.24, 15th century, Italy] (3:13)
A Concert of Early Music
Musica Reservata of London & Michael Morrow
Vanguard Classics | SVC-96 (re-released 1998)
Tr. 9 Aime sospiri (1:37)
The Lion’s Ear
Ramee | RAM1403 (2015)
Elzéar Genet (Carpentras)
Tr. 12 Jerusalem, convertere (1:17)
We first heard the anonymous “Aime sospiri” (alas, my sighs) as it appears in an Escorial manuscript, performed by Florelegio Ensemble, followed by a vintage track by Musica Reservata of London with Michael Morrow, performing the ornamented version printed by Ottaviano Petrucci. Last, we heard La Morra with “Jerusalem, convertere” (Return, Jerusalem) by Elzéar Genet, known as Carpentras, composer and choirmaster at the Papal chapel during the early sixteenth century.
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Early music can mean a lot of things. What does it mean to you? Let us know your thoughts and ideas. Contact us at harmonia early music dot org, where you’ll also find playlists and an archive of past shows.
You’re listening to Harmonia . . . I’m Angela Mariani.
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MUSIC TRACK (Naxos) in prod folder
Music for the House of a Gentleman
Brilliant Classics | BC95090 (2014)
Tr. 8 Pasamezo di nome anticho (excerpt of 6:31)
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Welcome back . . . this hour we’re exploring connections between the worlds of courtesans and early music.
The scholars behind [the book] The Courtesan’s Arts noticed some [distinct] and interesting similarities between courtesan music practices in Imperial China and Renaissance Italy. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, both Chinese and Italian courtesans used stock tunes or melodic formulas to sing poetry. Courtesan Li Xiangjun, who lived from 1624 to 1654 was immortalized in the play The Peach Blossom Fan, written by Kong Shangren about 50 years later. This play is part of a music theatrical tradition of Kun opera, developed in the region around Kun Shan, in the southeastern Jiangsu province]. Kun arias were performed by fitting texts to orally transmitted stock tunes. While some courtesans might act in public theater, most including Li Xiangjun sang Kun arias as a part of their private repertoire when performing for clients.
Jiangsu Kunqu Opera Troupe
Wind Music | TCD 1026 (2008)
Tr. 7 “Leaving the Pavilion” from The Peach Blossom Fan (2:27)
The Jiangsu Kunqu Opera Troupe with “Leaving the Pavilion” from The Peach Blossom Fan, written in 1699 by Kong Shangren.
Courtesans were also an important part of Indian musical culture during the Mughal Empire [16th-19th centuries], and their song and dance traditions were cultivated well into the colonial era despite various attempts at erasure. Courtesan-musicians who entertained noble patrons with their expertise in song, dance, literature, and etiquette were particularly associated with the performance of ghazals, couplet-based love poetry popularized in India by medieval Sufi mystics.
Thumris, Sawan, Ghazals
Universal CDNF 078 (2004)
Mir Taqi Mir
Tr. 5 Dil Ki Baat Kahi Nahin Jaati (3:13)
Begum Akhtar singing an eighteenth-century ghazal by Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir, “Matters of the heart are not spoken.” [Born in 1914, Akhtar was a leading interpreter of North Indian classical music, known as the “queen of ghazals.” As ethnomusicologist Regula Qureshi has noted, Akhtar was among the most successful tawa’if to transition from private entertainment to commercial recording and film acting during the twentieth century.
While Anne Boleyn might not have identified as a professional courtesan in the Venetian sense, many aspects of her life and career meet the definition used by contemporary historians. Her family’s social ambition, her meticulous education at the French court, and the, uh, gift economy of her relationships with influential men are all reminiscent of courtesanship. She was certainly privy to the music-making of intimate court circles, and today we have both a music manuscript from her personal collection and one song she may have written herself.
Anne Boleyn Songbook
Alamire, David Skinner
Obsidian | OBSID-CD715
Tr. 5 (Disc 1) Laudate Dominum omnes gentes [Anne Boleyn Songbook: Royal College of Music, MS 1070] (arr. D. Skinner for choir) (3:10)
Julianne Baird and Ronn McFarlane
Dorian Sono Luminus | DOR-90017 (1997)
Tr. 8 O Death, Rock Me Asleep (3:34)
The lute song “O Death, Rock Me Asleep” with a text attributed to Anne (Boleyn) performed by Julianne Baird and Ronn McFarlane. Before that, David Skinner led Alamire on an anonymous Laudate Dominum from the Anne Boleyn Songbook.
Back in Venice, the virtuoso soprano and cortegiana Barbara Strozzi published 8 music collections between 1644 and 1664, mostly chamber cantatas for solo voice and basso continuo, occasionally with multiple voices and obbligato instruments. Two of her volumes are devoted to motets and spiritual arias.
Barbara Strozzi: La virtuossisima cantatrice
Amon Ra | CDSAR61 (1994)
Tr. 5 Amor dormiglione (2:16)
Barbara Strozzi’s “Amor dormiglione,” (Sleepy Love) performed by Suzie le Blanc and Kasia Elsner of Musica Secreta.
Aside from courtesanship, monasticism was another means by which early modern women achieved greater agency over their lives and careers. For this hour’s featured album, we turn to Ursuline nun Isabella Leonarda, a prolific composer and music director of her convent in Novara, west of Milan. On their August 2022 release Leonarda: Portrait of Isabella Leonarda, Candace Smith and Cappella Artemisia take us on a tour of Leonarda’s wide-ranging output, from instrumental sonatas to grand sacred concertos. We’ll hear the luxuriant “O dulce sonare” from her 1677 motet collection.
Leonarda: Portrait of Isabella Leonarda
Cappella Artemisia, Candace Smith
Brilliant Classics | BC96626 (2022)
Tr. 7 O dulce sonare (after Mottetti con le litanie della Beata Vergine, Op. 7) (7:32)
Isabella Leonarda’s motet “O dulce sonare” (O sweet sound) for three women’s voices and two violins, on this hour’s featured recording, Leonarda: Portrait of Isabella Leonarda, released by Cappella Artemisia in August 2022.
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Harmonia is a production of WFIU and part of the educational mission of Indiana University.
Support comes from Early Music America: a national organization that advocates and supports the historical performance of music of the past, the community of artists who create it, and the listeners whose lives are enriched by it. On the web at EarlyMusicAmerica-dot-org.
Additional resources come from the William and Gayle Cook Music Library at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
We welcome your thoughts about any part of this program, or about early music in general. Contact us at harmonia early music dot org. You can follow us on Facebook by searching for Harmonia Early Music.
The writer for this edition of Harmonia was Chelsey Belt.
Thanks to our studio engineer Michael Paskash, and our production team: LuAnn Johnson, Wendy Gillespie, Aaron Cain, and John Bailey. I’m Angela Mariani, inviting you to join us again for the next edition of Harmonia.
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