The Haut and Bas of it: Two Renaissance Virtuosi in Ferrara

 Tinney S. Heath.  That’s her name.  Remember it. 

I first encountered her when she got in touch because she liked my books. 

Which obviously made not just my day but my week.  But then…then I discovered she had a skill…a talent which was so amazingly wonderful, indeed so–to use John Donne’s word–sesquisuperlative, that I had to beg her to write a blog about it–any aspect of it, I didn’t care. 

Because you see, she is one of those truly splendid individuals who performs Renaissance music on original instruments.

Yes, this is up there with ‘Bennetts has died and gone to heaven…’ 

She’s also written a rather interesting work of historical fiction sent in the time of Dante’s Italy.  More on that later.  But now, please tuck yourselves in with a nice tub of Ben and Jerry’s to read about, to learn about the best of Italian Renaissance music and through her knowledge and her love of her subject, to see, to be in the room even, with Renaissance Ferrara’s finest…

So here she is, Tinney S.  Heath.

“Corrado de Alamagna.  He was a piffaro so skilled that his name was known throughout fifteenth-century Italy;  a shawm player who became the best-paid musician in the court of the Este family; a musician whom other Renaissance princes tried unsuccessfully to lure away from Ferrara to enter service in their cities. 

“For forty years Corrado was the unquestioned star of Ferrara’s haut, or loud, ensemble, which was described by contemporary chronicler Ugo Caleffini in 1476 as “the best in Italy.” 

“Pietrobono del Chitarino.  He was a lute player celebrated by poets and humanist writers but also by music theorists; a sublimely gifted improviser; a musician in the bas (soft) tradition whose talents were  coveted in other Italian courts, even if only on a loan basis; a man commemorated with a portrait medallion and raised to the ranks of the nobility for his skills. 

“Of him, the poet Antonio Cornazzano wrote “Whoever wishes to pass from one world to another, should hear Pietrobono’s playing.”

“First, a couple of definitions.  Piffaro (or piffero) refers to a shawm, or to a shawm player.  The shawm is a very loud double-reed woodwind instrument played in Europe from the 13th through the 17th century.  Ancestor to the oboe, descendant of the even more raucous instrument brought home by crusaders, it was typically played outdoors or in large halls, usually in the company of bagpipes (in the middle ages) or brass instruments (in the Renaissance).  It gained in refinement through those centuries, but did not lose its sheer power.

“And Pietrobono is “del Chitarino,” which suggests that he should be playing a guitar-like instrument, but all indications are that his principal instrument was the lute, and those who wrote about him playing a chitarino or a cithera were just being poetic.

“The parallels in the careers of these two undisputed musical geniuses are striking. 

“Both men entered the service of the Este court as young men, during the last months of the reign of Niccolò III d’Este.  They came into their own in the reign of Leonello which began late in 1441.  And both served throughout Leonello’s nine-year reign, throughout the 21-year reign of his brother and successor Borso, and well into the 34-year reign of Borso’s successor Ercole I, who ruled from 1471 to 1505 – Corrado on the payroll for ten years into Ercole’s reign, Pietrobono for 26 years.

“Both of them were well paid.  And both were valued by the Este rulers as the status symbols they certainly were, as well as for the undeniable pleasure their music provided their employers. 

“Both taught promising students, sent to them from Mantua and other cities. 

“Both had managerial responsibilities in their respective musical spheres, Corrado for his haut ensemble and Pietrobono for his tenorista, the player who provided the slow-moving melody line (probably on a bowed string instrument) for the lute virtuoso to improvise around. 

“Both received valuable gifts from their appreciative employers – a house (or use of a house) for Corrado, additional sources of income for Pietrobono in the form of revenues from a local import tax, grain and clothing and generous monetary gifts to both. 

“Both were sent on expeditions to faraway lands to recruit other musicians, or to perform other tasks for their Este employers.

“Both of them were capable of playing complex polyphonic compositions.  And both of them were gifted improvisers of polyphonic music, Corrado (and his ensemble) extemporizing dance music according to the rules of discant, and Pietrobono creating lute pyrotechnics around the steady basis provided by his patient – and not very well paid – tenorista.

“Yet today we cannot point to one single written note of music that we know with certainty either one of them played.

“There is a manuscript, Rome Casanatense 2856, called the Ferrarese wind band manuscript, which contains polyphonic music Corrado and his group probably did perform, though their performances would have abounded in ornaments and improvisations that are lost to us – were lost in fact the moment the notes faded away. 

“But much of the music the haut ensemble performed would never have been written down.  It existed at all only as a function of memory, a thorough knowledge of applied musical theory, and improvisational skill and imagination.  These musicians – both Corrado and Pietrobono – were quite literally making it up as they went along. 

“How is it that two such geniuses, almost exact contemporaries, came together in the Ferrarese court in a single year?

“One might assume that Ferrara was some sort of musical hotbed, some artistic center that drew such talent to itself, but it was not so. 

“Under Niccolò (and before him), Ferrara was actually something of a musical backwater, though this was to change dramatically, first under N’s illegitimate son Leonello and later under his next illegitimate son, Leonello’s brother Borso. 

“(Ercole was actually legitimate, though he had to wait his turn, and even then was challenged by a son of Leonello’s.  Perhaps Niccolò was sensitive to the plight of Ercole’s older half-brothers, having been legitimated himself.)

“It all started with Leonello though, a lover of music who played both organ and lute. 

“His investment in Ferrara’s cultural life was not limited to music.  He founded Ferrara’s university, gradually adding eminent scholars to its faculty.  He employed copyists to produce manuscripts, classical texts but also works in Italian and in French.  He launched Ferrara’s tradition of miniature painting and patronized studio painters such as Pisanello, who was regularly employed at court from about the same time Corrado and Pietrobono were.  

“By the end of Leonello’s reign, Ferrara boasted a roster of 14 instrumentalists:  five trombetti (these were the trumpeters who played fanfares and served a function more heraldic than musical), Agostino the trombone player, piffari Corrado di Alemagna and Zoanne de Alemagna, harpist Paolo Grillo, lutenist Pietrobono del Chitarino and his tenorista Malacise, keyboard player Leonello Fiescho, and a singer named Niccolò Tedesco, listed among the instrumentalists because he accompanied his own singing on a plucked string instrument (lute or cittern).

“Borso, in his turn, was responsible for two of the treasures of the Italian Renaissance:  the delightful frescoes by a number of different artists in the Palazzo Schifanoia (which means “banish boredom,” and well it might); and the magnificent “Borso Bible,” which contains over a thousand miniatures in dazzling colors and exquisite detail.  He also continued supporting the Ferrara court’s instrumental ensembles, including making every effort to keep Corrado and Pietrobono from seeking greener pastures elsewhere. 

“Pietrobono may have outlived his preeminence in the court of Ercole, who put a lot of emphasis on hiring excellent singers for his chapel, adding organists, and, later in his reign, building up an ensemble of viols.  As the aging lutenist approached the end of his life (he died at 80), younger lutenists came to prominence.

“The two virtuosos, despite all similarities, had very different backgrounds. 

“As his name suggests, Corrado de Alamagna was from Germany, or at least from a German-speaking country (Italians of the 15th century could be a bit casual about their national labels).  He was working in the court of Monferrato when he was recruited for service in Ferrara, serving the marquis Giovanni Giacomo Paleologo. 

“Monferrato existed in the shadow of Saxony, so it’s possible that Corrado’s first employment in Italy was not very far from his home.  At this time it was believed that the best haut musicians came from Germany, so Italian courts and cities did their utmost to attract German players. 

“Florence, for example, had a law on the books at about mid-century stipulating that all shawm players in the employ of the city had to be foreigners.  Shortly after taking employment in Ferrara, Corrado sent for his wife, who joined him there.  After only a few years he was granted Ferrarese citizenship, in recognition of his widely-admired skill. 

“Pietrobono is on record as serving as Leonello’s barber (a sort of personal medic as well as a hair-snipper) when he first appeared on the Ferrarese payroll, but he almost certainly was hired for his musicianship and was first and foremost a performer, even at the outset.  He was probably more of a valet than an actual barber. 

“He became a very wealthy man thanks to the many gifts and favors he received from his Este employers throughout the decades he served.  Yet he was still a servant.  For proof, see a letter from Ercole to his wife Eleanora, concerning a pending journey to Hungary:  “As for Pietrobono, who says that he can’t go, see that he prepares himself to go, and be sure that he goes in any case…”  Pietrobono was 69 years old at the time.

“Looking at just one sample list of monthly salaries (1456, a few years into Borso’s reign), we see a striking gap between the compensation of the two, with Corrado earning 30 lire marchesane and Pietrobono only 8. 

“It would be unwise to read too much into this disparity, though.  Pietrobono’s salary may have been more on the order of a retainer, and certainly it was augmented by lavish gifts and recompense on many occasions.  (Twenty years later the gap had narrowed, but was still there.) 

“The list shows that all trumpet players earned 10, as did the trombone player; the second shawm player earned 8, the organist 12, the harpist 4, and poor Malacise the tenorista earned only 2. 

“In comparison, the head cook earned 6, dancing master Domenico da Piacenza (famous in his own right) earned 20, and the court’s bird-handlers earned variously from 4 to 13. 

“Leading the pack was the well-known Renaissance physician Michele de la Savonarola, grandfather to the reforming Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola whose bonfires of the vanities and other attempts to render Florentine society more godly were to cause him to lock horns with the Borgia pope and meet his end by being burned at the stake in 1498.

“Were Corrado and Pietrobono friends?  They served the Este court together for forty years. 

“Were they rivals? 

“Were there ever occasions when they performed together?

“Could they have performed together? 

“Naturally, the Este-of-the-moment would have been eager to show off both of his musical treasures on special occasions, or when important visitors arrived. 

“But if you have a shawm and a lute playing at the same time, what you’re going to hear is a shawm solo.  The lute would merely look pretty. 

“Corrado was likely capable of playing other wind instruments, some, like the recorder, quiet enough to play with a  lute – but then it wouldn’t be Corrado on shawm, which would pretty much defeat the purpose.

“But I think it may have gone something like this:

“Let’s assume that Duke Ricco il Magnifico is paying a visit.  A politically and socially important, we-have-to-impress-this-guy kind of a visit.

“First, the trombetti add their fanfares to the party of dignitaries that welcomes Duke Ricco at the city’s gate.  It’s certainly possible that Corrado and his ensemble are with them, either on horseback or marching in procession.  If they are, they will be adding their power and volume to what the trumpeters are doing, or, possibly, playing in alternation with them.

“Or, they may be stationed somewhere prominent – probably on a raised platform — en route, ready to perform polyphonic music for the visitor, almost certainly from memory and enhanced by (carefully planned and rehearsed) improvisation.

“Either way, once Duke Ricco reaches the palace, he’ll be ushered inside, welcomed into the inner sanctum, and probably entertained by Pietrobono and his underpaid tenorista sidekick, playing something wonderful and showy for him.

“Perhaps then they’ll repair to the hall for a feast.  That, at least, will give us a chance to have the two superstars in the same room at the same time.  Corrado and his associates can take their places in the musicians’ gallery and play during parts of the feast, and the trombetti can blow their fanfares to announce the food as it is brought in.

“Then Pietrobono and his tenorista can settle themselves down near the head table and play for the distinguished guest and his host (never mind if no one else in the hall can hear them).  And while they’re playing, Corrado can either rest his embouchure, or, if Duke Ricco brought his own musicians with him, maybe Corrado and the Duke’s piffari can trade a little repertoire and swap ideas.  It’s a good opportunity for them, and they will want to take advantage of it.

“When the tables are put away and it’s time for dancing, the shawm band once again comes into its own. 

“But Pietrobono can’t pack up his lute and go home just yet; it’s very likely that the Duke will be treated to a little intimate late-night concert before he retires.

“I don’t know about you, but I like to think the two men were friends. 

“I believe they were each professional enough to appreciate the other’s skill, and they were not directly in competition.  Maybe their wives got along well, and their children played together.  Certainly the two of them grew old together, as they watched other musicians come and go.

“We’ll never know.  But maybe, once Duke Ricco and his Este host finally called it a night, the two musicians would kick back and relax, share some wine, and crack jokes at the expense of their august employers.

“At least, that’s what every musician I know would have done.”

For further information and fascinating insights, please visit Tinney’s website and blog:

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