Sunday, 3 November 2013

Passion and the Princess - music and murder in Renaissance Ferrara

The Castello in Ferrara
The Castello in Ferrara
Passion and the Princess was Musica Secreta's programme at the Brighton Early Music Festival on Saturday 2 November 2013. Whilst I had heard of the famous singing ladies of Renaissance Ferrara, I was unfamiliar with much of their story and Musica Secreta's programme presented us with an amazing tale of murder, music and politics in Renaissance Italy. Musica Secreta (Deborah Roberts, Liz Dobbin, Sophia Brumfitt sopranos, Rosie Midgley mezzo-soprano, Lynda Sayce lute and chitarrone and Claire Williams harpsichord) were joined by the BREMF Consort of Voices (director Deborah Roberts) to present a wide range of music, both sacred and secular, from Willaert, Rore, Wert, Luzzaschi and Monteverdi associated with the singing ladies of Ferrara and their patroness Lucrezia d'Este. We were told Lucrezia's story in narration by Laurie Stras, interwoven with madrigals, motets and instrumental pieces.

For over 20 years Musica Secreta has specialised in revealing the hidden world of women's music in the Renaissance. Here they were joined by the eight voices of the BREMF Consort, founded in 2010 as a top quality amateur/student ensemble which takes a full role in the festival. Here they enabled Musica Secreta to explore not only the music for solo voices and for women's voices, members of the two groups combining for thel arger scale madrigals and motets from the court of Ferrara,


The narration was written and spoken by Laurie Stras who is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Southampton, and is currently writing a book on the female musicians at the court of 16th century Ferrara, and is also a fine story teller. Her highly involving telling of the tale set the tone for the whole evening.

We started with Lucrezia d'Este's grandmother, Lucrezia Borgia who came to Ferrara along with her musician Bartolomeo Tromboncino (1470-1535) whom she poached from the court of Ferrara. We heard some of his Lamentations of Jeremiah, apt pieces for someone who was unable to return to Mantua because he'd killed his wife. This was followed by Stella che fra le stelle by Alfonso della Viola (1508-1573) who was the maestro di cappella at Ferrara, and who had killed someone else's wife. As Laurie Stras said, murder really was a way of life at the court of Ferrara

The first half dealt with Lucrezia d'Este's life as a growing young woman at the Ducal court, a prime marriage prospect, with madrigals by Cipriano de Rore including a lovely solo one, En voz Adieux written when Lucrezia's elder sister went off to marry. But all was not sweetness and light, her sister's planned marriage fell through so she was married off to the man whom Lucrezia was supposed to marry. Lucrezia's mother Renee, though a Princess of France, was a convinced Calvinist and was arrested with Lucrezia and her sister's being taken to her aunt's convent. Which led to a lovely anonymous O Salutaris Hostia for four women's voices reflecting the musical talents within the convents.

And there was an earthquake so bad that the court was displaced for months. So we had a motet by Luzzasco Luzzaschi (1545-1607), resident composer at the Ferrara court which pushed chromaticism to extremes in exploring the events of the earthquake

Lucrezia did eventually get married, to a man 14 years her junior in an attempt by his father, the Duke of Urbino, to calm him down. Unsurprisingly, the marriage wasn't a success. Luzzaschi's motet in praise of Lucrezia has not survived so we heard one by his friend Giaches de Wert (fl.1550-1570), a large scale madrigal Di cerchio in cerchio in praise of Lucrezia

We concluded the first half with an outdoor entertainment held by Lucrezia's brother, Duke Alphonso, for two of the sons of the Holy Roman Emperor; it had to be outdoor because the Ducal family could not yet use the Ducal residence after the earthquake. Here we heard two of the singing women, noble ladies of the Ducal court who sang to a high degree of perfection. We were treated to a pair of madrigals, a solo piece Luzzaschi and a dialogue by Adrian Willaert (1490 - 1562) sung by members of Musica Secreta and displaying a fine degree of technical skill in the elaborate music

Because these singing women didn't sing simple little songs, Luzzaschi's madrigals for them are complex and elaborate pieces. And what was striking was that the noble ladies sang to such a high degree of technical ability and did so in semi-public occasions.

Lucrezia's marriage was not a success, and she spent a lot of time back home in Ferrara. Part two opened with a lovely duet Al dolce vostro canto by Luzzaschi (Lucrezia's favourite composer) which was originally sung by two of Lucrezia's ladies, the Bendido sisters. But the music belies the events at court. Lucrezia took a lover at her brother's court, was betrayed by her uncle and the lover was killed. Returning to Urbino she discovered that her husband had given her syphilis. She returned to Ferrara, never to return to her husband in Urbino.

The musical backdrop to this was a sequence of gorgeous solos, duets and trios by Marc'Antonio Ingegneri (c.1535/6-1592), Alessandro Milleville (1521-1589), Lodovico Agostini (1523-1590) and Luzzaschi sung by members of Musica Secreta. All displaying the voice to its ultimate with the singers showing a high degree of technical facility in some amazing florid writing.

The composer Gesualdo, having murdered his wife and her lover, came to Ferrara to marry Lucrezia's cousin and to study with Luzzaschi whom Gesualdo admired, and in whose work we can hear pre-echoes of the chromaticism of Gesualdo's writing. The final flowering of this period was Luzzaschi's book of madrigals dedicated to Gesualdo, of which we heard one fascinating example.

But Lucrezia's illness became worse and she retired to a nunnery. When her brother died she was instrumental in the returning of Ferrara to the Pope, as part of the Papal states, rather then have it pass to the family of her uncle who had betrayed her and her lover.

When the court left Ferrara, a musical academy was set up to try and preserve the musical heritage and Claudio Monteverdi write his Fourth book of Madrigals for them. When Luzzaschi died it was to Mantua that he sent his library of 300 books. The evening closed with Musica Secreta and the BREMF Consort of Voices joining once again for two of Monteverdi's madrigals from the Fourth book.

All performers were nicely sympathetic to the music and we were treated to some stunning solo singing. There was however a sense that the event had been put on with not quite enough rehearsal, with the feeling that all performers were rather too welded to their folders of music; there were moments when you felt that more rehearsal would have allowed the performance to blossom more.

This was a fascinating and entertaining evening. Laurie Stras's vivid narration was enlivened by a wide variety of music including striking performances of the solos and ensembles written for the singing Ladies of Ferrara.

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