s a friend of Josquin des Prez and a self-confessed Petrarchist, the poet and musician Serafino Aquilano himself became a luminary of his time. But his legacy is accompanied by a certain melancholy, for his real glory lies in the all-too-fading art of improvisation. Fortunately, enough of his music and poetry survives to justify its masterful reputation and to give us a window into this flourishing Renaissance art. Harp, lute and viola are suitable then as now for the accompaniment of strambotti and barcello. And with the ethereal sound of the metal-stringed cetra and the bowed lira, tribute is paid to the Italian humanists’ great respect for the artistic achievements of antiquity.
Jacob Lawrence – voice, Lira da braccio | Marc Lewon – lute, Cetra | Masako Art – harp | Elizabeth Rumsey – viola d’arco, Lira; conductor
Masako Art – harpist
Thomas Christ (TC): How does a Japanese pianist find her way to harp studies – if I may say so – from sunny Kyoto to rainy Scotland?
Masako Art (MA): This is a long and private story that I don’t like to elaborate on! It is better if I talk about why I play this pretty harp with the strange sound: Before coming to Basel, I spent 8 months in the north of Scotland, living not far from the famous harpist Bill Taylor.
I started taking lessons with him, and he initiated me into the art of Renaissance harp playing, that is, playing the instruments the way they were meant to be played, with snares. This involves setting up a wooden hook at the bottom of each string so that it just touches the string and produces a buzzing sound. This particular sound even made it into the ReRen YouTube jingle. I intensively studied the playing of the Welsh harp manuscripts and learned the appropriate damping technique. And that’s how I came to be the first snare harp player at the Schola in the first place: some knew that this technique was actually practiced in the 15th century (and well beyond, depending on the region) – Crawford Young, my professor at the time, was very encouraging, and so was Heidi Rosenzweig … The rest, with quite a few exceptions, have turned away or distanced themselves from this harp technique or have even blacklisted me. Joking aside, today, two decades later, most SCB harp students play with snares. Paulus Paulinus reports in 1460 that only the organ and trumpet were louder than the harp, although the harps of that time – like the electric guitar – were built without a large soundbox, so they were relatively massive, with a very inefficient, narrow body, but just with those strange, resonating accessories, the snares.
TC: Simple models of the harp were already known and popular in ancient times, including in Asia. Are there Japanese or East Asian musical forms that could be compared to our harp or lyre music? Or did they dive into a whole new world with the European harp?
MA: Not really. There were kugo known from China, but they went out of fashion as early as the 9th century, when the Japanization reform of music and culture took place in the Heian period. These eastern harps came from the Middle East or Persia via the Silk Road. You can see them at the Boddhisatvas playing various instruments at the Byodoin Temple in Kyoto. But the music they performed – I’m really no expert on this – had little in common with European music and harmonies. Perhaps those harps have some similarity in form to our instruments and perhaps even to the monophony of our early medieval music. I am not informed enough and would have to do my own research.
TC: In Europe, you have worked and played your way through many types of harps from the Middle Ages to modern times. How did your preference for early music literature come about?
MA: When I started playing the piano back in Japan, I simply had to play far too much German and Austrian classical and romantic music, and far too little from other eras, plus countless etudes by Czerny. At some point this became too much for me and I began to take an interest in other harmonies, especially those of the impressionists and early music. So John Dowland’s songs and his harmonies seemed very fresh and immediate, and I especially liked the simple elegance of the 15th century music, its compact but perfect color of harmony. So while studying music at the Schola, I climbed back in music history little by little, and now again from the Baroque to the Classical, the Romantic and the present! In the meantime I am happy again with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. However, I am glad to have had a complete reboot with the 15th century three-part harmony. So now I experience the later music incredibly much more colorful and exciting.
TC: Compared to classical and post-classical periods, early music knows a strikingly rich selection of plucked instruments with the lute, the theorbo, the salterio, the mandolin and the various types of harp. Why has this wealth disappeared? Has the new music lost intimacy?
MA: Maybe the plucked instruments are too quiet for the orchestra. Because the orchestras and thus also the stage music became larger and larger, the instruments heavier and louder. And so the possibilities for using plucked instruments, at least in larger ensembles, withered away. However, plucked instruments are being used more often again in contemporary music, both in ensemble settings and as solo instruments.
TC: How do you experience the public’s increased interest in early music, especially Baroque? Will we see a similar revival of Renaissance compositions, or will the lesser-known names of the period remain the preserve of more niche audiences?
MA: That’s a complicated question! There is now an interest in early music, but it tends to be market-oriented, i.e. it has little to do with historical performance practice, but is oriented towards star singers who may have a great voice, regardless of whether the singers are involved with historical performance practice or not. They sing something baroque and beautiful and that sells well; the audience’s interest in the performance practice is usually low. Despite the interest in early music, performance practice-oriented projects are selling less well, especially when it comes to singing. The audience likes to see “personalities” and experience a show, which is understandable. And opera companies prefer voices that are more suitable for modern opera companies and their venues. Thus, Handel and Monteverdi remain on offer, which on the one hand is gratifying, but often has little to do with historically informed performance practice. It’s just complicated!
In instrumental music, on the other hand, the strict historical performance practice seems less alien and is well received; the musicians are not subject to the same market pressure as the singers. It seems to me that instrumental music is more of a win-win situation: the musicians enjoy their research, the beauty becomes audible… and the audience likes it. and the audience likes it!
Since Renaissance music is rather plain in drama and special in sound, we are dealing here with a more specialized audience. On the other hand, I often experience the audience as open and curious for the unknown! I am very excited that this Renaissance concert series is providing the opportunity for new discoveries! I think whether or not the lesser-known names are reserved for a niche audience depends a bit on how we present the music and how we can attract people with an open mind and curiosity. It is a very exciting question how to present historical performance practice or even a special repertoire or music-historically unknown topics, to an audience in a comprehensible and appealing way.
If the June concert, dedicated mainly to Henry VIII, will be a rare, perhaps even unique event, the same could probably be said about the July concert of works by Serafino d’Aquila. He is perhaps considered the epitome of the minimalist poet, for his œuvre consists mainly of strambotti, poems of only eight lines in length. The first printed edition of his poems, published in Rome in 1501 by the former Basel student Johannes Besicken, shortly after the poet’s death at the age of only 34, contained 206 poems – but with each subsequent edition there were more, until Giunta’s edition in 1516, which contains a full 551.
Not surprisingly, there is much disagreement about which ones are really his. Serafino was particularly famous for singing his compositions to the lute, which rather suggests a scriptless tradition. But it is known from a very reliable source that he had studied composition with the famous Flemish composer Guillaume Garnier, which suggests notated music, although nothing under his name survives. (Incidentally, no music by Guillaume Garnier has survived either: our knowledge of the musical history of those years has some enormous gaps). What everyone agrees on is that Serafino had a massive influence on the poetry and song of the following generations. We should also agree that it will be most interesting to see how the musicians in our concert will solve these problems.
(Translation: Marc Lewon)
1. la seraphina – Josquin des Prez (c1450/1455-1521)
Music: La bernardina (Bologna, Civico Bibliografico Musicale Codex Q18, fol. 82v-83r)
2nd Voi che ascoltate (Strambotto) – Marchetto Cara (c1465-1525)
Text: Opere dello elegantissimo poeta Seraphino Aquilano nuouamente con diligentia impresse con molte cose aggiunte. Philippo di Giunta, Firenze 1516, fol. 114r
Music: Io son locel (Strambotti Ode Frottole Sonetti, Libro quarto. Ottaviano Petrucci, Venice 1505, fol. 2r)
3. ite, sospiri (Strambotto) – anonymous
Melody: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, cod. Gr. Rés. Vm7 676, fol. 74v-75r
4. bench’el ciel – Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c1470-1535)
Franciscus Bossinensis, Tenori e contrabassi intabulati col sopran in canto figurato per cantar e sonar col lauto, Libro primo. Petrucci, Venice 1509, fol. 43r-44r (editing Masako Art)
5th Doglia mia acerba (Strambotto) – Alexandro Mantovano (active c1510-c1530)
Canzoni Sonetti Strambotti & Frottole Libro tertio. Andrea Antico, Rome 1513, fol. 20v-21r
6. s’on pone un fragil vetro (Strambotto) – Honofrius Patavinus (active c1514)
Frottole Libro undecimo, Petrucci, Fossombrone 1514, fol. 2v
7. ecco la nocte, el ciel (Strambotto) – Hieronymo del Lauro (active 1514/1517)
Canzoni. Sonetti. Strambotti et frottole, Libro quarto. Andrea Antico, Rome 1517, fol. 35v-37r
8. fortuna disperata – Josquin des Prez
Segovia, Ms. s. s. “Segovia Codex”, fol. 182v
9. fui serrato nel dolore (Barzelletta) – Bartolomeo Tromboncino
Text: Seraphino Aquilano, Opere, 1516, fol. 202v
Music: Ostinato vo’ seguire (Bossinensis, Tenori e contrabassi intabulati, Libro primo, fol. 20v-21v)
10. consumo la mia vita – Alexandro Mantovano
Antico, Frottole Libro tertio, fol. 27v-28r
11. tu dormi, io veglio (Strambotto) – anonymous
Frottole Libro sexto, Ottaviano Petrucci, Venice 1506, fol. 9r
12. io piango ‘l mio tormento (Strambotto) – anonymous
Melody: Modena, Biblioteca Estense, cod. alfa.f.9.9, fol. 3v
13. deh, fusse (strambotto) – anonymous
Firenze, Biblioteca Nationale Centrale, cod. Panciatichi 27, fol. 30v
14. consumo la mia vita (Strambotto) – Johannes Prioris (c1460-c1514)
St Gallen, Abbey Library, cod. 463, fol. 48r
15. vergine bella – Bartolomeo Tromboncino
Frottole intabulate da sonare organi. Libro primo. Andrea Antico, Rome 1517, fol. 7v-10r (editing Marc Lewon)
16. ben puoi tu lucidar, candida Aurora (Capitolo) – Eustachius de Monte Regali (†c1527)
Antico, Frottole Libro quarto, fol. 50v-51r
17. vanne canzona mia (sonetto)
Text: Seraphino Aquilano, Opere, 1516, fol. 113v-114r
Music: Jacob Lawrence
italic = instrumental
Historical Museum Basel