15th century Song and the Bowed Vihuela
“But remember that song is a most powerful imitator of all things. It imitates the intentions and passions of the soul as well as words…By the same power, when it imitates the celestials, it also wonderfully arouses our spirit upwards to the celestial influence and the celestial influence downwards to our spirit.”
Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life (1489),
Book 3, Chapter XXI
Since the mere origin of bowing, we find a widespread medieval use of drones or embryonic forms of polyphony with the intention of imitating human voices. When the first vestiges of polyphony appeared in Western Europe, mentioned by Jerome de Moravia already in the 13th century, the Vielle or bowed vihuela proved itself a useful partner for monks and gentlemen to accompany their musical lives. To be able to sing and play those instruments was one of the skills that a good gentleman or knight should possess, according to chivalric code laws and books extending well into the Renaissance, seen for example in Baldassare Castiglione’s book Il Cortegliano (Venezia, 1528). Paolo Cortesi also tells us, in De cardinalatu (1510), that for a cardinal the bowed viols are the second most suitable instrument after the organ.
This interesting medieval musical practice of early bowed instruments continued and developed into the 16th century Italian polyphonic playing on a lyra da braccio or da gamba. Distinguished artists and musicians of this period, like Leonardo Da Vinci, Claudio Monteverdi and Vincenzo Galilei, father of the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei, implemented and enjoyed this practice.
During the early Renaissance period, being able to sing sublime poetry and accompany oneself on a viol in order to play two or three-part polyphony was not only common, but a highly refined art and ideal way of performing distinguished music of the time. Its resulting purity of sound, clarity of voices and intelligibility of texts – as well as nuances, fine ornaments, rhetorical expression – matched perfectly with the exigent finesse of Renaissance poetry.
Despite the standardization and spread of instrumental ensemble playing starting in the 16th century, such as consorts of viols or wind instruments imitating vocal music, the solo voice with a bowed viol continued to be a precious musical practice. These musical performances occurred not only in higher classes and ambiences but rather privately as part of peoples’ lives, taking into account that public concerts in our modern sense did not exist then.
As most of the content in songbooks of the period show, many countries and styles were in fashion at court. We also see this in the example of Ferdinand I, King of Naples from 1458-1494, who hired singers from France, England, Spain and Germany. This CD displays the 15th century Song throughout Europe. It encompasses a selection of French chançons, Franco-flemish and German polyphony and some of the finest Spanish motets, canciones and villancicos, consisting of three-voice pieces, of which each voice appears in manuscripts written separately. Simple and sweet melodies, used to highlight grand poetry, are intricately woven together creating beautiful miniature polyphonic masterpieces.
All the pieces included in this recording have been carefully arranged by Fernando Marín for the above mentioned exquisite musical practice of one voice accompanied with a bowed vihuela, while respecting their musical essence and compositional polyphonic balance, and ultimately seeking the original sound.
Most of the tracks on the album are dedicated to Francisco de Peñalosa (1470-1528), one of the most famous Spanish composers of his time, known best for his masses and motets yet an excellent composer of secular songs. His motets Nigra sum sed formosa and Unica est columba mea represent delicate gems of Renaissance polyphony and the other six secular songs, exemplify beautiful and graceful Iberian canciones. We have also included two songs by the famous poet and playwright, Juan del Encina (1468-1529) whose works are ideal for the courtesan performance of one singer with a vihuela.
A highlight of this CD is the anonymous madrigal Fortuna desperata, which gained such popularity in 15th cent. Europe that at least 36 arranged versions have been found. Among the Italian, Franco-Flemish and German composers who used this tune, especially compelling is Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517) whose three-voice version has also been chosen for this disc. Isaac, one of the most important composers of the Renaissance, though calling himself Flemish, had profound influence on the distinctive German style of music. He travelled throughout Europe working mainly in Italy, Austria and Germany and was a master of many different compositional styles. Along with his version of Fortuna desperata, we have included a religious piece, Suesser vatter herre got, and two examples of his secular works, Al mein Mut and Ein frolich Wesen.
The influence of the French style in court music was so significant that this album would not be complete without its representation by the two rondeaux chançons by Gilles Binchois (1400-1460).
The instruments used in this recording were specifically created and built for this repertoire by the artist Fernando Marín himself. Inspired by 15th century iconographical models and carefully made with techniques and materials of the period (i.e., historical gut strings, no sound posts, no sound bars in one model, specific old European woods and resins, etc.), their sound evokes the ideal of the time period and blend perfectly with the sweetness of the human voice. They are endorsed by the research project on the sound of early bowed vihuelas reflected in his doctoral thesis and the Leonardo Grant for Researchers and Cultural Creators of the BBVA foundation in 2017.
The timbres of the bowed vihuelas can be heard in the solo instrumental pieces, which were in their time, and here as well, typically arranged from vocal polyphonic or organ pieces like Ay triste que vengo and Vil Lieber Zit from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch (1470).
Nadine Balbeisi, Fernando Marín © 2021
CANTAR ALLA VIOLA
Nadine Balbeisi and Fernando Marín created Cantar alla Viola in 2004. The duo has devoted more than seventeen years of research and interpretation to rediscovering the exquisite musical practice of singing with a viol (which is what their name means). Using different kinds of viols to accompany the voice, such as the Spanish Vihuela de arco (the bowed vihuela) and the English lyra-viol, has opened up a wide variety of repertoire ranging from the 14th century to early baroque.
Cantar alla viola carefully researches historical reproductions of Renaissance models and materials for their instruments, including building techniques and gut strings. The harmonies of the instruments are sustained by using a special and refined bow technique, creating a sound that blends well with the human voice. The intensive search for specialized repertoire has led this group to the recording of unique and undiscovered works.
Cantar alla Viola has performed in festivals and concert series in the UK, the US, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and the Czech Republic making guest appearances at the Viola da Gamba Society of America and on radios such as the BBC. The duo is particularly dedicated to performing lesser-known composers, and bringing them to a wider public.
“an almost-lost practice of the Renaissance — how to take a multi-part vocal work and play it with just a solo voice and a viola da gamba — it is worth its weight in gold.”– Early Music America