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Music of the Trecento

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Francesco Landini, the most famous composer of the Trecento, playing a portative organ (illustration from the 15th century Squarcialupi Codex)

The Trecento was a period of vigorous activity in Italy in the arts, including painting, architecture, literature, and music. The music of the Trecento paralleled the achievements in the other arts in many ways, for example in pioneering new forms and new forms of expression, especially in secular song in the vernacular language, Italian. In these regards the music of the Trecento may seem more to be a Renaissance phenomenon; however, the predominant musical language was more closely related to that of the late Middle Ages, and musicologists generally classify the Trecento as the end of the medieval era. "Trecento" means 300 in Italian but is usually used to refer to the 1300s. However, the greatest flowering of music in the Trecento happened late in the century, and the period is usually extended to include music up to around 1420.



Very little Italian music remains from the 13th century, so the immediate antecedents of the music of the Trecento must largely be inferred. The music of the troubadors, who brought their lyrical, secular song into northern Italy in the early 13th century, after they fled their home regions — principally Provence — during the Albigensian Crusade, was a strong influence, and perhaps a decisive one; many of the Trecento musical forms are closely related to those of the troubadours of more than a century before. Another influence on Trecento music was the conductus, a type of polyphonic sacred music which had the same text sung in all parts; texturally, Trecento secular music is more like the conductus than anything else that came before, although the differences are also striking, and some scholars (for example Hoppin) have argued that the influence of the conductus has been overstated.

Early Trecento

Some of the poetry of Dante Alighieri (1265–1320) was set to music at the time it was written, but none of the music has survived. One of the musicians to set Dante's poetry was his friend Casella (died 1299 or 1300), memorialized in Canto II of Purgatorio. Poems of Dante set by others included canzoni and ballatas; if they were similar to the other earliest ballatas, they would have been monophonic.

The earliest polyphonic secular vocal music of the Trecento to survive is found in the Rossi Codex, and includes music by the first generation of Trecento composers: Maestro Piero, Giovanni da Cascia, as well as numerous composers who are anonymous. Other composers of the first generation include Vincenzo da Rimini and Jacopo da Bologna, who was probably the teacher of Francesco Landini. All of these composers were associated with aristocratic courts in the north of Italy, specifically Milan, Padua, and Verona. Some extremely obscure names survive in later sources, such as Bartolo da Firenze (fl. 1330–1360), who may have been the first Italian composer to write a polyphonic mass movement: a setting of the Credo.

This generation of composers usually wrote music with both voices singing the same text, in the manner of the conductus, and they preferred the form of the madrigal. While some of their music was still monophonic in the manner of the preceding century, much was for two voices, and Jacopo da Bologna wrote a few madrigals for three voices. Jacopo wrote one motet which has survived; motets from 14th century Italy are extremely rare. Indeed relatively little sacred music was produced by any composers in 14th century Italy: the almost complete focus on secular music by these composers, many of whom had musical careers in churches and could have been expected to write large quantities of sacred music, as did their descendants, is unique in medieval and early Renaissance history.

Peak of the Trecento

The centre of musical activity moved south in mid-century, to Florence, which was the cultural centre of the early Renaissance. Characteristic of the next generation of composers, most of them Florentine, was a preference for the ballata, a form which seems to have exploded into popularity around mid-century. By far the most famous composer of the entire Trecento, Francesco Landini (c.1325–1397), was a member of this generation. Other composers of this group besides Landini included Gherardello da Firenze, Lorenzo da Firenze, and Donato da Cascia. Also by this generation of composers, the influence of French music was becoming apparent in the secular work of the native Italians.

Greater independence of voices was characteristic of the music of this generation, and points of imitation are common; in addition, the uppermost voice is often highly ornamented. Landini's music was particularly admired for its lyricism and expressive intensity: his fame has endured for six hundred years, and numerous contemporary recordings exist of his work.

The preferred form at this time was the ballata, which is closely related to the French virelai. Landini wrote 141 which have survived, but only 12 madrigals. Another form which became popular after the middle of the century was the caccia, most likely derived from the French chace, which was a two-voice canon.

Giovanni Boccaccio mentions Florentine music in the Decameron. He tells how in 1348, the year the Black Death ravaged Florence, members of a group of friends gathered to tell stories and sing songs, to instrumental accompaniment. While Boccaccio mentioned no composers by name, many of the Florentine musicians whose names have come down to us were in their early careers at this time.

Late Trecento and transitional era

The last generation of composers of the era included Niccolò da Perugia, Bartolino da Padova, Andrea da Firenze, Paolo da Firenze, Matteo da Perugia, and Johannes Ciconia, the first member of the group who was not a native Italian. Their principal form was the ballata, and the ornamentation of the parts is considerably less than in the music of the preceding group of composers. Text-painting is evident in some of their music: for example, some of their programmatic compositions include frank imitations of bird-calls or various dramatic effects. Ballate continued to be composed into the 15th century, and the form is closely related to the later frottola.

Ciconia, as a Netherlander, was one of the first of the group which was to dominate European music for the next two hundred years; early in his life he spent time in Italy learning the lyrical secular styles. Ciconia was also a composer of sacred music, and represents a link with the Burgundian school, the first generation of Netherlanders, which dominated the early and middle 15th century. Ciconia spent most of his Italian years in cities of northern Italy, including Venice and Padua; he died in Padua in 1412.

Another late 14th century composer, probably active in Rome, Abruzzo, and Teramo, was Antonio Zacara da Teramo. While a chronology of his music is yet to be established, it seems that his earlier music, surviving in the Squarcialupi Codex, is related to the style of Landini and Jacopo da Bologna; his later music borrows from the style of the Avignon-centered Ars subtilior, and indeed he seems to have supported the antipopes during the split of the papacy after the end of the century, going to Bologna around 1408.

The end of the Trecento marked the end of the dominance of Florence over Italian music; while it always maintained an active musical life, it would be replaced by Venice, Rome, Ferrara and other cities in the coming centuries, and never again regained the pre-eminent position it attained in the 14th century. By the first decade of the 15th century, the quattrocento, Venice had emerged as the leading power in Northern Italy; the foundation of a singing school there in 1403 was one step towards their equivalent emergence as a musical power.

Instrumental music

Instrumental music was widespread, but relatively few notated examples have survived. Indeed while contemporary depictions of singers often show them performing from books or scrolls, paintings and miniatures of instrumentalists never show written music. The main keyboard collection is the Faenza Codex (Faenza, Biblioteca Comunale, ms. 117). Other small sources of keyboard music appear in codices in Padua (Archivio di Stato 553), Assisi (Biblioteca Comunale 187), and in one section of the Reina Codex (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, n. a. fr. 6771). The typical keyboard style of the time seems to have placed the tenor of a secular song or a melody from plainchant in equal tones in the bass while a fast-moving line was written above it for the right hand. The surviving sources are likely among the few witnesses of a largely improvised tradition.

Other instrumental traditions are hinted at by the monophonic, untexted dances in a manuscript now in London (British Library, add. 29987) and in imitations of instrumental style in sung madrigals and cacce such as Dappoi che'l sole.

Instruments used during the Trecento included the vielle, lute, psaltery, flute, and organetto (portative organ: Landini is holding one in the illustration). Trumpets, drums (especially paired drums called nakers), and shawms were important military instruments.

Overall musical characteristics of the era

Music of the Trecento retained some characteristics of the preceding age, and began to foreshadow the Renaissance in others.

Consonances were unison, fifth and octave, just as in the ars antiqua, and the interval of a third was usually treated as a dissonance, especially earlier in the period. Parallel motion in unison, fifths, octaves, thirds, and occasionally fourths was used in moderation. Composers used passing tones to avoid parallel intervals, creating brief harsher dissonances, foreshadowing the style of counterpoint developed in the Renaissance. After 1350, there was increased use of triads in three-part writing, giving the music, to a modern ear, a tonal feeling. Accidentals occurred more frequently in music of the Trecento than in music of earlier eras; in particular, there was use of F, C, G, B, and E. One A occurs in the works of Landini.

The Landini sixth, also known as the Landini cadence or under-third cadence, is a cadence involving the melodic drop from the seventh to the sixth before going up again to the octave. It was named after Landini because of its frequent use in his music. It was, however, not invented by him, and can be found in most of the music of the period.

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