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Fervour and patronage in the motets of Johannes Ciconia (1390-1405)
In 1412, the same year as Ciconia’s death, the influential Paduan music theorist Prosdocimo de Beldemandis published his treatise Contrapunctus. In it, he challenged his forerunner Marchetto da Padova for the division of the whole tone into five parts, a ‘mendacious swindle’ which, according to Prosdocimo, had perverted the musicians of his own time addressed as ‘moderniores’. Scholars believe that one of these ‘moderniores’ was Johannes Ciconia, author of two impressive theoretical treatises in which he implicitly subscribed to and even expanded Marchetto’s theories. Ciconia thus belonged to the ‘swindlers’ --- but apparently he was too well protected as to allow to be openly criticized.
Prosdocimo’s prudence is not surprising: beside these treatises, a collection of mass-settings and some twenty refined Italian and French texted songs, Ciconia left eight political motets, most of which were dedicated to the highest Paduan and Venetian dignitaries of the time: Stefano Carrara, Albano Michiel and Pietro Marcello --- bishops of Padua in 1402, 1406, and 1409 respectively ---, Michele Steno --- doge of Venice from 1400 ---, or Ciconia’s main protector Francesco Zabarella --- bishop of Florence and anti-papal cardinal from 1410. Such an entourage on the one side influenced Ciconia’s humanistic approach to grammar and music and, on the other, secured him the status of an untouchable authority. Hence Prosdocimo’s carefully indirect charge.
The present program includes a selection of Ciconia’s motets and songs. Among the motets, two are non isorhyhmic (that is, they follow no fixed rhythmic scheme of repetition): O Pauda sidus preclarum and O felix templum jubila. They only bear one poetical text --- a rarity in the repertoire --- though a second, occasional text was possibly planned for O Padua. O felix templum jubila, in turn, seems to be truly mono-textual. Datable to 1402-1405, the piece is explicitly dedicated to Stefano da Carrara, natural child of Francesco il Vecchio da Carrara and bishop of Padua under his ruling.
Two further motets are isorhythmic, instead: Albane misse celitus and Ut te per omnes. They share Ciconia’s stunning ability of comparing complementary statements --- that is, opposite melodic figurations and even antithetic words --- located at parallel places of a bipartite, specular structure. Albane praises the election of Albano Michiel, Padua’s bishop from 1406; Ut te per omnes celebrates at once the Franciscan order and Francesco Zabarella, bishop of Florence from 1410 and cardinal from 1411, author of important theological and political works on the schism, the deplored division of the Catholic Church prior to the Council of Constance.
Among the songs, The ballata Merçé o morte adds to the genre of the desperata --- poems of scorn against pain and incomprehension. Its text openly cites two verses of sonnet 130 of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, a distich in itself alluding both to Psalm 41 and to Ovid’s Metamorphosis X, 75, the lament sung by Orpheus while facing Eurydice’s second death, lacrimae alimenta fuere (‘tears were my nourishment’).
The contrafactum O beatum incendium, finally, sets a Latin devotional text to Ciconia’s French virelai Aller m’en veus, producing a web of intertextual allusions between both poems. Indeed, stunning metaphors link the melancholy of the secular farewell with its spiritual contrafactum, in itself a reworking of St. Bernhard’s excruciating Jubilus: beatum incendium, ardens desiderium, dulcis refrigerium, mea delectatio, amoris consummatio.
At Ciconia’s time Paduan audiences were probably at the peak of their exposure to pan Italian and even international repertoires: French, Flemish or Italian mass-settings and motets, French and Italian texted songs of different origins and styles, Latin contrafacta and most likely exuberant instrumental reworkings such as those copied into the MSS Padua553 or Faenza117. Two of them have been included in our programme, a virtuoso diminution on a (lost) isorhythmic motet clearly related to Ciconia’s models, and a Kyrie-dismissal intabulation, here --- as in the 14th century --- used as opening and closing of the ceremony.