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Monday, November 5th, 8:00pm
The Library of the House of the Redeemer
7 East 95th Street

A Decoration of Silence

Nigel North

In 16th-century Italy, the musician and theorist Gioseffo Zarlino said that composers wrote counterpoint in the same way that poems, orations and paintings were made. Nicola Vicentino (1511-1576) advised musicians to use oration as a model for performances. A little later in England, Thomas Morley wrote in 1597 that “the chiefest kind of musicke which is made without a dittie is the fantasie, that is, when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure, and wresteth and turneth it as he list”. In this may more art be showne than in any other musicke”.

From these models we set the stage for an hour of music that speaks to the hearts and minds of the listeners like a true rhetorical speech. Fantasias and Ricercars composed by the greatest lutenist of the time, Francesco da Milano, better known in his time as “il divino”.

Francesco daMilano

Francesco da Milano

When do we ever have silence today? In the late 15th century, the renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino wrote that music was “nothing but a decoration of silence”, and wrote much about music that could bring on a “divine frenzy”. In our modern age, with piped music everywhere from lifts, airplanes and doctors’ offices, and music available on tap whenever and wherever we wish through ipods, our experience of Music has been diluted, losing much of the awe which listeners used to feel. “Il divino”, was said to send his audiences into a trance and rob them of all their senses, save one, that of hearing.

In 1555, in recounting a performance given by Francesco, Pontus de Tyard wrote:

While staying in Milan…Jacques Descartes was invited to a sumptuous and magnificent banquet, where, among other pleasures of rare things assembled for the happiness of those select people, appeared Francesco da Milano – a man who is considered to have attained the end (if such is possible) of perfection in playing the lute well. The tables being cleared, he chose one, and as if tuning his strings, sat on the end of a table seeking out a fantasia. He had barely disturbed the air with three strummed chords when he interrupted conversation which had started among the guests. Having constrained them to face him, he continued with such a ravishing skill that little by little, making the strings languish under his fingers in his sublime way, he transported all those who were listening into so pleasurable a melancholy that – one leaning his head on his head supported by his elbow, and another sprawling with his limbs in careless deportment, with gaping mouth and more than half-closed eyes, glued (one would judge) to those strings, and his chin fallen on his breast, concealing his countenance with the saddest taciturnity ever seen – they remained deprived of all senses save that of hearing, as if the spirit, having abandoned all the seats of the senses had retired to the ears in order to enjoy the more at its ease so ravishing a harmony: and I believe that we would be there still, had he not himself – I know not how – changing his style of playing with a gentle force, returned the spirit to the senses and to the place from which he had stolen them, not without leaving as much astonishment in each of us as if we had been elevated by an ecstatic transport of some divine frenzy.


Click above to listen!

If there is any difference between a Fantasia and Ricercar, it may be thus: a Fantasia is a more strictly constructed polyphonic composition full of imitation and art, whereas the Ricercar (literally “searching out”) is more improvised sounding, less tightly conceived, still contrapuntal but more changeable. Interestingly, as in the above description of Francesco’s playing, many of Francesco’s Ricerars begin with three strummed chords (for example Ricercar 4 which opens the fourth set of pieces). In the surviving manuscripts and prints what is called a Fantasia in one source is often entitled Ricercar in another!


Click above to listen!

The two vocal works in the program exist in reference to Fantasias. Francesco made intabulations of both Arcadelt’s “Quanta beltà” and Richafort’s “de mon triste de desplaisir” and then wrote his own fantasias inspired by thematic material found in the madrigals. It seems that “de mon triste” may have been a favorite of Francesco’s as it is the inspiration for the Ricercar/Fantasia pair, (33 & 34).

– Nigel North, 10/27/18


Read more about the 1607 library where the concert will take place.


Photo of Nigel North by Shannon Zahnle

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