Historical Setting

Our songs, composed around 1500, are part of a rich tradition of Italian Renaissance music.

Leading musicians not only composed the songs but circulated among courts and salons to perform them for the delectation of their patrons and other audiences, such as the merchant houses in Venice. Before 1500, however, this was a narrow and rather private world in which the songs were rarely written down, let alone printed or published.

But in the years after 1500, with the spread of the printing press, things began to change. Songs increasingly were written out and issued in printed song books, and these became available to talented amateur singers and musicians in cultured circles well beyond the princely courts.

This in itself was a turning point in Renaissance musical life. But how were the songs to be performed? The notation on the printed page was not much help: it merely indicated what notes to sing and said nothing at all about how to sing them. Here was a major information gap.

Fortunately for contemporaries - and for us performers in the twenty-first century – musicians and writers also wrote substantial treatises and other works that began to augment our knowledge and understanding. These books, though rather weighed down with abstract theory, also give us precious practical information on how the songs should actually be performed. Singers and lutenists learned how to turn the bare notes on the printed page into passionate, expressive music.

These musical developments did not take place in a vacuum. They were particularly associated with one of the great cultural figures of the era, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539). Highly educated, the leading light at the court at Mantua, she was one of the most famous women of the Renaissance. Above all she was a champion of the arts, one of the great patrons of her age. She brought poets and artists as well as musicians to Mantua and indeed is best known for commissioning works by Leonardo, Titian and Correggio, among others.

But her first and deepest love was music. She herself sang, was an accomplished lute player, and in a more general way did much to encourage and develop the Italian song tradition. Isabella corresponded frequently with the major poets of her time, asking them for their latest works, and she provided an exceptional variety of poems, including those of Petrarch, for her court composers to set to music.

Some of these were conventional enough – love poems in the courtly love tradition of Petrarch, in which the lady is idealized, distant and unattainable as the poet suffers from unrequited love yet remains unrelentingly devoted to her. However, there are contemporary poems that feel more modern and progressive for the time, subversive love songs in which the woman is well aware of the lover’s suffering in love, but she nonetheless ‘keeps him in delight’ in joining in a different love game.

Isabella was an influence on the musical side of things as well. As a girl in Ferrara, she had been brought up with teachers from the Franco-Flemish musical tradition which was firmly rooted in the written tradition of notated music, ‘a libro’. As the young Marchioness in Mantua, it was the complex unwritten music tradition she turned to with Italian composers.

Two of those she brought to Mantua, Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marchetto Cara, were among the leading Italian song composers, singers and lutenists of their time. They composed and performed songs for her – and, partly at her insistence, notated music for her to sing and perform.

Not least, they would have taught Isabela their performing style, introducing her to the various techniques and nuances not captured on paper. This also led to a burgeoning market for printed books of the solo songs and lute works from the major centres of Venice and Rome. Today we are left with a precious written record of Italian Renaissance secular music.