By Anthony M. Cummings

R171The thesis implied in the well-known phrase “from frottola to madrigal” has long been contested: Frottole and madrigals were different genres, with fundamentally different stylistic characteristics; they were cultivated by different composers, at different times in history, and in different centers of musical patronage and activity. But the profile of one composer, Don Michele Pesenti da Verona (ca. 1470–1528), complicates our current understanding. Unlike the vast majority of his fellow frottola composers, Pesenti composed both frottole and madrigal-like compositions. He stood at a moment of transition between genres, and his career and creative output illuminate the complex dynamics of the moment. Along with my two distinguished co-editors, I am pleased to be able to present Pesenti’s complete surviving oeuvre in modern edition for the first time.

Much of what makes Pesenti distinctive owes to the unusual circumstances of his career. He began his creative life in circles around the court of Ferrara, one of the great centers of frottola composition and performance. His compositions from that time are recognizably “frottolistic”—that is, written in the recognizable style of the early sixteenth-century frottola, featuring a solo voice accompanied by an instrumental ensemble (typically a consort of bowed string instruments) or a solo instrument (usually lute). But later in his career, Pesenti entered the service of Pope Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici, son of the celebrated Lorenzo the Magnificent). The Leonine court was demonstrably interested in polyphonic settings of Italian verse, set for an ensemble of four vocal soloists—compositions of a more “proto-madrigalistic” type—so Pesenti now composed in this contrasting tradition. Indeed (and perhaps most remarkably), several of Pesenti’s compositions exist in two different versions, both frottolistic/solo and proto-madrigalistic/ensemble—as if Pesenti (or someone acting on his behalf) were reimagining earlier musical genres to reflect updated aesthetics of musical composition. In addition to his vernacular compositions, Pesenti’s surviving output includes three motets and two odes on secular Latin texts (one by Horace).

The sources of Pesenti’s music reflect this creative odyssey. The early frottolistic compositions were published in Petrucci’s series of frottole from earlier in the sixteenth century. The proto-madrigalistic compositions for ensembles of vocal soloists were either published in Rome in the 1510s and ’20s or copied into manuscripts from Pope Leo’s native Florence in the 1520s. There is a progression in Pesenti’s poetic choices, too. His early works set texts whose poetic forms are characteristic of the frottola literature (barzelletta, frottola-proper, strambotto, etc.) and which sometimes display linguistic features characteristic of the Veneto. His last published composition (1521), however, is on a canzone text—a favored poetic form among the early madrigalists—and features distinctly Petrarchist subject matter and linguistic features. In our edition, we chose to order Pesenti’s works chronologically rather than in a more neutral fashion (e.g., alphabetically by incipit), allowing readers to trace this stylistic evolution. For each composition, the edition identifies the poetic form of its text, carefully outlines the relationship between textual and musical structure, and explicates any linguistic peculiarities.

We also aimed to illuminate the somewhat vexed matter of poetic form at this period, particularly as it relates to musical realization. Depending upon the poetic form in question, the musical sources of the frottola repertoire typically present a limited amount of music; it is then left to the performer, or the modern editor, to determine how to apply that scant amount of music to the lines of the poem on which the composition is based. (To give one simple example: a multi-strophic oda typically has music furnished solely for the first strophe; the performer then sings all subsequent strophes to the same music.) For the strophic compositions in our edition, we underlaid the texts of the two first strophes, adjusting the text to the music wherever required, in order to model the practice (see figure below).

Opening of Pesenti’s barzelletta “Dime un poco che vol dire"

Opening of Pesenti’s barzelletta “Dime un poco che vol dire,” with labeling of ripresa and strophes.

Some poetic-musical forms, however, have generally proved more challenging to scholars, and we hope the edition has contributed answers to some of the questions surrounding them. Two of the fixed poetic forms set at this period, the barzelletta and the frottola-proper (as we term it to distinguish it from the larger stylistic “genus” also termed frottola—another point of confusion among scholars), are virtually indistinguishable from each other structurally, but their musical treatment is generally distinct. Both barzelletta and frottola-proper feature a ripresa (refrain) that recurs after each of a series of strophes, but in the barzelletta separate music is provided for strophes and ripresa, while in the frottola-proper music is provided solely for the ripresa, and it is left to the performer or editor to distribute the phrases of that music among the text of the strophes. (The former is thus related to the earlier tradition of the ballata, the second to the rondeau.) The musical treatment of the text thus provides the key to the puzzle of these two seemingly identical poetic forms—a puzzle that has long bedeviled musicologists.

In preparing this volume, I had the help of two gifted and accomplished co-editors whose expertise was ideally suited to the project. Linda Carroll, professor emerita of Italian at Tulane University, earned her Ph.D. in Italian language and literature at Harvard University, where she studied with Paolo Valesio, one of the most esteemed linguists of the twentieth century. Her specialty is the language of the Veneto, and she has published studies of Ruzante and Goldoni, translated substantial excerpts from Sanuto’s diaries (Johns Hopkins University Press), and edited and translated poetic texts set to music by Antonio Molino (I dilettevoli madrigali a quattro voci [Rome: Istituto Italiano per la Storia della Musica, 2014]). Her expertise prepared her supremely well for her work on the edition and translation of the texts of Pesenti’s frottole and proto-madrigals, since the frottolistic compositions in particular are principally on texts in the Venetian language. Alexander Dean, musician, musicologist, and editor on the staff of A-R Editions, earned his Ph.D. at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, where he studied with distinguished musicologists Roger Freitas and Patrick Macey and the gifted lutenist Paul O’Dette. Dr. Dean has published important articles in leading musicological journals on seventeenth-century Italian music for voice and guitar accompaniment. He took more or less complete responsibility for preparing the musical editions, and his expertise was especially valuable in the editing of the lute and voice arrangements of Pesenti’s compositions.

It is our great pleasure to make available these delightful and exceedingly important compositions of the Italian musical Renaissance.

Anthony M. CummingsAnthony M. Cummings (M.F.A., Ph.D., musicology, Princeton University) is professor of music and coordinator of the program in Italian studies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Cummings specializes in the music of the Italian Renaissance, early jazz, and musicology as a scholarly discipline. In addition to his volume of Michele Pesenti’s complete works, he has authored or edited nine monographic publications, authored numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals, dictionary and encyclopedia entries, book chapters, conference papers, and reviews, and he has collaborated with early-music performing ensembles on two compact discs. His book Nino Pirrotta: An Intellectual Biography (American Philosophical Society, 2013) won the John Frederick Lewis Award for the best book published by the society that year, and he has also won the Noah Greenberg Award of the American Musicological Society for distinguished collaboration between a musicologist and an early-music performing ensemble (for the compact disc The Lion’s Ear). Cummings has been a fellow, visiting professor in residence, and director’s appointee at the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence and resident of the American Academy in Rome. He has just completed a general history of music in Florence from the mid-fourteenth century to the end of the Medici regime in the mid-eighteenth.