Love Songs of Francesco LandiniPurchase The Second Circle at:
Pick up any history of western classical music and if the name of composer Francesco Landini doesn't lead you to at least three or four pages, highly-condensed, it's time to get a new book.
Blind from childhood, Landini (1335-1397) was a composer, poet (who wrote many of his song texts), multi-instrumentalist, virtuoso organist and organ builder, and a profound intellectual. Lovers of opera in particular owe a debt to Landini who, while never writing in the form, created a three-dimensional song style so expressive and captivating as to be the seed to that centuries-later theatrical expression.
Since its inception, the "a cappella" (unaccompanied) early music vocal group Anonymous 4 (Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner and Johanna Maria Rose) has dedicated itself to a mix of scholarly research, artistry and immaculate performance practices, creating in the process programs that resonate history in a living, breathing way.
The quartet has outdone itself on all counts with this record. In her liner notes for the 18-track CD, Hellauer presents the framework for these vocal jewels. This is music of the "œtrecento" as Italians called the 14th century - the times of Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio. The CDs title refers to Dante's Divne Comedy in which lovers are tossed about in hell's second circle. Musically, it is the time of the ballata (in plural "ballate") - the successor to the madrigal in secular (non-sacred) song. Florentine-born Landini was to the ballata what the Beatles were to pop music of the sixties - the apex of style and expresivity.
He was both prolific and lucky. Nearly a quarter of the 14th century's surviving musical works are by Landini, and 140 of those 154 Landini compositions are ballate in two and three voices. They are exquisite works of adventurous harmony and melodic riches. As Hellauer puts it, ."the miracle is that within each balleta Francesco creates a unique musical and emotional world consistantly transcending the formulaic structure, with music perfectly matched to the mood of the text.".
The chosen ballate give Anonymous 4 the opportunity to feature the full ensemble as well as subgroups of two and three singers. Piece after piece, their luminous, perfectly-stacked voices render lead and support lines with acrobatic grace. The harmonic landscape changes, abruptly and often spectacularly, in much the same way that color shifts radiantly as the eye moves around a stained glass window in a renaissance cathedral.
In the hands of Anonymous 4 the music is noble, courtly, passionate of text yet, paradoxically, physically weightless. It glides and floats rather than walks or dances. If sprung blindly on people who did not know the language, most would believe it was sacred music. It is an ectstatic characterization of love, both of this earth and divinely ordained - a perfect distillation of the enlightened view of the times. Ultimately, it is music to be savored in a performance of painstaking beauty.
-------Daniel Buckley - Stereophile/Tucson Citizen
The music of blind composer Francesco Landini (circa 1325-1397) has been recorded before, but Anonymous 4's latest album is the only one currently devoted entirely to his music. It will undoubtedly bring this Florence-based, French-influenced organist -- whose catalog of 154 works makes up a quarter of the extant Italian works of the 14th century -- a larger audience than ever before.
This disc focuses on the largest portion of his output, his ballate, with 17 of his 140 works of this type: settings in two or three voices of poetry, usually romantic in nature, in an "AbbaA" pattern with harmonies considered ornate in that period. It's easy for modern ears to hear this music as austere, but the four women of Anonymous 4 deliver it with abundant expressiveness, making its passionate nature clear for those who listen attentively.
There will undoubtedly be many listeners who will just enjoy this disc for its sheer abstract beauty, with the clear voices and even blend of the singers, familiar from the group's many best-selling CDs, a delight in and of themselves. But it's well worth the effort to listen while following the translations of the poetry (which is also lovely) to realize the full effect of Landini's work.
While the subject matter of these songs is often lust, love, or a combination of the two, and the settings are quite sensual, it seems oddly judgmental to make the album title a strained and unnecessary reference to Dante's Inferno, where the second circle of hell held the lustful. But that's easily forgiven while listening to Anonymous 4's luscious renditions of Landini's ballate.---Steve Holtje, CDNOW.com
Love Songs of Francesco Landini
“This way I went, descending from the first
Into the second circle…”
–Dante, Inferno, Canto V 
The fourteenth century was a time of
religious and social upheaval in western Europe – constant war, the exile
papacy in Avignon and, of course, the Black Death. Italy suffered no less than any other land, but amidst the unrest and terror she produced a constellation of literary stars that outshone all of Europe in its day. This was the trecento, or “three hundreds,” as the Italians called the fourteenth century. It was the time of Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, and of a new lyrical way of writing poetry (the heritage of the Provençal troubadours) called by Dante the dolce stil nuovo or sweet new style. The subject was love and desire – exalted by Dante the young lover in the Vita Nuova (1292–94), and transcended by the mature poet in the Divine Comedy, where lustful lovers were tossed and blown about in the second circle of hell. At the same time, a sweet new style of musical composition came into being, almost without precedent: a wave of talented composers produced polyphonic songs based on lyrics either playful or romantic, comical or serious, but always highly personal in expression.
It is our great loss that no examples survive of the trecento art of setting poetry (of Dante and Petrarca, among others) to musical recitation. But we are fortunate that about 600 musical works have come down to us, preserved in a number of fine manuscripts. Almost all of these are secular – there are only a small handful of sacred polyphonic pieces – and although the most frequent theme is that of courtly love, some texts deal with the natural world or the supernatural world of classical deities. There is even an occasional moral sermon.
In Boccaccio’s Decameron (1355), each
day’s storytelling ends with the singing of a ballata, which in its earliest
was a simple call-and-response dance tune. By the latter half of the century, composers began to favor the ballata over the
nearly forgotten madrigal (an ornate duo or trio on a fanciful text) and the caccia (a canonic song on a lively outdoor theme), and it became artfully stylized. The structure of the ballata’s stanza is most easily shown by a scheme where the letters A (a) and b represent the two alternating musical sections:
verse 1 (refrain)
b piede verse 2
b piede verse 3
a volta verse 4
A ripresa verse 1 (refrain)
In the early trecento, ballate were composed
as unaccompanied melodies; later, composers set them in great numbers
for two and three voices. Our program consists of seventeen ballate of Francesco Landini, in whose hands they became
creations of subtle refinement and emotional revelation, with a harmonic richness unknown before in Italian music.
A prolific composer and virtuoso organist
who attained near-mythic status in his day, Francesco Landini (born c.1335)
was fortunate in his home town, for literature and the arts in Florence were amply supported by a wealthy and cosmopolitan
merchant-nobility. As a child, Francesco was left blind by smallpox, but he mastered singing and several instruments, eventually becoming chief musician at the church of San Lorenzo. An early “renaissance man,” Francesco (whose surname was not used in contemporary manuscripts) was counted among the neo-humanistic intellectual elite of Florence. He was an honored poet as well, and certainly wrote some, if not most, of his own song texts. His expressive powers were legendary, as witnessed by a contemporary account of a day amongst the leisured classes:
“…the sun was coming up and beginning
to get warm; a thousand birds were singing. Francesco was
ordered to play on his organetto to see if the singing of the birds would lessen or increase with his
playing. As soon as he began to play, many birds at first became silent, then they redoubled their
singing and, strange to say, one nightingale came and perched on a branch over his head.”
– Giovanni de Prato, Il Paradiso degli Alberti (1389) 
Nearly a quarter of the entire surviving
trecento repertory, 154 works, are by Francesco, and of these, 140 are
ballate in two or three voices. Almost all their texts are intensely personal meditations on topics of courtly love, or courtly lust: desire, hope, rejection, misery. Their musical style is a combination of the Italian melodic grace that characterized the first generation of trecento composers, including Francesco’s younger self, and elements of contemporary French songwriting: complex harmonies, a strong tonal center, and regular meter, to name the most notable. This influence from abroad is not surprising, since Florentine merchants, clerics and scholars had strong ties to their French counterparts. Francesco and his fellow composers also began to borrow French notational methods, verto (open) and chiuso (closed) endings (what we call first and second endings), and showed a preference for three-voice writing, including the very French “accompanied song” texture, where one voice part, the superius, clearly takes on a solo role. The result of this marriage of Italian and French taste and technique in the ballata was a richly nuanced hybrid capable of a wide range of expression.
Scholars have attempted to “chronologize”
Francesco’s works, based in part on some scant biographical references,
but mainly on the increasing French influences. Thus the two-voice ballate are in general probably older than the three-voice
works, and those that show remnants of dance rhythms (Echo la primavera, Per allegreça, Angelica biltà, La bionda
treçça) may be earlier than duos with a more emotionally sophisticated response to the text (e.g., Ochi dolenti mie, Nella
partita, Abbonda di virtù, or the playfully mannered Se pronto non sarà). Three-voice songs with the most Italian and the
fewest French characteristics, and with all three parts texted (Cara mie donna, Quanto più caro faj, Lasso! per mie
fortuna, Muort’ oramai) are probably earlier than those with two parts texted in the original sources (Che chos’è
quest’amor, Gran piant’ agli ochi). Three-voice songs with a single texted part and “instrumental”-sounding accompanying
voices (Non dò la colp’ a te, Nella mi’ vita, Non arà ma’ pietà) are considered most French-influenced, and might
represent the latest stage of Francesco’s compositions. The careful listener will hear that we occasionally add text to an
untexted line – as was also done in Francesco’s time. In spite of the foregoing analysis and classification, the fact is that a
ballata by Francesco, whether early or late, simple or complex, in two voices or three, is unmistakably his and no other’s. And the miracle is that within each ballata Francesco creates a unique musical and emotional world, consistently transcending the formulaic structure, with music perfectly matched to the mood of the text.
Francesco died at Florence in 1397 and
was buried in the church of San Lorenzo, where he served for over 30 years.
In the fifteenth century his tombstone was removed and “recycled” – to be found again in the mid-nineteenth century in the
convent chapel of San Domenico at Prato. It was returned to San Lorenzo in 1890, where it is now. His epitaph reads:
Luminibus captus Franciscus mente capaci
Cantibus organicis, quem cunctis Musica solum
Pretulit, hic cineres, animam super astra reliquit.
deprived of sight, but with a mind skilled
in instrumental music, whom alone Music
has set above all others, has left his ashes here, his soul above the stars.) 
1. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1: Inferno, trans. Mark Musa, The Penguin Classics, 1984, p. 109, lines 1–2.
2. Quoted by L. Ellinwood in New Oxford History of Music vol. III, p. 363. Quoted and trans. L. Ellinwood, op. cit. p. 79
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