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Vergine bella, by request

September 12, 2012

VergineBella - download the single

In response to a surprising number of requests after posting a live concert performance, we are pleased to announce availability of our  professionally-produced recording of Guillaume DuFay’s (1397-1474)  Vergine bella, che di sol vestita, which is among the earliest surviving musical settings of the poetry of Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374).  This MP3 single will likely be included on a future CD of late 15th-century music (La Rota Fortuna, volume 2), but we are releasing it in advance of the CD for those kind souls who wrote with the specific request that we make this recording available now.

In Vergine bella (we follow Petrarch’s spelling), DuFay departs from the typical chanson style of the time, resulting in the piece classified today as a three-part cantilena motet, presumably dated circa 1424, and possibly composed in honor of the 50th anniversary of Petrarch’s death.  First, the structure of the poetry is not at all representative of the typical formes fixes, such as the ballade, virelai, and the ever popular rondeau, all with their highly formalized repeats.  This results in what is essentially a through-composed vernacular motet setting of Petrarch’s canzon stanza.  The vernacular text assures that it was never intended for liturgical use and instead most likely performed in private devotions, opening the door to a variety of approaches to performance.

While not unusual for DuFay, the elaborately ornamented superius displays several characteristics of word-painting, particularly evident in his radiant setting of the word “luce” in contrast to the groaning treatment of the word “miseria.”  In preparing DuFay’s piece for performance, the melismatic superius with its rhythmic phrasing, triplet passages, and hocketing with the lower parts, began to reveal itself when considered in the context of melismatic chant, with its sensitive and flexible phrasing.  Surely this approach is closer to what DuFay had in mind, rather than an anachronistic application of the extrovert style of ornamentation more characteristic of the Italian baroque from hundreds of years later.

While the 3-part musical setting may be performed with some tampering by adding text to the lower parts, there is a sufficient degree of authority to support an instrumental rendering of the tenor and contratenor lines, which are mostly untexted in all sources.  Instrumental performance presents a challenge when arranged for one person to play on the lute, due to parts that cross and frequent differences of rhythmic distribution as they do so, but entirely possible if done with sensitivity to line, articulation and rhythmic accent.  Our performance is in accordance with the original clef designations from Bodleian Library ms. Canonici 213 with the untexted lower parts played on the lute.

Interpretively, we were entirely uninfluenced by other musical approaches and, while informed by the commentary and analysis of Alejandro Planchart and Margaret Bent, our interpretation is unique.  As is typical of his music, DuFay obviously had a formal scheme of proportion in his time signatures for this sectional piece, but we assign a larger value to the basic pulse and shape the time changes in accordance with the rhetorical devices inherent in the text.

After all, musical notation was never meant to keep the music behind bars and, at least in realm of historical music from Guido d’Arezzo forward, has always been intended to serve as a guide rather than as a constraint.  In the words of Reinhard Strohm:

As [music] is essentially aural communication, the best part of it cannot be recovered, only reconstructed…Musical notation is only a secondary witness.  What is more, much of the music actually heard in the late Middle Ages was never written down at all.

– Reinhard Strohm, “The Close of the Middle Ages”, Antiquity and the Middle Ages : From ancient Greece to the 15th century, Ed. McKinnon, James: Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice Hall, 1991, p. 276.

In the end, we are convinced that a flexible and communicative musical approach surely trumps a rigid and academic observance of proportion: We are performing expressive music, not doing dry math.

While our video of the live performance is (temporarily) still on YouTube, we invite you to visit our Bandcamp page, spend a buck and take the time to listen carefully to the results of our more mindful recording.  We always invite informed questions about our music and, not only will the interpretive points we make here become clear, you will also help us stay alive to sing another day.

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