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Saturday morning quotes 5.38: Boccaccio

February 6, 2016

“…Dioneo picked up a lute and Fiammetta a viola, and they began softly playing a dance tune…the Queen began to dance a carola with the other ladies and two of the young men; and when that was over, they all began to sing gay and carefree canzonetts. In this manner they continued until the Queen felt that it was time to retire…”

Il Decamerone, Prima giornata

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375) is best known today as the author of Il Decamerone (The Decameron).  Without delving too deeply into his biographical information and sidestepping for the moment the significant thread of symbolism that runs throughout his work, we cut to the chase and examine Boccaccio’s treatment of music in his collection of stories.

Our quotations are drawn from two articles: Howard Mayer Brown, “Fantasia on a Theme by Boccaccio”, Early Music, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Jul., 1977), pp. 324-339; and Marco Cerocchi, “Boccaccio’s Decameron as a Primary Literary Source for the Musical Movement of Ars Nova in Italy”, Italica, Vol. 84, No. 4 (Winter, 2007), pp. 679-690.

Written in the Italian vernacular, Boccaccio’s Il Decamerone presents what was for the time a unique framework; a collection of 100 stories as related by a brigata of young men and women who have fled Florence to escape the ravages of the plague. Self-made music was integral to daily life at the time in worship and as entertainment. Cerocchi gives a bit of background that provides a context for music of Boccaccio’s time:

“Within his treatise entitled Ars Nova (“The New Art”, 1320), Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361), one of the great intellectuals of his time and a friend of Petrarch, laid the ground work for this new practice. By making use of binary tempo segmentation within his own compositions, de Vitry’s ideas were in opposition with medieval norms. Previously, only time segmentations in three units, intended to represent the Holy Trinity, was considered “perfect” by the Holy See and, therefore, permitted for use in liturgical chants.”

“Targeted arguments were made in opposition to the type of multiple voice polyphony that characterized Ars Nova. It was alleged that such an elaborated style would distract parishioners from, rather than focus them on, the religious rituals that were being performed. Under this musical scheme, different and independent melodic lines are sung simultaneously, and it was thought that such a confluence of sounds would affect the comprehension of the words being sung, and consequently, the meaning of the sacred scriptures. Because of the staunch resistance offered the Papal Curia in the form of this argument, the use of such polyphony was disallowed in the sacred works of the time, effectively confining its application to secular songs. The latter benefited greatly as a result, allowing the popularity of such profane music to overshadow that of sacred compositions during the fourteenth century.”

– Cerocchi, p. 680

While this description seems overly simplified, it is an accurate assessment based upon the surviving evidence without speculating as to the nature of music that may never been written down at all.  Needless to say, the musicians of the brigata most likely sang and played monophonic songs and dance tunes.   Moving on to the nature of music in Il Decamerone, Cerocchi describes the scene:

“Boccaccio’s Decameron is the first work written in prose to bear the hallmarks of the new attitude toward music promoted by the Ars Nova.  In it, a merry “brigata” [group] of three young men and seven women takes refuge within a villa near Florence, in order to escape the plague that ravaged the city in 1348.  Music assumes a pivotal role throughout the course of their daily activities, offering the reader a glimpse into people’s perception of this art form during Boccaccio’s time.  Songs and instrumental works provide a buffer from the suffering that is occurring elsewhere and allow the characters to pass their time in a rather blissful and lighthearted manner…”

– Cerocchi, p. 681

“Throughout the short stories, Boccaccio makes extensive use of music’s earthly qualities as a means of effectively separating his “merry group” from the tortuous events which are unfolding just beyond the borders of their self-created sanctuary. These ten individuals engage in frequent musically oriented activities, usually accompanied by dancing.  As a result, the pain and anguish, which might otherwise torment these young survivors of the plague, are effectively kept at bay. The author uses music, much as a physician might a medicinal compound: as a means of alleviating suffering. Beyond its capacity to provide a safe haven for his characters, music is employed as a means of delineating for the reader, the sharp contrast that exists between the reality of these ten people and the torment experienced by those outside of their fellowship.  It is not hard to imagine the bleakness of Florence, which exists just beyond their Villa’s boundaries, ravaged by plague and poignantly devoid of music.”

– Cerocchi, p. 683

Howard Mayer Brown made a closer examination of musical references in Boccaccio’s text, surviving musical sources, and what we know of music as a social medium to determine just what sort of personalities are described and what sort of music the brigata may have played.

“ Quite aside from its literary distinction, the Decameron supplies us with valuable information about the musical practices of the trecento, since the band of young Florentines began and ended each day singing songs and dancing, and some of their stories allude to music. The Decameron, along with other literary works that include descriptions of contemporary life, and paintings, miniatures and other pictures that show us how the world looked to 14th-century artists, are especially helpful in answering two kinds of question—how did music sound in the 14th century, and what place did it have in society—that are otherwise difficult to answer, and that need to be asked as urgently as those dealing with style, genre and compositional technique that seem to pre-occupy musicologists almost to the exclusion of everything else.”

– Brown, p. 325-326

“…In some of the stories the degree of refinement in a character is measured partly by his musical abilities.  There is, for example, the uncouth son of a Cypriot nobleman, whose story is recounted on the fifth day (story 1). Upon falling in love, he cultivates the art of being a gentleman, abandoning his coarse, rustic accent in favour of a more seemly and civilized manner of speech; he learns to ride and make war, and he even becomes an accomplished singer and musician. In another story (eighth day, story 9), Simone, newly arrived in Florence to set up a practice after having received his degree in medicine from the University of Bologna, brags to his new friends about how educated he is. He can tell stories, he says, and even sing. But his singing wins him faint praise. ‘With a cacophonous voice like that’, replies his friend, ‘you could charm the vultures out of the trees.’”

– Brown, p. 330

“In short, the Decameron leads us to sharpen our perceptions of the social uses of music in the trecento, and helps us to evaluate the surviving music against a background broader than merely the history of manuscripts containing polyphony…Boccaccio does not tell us precisely who his young Florentines were, but we can assume, I think, that they were the sons and daughters of rich merchants and bankers, connected by family marriages, bonds of friendship, and class ties. They cultivated music as a social grace. Some of them played instruments and most of them sang. Sophisticated single-line melodies setting refined and elegant amorous lyrics sufficed for their musical needs, along with a repertory of dance tunes now largely lost.”

– Brown, p. 337

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