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Saturday morning quotes 7.45: Bembo

May 30, 2020

pietro-bembo1Pietro Bembo (1470 – 1547) is probably best known today for the font that bears his name.  But in his day, Bembo was a central character in circles that included artists, literati and poets, ecclesiastics, famous poisoners, and the best musicians and composers of the day.

As depicted here, Bembo spent the last decade or so of his life as a cardinal, appointed to the office before he had even been ordained.  It seems that standards were a bit less strict and rules less clear-cut at the time, particularly in view of the fact that Bembo had for many years carried on quite publicly with Lucrezia Borgia (1480 – 1519), the married daughter of Rodrigo Borgia (1431 – 1503), also known as Pope Alexander VI.

Lucrezia Borgia was also reputedly the overly affectionate sister of Cesare Borgia, the wife of Giovanni Sforza, the widow of Alfonso, duke of Bisceglie, and later the consort of Alfonso d’Este, duke of Ferrara.  We have already detailed some of her interactions with Isabella d’Este, and here we turn to the musical dimension of the thing.

It turns out that Pietro Bembo, who was well versed in the ancient works of the famous rhetorician Cicero, had a very strong influence on courtly literary tastes, and it is suggested that his rhetorical exemplars were assimilated by musicians and provided the basis for the improvisational form of the Recercare.

“The arbiter litterarum during the period under discussion, the champion of purity of style represented by Cicero for Latin and Petrarch for Italian, was, of course, Pietro Bembo (1470 – 1547).  Precisely because Bembo wrote such elegant “Ciceronian” Latin, the humanist Pope Leo X made him his secretary.  Upon Leo’s death in 1521, Bembo carried the Roman curia’s cult of Latin and Cicero with him to Padua and Venice.”

Warren Kirkendale, “Ciceronians versus Aristotelians on the Ricercar as Exordium, from Bembo to Bach”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 1979), p. 15.

“Bembo emerges as the strongest link between the rhetoricians and the composers.  It has not yet been observed that all of the first great masters of the imitative ricercar were associated with him.  For Marc’ Antonio Cavazzoni…and for Giovanni Maria Crema, as for Bembo, the court of Urbino had been a stepping stone for Rome.  All three could thus come to know each other in the Castiglionian situation before they entered the service of Leo X.  At the court of this pope, whose passion for Cicero was surpassed only by that for music, they certainly encountered Leo’s organist G. Segni, who was later to become the principal composer of the Musica Nova.”

– Kirkendale, p. 17.

Bembo had firm connections with another of our favorite composers, Adrian Willaert, who had a direct correspondence with the musical form of the Recercare and also with the lute.

“Willaert had become chapel master [at St. Mark’s in Venice] in 1527, two years later Bembo was appointed librarian of the Nicena (Marciana).  It is hardly conceivable that the chapel master and the librarian of St. Mark’s did not know each other.  In fact Willaert’s Musica Novaa collection of motets and madrigals published in 1559 but composed possibly much earlier, not to be confused with the ricercar collection of 1540 with the same titlecan be understood only in this connection.  Taking all but one of its madrigal texts from Petrarch’s Canzoniere, it represents the massive and decisive entry of Bembo’s Petrarchism into music, establishing for a generation the favorite source of madrigal texts…With all these arguments we may amplify the conclusion reached by a modern scholar of Bembo: not only “in the literary life of the period,” but also in the development of the ricercar, “one sees that all roads lead to Bembo.””

– Kirkendale, pp. 17-18.

Bembo’s regard for and imitation of classical antiquity and his preoccupation with Cicero were the very hallmarks of literary and musical style at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

“No concept was more central to Renaissance artistic production than that of imitation.  In order to understand it, we must free ourselves from the derogatory connotations which it acquired only with the advent of romantic “confessional” art and the modern trend to originality at the price of intelligibility.  It did not mean mere copying or aping (condemned in any age), but was rather an honest acknowledgement of the sources of inspiration for a new production, and it embraced the possibility that the models, even Cicero, could be surpassed.”

“Renaissance music provides with the parody mass and the instrumental elaborations of vocal music a perfect embodiment of this attitude.  Until well into the eighteenth century, critics intended to be complimentary when the said that an author was highly successful in imitating a certain great master.  Thus Ludovico Beccadelli (1501 – 72) said of his friend Bembo: “Among the admirable qualities of Messer Pietro was the virtue of imitation, in which he was always the most felicitous.”  Poets were proud to be continuers (i.e. not merely copiers) of a great tradition.  For this reason, most ancient and Renaissance literary criticism was preoccupied with the discovery of the best models.”

– Kirkendale, p. 19.

Bembo’s poetry was set by a number of madrigal composers from Arcadelt to Monteverdi, but his advancement of the rhetorical ideals of Cicero exerted a strong influence upon musical rhetoric as well, as can be heard in the recercars of the early sixteenth century.


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