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Francesco RATIS (? - 1676) (ed): "Canzonette spirituali, e morali - Canzonettas from the Chavenna Oratory, 1657"

Capella Intima
Dir: Bud Roach

rec: August 2015, Hamilton, Ont., Central Presbyterian Church
Musica Omnia - mo0701 (© 2016) (67'12")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ahi misero; Amor, non posso più; Angiol del Ciel; Bel bambino; Canterò de l'honore; Di quel Dio d'amor; Dialogo fra l'Angelo, l'Anima, il Mondo, la Carne, e il Demonio; Fuggi fuggi fuggi; Guarda guarda, peccatore; La mala compagnia; Misero stato humano; O caro mio dolce Signor; O che amarissimo; O che bel star; O come t'inganni; O di quest'horrid'antri; O drago crudele; O duro cor crudel; O forza divina; Poverello, che farai?; Poverello meschino; Spera anima

Sheila Dietrich, soprano; Jennifer Enns Modolo, contralto; Bud Roach, tenor, guitar; David Roth, baritone

Almost all 'classical' music which appears on disc falls into the category of 'art music'. We know relatively little about 'popular' music of the renaissance or baroque periods. Some composers included popular elements or even melodies or dances in their compositions. One of the best-known examples is Georg Philipp Telemann, who was strongly inspired by Polish and Bohemian folk music. Such music was seldom published or even written down. It is likely that folk music was handed over orally from one generation to another, and many players of such music may even not have been able to read music. The repertoire which comes most close to what was probably performed in the world of popular music is known as laude. New Grove gives this definition of the lauda: "The principal genre of non-liturgical religious song in Italy during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. In its monophonic form, the lauda also constitutes the primary Italian repertory of late medieval vernacular song, and is distinguished from most neighbouring repertories in its strictly urban, non-courtly context. The religious lauda endured into the 19th century, and extant repertory remains an important source of popular Italian texts and music."

The pieces recorded by the Capella Intima are part of the tradition of the laude. Since the late 16th century this repertoire was especially connected to the congregations, modelled after the Congregazione dell'Oratorio which Filippo Neri founded in Rome in 1575. He was one of the main supporters of the Counter Reformation. One of the objectives of Neri's congregation was to make the message of the gospel understandable for uneducated people, meaning anyone who did not understand Latin, the language of the Church. This found its expression in Emilio de Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo which was performed in 1600 in the Oratorio della Vallicella, the headquarters of the Congregazione dell'Oratorio. This piece is a morality play, and the songs which are performed on the present disc are of the same character, albeit much less sophisticated.

The programme comprises 22 pieces from the Canzonette spirituali e morali che si cantano nell'Oratorio di Chiavenna, published anonymously in Milan in 1657. "Written at the instigation of members of the confraternity who had created an autonomous musical repertoire 'for the spiritual recreation of all', this music was different from what was otherwise making the rounds in the numerous Italian confraternities", Maria Rosa Moretti writes in the booklet to a disc with a selection from the same source by the ensemble Nuovo Aspetto. The confraternity of the Oratory of Chiavenna - under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Como, but belonging to the Swiss Canton of Graubünden - was founded in 1664. Francesco Ratis was a priest, born in Como, who came to Chiavenna in 1638 as organist of the collegiate church of San Lorenzo and lived there for about 30 years. He was responsible for the publication of the collection of 1657. Whether he has composed any music himself is impossible to establish. That is the reason his name is not given as the composer at the frontispiece of this disc or in the track-list.

The collection consists of 109 pieces for one to three voices with guitar accompaniment. It is nice that the present disc mostly offers other pieces than Nuovo Aspetto recorded. Only two dialogues appear on both discs. The other twenty pieces are strophic songs. Obviously that means that there is not much room for text expression, as the melody is the same in every stanza. One of the songs which shows a rather close connection between text and music is Misero stato humano. O drago crudeleis one of the more sophisticated pieces, largely due to the elaboration of the closing line. But often we hear uplifting dance rhythms on texts which include graphic descriptions of what the sinner can expect in afterlife, if he does not convert to the path of virtue.

In my review of Nuovo Aspetto's recording I wondered about the role of instruments and I regretted the lack of documentation regarding this matter. The ensemble included various instruments: violin, viola da gamba, lirone, psaltery, harp, sackbut, several plucked instruments, keyboards and percussion. According to the liner-notes to the present disc only the guitar is mentioned; the picture of the title page included in the booklet attests to that. Bud Roach mentions that the guitar part is given in alfabeto notation. This refers to a fingering notation system for chords. It was developed in the wake of the emergence of the 5-string chitarra espagnola around 1580. In this system a single letter is assigned to each guitar chord, for instance the A indicating G major, whereas numbers above single letters refer to barré chords. This term is used to describe the technique of stopping all or several of the strings at the same point by holding a finger across them.

Roach writes: "The debate regarding the appropriateness of the guitar in sacred settings began as soon as the instrument became popular. Church history is filled with regulations and arguments against the use of instruments other than the organ, including in the region of Milan. What is known for certain is that in the hierarchy of instruments, the Spanish guitar was placed firmly at the bottom." However, this repertoire was not written for liturgical performance, but for the gatherings of the Oratory where there was much more freedom with regard to the use of instruments. It could well be that other instruments were indeed used, and I am not saying that Nuovo Aspetto was wrong in including several instruments in its performances. However, as the printed edition suggests that the guitar was first choice it is nice that the Capella Intima decided to confine itself to this instrument. It lends the performances a strong amount of intimacy and results in an interpretation which is clearly different from that of Nuovo Aspetto.

About the performance Roach states: "We have, on occasion, taken some liberties with rhythm or text in order to serve a dramatic, or, usually, humourous purpose. These are changes that would be difficult to justify in most of the sacred music published in mid-seventeenth-century Italy." I am usually sceptical about this kind of liberties. In my view the composer or arranger always knows best and there is no reason to change anything. In this case I can't check what exactly these liberties are, as I don't have access to the edition. More important than these liberties is the fact that another selection from this historically and musically interesting collection has been recorded. The artists have opted for a style of performance which does justice to the 'popular' character of these songs, without crossing the line of what is historically tenable. Fortunately they have stayed away from adopting a modern folk music style of singing and playing. They are also undoubtedly right in avoiding features of art music interpretation, for instance in the ornamentation department. The singers have all nice voices which are well suited to this kind of music. Now and then I would have liked a little less vibrato from some of them.

All said and done, this is a very convincing account of curious repertoire which represents a little-known aspect of music life in 17th-century Italy.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Capella Intima

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