Una panthera, Johannes Ciconia

March 11, 2010

Here beginneth the daily look at Ciconia’s individual works. As I gain further insights and information, I’ll update and edit the words below.

Una panthera is a three-voice Italian madrigal, one of four attributed to Ciconia, thought by some to have been composed in the 1390s and by others as more closely linked with the visit of the noble Lazzaro, from Lucca, visiting Giangaleazzo Visconti in Padua in May or June 1399. Ciconia was working for Visconti at the time.

To quote Donato Mancini in the “All Music Guide”:

The lyrics, possibly Ciconia, engage Lazzaro in deep flattery. They refer to the mythical founding of Lucca by an armoured panther (or leopard), in the company of the war-god Mars. The celebration of the creature’s strong defnse of the city is aimed to flatter Lazzaro into accepting terms for a political and military alliance with Padua.

Integral to an understanding of Ciconia and his music is the political context of the north Italian city-states spending both a lot of money on ceremony and status-seeking musical accompaniment and on fighting with each other. Initially, the principal struggle was between the two ports, Genoa and Venice. After Genovese acquiescence to Venice, a struggle grew between Venice and Milan. Pavia, a city immediately to the south of Milan was caught up in military action, as did Padua not far from Venice. Florence, to the south of Bologna, came into its own more in the fifteenth-century after these events of the late fourteenth-century, after the Black Death of 1385 and the likes of Petrarch and Boccaccio. Things seem to have rather come to a natural close with Padua surrendering in 1405 to Venice. I’ll refine my understandings of the politics as I go along. Obviously Ciconia has a place in the music of Venice; more on that later, and of course, Padua.

But back to the music. Any superficial listening will cause one to consider Una panthera in terms of “angularity” and strong contrasts between long sustained chords and melismatic vocal acrobatics. In considering Mancini’s further description of this madrigal, he describes it as a “most famous” and “most… influential” work. Now I’m not sure to what extent it was famous and popular in Ciconia’s own time – perhaps it was one of those works which was copied and transmitted across Europe. But certainly it has been famous and popular for modern audiences, with at least fifteen different recordings in the last five decades. Sus un fontayne comes in with twelve over the same period, but almost all the remaining works have been recorded once, twice or three times, by comparison.

To quote Mancini again at length:

All four of these pieces (madrigals) are consistent in their Italianzed style and tone. Their particularly Italian traits are mostly rhythmic/melodic, quick lines with many notes, triplets in the beat, longish scalar passages, and often sequenced. The cumulative effect is celebratory and oddly three-dimensional. Una panthera breaks back and forth between sections of ebullient fludiity and studies in the syncopated montage of parts. In these latter sections (the refrains), Ciconia seems to be experimenting with the kind of the angular grace that can eb created when somewhat awkward, syncopated lines are justly superimposed. He makes a point of weaving the movements of onel ine into the open or static spaces of another. His concept seems to draw inspiration directly from the conventions of French Gothic architecture, sometimes described as the ‘awareness of space as a tangible entity’. Such asn awareness naturally leads to a fascination with the dramatic intersection of the hard lines that compose a space. To this learned, rational French sensibility, Ciconia adds an Italianate interest in color and flair, individualistic expressions of his own creative pleasure. The result of his efforts are some of the most enjoyable, influential works of the entire ars subtilior.

I’m not aware yet of how exactly a madrigal, with ostensibly such slim resources as three voices, can have taken on such an important role in the diplomatic and political fortunes of two bellicose north Italian city-states. I guess this is the Trecento equivalent of today’s photo opportunity of two political leaders shaking hands and about to announce a peace treaty. Perhaps the creation, performance and notation of a madrigal was as important then as any peace treaty signed with Montblanc fountain pens now. But certainly Ciconia was in the thick of it; his works are sprinkled with emblematic references and metaphors to the opposing city-states. And perhaps as a supremely confident man in his late-twenties, then at the prime of his life, he felt he could compose his own music to his own lyrics, and at least on one occasion include his own name in the text.

When it comes to the untexted bottom line of the three melodic parts, some performers have chosen to perform this as an all-vocal work and I’m obvious swayed by the powerful Orlando Consort in this regard, while other recordings have featured all-instruments, for example, three recorders, or recorder/vielle/harp. The Little Consort recording has a mezzo with two flutes and cetra; Catherine Bott is accompanied by two vielles. The madrigal seems to have gained a strong foothold with the Ruhland and Binkley LP recordings, obviously followed up in the Clemenic and Huelgas Ensemble ‘complete works’ CDs, with almost regular recordings from 1990 onwards. I’ve yet to fully understand its popularity, but its obvious choice by recording companies as well as performers is undeniable.

Having copied out the score by hand, I’ll come back later with comments on the madrigal’s structure and the relationships between music and text. I’ll include the full lyrics here shortly. Over time, I’ll consider how versatile it obviously is when it comes to instruments-only performances.

Una Panthera

Una panthera in compagnia de marte

Candido Jove d’un sereno adorno

Constant’e’ l’arme chi la garda intorno.

Dando a ciaschun mortal che ne sia degno

Triumpho, gloria e parte in questo regno.

Questa guberna la cita luchana

Con soa dolcezza el cielo dispensa e dona

Secondo el meritar iusta corona.

Dando a ecc.



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