Citadel Of Song: Ballate from Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’
rec. 2021, Rosemont, Ireland
Sung texts and translations included
Heresy 028 
This is a splendidly bold and ‘inauthentic’ treatment of some words and music from fourteenth-century Tuscany. Given the name of the label on which the disc is released, one might replace the words “bold and inauthentic” by a single word “heretical” – but what a thoroughly enjoyable disc it is.
The clue is in the name of the ensemble performing this music: ‘Anakronos’. The Greek prefix ana has a range of meanings, which include against, wrong and apart from; the noun chronos means, of course, ‘time’. We shouldn’t therefore, expect a group which chooses to call itself Anakronos to feel confined by conventional temporal and stylistic boundaries. One of the things that standing apart from such ‘conventions’ means is expressed succinctly on the back of the box containing this two-CD set: “Medieval Music meets Jazz, Rock and Other to revivify the songs from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century masterpiece The Decameron”.
This project, under the direction of singer Catríona O’Leary, involves a number of choices, unexpected combinations, omissions and juxtapositions. So much so that it is well-nigh impossible to fit the discs into the conventions of this website. So, for example, given that no period settings of the ballate from the Decameron areextant,O’Learyhas, in her own words,“plunged into the surviving codices, looking for ballate that most closely matched the syllable count [of Boccaccio’s poems]; and, after carefully following the underlay of the original borrowed songs (exquisitely florid phrases, funkily syncopated hockets, rest-broken words and all) took them to my bandmates for us to use as the starting point in our (often very quick) journey to somewhere else entirely.” I have, in the track list at the end of this review, sought to list both the musical source and the text from The Decameron with which it is here conjoined. So, for example, where Day 1 is concerned, the name and dates of the original composer are given, followed by the title (most often the opening words) of his composition, this being followed (after an oblique line) by the opening words of the ballata from The Decameron which is here sung to that music, thus:
Gherardello da Firenze [c.1320-c.1362]
I’ vivo amando / Io son sì vaga dell amia bellezza.
I have long been a lover of The Decameron; in the days when I was a postgraduate literature student it fascinated me and when, later, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Italy regularly it was the book I always took with me to read (usually in the Penguin Classics translation by G.H. McWilliam). For some readers of MusicWeb, some background may, I hope, be useful:
The Decameron (Il Decameron) is one of the great works of medieval European literature – great in terms both of its own intrinsic merits and the influence it has had on later writers, composers and artists (so, to mention just a few English examples, Boccaccio’s collection of stories influenced Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; the chief source of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well is Boccaccio’s story of Gilette of Narbonne (the 9th story of Day Three in The Decameron); Keats’s poem ‘Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil’ is based on Boccaccio’s narrative of Lisabetta (the 5th story of Day Four). Its stories have provided the source for several operas, such as Vivaldi’s Griselda (1751) and Carlos Chavez’s The Visitors (1957).
The starting point of the work is the outbreak of the Black Death which struck Florence in 1348. The work tells of how ten aristocratic young people (three men and seven women) – and, naturally, their servants – supposedly took refuge from the plague in the hills outside the city. In the two weeks spent there, each afternoon (save for Friday and Saturday, these days being given over to religious observance) was spent in telling stories for their mutual entertainment. Each of the young people told a story every day – so that 100 stories were told in ten days. The stories are very various – though mainly concerned with love and its effects on a range of people. Other themes include human cleverness and stupidity, vanity, wit and desire (noble or base). The stories range across various levels of contemporary society – so that the characters in the stories include, for example, a lecherous monk, a weak King of Cyprus, a miserly Merchant and gossiping courtiers. Religious hypocrisy and corruption (both political and financial) are objects of satire.
In an important sense The Decameron, which is largely in prose, complements Dante’s great poem, the Divine Comedy. On the one hand, Dante examines human virtue and vice in a profoundly religious light, through the lenses of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven; on the other hand, Boccaccio considers human behaviour in a decidedly earthly light. It was, I believe, the great Italian scholar and thinker Francesco De Sanctis (1817-1883), who first described The Decameron as “a human comedy” – a description which obviously glances sideways at Dante’s great poem. It is not irrelevant to note that Boccaccio was one of the first to give public lectures (in Florence) on the meaning of the Divine Comedy – of which he was a great admirer.
Each day of storytelling in The Decameron ends with music and dancing. A new song, always a ballata in form, is sung each day. Sometimes their texts seem to reflect on the stories told that day or to anticipate the themes of the next day’s stories. These songs – though, since they are without their music, which is left to each reader’s imagination – we may as well call them simply ‘poems’ are the only poems in this central work in the history of Italian prose. These lyrical poems don’t, it has to be admitted, show Boccaccio at his very best as a poet – for that one has to turn to his long narrative poems, such as Filostrate (c.1335), which popularisedthe story of Troilus and Cressida, as retold byChaucer and Shakespeareand Teseida (1339-41),a source for Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’).
Catríona O’Leary states, more succinctly than most of the learned critics of Boccaccio I have read, the power of the songs in The Decameron: “While the cataclysm of the Plague always remains suspended in the background, the songs in The Decameron centre on the joyful, hopeful, anxiety-ridden, obsessive & painful aspects of romantic love – an enduring preoccupation of humanity.”
Yet, for all the truth of the last phrase in that passage, it would surely be strange if one didn’t recognise that for a project brought to the recording studio in November 2021, our own age’s particular ‘plague’, the Covid pandemic, unmistakably brought out a fresh relevance in the stories and poems of The Decameron.
Occasionally O’Leary has omitted some lines from Boccaccio’s texts, presumably to make possible a better fit with the pre-existing music she has adopted for that song. So far as I can see, this nowhere results in a misrepresentation of what Boccaccio’s ballate ‘mean’. Indeed the ’meaning’ of The Decameron (assuming that such a lengthy and complex text could ever have a meaning) is articulated succinctly when O’Leary writes that “Citadel of Song sings the story of romance against the backdrop of imperiled humanity. Pain, Beauty, Hope, Life.”
Music was clearly important to Boccaccio and his intentions in The Decameron. It serves to remind the members of this temporary community of the need for balance and moderation in the face of difficult circumstances; it is also a reminder of the need for ‘harmony’ in social relations. There don’t, however, seem to be any surviving fourteenth-century settings of the ballate in The Decameron; none are identified in Arnoldo Bonaventura’s book Il Boccaccio e la musica: studio e transcrizioni musicali (Turin, 1924). I haven’t, unfortunately, been able to see Jeremy Yudkin’s ‘The Ballate of the Decameron in the Musical Context of the Trecento’, Stanford Italian Review, I, 1981, pp. 49-58.
I share Catríona O’Reilly’s obvious feeling that these ballate should not be left unsung and I prefer her approach to waiting for a setting by a modern composer. These performances might be thought of as ‘avant-garde’ where twenty-first-century interpretation of medieval music is concerned; this is a kind of ‘Ars Nova’, to borrow the phrase so often used to label the music of Boccaccio’s Italian contemporaries. I fancy that O’Leary and her colleagues have captured much that matters in these texts. This is powerful and passionate music making, but not without subtlety or sensitivity. I am no more disturbed when I hear how Boccaccio’s songs have been treated here than I am when I read Shakespeare or Keats reimagining his stories in the language and artistic idioms of their times and places. O’Leary is fully alert both to how Boccaccio’s ballate might have been set by his contemporaries and to the modern possibilities they are offer.
I felt the need to return frequently to several individual ballate. On Disc 1, one was the very first, Emilia’s song of self-love, ‘Io son vaga dell amia bellezza’, sung to music by Gherardello da Firenze. The vanity of this song prompts the narrative voice in The Decameron to tell us (as translated by McWilliam) that “Albeit the words of this little song caused not a few to ponder its meaning, they all joined cheerfully in the choruses. When it was over, they danced and sung some other short pieces”. When it comes to Lauretta’s song from Day 3, of which O’Leary uses only the first two stanzas’, now set (retrospectively as it were) to the music of Landini’s ‘Se merçe donna’ the result is hauntingly beautiful. Boccaccio tells his reader (in McWilliam’s translation), that Lauretta sang “in mellifluous but somewhat plaintive tones” – words which also describe perfectly the interpretation on this disc.
On Disc 2 Filomena’s song from Book 7 gets a memorable treatment, as the singer laments in the opening of her song (I quote from Catríona O’Leary’s booklet translation)
Alas, my wretched life!
Will I never be able to return
To that place from which I was so painfully torn?
I surely don’t know,
So great is the fierce desire I carry in my breast,
To find myself back again where I once was.
O, dear love, my only source of peace,
Who holds my heart tight,
Please tell me, for I don’t know whom else
I could or would dare to ask.
Ah, my lord, I beg you let me hope
So that I can comfort my lost soul.
I don’t know quite how to convey how great was the pleasure
That has set me so aflame,
So that neither day nor night can I find ease…
At the end of Philomena’s song (of which O’Leary omits two stanzas) the narrator tells us (reverting to the translation by McWilliams) that “All of her companions surmised from this song that Filomena was engrossed in some new and exciting love; and since the words seemed to imply that she had gone beyond the mere exchange of amorous glances, some of those present, supposing her to have savoured the fruits of love, were not a little envious.” The name of the singer, Filomena, enriches this episode – Philomena was, after all, the daughter of Pandion whose beauty, in the story told in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, so inflamed her brother-in-law Tereus that he raped her. There is no reason to imagine that Boccaccio’s Filomena has been raped, but the allusion certainly seems to suggest that her experience of love has, indeed, “gone beyond the mere exchange of amorous glances”. There may be another allusion here too, since Boccaccio gave the name Filomena to the dedicatee of his long poem Filostrato, which tells the story of a love which ended vey unhappily, that of Troilus and Cressida. O’Leary’s singing of this piece is particularly beautiful and poignant, unaccompanied throughout, with the occasional breathiness speaking volumes emotionally. The changing intensity and expression with which she sings the recurrent refrain:
Deh, lassa la mia vita!
Sarà giammai ch’io possa ritornare
Donde mi tolse noiosa partita?
is ravishingly beautiful.
Though I have selected these three pieces for comment, it is only fair to say that I might have chosen to treat several others at equal length. I am conscious, in particular, that I haven’t explicitly praised the work of the instrumentalists of Anakronos. The one purely instrumental track is the last on Disc 2 – an ‘epilogue’ called ‘Irae Dance’, of which the booklet says “Music: Catríona O’Leary, after Dies Irae, attr. Tomas de Celano (1200-1265) from British Library Add MS 29987, compiled in Tuscany, late 14th/early 15th century”. While all of that is doubtless true, it also true that the musicians seem to have been giving the liberty to improvise upon and around this material, as they clearly have elsewhere on these discs, while their roles, as they might be in a jazz context, are closely defined. Reed players Nick Roth and Deirdre O’Leary, guitarist Barry O’Halpin and percussionist Andrea Piccioni all embrace their responsibilities and freedoms very successfully and make substantial contributions to the considerable success of this project.
If your ears and mind are open to new ways of using the tradition, do try The Citadel of Song.
Availability: Heresy Records
Day 1: Gherardello da Firenze [c.1320-c.1362]
I’ vivo amando / Io son sì vaga dell amia bellezza
Day 2: Gherardello da Firenze
De’ poni amor / Qual donna canterà
Day 3: Francesco Landini [c.1325-1397]
Se merçè, donna / Niuna sconsolata
Anonymous (from the Florence Laudario)
Day 4: FrancescoLandini
Con gli occhi / Lagrimando dimostro
Day 5: : Ghereardello da Firenze
Donna l’altruimirar / Amor, la vaga luce
Day 6: Lorenzo da Firenze (d.1372)
Donn’e fu credenza / Amor, s’io poosso uscir de’ tuoi artigli
Love’s Claw Dance
Day 7: Lorenzo Da Firenze
Non vedi tu amore / Deh, lassa la mia vita
Day 8: Niccolò da Perugia (fl. 1350-1390)
Ben di fortuna / Tanto è, Amore, il bene
Day 9: Anonymous (from the Rossi Codex)
Lucente stella / Io mi son giovinetta
Day 10: Lorenzo Da Firenze
Sento d’Amor la fiamma / S’amor venisse senza gelosia
Catríona O’Leary: Irae Dance
Catríona O’Leary (voice, director), Nick Roth (saxophones, bendir, saxophonics), Deirdre O’Leary (clarinets), Barry O’Halpin (electric guitar, guitarrón), Andrea Piccioni (percussion, live electronics)