for mezzo-soprano, violin (2018-20)
to Lucy Goddard and Sophie Appleton
Text: Petrarch, Canzoniere 126, 1-13; Pietro Bembo, Prose della volgar lingua, II
Fantasie… (‘Fantasias of the strange and sweet mysteries of the word’) is a creative reimagining of a pivotal moment in the histories of both poetry and of music: the humanist scholar, poet and churchman Pietro Bembo’s establishing of Petrarch’s 14th-century Tuscan as the model for Italian literary language in his Prose della volgar lingua (1525). The musical significance of the treatise lies in the central importance Bembo places on the sensuality of the sound (suono) and rhythm (numero) of words themselves in swaying the reader or listener. In viewing these attributes, along with the capacity to vary them (variazione), as the bearers of an emotional and expressive force beyond the words’ basic meaning, Bembo brings words and music closer together and opens the door to newly fruitful unions of the two, first in the madrigal and later in the development of solo song, dramatic recitative and opera.
Fantasie…, however, references another musical tradition of the early 16th century, now lost, which Bembo himself is known to have favoured: the improvised performance of lyric and narrative poetry by poet-musicians, accompanying themselves on the lira da braccio, a 7-stringed instrument played on the shoulder, with a flat bridge which enabled chords to be sounded. The spirit, if not the letter, of this lost practice underlies the conception of Fantasie…: the dual role is split between mezzo-soprano and violinist, but the parts are closely unified at all times, as if the two performers are really part of a single whole, and the violin (tuned to a resonant low scordatura, in loose emulation of the range and sound of the lira da braccio, as well as of the speaking range of a mezzo) typically plays chords and drones.
The singer is associated with the figure of Bembo himself, and the piece’s ‘narrative’ follows that of a gradual discovering or exploration of the sensual power of words (particularly, words made flesh in the human mouth and lips, carried outwards on the breath…), moving from single spoken sounds to complete sung lines through a series of speculative Recitations of a stanza of Petrarch, punctuated by Bembo’s own Commentaries. The second half of the piece casts Bembo’s dream sequence (in which the Latin poet Ercole Strozzi, whom Bembo wishes to convert to Tuscan, is pictured as a great swan that lands on the banks of the Arno (in Tuscany) and takes up the ‘sweet songs and pleasing harmony’ of the swans already present) as a musico-poetic recitation of my own.