Doulce Mémoire - Leonardo Da Vinci: La Musique Secrete - Gramophone
Recent years have seen the issue of quite a number of CDs with titles like Music in the Time of [insert name of Painter]. Some of these have been little more than opportunistic reissues of previously recorded music serving – at best – as a souvenir to take home from an exhibition. Others have involved some attempt to relate the music to the given painter’s life and/or work, generally along the lines of ‘[the painter] could have / might have heard music by some of these composers’. Often the proposed links have been decidedly tenuous and speculative. But there have, of course, been exceptional albums which engage seriously with the possible/likely synergy between the two arts.
One case, of which I am especially fond is El Greco by Carles Magraner and the Capella De Ministrers (2014, CDM 1434), which traces, musically, the arc of the painter’s life, from his native Crete through his time in Venice and Rome and, finally, his years in Toledo (Spain), where he fully achieved his own remarkable and individual style. All of this presented alongside documentation which evidences El Greco’s interest in music (he became something of a patron of musicians while living in Toledo). The programme begins with traditional Greek dances and Byzantine religious chants (El Greco’s earliest paintings were – albeit already very original – clearly grounded in the Byzantine tradition) and ends with the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria (born not far from Toledo in Avila) and of the Sephardic Jews . (In Toledo, El Greco chose to live in the Old Jewish Quarter).
Now, on the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, Denis Raisin Dadre, with his ensemble Doulce Mémoire, has put together a sensitive, perceptive and beautiful album honouring Leonardo’s art (grounded in his love of music).
The first and essential justification for an album such as this is the fact that Leonardo was both very interested in music, and a respected performer thereof. Plenty of contemporary evidence confirms this. Giorgio Vasari tells us, in his life of Leonardo in Le Vite de’ più eccellenti Architetti, Pittori, et Scultori Italiani (1550 and later editions), that in 1593 Ludovico Sforza invited Leonardo to Milan “to play the lyre … Leonardo took his own instrument, made by himself in silver, and shaped like a horse’s head, a curious and novel idea to render the harmonies more loud and sonorous, so that he surpassed all the musicians who had assembled there” (translated by A.B. Hinds, 1927). In his Libro dei sogni / ‘The Book of Dreams’ (1563-4, the painter and art theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo declared “The prince of all lyre players in his day, I witnessed … Leonardo the painter who … had no equal in his lifetime as a performer on the lyre” (translated by John Thornley in the book accompanying this CD). Leonardo often recited / sang improvised verses of to the accompaniment of his own lyre. In this he was (alongside his many other talents – as painter, sculptor, anatomist, engineer etc.) fulfilling one of the Renaissance’s ideals of itself. The great Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) in 1492 celebrated his own times thus “This age, like a golden age, has brought back to light those liberal disciplines that were practically extinguished: grammar, poetry, oratory, painting, sculpture, architecture, music and the singing of songs to the Orphic lyre” (quoted thus in Angela Voss, ‘Marsilio Ficino and the Orphic Hymns’, in the booklet to the CD Secrets of the Heavens, Riverrun Records RVRCD53). The rhetorical structure of Ficino’s sentence places greatest emphasis on this singing to the lyre – even if what Leonardo sang were not (so far as we know), versions of the Orphic hymns (Ficino did) – and we see something here of the status of the lyre – the lira da braccio – which Leonardo played.
Originating in the middle years of the 15th century, the liro de braccio was regarded by many Italian humanists and poets as the ‘modern’ equivalent of the lyre which was believed to have been the instrument of the Ancient Greek bards and, indeed, of Orpheus himself. A useful brief account of the instrument can be found in the book enclosing this CD. Those who feel the need for more should consult the entry (by Howard Mayer Brown and Sterling Scott Jones) on Grove Music Online or Jones’s book The Lira da Braccio (Indiana University Press, 1995). If you are near Oxford, you might like to know that the collections of the Ashmolean Museum contain a lira da braccio (c.1525) by Giovanni Maria da Brescia.
But Leonardo’s fascination with music went beyond even his obvious ability as a performer on, and singer with, the lyre. His notebooks contain many drawings illustrating ideas for new instruments. See, for example, page 151 in Martin Kemp’s Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design, V & Publications, 2006). For da Vinci music was an art of proportions – “her harmony is composed of the union of its proportional parts sounded simultaneously, rising and falling in one or more harmonic rhythms” (The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, selected and edited by Irma B. Richter, O.U.P., 1952). For him “music may be called the sister of painting” (ibid.), though he insists on painting’s superiority, “because it does not fade away as soon as it is born, as is the fate of unhappy music”.
For Leonardo music was more than musica instrumentalis. It and its principles formed a way of thinking about the world and the way it worked, one of the tools that served Leonardo’s inexhaustible curiosity. In the book of this CD Denis Raisin Dadre writes “De fait, pour Leonard, explique l’historiem Emanuel Winternitz, dans cet environment, ‘la musique n’est pas seulement une facette parmi d’autres de son génie créatif mais une partie essentielle de la dynamique de son énergie aristique et scientifique’” and credits the embedded quotation (the last part of which John Thornley translates as ‘an essential part of the whole structure of his scientific-artistic energy’) to Winternitz’s book Leonardo da Vinci as a Musician, Yale University Press, 1982). The perception is an important one and is reinforced by many passages in the important book by Martin Kemp detailed in the previous paragraph. Kemp identifies Leonardo’s fascination with the ‘laws’ of proportion as central to his thinking: “Proportion governed the beauty of bodies in both man and animals, the distribution of forms in architecture, the statics of an arch, the diminution of an object according to perspective, the speed of a body falling through the air … Every power, every weight, every moving body acted proportionately – according to a proportional law” (page 26). This passage occurs in a section of his book that Kemp entitles ‘The Music of Balances and Pulleys’ (page 25). Elsewhere, to take just one more example, commenting on some pages in the notebooks, Kemp writes that Leonardo encourages us “to think of watching a body in motion as a kind of musical composition in time and space” (p.109).
That Leonardo was very much engaged with music, its nature, its principles and its performance is wholly undeniable. An anecdote from Vasari may usefully be quoted here. He tells us that “when he was painting Mona Lisa”, Leonardo “employed singers and musicians or jesters to keep her full of merriment and so chase away the melancholy that painters usually give to portraits. As a result, in this painting … there was a smile so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human; and those who saw it were amazed to find that it was as alive as the original” (translated by George Bull).
Leonardo is then, if any painter ever was, suitable for this kind of ‘musical’ treatment. And the ‘treatment’ could scarcely have been carried out more sensitively or effectively than it has been here.
To avoid that nebulous impressionism that has too often characterized albums of this kind, Raisin Dadre has concentrated his attention on just ten pictures, five of them in the Louvre (not least, presumably, because their presence there has made it easier for him to be thoroughly familiar with them); in choosing pieces of music to ‘put’ alongside the paintings he has limited himself to works genuinely contemporary with them.
As Raisin Dadre himself explains, the selection of accompanying music was complicated by the fact that “no one can name an important Italian composer who was [Leonardo’s] contemporary, because between the brilliant culmination of the 14th-century Ars Nova and the magnificent flowering of the madrigal in the 16th century, Italian music was virtually a musical desert”. Leonardo’s “creative period” can be dated approximately from 1470 to 1519, so that it falls wholly into the gap delineated by Raisin Dadre, a gap ended by the initial florescence of the Italian madrigal in the 1530s. During the years of Leonardo’s career, the Italian musical landscape was dominated by Franco-Flemish composers such as Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Desprez, Alexander Agricola, Firminus Caron, Heinrich Isaac and Antoine Busnois. While it does find room for some work by Italian composers, Raisin Dadre’s musical choices also properly reflect this Franco-Flemish musical hegemony.
Raisin Dadre and his singers and musicians are experienced and well-respected performers of the music of the 15th and 16th- centuries and this new CD can surely only enhance their reputations even further. To the skill and imagination of the members of Doulce Mémoire is added the scholarship and sensitive insight of Denis Raisin Dadre and the result is breathtakingly beautiful and thought-provoking; for me, for example, my response to da Vinci’s portrait of ‘La Belle Ferronière’ is enhanced by looking at it while also listening to the anonymous Italian dance ‘Venus’; the aristocratic grace of the music, with its sense of social superiority, seems to clarify and supplement the haughtiness so evident in the portrait’s presentation of its subject – who may be Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan (although there is now scholarly argument about whether the woman in the picture really is Crivelli). Even if this is not Crivelli, she is certainly a lady of the Milanese court, conscious both of her social status, her self-possession and the power that her beauty gives her. (When the painting was exhibited at London’s National Gallery in 2011/12 it was described as ‘possibly’ a portrait of Beatrice D’Este, Ludovico’s wife). The identity matters less than the attitude of the sitter, or at least the attitude Leonardo invests her with, and the way the three pieces chosen by Raisin Dadre and superbly performed by Doulce Mémoire complement it.
Some of Raisin Dadre’s musical choices are mildly unexpected but illuminating. A clear case opens the album, which begins with the consideration of Leonardo’s Annunciation, now in the Uffizi in Florence. It was painted while the young Leonardo was still in the Florentine workshop of Andrea del Verocchio (painter, sculptor, goldsmith and, interestingly, a musician). Dadre writes very perceptively about this early work by Leonardo, observing that the painting is characterized by its “intimacy” and “degree of concentration” and by the “air of mystery between the Angel and Mary”. Such qualities made him unwilling to ‘accompany’ the painting by “a complex, sumptuous motet by one of the host of Franco-Flemish composers active in Italy at the time”. Such a work would, surely, have been the obvious choice. But looking at Dadre’s reasons and the success of their outcome, one is tempted to replace the adjective ‘obvious’ by the word ‘lazy’. Dadre felt that the painting would be best served, best suited, by something “musically unpretentious” and without “liturgical pomp”. He found just such a piece amongst the laude written in Florence before and during the years in which Leonardo painted his Annunciation. Marian piety was strong in the city during these years, not least amongst the compagnie delle laude, which were groups of laymen – and sometimes laywomen – generally organised by the Dominican and Franciscan friars, which met to do works of charity, to listen to religious instruction and to take part in religious ceremonies in which they sang laude (the plural of lauda). Laude were often sung in the evening in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Blake Wilson’s book of 1992, Music and Merchants: The Laudesi Companies of Republican Florence, is full of useful information on these companies.
The piece chosen by Dadre to accompany Leonardo’s Annunciation is a Florentine lauda attributed to one Frater Petrus, of whom I know nothing. It possesses, as Dadre himself writes, an “Italianate sweetness and sensuality … in perfect accord with the religious paintings of Leonardo”. The chosen piece sets the Latin Ave Maria (a lot of the laude were settings of Italian texts, since many members of the compagnie delle laude would not have known Latin) – but perhaps the Ave Maria was deemed sufficiently familiar.
Dadre and his ensemble have obviously worked hard to find the most suitable manner in which to perform the chosen music (particularly in terms of its affinities with the relevant work by Leonardo). As published by Ottavio Petrucci in the Laude libro secondo (Venice, 1507), Frater Petrus’s Ave Maria is a setting for four voices of the familiar text, an example of what has been called domestic polyphony. For Dadre its “simplicity …even a degree of naivety … and “economy of melodic means” mean that it “corresponds” well to Leonardo’s depiction of the Annunciation. On this recording that ‘correspondence’, which certainly exists, is brought out all the more clearly by the mode of performance adopted. To quote Dadre again “After several different experiments with the Ave Maria of Frater Petrus, we decided to keep only the upper voice, accompanied by the lira, a widespread practice at the period, with the lira creating a harmonic halo around the voice, but with no underlying bass part”. The result is very beautiful, hsving a spiritual quality in which the two ‘voices’ seem to enact, with real directness, the ‘dialogue’ between the Angel and Mary which is implicit in Leonardo’s painting, an all-consuming intimacy by which Mary is naturally somewhat startled and bewildered.
All of Dadre’s musical choices match very well the specified images by Leonardo – the best analogy I can think of is with what a great composer does when he sets a poem, finding music which genuinely complements and illuminates it. I won’t, for obvious reasons, undertake discussion of this entire programme in such terms; one of the longer sections in Denis Raisin Dadre’s contribution to the associated book is headed “Tableaux en Musique / Paintings in Music / Gemälde und Ihre Musik”, titles which, taken together, describe very well what has been achieved here. I have already quoted Vasari’s assertion that when painting the ‘Mona Lisa’ Leonardo brought in singers and musicians to keep his sitter smiling. Assuming the story to be true, Leonardo may actually have brought them in for his own benefit. In his Treatise on Painting Leonardo writes that “[the painter] sits down in front of his painting, very much at his ease … and he can often accompany his work with music … which he can listen to with great pleasure”. In a kind of inverted mimicry of this Dadre tells us that “During the recording in the exquisite abbey of Noirlac, we always had before us a reproduction of whichever Leonardo painting was the subject of our performance, as a constant source of musical inspiration”. One of the great joys of this album is that it gives us the opportunity to look at the relevant ‘images’ (one of them being a drawing rather than a painting) – all of which are superbly reproduced in the book – while listening to the music recorded in front of the same image!
This is a major release – in terms of the sensitive and scholarly intelligence which underlies its ‘concept’, the skill and musical imagination with which that concept is executed, and the beautiful and insightful documentation which accompanies the CD (the book alone, while it wouldn’t serve as a primer of Leonardo is full of insights which will benefit all who have some familiarity with that extraordinary man’s seemingly all-encompassing genius). La Musique Secrète also provides one significant template for how such albums might be constructed (there are other possibilities too, of course), so as to get beyond the kind of lazy anthologizing to which I alluded in the opening paragraph of this review.
I have talked at length about the quality and intelligence of the programme planned by Denis Raisin Dadre; his efforts would have lost much of their value without the outstanding work of his ensemble Doulce Mémoire, here consisting of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass) and lute, harp, viola d’arco, vièle trecento, flutes and, of course, the lira da braccio. All concerned merit the highest praise and I hope that none of them will think it invidious if I mention only Baptiste Romain by name, whose playing of the lira da braccio gives a delightfully individual (and wholly appropriate) beauty to some of the music.
I feel sure that I shall want to include La Musique Secrète in my Recordings of the Year in due course. For anyone interested (as I have always been) in the interplay between the arts, in the common ground they share – this is a must-hear (and, indeed, a must-see!) album.