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Angelica Bilta:Breaking Down an Italian Ballata

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Angelica Bilta: Breaking down an Italian Ballata by Francesco Landini

By Sayyida Ijliyah bint Rashid called Inara, current Bard of the Sun to TRM Eduard and Asa


The following is a breakdown of a 14th century secular Italian piece entitled "Angelica Bilta" by composer Francesco Landini. The piece is a 2-part ballata singing about an angel-like beauty coming to earth and how beautiful she is.This song is believed to be written in the 1300's. Francesco Landini lived from roughly 1325-1397 so the piece was composed during that time.
This piece, being a secular piece, would have been used on a more common level instead of a religious level. All remaining pieces written by Landini are secular despite his being a clergyman; he did not feel his art must be of the sacred style, therefore the music took on a more light air to it (Lord 74). The song is in 2 parts, the melody being very rhythmic, almost like a solo, while the harmony is extremely simple. Landini stressed the more sensuous and emotional aspect of music and his melody was predominantly vocal even when written for instruments (Harman 158). The song itself is short, meant to be a catchy tune, similar to a modern song singing of someone's beauty.
Music served many purposes in the Middle Ages. It could be a piece created by Landini about the sounds he would hear in the marketplace; it could be used as a workers' song in order to make the work go by faster or to help them with remembering the daily tasks ( Ongaro 103). Music was also performed quite a bit in the streets. Street performers would come out, do magic tricks, tell stories, dance and sing. In Florence where Landini resided they were known as "Cantainbanchi" meaning literally "those who sing on a table" based off of the practice of setting up a platform in the square so the performers could climb on it to try and gather a larger crowd. They were able to make money doing this by passing a hat around that people could put a little something into as a token of their appreciation of the artisan's efforts (Ongaro 104). In the Renaissance large parts of Europe were broken down into smaller states and city-states. With these city-states came courts in order to run each one. In Italy alone there were quite a few wealthy and well-to-do courts. These courts had the financial resources to hire and retain groups of professional musicians, purchase and maintain more costly instruments, commission the copying of music manuscripts and providing decent performance space. Musicians were listed as court employees and were to abide by the same rules as anyone else who worked the court. Musicians were expected to perform for the ruler, thus meaning that they had access to the ruler that others did not. In general, a ruler was to have a church choir for chapel, a group of instrumentalists or singer for chamber music, and a group of wind players and trumpeters for processions or ceremonies (Ongaro 106-107).
Since the piece was secular, this meant that almost anyone could have sung it. Because the composer was very well-renowned, it was most likely that the upper class were those who would have listened to it more so than lower class. Court performers had to be well skilled in many areas as they were supposed to provide the entertainment at a moments notice. They needed to be able to sing, dance, tell stories, play, compose poetry, carry on conversations about various topics and read anything from ancient to contemporary authors. As a result many people from the different social classes were skilled in these forms (Ongaro 108).
The composer, Francesco Landini, was a skilled artisan, ahead of his time in the realm of music. He is considered part of the second-generation Italian composers during the Renaissance because of the time that he lived (Hoppin 454). Contemporaries of Landini included Giovanni Villani and his son, Filippo Villani and therefore much of his early life is recorded. Landini’s father was a painter who studied in Giotto. At a small age Landini was infected with smallpox and lost his sight. However, this did not stop him from being artistic as he learned to play the organ as an artistic release and thus became admired and adored for his skill. He would sing, play instruments, write poetry and direct other singers (Lord 73). He became skilled in playing several instruments, including one of his own creations called the serena serenorum though he is best known for playing the organ. He was also skilled in playing multiple wind instruments as well. For his excellent performance skills, was crowed with laurel in Venice by Peter, King of Cyprus (Hoppin 454). He was so well-known for his performance skills, believed that to be the reason for having so much of his music so well-preserved A letter of recommendation was found written in 1375 by Coluccio Saluati, chancellor of Florence; this is considered the first firmly established date in Landini's life. From that time on it is believed he remained in Florence and took a very active part in the city's musical and cultural life. Landini died Sept 2nd, 1397 and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo where he was an organist. His tombstone depicts him with a portative organ, as does his portrait in the Squarcialupi Horghanista de Florentina; some manuscripts even have him named 'Francesco degli Organi' (Hoppin 455). Unfortunately there are no records of the chronology of Landini's works; it is believed that he may have alternated between various different styles of composing, depending on what he was writing the piece for (Hopping 456). However, it is believed that Landini relied on dictating his compositions to a musical and/or literary secretary as he was blind; hence having so much of his work still around (because it was written down instead of orally passed down only) (Fenlon 305).
As it was created in Medieval Italy, it is most likely performed in Medieval Italy and possibly France and England as many things were shared amongst these three countries.
The actual performance of music has not changed all that much since the Middle Ages. When it came to secular music, it was sung for entertainment, be it in a grand hall during a feast or at a courtly performance on a stage. It can be assumed that the practicing of pieces has not changed all that much as well. People must practice; practicing correctly, in order to sound appealing to the ears of others. Rehearsals must be done, be them right before going onstage or weeks in advance. One can believe that there was we have practiced our piece could be the exact same way in which the composer had musicians practice it when he first wrote it. Repetition is the key to both learning a song and making it sound good.

For the actual composition of the piece, Landini was famous for composing in 3 different styles: Madrigal, Caccia and Ballata. The madrigal (one of the most common forms of composition from the Middle Ages) is found in both 2 and 3 voice combination, many times simply composed. The caccia is like its French counterpart, purely canonic in technique with strict imitation (Seay 155). The ballata or ballate in the plural is similar in form to the French Virelai; in the beginning it was a very monophonic style but became polyphonic after about 1365. It consisted of  two sections for music: first refrain (ripresa), third and forth lines of the strophe (volta), first and second lines of strophe (piedi), sung often with the first and second endings (aperto and chiuso). Form is ABBAA, with B's serving as Piedi, A's serving as ripresa and volta (Seay 157). Landini's works show the Italian concentration upon the voice, for the majority of his compositions are vocally oriented. Almost all of the ballate, for instance, are in the form of an unaccompanied duet, with 82 of the 91 two-voice examples being for this medium (Seay 162). Another way to break the composition down is as such, taken from Palisca’s W, W. Norton Anthology of Western Music Ancient to Baroque (Norton Anthology of Western Music Volume I Series, Volume1) (pp 94-95): A two-line refrain (ripresa) is sung before and after a six-line stanza. The first 2 pairs of lines in the stanza (called piedi) have their own musical phrase followed by the last pair (volta) which uses the same music as the refrain. When written out it looks like this:

Poetic form: Ripresa          Stanza (2 piedi+volta)         Ripresa
Poetic Lines: 1   2    3       4  5      6  7    8  9  10       1   2   3
Music:         A                 b          b        a                A


As is seen above, the music is exactly the same as the note structure in “Angelica Bilta” (see attached music sheet). The first and last verses (A), the ripresa, are the same as is the volta (a) in tune. The 2 piedi have a different tune (b) which allows it to differ from the ripresa. In addition, “Angelica Bilta” has what is known as the Landini Cadence: At the very end of a piece all voices approach their final note from a half-step below, suddenly moving in parallel fourths, similar to that of a parallel organum. Half-steps are called leading tones because they lead so strongly to the ending note, on half-step above. An example of a "double-leading tone” would be the melody going from B natural to a C and the harmony going from an E to F (Lord 74). Landini was considerably influenced by French music, hence composing a lot of ballate instead of the madrigal or caccia. The ballata is the exact parallel of the French virelai from which it comes from. While the form is the same (A bb a A) the melodic style is different, smoother and more graceful. When it came to performing music, all that is known for certain is that, despite note structure, artists would alter notes as they went along if they felt it better suited the piece (Harman 167).
Landini  composed many polyphonic ballate, many times with the melody having text and the harmonies consisting of texless counterparts. It is believed that more two-part pieces were composed earlier in his time as he got more used to writing in the three-parts (Stevens 57).

With Landini’s music there is a great deal of emphasis on Melody. The Faenze Codex, dating from the early fifteenth century, shows the dual nature of a performer’s repertory. The codex contains ballate and madrigals by composers such as Jacopo de Bologna, Bartolino da Padova, Landini and Antonio Zacara de Teramo. In this tableture, the the intabulator has added more florid ornamentation to the already highly decorated voice of his model. The lower line in music a2, contrastingly, is stated simply, then in music a3, the two bottom lines of the vocal model are condensed into one which sounds the structurally more important notes in the piece (usually done by the tenor) (Blackburn 120). Landini's handling of melisimata implies a strong feeling for vocal technique, with a clarity of flow not hear by any other composers during his time. Penultimate syllables are often emphasized with sweeping melodic insertions, leading finally into graceful cadences. To match the smoothness of the individual line, there is also a harmonic clarity and avoidance of dissonance in contrapuntal movement; harsh sequences of parallel seconds and sevenths, as well as fifths and octaves, are no longer constant parts of the polyphonic web, and triadic formations are quite common except at cadence points where the traditional intervals are found (Seay 162). The upper voice is more elaborate, but both parts are nearly equal in rhythmic and melodic interest. In addition, independent declaration of the text is common and often involves imitation or an exchange of motives between the parts (Hoppin 457).
The translation of the Italian text sounds like that of a Troubadour piece. In fact, most of Landini’s compositions sounded like troubadour songs of love and the joy and pain that it brings.

An example of one of his other pieces is as follows (Taken from Suzanne Lord’s Music in the Middle Ages: A reference Guide):

(translation) Do you enjoy- Since I love you,
And still love you so much that I have no other happiness------
Holding my life in such torment?
In repeated refrain is:
Lady, if I deceived you,
Or ever followed another love but you,
I would willingly die at your own hands (74).

Comparatively, the translation of “Angelica Bilta” is this (Translated by Giovanni Carsaniga)
An angel-like beauty has come to earth.
Therefore whoever wishes to look upon beauty,
virtue, graceful manners and charm,
should come to behold her: All his desires
Will be for her, as my soul's are.
But I do not believe that the turmoil of emotions she inspires will bring anyone peace.

This is a very jovial piece, meant to make people happy. The tone is light and simple; the song seems as though it has a Troubadour influence with the description of beauty, grace and virtue. The words flow smoothly as Landini tried to make his pieces light and happy. Many times Landini’s music was praised for "sweetness." It has a carefree feel to it so that it can be listened to without undue stress. In fact, Landini’s works are still being used in modern times (ie, used by folk singer Judy Collins) (Lord 74).


Works Cited


Blackburn, Bonnie J. and Reinhard Strohm. Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle

Ages. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. oHow


Fenlon, Ian, Editor. Music in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, Cambridge

University Press, 1981.


Griffin, Susan (2001). The Book of the Courtesans: a Catalogue of Their Virtues. New York:

Broadway Books.


Harmon, Alec. Medieval and Early Renaissance Music. London: Barrie and Jenkins, ltd, 1969.


Hoppin, Richard. Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, inc, 1978.


Lord, Suzanne. Music in the Middle Ages: A reference guide. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008.


Ongaro, Giulio. Music of the Renaissance. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003.


Palisca, Claude V, editor. W, W. Norton Anthology of Western Music Ancient to Baroque

(Norton Anthology of Western Music Volume I Series, Volume1). 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New

York: W W Norton & Co Inc


Seay, Albert. Music in the medieval world. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1965.


Stevens, Denis, editor. A history of Song. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, inc, 1970.