Sunday, 19 October 2014

Renaissance Men

As a sort of prequel to my article on composers of the Baroque period here is my look at some from the preceding period, the Renaissance.

The term Renaissance has been used many times over the past 600 years to denote a rebirth of culture, though in a couple of days I’ll write about a more recent Renaissance which was more of a cultural explosion.

The Renaissance period spans the 15th and 16th centuries. It saw huge developments in art and culture which are still familiar to us today through art, literature, architecture and music.

I’ve said many times before that we should be careful not to picture the past with a modern mind. Attitudes and societies change. The very development of the Renaissance is testimony to that. So we have to forget modern sexuality labels. None of the people I mention today would have considered themselves as gay or bisexual.

There are several Renaissance composers I want to mention today. Their sexuality has been queried and looked at by musicologists and historians in recent years.

The first composer is Dominique Phinot (c.1501-c.1556), a popular composer in his own time. He was an early pioneer of a form of music that was particularly influential among the next generation of composers, including one I’ll mention later.

Music was pretty bland in the early Renaissance compared with the myriad of styles we have today. An innovation which was an early experiment in stereo sound was pioneered (though not invented) by Phinot. In the large cathedrals of medieval Europe the sound of 4 male singers would reverberate around the naves and chancel. People like Phinot thought “what if we split the choir into 2 and have them stand in different parts of the cathedral and sing alternately”. This was known as polychoral music. The experience of hearing voices echoing around a cathedral from first one side and then the other, of being surrounded by music, was something worshippers had never heard before.

Most of Phinot’s career was spent in Italy and southern France though, thanks to the development of printing and musical notation, he and other composers found their works distributed throughout Europe. No-one is sure when Phinot died. The generally accepted story, first recorded in 1560, was that Phinot was found guilty of sexual behaviour, sodomy, with a choirboy and was executed shortly after 1555.

There were other composers who wrote polychoral music beside Phinot. A contemporary of his had a very similar polychoral style. He was called Nicolas Gombert (c.1495-c.1560). Gombert developed the style by increasing the number of singers. Four male singers was usual for the early Renaissance choir. Gombert increased this to 8, and sometime to 12, singers. This was also new. I suppose it was the start of the male voice choir and gay men’s chorus that have become so popular.

Gombert’s use of another technique, counterpoint (the singing of 2 different harmonic melodies at the same time), was also among the most accomplished of his time. Perhaps too accomplished, because the Council of Trent (1545-63), which laid down the artistic ideals of the succeeding Baroque period, required more clearly distinguished texts to be sung in church music. As a result Baroque composers wrote fewer and simpler choral works in counterpoint.

Like Phinot Gombert is said to have been charged with sodomy against choirboys. He was employed in the Imperial chapel of Emperor Karl V as “maitre des enfants”, the “master of the children” in the choir. This meant he travelled with the emperor around the Holy Roman Empire acting as choral manager and composer. In 1540 he was replaced in this office. According to a later report Gombert was found guilty of sexual contact with boys in his charge. He managed to escape execution but was sentenced instead to several year’s hard labour on the galleys.

Just how much hard labour he endured is difficult to determine but in the 7 years he served in the galleys he managed to compose a motet which Emperor Karl found so moving that he pardoned Gombert. Perhaps he only served the first part of his sentence in the galleys – he was in his late 40s when sentenced, well into middle-age for the Renaissance. Surely he couldn’t have lasted 7 years doing hard labour AND write a motet.

After his pardon Gombert retired to Tournai, his conviction ruining his future prospects (something celebrities have discovered for themselves in the UK recently after several high-profile sex abuse cases).

At the time when Gombert was being sentenced for sodomy another composer was born who managed to escape both execution and sentence for sodomy. He was Giovan Leonardo Primavera (c.1540-1585).

As with other composers of the Renaissance, including the ones I’ve already mentioned, Primavera spent most of his time in Italy composing for the various courts and church patrons who encouraged the arts and music of the period. Like Phinot and Gombert, Primavera was a popular composer in his lifetime. His most famous work, though rarely heard, is a madrigal based on a homoerotic poem.

In 1570 Primavera was one of several people accused of sodomy at the Church of Our Lady of Loreto. It began with the arrest of one of the church’s canons, Luigi Fontino, who was accused of sexual acts with one of the new choirboys, a teenager called Luigi dalla Balla. Under the threat of torture Fontino confessed and was beheaded. Young Balla confessed under torture to willingly having sex with other men and was whipped and banned from the Papal States. One of those he confessed to having had sex with was Giovan Primavera.

Primavera was to be put on trial but he managed to escape and may have gone to Venice. The next 15 years of his life were relatively quiet. He continued to compose, and may have lived after the publication of a book of his madrigals in 1585.

As for young Luigi dalla Balla, he seems to have become a composer as well. It may be too much to think that he and Primavera might have met again. After all, Primavera spent a lot of his time in Venice, and there’s evidence that Balla wrote a couple of pieces that were published in Venice in 1584 and 1587. They seem to have been in the same city at the same time – why shouldn’t they have met?

The Renaissance saw several changes in music that were pioneered or championed by what can be described as “queer” composers. Whether it was creating the male voice choir or developing new stereo experiences, the work of these composers influenced the development of music right down to the Riot Grrrl movement, the gay disco age, and the Harlem blues.

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