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
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.