A Songbook for Isabella


Signum Records is delighted to announce the release of A Songbook for Isabella.

Isabella d’Este was brought up in the midst of an extremely active musical court. After her marriage in 1490 to Francesco Gonzaga Duke of Mantua she began to remodel the Duke’s relatively modest musical establishment in imitation of that of her father, Hercule. She was herself a gifted musician and favoured above all the viol. Not only was the viol the favourite vehicle for aristocratic instrumental performance, but it was the ideal accompaniment to the voice.

Under Isabella’s patronage the tradition of improvised song accompanied by the singer on a lira da braccio developed into the frottola, shared between two, three or even four viols. In employing Italian composers, and herself performing their music, Isabella played a key role in the development of this new music, and of the consort of viole which developed alongside it.

This disc presents a selection of music from the circle of Isabella. The repertoire is centred around the Milliare Songbook – a hand written songbook compiled in 1502 by, or for, one Ludovico Milliare. This contains a wonderfully rich cross section of the vocal and instrumental repertoire loved by the d’Este family of Mantua. An attractive feature of the collection is the inclusion of sacred pieces, mostly non-liturgical and apparently intended for private devotional use.

The instruments used for this recording have been thoroughly researched by examining documented and iconographic evidence – for example contemporary paintings of the period. The custom-made viols are cannot be called "copies"; they are recreations using the best information and scholarship available. This CD offers a rare opportunity to hear the very different sound these instruments make – rather different from their more modern counterparts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


What people are saying

"a very satisfying compilation combining scholarship with sensuous pleasure" Peter Grahame Woolf, Musical Pointers

"a very civilized disc with music to charm and excite" Gary Higginson, Ludwig Van Web
"pleasurable and abundant discoveries await the more adventurous listener" Michael Cookson, Music Web

Musica Antiqua
directed by Philip Thorby

Clare Wilkinson – soloist

Release date:19th May 2003
Order code:SIGCD039
Barcode: 635212003923

Ludwig Van Web

This CD gives us an opportunity to hear the music contained in a late-Renaissance songbook belonging to a very important member of the Italian aristocracy. The selection reflects their sophisticated tastes, their religious expectations and their tastes in entertainment. Not surprisingly it contains music by that most international and cosmopolitan of Renaissance composers, Heinrich Isaac (track 16, for example). He is represented here by five pieces. Busnois and Josquin get only one each. These composers are from the so-called ‘Netherlandish school’ of the late 15th Century, as are Agricola and Ockeghem.

The Italian ‘frottola’ is represented by several anonymous pieces like the opening ‘Or an corere’ (track 1) or by that most tuneful of Italians, Tromboncino, as in ‘Or che di preggion’. Neither is the selection short of sacred works with, for example, the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ (track 15) which has the even verses set polyphonically and the odd ones in ‘alternatum’ – ie in plainsong.

With only one singer, the normally rather blanched and pure Clare Wilkinson, the sacred music accompanied by viols, whilst not inauthentic or dull, is interpreted and has the same texture as the frottola. This gives the disc a somewhat monochrome atmosphere. However there is a touch of 1960s ‘Musica Reservata’ about some tracks which is most welcome and adds a splash of colour. I thought that the days of four raucous crumhorns were practically over. Well not so, as we can hear in ‘O triumphale diamante’, a piece addressed to a diamond admired even by the pope.

Incidentally Isabella d’Este was a fine musician. Philip Thorby tells us in the accompanying essay that musically Isabella ‘was genuinely gifted’.

The disc achieves an equal balance of vocal as against instrumental items. The most common instruments are the set of viols. These were made especially for Philip Thorby and the group. We are told that this is ‘the first group in the world to commission and use late 15th Century viols and is the only group in Great Britain to play on matched sets of viols, crumhorns and recorders especially commissioned for the group, mostly copied form 16th Century originals’. What difference does it make? To the performers, a great deal. This can be communicated to listeners in a sensitivity of performance and respect for instrumental textures not normally encountered. This is particularly evident with a piece realized for broken consort. The viols sound whiter and plainer than in other versions – perhaps more restrained. This suits this particular repertoire well and can be most beautiful as, for example, in Isaac’s ‘Absque verba’.

This is a very civilized disc with music to charm and excite. The performers are clear about their objectives and they know musically how to achieve them.

Gary Higginson

Music Web, January 2004

On this Signum release we are entertained by late fifteenth century music from the personal songbook of Isabella d?Este, the daughter of the Duke of Ferrara and wife of the Duke of Mantua. Isabella?s songbook has survived in the Bibliothèque National in Paris and contains mainly accompanied songs both sacred and secular plus some instrumental works. These are composed in the Burgundian tradition by leading Flemish composers of the day including Josquin, Isaac and Ockeghem, who were plying their trade in Isabella?s Italy.

Isabella had learned to sing and proficiently play the viol, lute and harpsichord, all instruments deemed appropriate for a young Lady of aristocratic status. In 1499 the Duchess succumbed to the new fashion and developed the use of the consort of viols in the court of Ferrara. The consort of viols can sound most impressive too, as heard in Isaac?s La mi a 4 (01:12 track 16) and Absque verbis a 3 (01:02 track 24). The songbook contains a marvellously rich cross-section of vocal and instrumental music which utilises the voice and various combinations of four viols, four recorders, three crumhorns, lutes and guitar. It should be noted that several dances or lute solos, works not from the songbook, have been added to the disc from contemporary sources.

Using instruments that were specially commissioned sets of period copies the players of Musica Antiqua display their charming musicianship consistently throughout. Director Philip Thorby presents a most persuasive argument for the merits of this largely unfamiliar repertoire and captures the essential Mediterranean spirit of the works with finely paced, well balanced and refined interpretations. Clare Wilkinson, the mezzo-soprano soloist, provides a real sense of engagement in these difficult works and seems especially at home in the slower paced songs (01:45, track 4 and 00:06, track 15). However the mezzo-soprano does not always convince me technically, sounding somewhat variable in intonation and occasionally rather uncomfortable in her ornamentations (00:14, track 1). I find the sound quality acceptable and have heard clearer recordings from the Signum engineers.

Signum records are to be congratulated for yet another release of late-renaissance music which certainly help to fill gaps in the catalogue of this rare repertoire. Clearly not every one will be able to take seventy five minutes of late-fifteenth century music at one sitting however pleasurable and abundant discoveries await the more adventurous listener.

Michael Cookson

Goldberg, Issue 25, December 2003

She was the friend of princes and the muse of artists, just as Leonardo da Vinci captured her forever, with an openness in her gaze as she surveys her own dreams, as scholarly as she was beautiful. Married in Mantua to the Marquis Francesco Gonzaga, she was to make her studio a centre of humanism and a hive of music. She herself was an effective performer, accompanying herself on the lute, without neglecting the melody of the viols that flourished in her beloved chapel.

The song-book of Ludovico Milliare (compiled in 1502 in Mantua, probably within Isabella’s circle) reflects this diversity. An entirely representative sampling of the musical tastes of the Este family is offered here, in which the Burgundian style, the Italo-Flemish tradition, adopted by the Northern musicians (Josquin, Issac), and of course, the awakening identiy of the frottola players, is pursued without detriment to the pious zeal of sacred pieces intended for private worship.

In thjis rich and diverse repertoire, the London group Musica Antiqua is at ease, always at their best when the supple mezzo of Clare Wilkinson does not retreat behind purely instrumental transcriptions played by a consort of fine gambists. (It must be said that the director Philip Thorby has a preference for solutions that bringb about a felictous cross of solo voice and instruments with traditional polyphonic schemas). It is possible that a native-born Italian voice would have come even closer to defining Isabella’s musical dream. The fact remains that anyone who turns to this colourful evocation will not be making a purchase in vain – quite the contrary.

Roger Tellart

Early Music Review, July 2003

I meant to give this to someone else to review: I’ve had serveral early 16th-century anthologies from Musica Antiqua of London and am beginning to find them just a little limited. Not that I don’t love the music and its performance. But it was, I think, significant that the pieces that stood out were the instrumental ones – not because I have any objections to Clare Wilkinson, who has a delightfully clear voice and uses it intelligently, but because the music was more striking and individual. Looking down the list of items (and I didn’t do this until after I’d played the disc). it is notable that they have the names of composers attached while most of the vocal pieces are anonymous. The latter are all enjoyable, but sound a bit, to repeat the word, anonymous. To hear the players at their most musical try track 2 – Fortuna desperata. I got from their Josquin disc, partly because that has better music, partly because of it’s greater vocal variety, even though this disc has the advantage of the marvellously reedy 1500-ish vocals

Clifford Bartlett

Musical Pointers, May 2003

This anthology grows on you as it unfolds. The players are skilled instrumentalists, but the feeling is of friends at home, picking up different instruments as the mood takes them. The same music is repeated in several versions, and there are many real gems. At first the singing is cool, Clare Wilkinson’s voice almost an additional instrumental line. There is often a disconcerting lack of apparent connection between the delightfully fresh words and the music, often in many verses with little or no word setting by our expectations from later generations of composers. But Clare Wilkinson allows herself to become more animated and involved in a number of the items, and the variations of instrumentation (indicated by the letterings in the listings above) are a help. La mi la solla mi gia vol is a jolly song about rejection worthy of Wolf’s Italian Songbook. Ne la digna stalla is a cheerful Nativity celebration, In te, Domine, speravi a bleak acceptance that after all the praying “very little is provided for my pain“. The full texts and translations enhance enjoyment enormously.

A generously filled CD, impeccably recorded. The presentation is exemplary and Philip Thorby’s notes, with an account of Isabella’s musical tastes, comprehensive and interesting for the non-specialist. As you can see above, the information is compendious, though (a very tiny cavill) it would have helped if the “Instrumentarium” had been placed on page 3 opposite the tracklist (nothing would have been lost thereby) so that one did not have to have so many fingers keeping place in different pages. Against that, praise to Jan Hart for the meticulous alignment of the translations. All in all, a very satisfying compilation combining scholarship with sensuous pleasure.

Peter Grahame Woolf

  1. La Fortuna: – Or su corere ? 4 – anon – [3:31]
  2. – Fortuna desperata ? 4 – Antoine Busnois – [1:36]
  3. – Facia ognon in fin che po ? 4 – anon – [2:23]
  4. Prenez sur moy vostre example: – Prenez sur moy ? 3 – Johannes Ockeghem – [3:21]
  5. – Helas que pora advenire ? 3 – Firminius Caron – [3:13]
  6. – Or che son di pregion ? 4 – Bartolomeo Tromboncino – [3:20]
  7. A la cazza: – A la pesca ? 4 – Iannes Plice – [2:00]
  8. – [Gagliarda] Peschatore – anon – [0:37]
  9. – A la cazza ? 4 – anon – [1:53]
  10. Kyrie Eleison: – Kyrie leison ? 4 – anon – [3:54]
  11. – Colomba senza fielle – anon – [5:30]
  12. – Pavana regia – anon – [2:06]
  13. Carmine sine verbis I: – El piove ? 3 – anon – [1:57]
  14. – Si dedero ? 3, ? 4 – Alexander Agricola – [2:33]
  15. Ave Maris Stella: – Ave maris stella ? 3 – anon – [5:35]
  16. La Mi La Sol: – La mi ? 4 – Heinrich Isaac – [2:16]
  17. – La mi la sol la mi gia vol ? 4 – anon – [1:40]
  18. Viva il grand?Hercule: – O triumphale diamante ? 4 – G.L. – [1:18]
  19. – Tente alora ? 4 – anon – [0:47]
  20. In Festo Natalis Domini: – Verbum caro factus est ? 3 – anon – [2:11]
  21. – Ne la digna stalla ? 2 – anon – [2:44]
  22. – Recerchar di Benedictus – anon – [1:31]
  23. – Benedictus – anon/Isaac – [2:18]
  24. Carmine sine Verbis II: – Absque verbis ? 3 – Heinrich Isaac – [2:03]
  25. – Gratis acceptistis ? 4 – Heinrich Isaac – [1:50]
  26. – La Mora ? 3, ? 4 – Heinrich Isaac – [2:27]
  27. La Speranza: – In te Domine speravi ? 4 – Josquin des Prez – [4:21]
  28. – [Salterelli] Zorzi, Giorgio – anon – [1:33]
  29. – Forte cosa ? la speranza ? 5 – anon – [3:22]