Music for the Dukes of Ferrara – the composers and works

We will be joining Border Voices and Evelyn Tubb in a concert of wonderful renaissance music on 17th March in Leominster Priory. In this blog, David Hatcher has written fascinating and informative notes about the composers and sublime repertoire that we will be performing that evening. Please do come if you can – we would love to see you there.
Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 18.20.27Johannes Brebis
 was a French singer and composer who first appears in the Ferrarese records in November 1471 as cantadore (singer). He was one of the first singers appointed to the newly formed ducal chapel of Ercole I and in the next year he is recorded as Maestro de cappella. Very little biographic information exists for Brebis, but it is known that in 1475, Ercole I intervened on his behalf, settling a debt he had owed the duchy since 1472. It seems that he ran the chapel together with Johannes Martini throughout the 1470s. The motet in honour of Ercole I,  was probably written in the summer of 1472 and appears as a later addition in the large choirbook now in the Estense Library in Modena. It is a tour de force in the late medieval polyphonic motet style, with virtuoso singing required in all the parts. Because of his close collaboration with Martini, it is difficult to attribute many works to him with certainty. Four hymns and a Magnificat setting are his, along with a number of double-choir psalm settings and other music for Holy Week. He remained in Ercole I’s service until 1478, when he was appointed priest of the parish of Coccanile, to the north east of Ferrara. An official document of 12th February 1479 shows that he died shortly before that date.

Johannes Martini was one of the many Flemish composers active in Italy in the fifteenth century. In a letter to the Bishop of Konstanz concerning the expansion of his musical establishment dated 10th December 1471, Ercole I expressed his intention to hire “… D. Martinus de Alemania …”, a singer then in service at Konstanz. That this was Johannes Martini is confirmed by a later document, of January 1473, which states that a “… Giovanni d’Alemagna …” was installed in the ducal chapel. Martini’s service at Ferrara was to continue almost uninterrupted until his death in 1497, court records listing him as “Zohane Martini de Brabante” and “Zohane Martino todescho cantadore compositore”. In 1479 a record of a payment made for a “Libro da canto da vespro per la cappella … composto per Giovan Martin cominotore” refers to a large manuscript now in the Estense Library in Modena, containing vespers settings and hymns by both Martini and Brebis. This is the earliest manuscript of music for two choirs in Italy and reflects the large scale of Ercole I’s chapel establishment. Martini was one of the highest paid singers in the Ferrarese court and in addition, received a house in the city and numerous benefices from the region’s aristocratic circle. The extant letters written by Martini are addressed exclusively to his pupil, the daughter of his employer, Isabelle d’Este. He was engaged to teach her singing and instrumental music and in the earliest letter from Isabella to Martini, she tells him that her father wishes him to travel to Mantua, where she had been living since her betrothal at the age of ten, to give her instruction. Martini was the principal contributor to a book of chansons written to celebrate her betrothal, on 15th February, 1490, to Francesco Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua. Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 18.21.23

This manuscript, known as the Casanatense Chansonnier, contains 113 works in three parts and ten in four parts, twenty four of which are by Martini. It is the sole surviving chansonnier from late 15th century Ferrara. None of the pieces are fully texted, suggesting that the volume was intended for instrumental performance. Non seul uno is the fourth piece from the end of this manuscript. The motet Perfunde celi was probably written in 1473 in honour of the wedding of Ercole I and Eleonora d’Aragona on 3rd July of that year. The attribution to Martini is conjectural, based on stylistic features of the work and that fact that it appears in the manuscript Trent 91, surrounded by works

largely by him.

Josquin des Prez, the composer ne plus ultra of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, succeeded Martini as Maestro di cappella for Ercole I, serving for just a year, from April 1503 to April 1504. He was hired contrary to the advice of Ercole’s agent, Gian de Artiganova, who, in a letter of 2nd September 1502, recommended Heinrich Isaac over Josquin:

To me [Isaac] seems well suited to serve Your Lordship, more so than Josquin, because he is more good-natured and companionable, and will compose new works more often. It is true that Josquin composes better, but he composes when he wants to and not when one wants him to, and he is asking 200 ducats in salary while Isaac will come for 120 – but Your Lordship will decide.

200 ducats is the highest salary ever paid to a member of the ducal chapel. Not long after Josquin’s arrival in Ferrara, the city suffered an outbreak of plague and the court removed itself to the coast at Comacchio. It could have been the plague that prompted Josquin’s early departure the following year to Condé-sur-l’Escaut, where he was to spend his retirement as Provost at the church of Notre Dame. In this single year Josquin produced some of his finest works, including the monumental setting of the first penitential psalm, Miserere mei Deus (written “… at the earnest entreaty of the Duke of Ferrara…”), and the motet Virgo salutiferi, a setting of a text by the d’Este court poet Ercole Strozzi. Three highly complex canonic parts weave a counterpoint, periodically punctuated by a second canon on the plainchant melody of Ave Maria. The text is in three sections, shortening in the ration 3:2:1 and Josquin, whilst maintaining the strict double canon described above, maintains this proportion in diminishing note values in each of the three sections. The appearance of the curiously entitled Ile fantazies de Josquin in the Casanatense Chansonnier and its use of a strikingly similar melody to the opening phrase of Virgo salutiferi, both suggest a date of composition within the composer’s year at Ferrara.

Adrian Willaert’s first record of service in Italy began in 1514 or 1515. as a singer in the service of Cardial Ippolito I d’Este, Alfonso I’s brother. In 1517, he travelled with Ippolito to Hungary, where he may well have sung in the Hungarian royal chapel, as well as visiting Kraków, possibly singing at the wedding of Zygmunt Jagiełło to Bona Sforza in 1518. By 1519, he was back in Ferrara and entered the chapel of Alfonso I after Ippolito’s death in 1520. He received a surprisingly low salary, but such was the esteem in which he was held by Alfonso I that his patronage continued until his death (in 1562, during a state visit to Venice, Alfonso paid Willaert the great honour of visiting him on his death bed). He left Ferrara in 1527, taking up the more prestigious post of Maestro di Cappella at St Marks’, Venice, where his salary eventually rose to 200 ducats.

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Many of Willaert’s publications were never intended to be heard by the public. Instead, they were performed privately in the meetings of musical cognoscente. Musica Nova is a collection of motets and madrigals composed while Willaert was at the head of one such musical academy, largely comprised of wealthy exiled Florentines lead by Neri Capponi. Accompanied by a consort of viols with Willaert almost certainly playing, the highly acclaimed soprano, Polissena Peccorina would surely have premiered many of the pieces contained therein. The collection was kept in strict secrecy by La Peccorina until eventually she sold it to Alfonso I in 1554. He was to have it published by Gardano in Venice in 1559, revealing himself to be both its patron and dedicatee.


There is a gentlewoman, POLISENA Pecorina (consort of a cittadino from my native town), so talented and refined that I cannot find words high enough to praise her. One evening I heard a concert of violoni and voices in which she played and sang together with other excellent spirits. The perfect master of that music was Adrian Willaert, whose studious style, never before practiced by musicians, is so tightly knit, so sweet, so right, so miraculously suited to the words that I confess to never having known what harmony was in all my days, save that evening. The devotee of this music and lover of such divine composition is a gentleman, a most excellent spirit, Florentine as well, called Messer Neri Caponi, to whom I was introduced by Messer Francesco Corboli [another Florentine] and thanks to whom I listened, saw, and heard such divine things. This Messer Neri spends hundreds of ducats every year on such talent, and keeps it to himself; not even if it were his own father would he let go one song”

Antonfrancesco Doni, in a letter of 7th April, 1544

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Cipriano de Rore, yet another native of Flanders, was frequently described by his contemporaries as a pupil of Willaert. There is very little evidence of him ever receiving any formal training from the older musician, but title pages such as that of the third book of madrigals, which includes the phrase “… del divinissimo Adriano Villaerth, et de altri discepoli...” could mean simply that de Rore was a follower of Willaert’s ground- breaking style rather than a pupil. The earliest record of de Rore being in Italy is in a letter from Ruberto Strozzi, a friend of Capponi, dated 3rd November 1542, showing that he was living in Breschia and had been visiting Venice. Both Capponi and Strozzi were avid collectors and commissioners of works by Willaert and de Rore, the latter being paid by Strozzi “…5 scudi per canzoni.” Throughout the early 1540s, de Rore was searching for a stable position in an Italian court. A motet written for Ippolito I d’Este contains the plea “…Cypriam gentem suscipe quaeso…” (“… please, take the Cyprian…”). His efforts paid off, as he was appointed Maestro di Cappella by Ercole II d’Este on 6th May, 1546. During his twelve years of service there, until 1558, he produced more than half of his entire output, some 107 pieces, a number of which have direct associations with his patron. En voz adieu/Hellas comment voules vous appears in a collection of chansons first published in Ferrara in 1550 and later reprinted in Venice by Gardano. The collection celebrated the wedding of Anna d’Este, the daughter of Ercole II and Renée of France, to Prince Francis, the son of the Duke of Guise, which was celebrated in 1548. Cipriano wrote two masses in honour of Ercole I; the first also paid tribute to his predecessor, Josquin, by taking as its model the magnificent six-voice motet, Praeter rerum seriem, adding a seventh voice and extending the already substantial piece. The other mass: Missa Vivat felix Hercules, employs a device favoured by composers when being particularly ingratiating to their patrons: the Soggetto cavato dalle vocali. The subject, in the tenor line, is dug out, or extracted (cavato) by taking the vowels of the sentence Vivat felix Hercules secundum, Dux Ferrariae quartus as the vowels of the names of the notes in the hexachord (Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La), giving the melody:Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 18.21.55


The tenor part never sings the words of the mass, but continually repeats its praise of the noble patron, Ercole II, fourth Duke of Ferrara.

Even a musician as great as Cipriano could not avoid the fickleness of aristocratic patronage. During his final years in Ferrara, the composer was overshadowed by Ercole’s obsession with the procurement and publication of the manuscript of Willaert’s Musica Nova, in addition to the Duke’s preferment of the Ferrarese composer Francesco dalla Viola, whose family had served the ducal chapel for over three generations and who had

close ties with the heir, Alfonso. Cipriano was given leave to travel in 1558 and returned to visit his native Flanders. En route, he visited Munich and assisted in the preparation of a luxurious manuscript of motets dedicated to Duke Albrecht V. The manuscript, now in the Bavarian State Library, contains a portrait of the composer.


Giaches de Wert’s early life remains elusive. He was born in Flanders, possibly in the town of Weert, near Antwerp. A reliable contemporary account tells us that he was taken to Italy as a boy to study singing in the household of Maria di Cardona and probably lived in Avellino, near Naples. Maria was the wife of Francesco d’Este, a son of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso I d’Este. In 1550 Wert moved from Avellino to Novellara to serve a minor branch of the Gonzaga family. In the early 1550s, his prescence is recorded in Mantua and Ferrara, where he met de Rore, who was to become the main influence on Wert’s early development. During his tenure at Novellara he married Lucrezia Gonzaga and together they had at least six children. Wert soon accepted the post of Maestro di Cappella of the principle Gonzaga chapel in Milan and then in 1565 he moved to Mantua to take up the same post at the chapel of Santa Barbara. Here it was that Lucrezia’s misfortunes began. She had an affair with Agostino Bonvicino, a colleague of Wert in the chapel, which was discovered in 1570. She was forced to leave Mantua, leaving her husband behind. Upon her return to Novellara she became sexually involved with an illegitimate son of the Count of Novellara and took part in a plot to kill his uncle in order to gain from the estate. Lucrezia was tried and imprisoned, where she died fourteen years later. Meanwhile, Wert continued as Maestro di Cappella in Mantua until 1592, but developed close ties with the Este court in Ferrara. These were both musical, reflecting the close relations between the Mantuan and Ferrarese courts through the marriage of Margherita Farnese Gonzaga to Alfonso II d’Este, but also on a more practical level through the extensive litigation over the rights to his wife’s property, confiscated upon her imprisonment. Wert had influential support in the affair: from the Gonzaga family and from Duke Alfonso himself (who had jurisdiction over the case). It took until 1588, four years after Wert’s wife’s death, to resolve the matter, whereupon he was awarded one third of his wife’s extensive possessions. The next difficulty in Wert’s complicated personal life arose through the increasing number and length of his visits to Ferrara. He spent so much time there that his employer in Mantua sent a letter, dated 22nd December 1584, demanding his immediate return to his post at Santa Barbara. The reason for Wert’s visits became clear when his affair with the recently widowed Tarquinia Molza was discovered. Tarquinia, the neice of the poet Francesco Maria Molza, was a noble woman and a lady-in-waiting at the Este court. She was a gifted musician and a fine singer (a member of the famed Concerto delle Dame), but as a member of the aristocracy it was highly inappropriate for her to form a relationship with a servant (even though Wert’s wife had also been aristocratic, he remained a commoner). Tarquinia was banished and returned to her home town of Modena and Wert was obliged to turn his full attention to his work. He was held in great esteem by his contemporary musicians. Palestrina described him as “… virtuoso così raro …” in a letter to Duke Gugliemo Gonzaga and Zacconi and Monteverdi both refer to him as exceptional.

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 18.22.30The seventh book of madrigals, from which Giunto a la tomba is taken, contains the earliest settings of stanzas from Alfonso II’s court poet and Wert’s friend Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, an epic poem published in Ferrara in 1581 telling the story of the first crusade. The volume was dedicated to Alfonso II’s wife, Margherita.

Jacquet de Berchem, a native of the Flemish town of Berchem-lez-Anvers, spent his entire maturity in Italy. He attained great fame in that peninsular for his work in developing the madrigal. Caravaggio’s painting “The lute player” depicts a player reading from a print of “Pourquoi ne vous donnez-vous pas?”, a well-known madrigal by Berchem. Nothing is known of his early years, but he is documented as present in Venice in the 1530s, probably as a pupil of Willaert, and where he had most of his music published. The frequency of reprints of his madrigal books attest to their popularity and he was praised in the writings of Antonfrancesco Doni and François Rabelais. From 1546 to about 1550, Jacquet was Maestro di Cappella at Verona Cathedral, but he spent some time looking unsuccessfully for employment at Ferrara. The Capriccii, containing Mentre costui, were published by Gordano in Venice in 1561, but almost certainly composed considerably earlier. Dedicated to Ercole II, they are settings of 91 stanzas from Ercole II’s court poet, Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando Furioso, which became the source of many plots for musical works for a number of centuries (Handel’s operas Rinaldo, Alcina and Orlando being amongst the most famous). Despite the rather extreme yet not unusual sycophancy contained in the texts, Berchem’s settings did not win favour in Ferrara, and his name does not appear in court payment records.

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Heinrich Isaac was another northerner who, despite rising to be one of the most highly acclaimed composers of the age, failed to gain a position in Ferrara. He was first employed in Italy by the Lorenzo de’ Medici, not as a chapel singer (Lorenzo did not maintain a regular chapel) but as a domestic musician. Following the Medici’s fall from grace and exile from Florence in 1494, Isaac found employment in the Emperor Maximilian I’s new and large musical establishment, becoming Maestro di Cappella in 1496. He visited the court of Ercole I d’Este in the autumn of 1502, looking to gain emplyment. Josquin was chosen instead, despite Isaac’s better reputation as an easier and cheaper person to deal with. It is possible that the instrumental piece La my la sol was written during this visit. He certainly composed a motet on the same motif for the occasion. In the impressively self-glorifying series of woodcuts, The triumph of Emperor Maximilian, made in 1516 by Hans Burgkmair, the Emperor’s chapel is depicted singing, with their rector Georg Slatkonia standing at the rear. Next to him, with laurel wreath on his head, is a figure that is identified as Ysaac in contemporary descriptions of the woodcut.

Englishman John Bedyngham probably did not travel to Italy, nor did he seek employment out of England. Bedyngham’s significance, and the reason for the inclusion of his most famous secular piece in a programme dedicated to music associated with Ferrara, lies in his importance as an English composer during the only period of significant influence of English music on continental tastes. This fascination with the Contenaunce Angloise resulted in the works of those such as Walter Frye, John Hothby, John Dunstable and Bedyngham being circulated widely throughout the second half of the 15th century. Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 18.23.13

O rosa bella, one of the most famous chansons of the period, survives in at least fourteen manuscripts from the second half of the 15th century. There is debate over the attribution, with considerable weight now given to the idea that the attribution to John Dunstable is erroneous. Its connection with Ferrara is due to its inclusion in a small book, in the Municipal Library of Oporto since the early nineteenth century, but originally written in Ferrara around 1465. The book, now known as Porto 417, is in two distinct parts: the first is a treatise on music theory, the second, a collection of nineteen polyphonic songs in three voices, some of them by English composers, including Beddingham, and Galfridus de Anglia. The notation of the music is unusual for the second half of the 15th century in Italy, in that it uses black and red mensural notation, a style superseded on the continent by black and white mensural notation. Indicative also is the correct spelling of the name Bedyngham. These pieces of evidence point to the possibility of an English compiler, and we have a candidate in the person of one Robertus de Anglia, who had been active in Ferrara since at least 1454. In that year we know that he was in the service of Rinaldo Maria d’Este, illegitimate son of Niccolò III (father of Ercole I), when he was witness to a deed of the Este family. He taught the singers at Ferrara Cathedral from September 1460 and returned to England in 1474, after a brief visit to Bologna.


Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza was not, for many reasons, a typical composer. His father Fabrizio’s marriage to Girolama Borromeo, the niece of Pope Pius IV and sister of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in 1560 precipitated the gift of the principality of Venosa by Philip II. Son and heir, Carlo, married Maria d’Avalos, his cousin and the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara in 1586, but ended his marriage rather abruptly in 1590 upon discovering his wife ‘in flagrante’ with her lover of two years, Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria. The couple’s brutal murders and subsequent disposal of their bodies on the steps of the Gesualdo residence in Naples greatly enhanced Carlo’s fame. He sensibly retired to his castle in Gesualdo until, in 1594, he visited Ferrara to celebrate his second marriage, to Leonora d’Este, daughter of Alfonso d’Este, an illegitimate son of Alfonso I d’Este. He remained in Ferrara for two years, pursuing his intense passion for music. Whilst on a visit to Venice in 1594, he arranged to have his books of madrigals published by Gardano, who was eventually to publish many of his works, both sacred and secular. His third and fourth books were published in 1496, just as he left Ferrara to return to Gesualdo, where he would remain for the rest of his life. His marriage suffered from his attacks of melancholy and obsession with music. An unpublished description of his character, written in 1600, gives us a glimpse of this difficult man:

“… he has an income of more than 40,000 ducats-worth of grain. His ancestors were very French [i.e. anti-Spanish] in outlook, but he is opposed to innovation, attends to money-making and does not delight in anything but music. He keeps a company of men-at-arms.

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 18.23.27By 1603 things came to a head. Carlo had kept a mistress for some years who practised witchcraft. Ministrations of mensural blood, amongst other things, had taken a toll on Carlo’s health, so a trial was held at which two witches were found guilty and incarcerated in Gesualdo’s Castle. His mental health continued to deteriorate during the last few years of his life, but some of his most remarkable compositions date from this period. These include his fifth and sixth books of madrigals and the Responses for Holy Week.  

David Hatcher, March 2019


The following manuscripts were used as sources for the edition made for the Border Voices concert Music for the Dukes of Ferrara 17th March 2019 in Leominster Priory.

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