Program Notes: Music from the Court of Isabella d’Este


Music has a unique way of drawing us into the past by captivating our senses, awakening our imaginations. Although our program, “Music from the Court of Isabella d’Este” was inspired by the composers we feature, their music beckons us to a backstory. Around 1500, Italy was experiencing a cultural renewal encompassing the humanistic fields of poetry, literature and history, as well as the visual arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. Curiously the music cultivated in the Italian courts was written predominantly by immigrants who were imported from north of the Alps. The patronage of the Este and Gonzaga families in Ferrara and Mantua attracted the finest artists of the day from a wide geographical background, prompting musicians to seek their fortune in Italy. More than any other, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), who grew up in her father’s court of Ferrara and married into the court of Mantua, played a significant role in the development of a secular “Italian” repertory.

By the measure of any age, Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua, was an extraordinary woman. Tied by family relationships to the courts of Ferrara, Milan, Naples, and Urbino, and through her sister-in-law, Lucretia Borgia, to the papal court in Rome, she became the friend of painters–from Correggio to Mantegna, Bellini, and Titian–and the correspondent of poets and other important literary figures such as Pietro Bembo, Castiglione, Ariosto, and Tasso. As a child, she learned Greek and Latin, studied classical authors, wrote poetry, and received daily lessons in music and dance. She became a skilled musician, trained by Johannes Martini to sing, play the lute, viola da gamba and keyboard instruments. By the age of sixteen she was already presiding over her husband’s court, often governing in his stead while he, a professional soldier, led armies in the swirl of constant warfare. Although relatively small and forced to survive on limited resources, Mantua gained an illustrious reputation as a center for the arts under Isabella’s guiding hand. It was able to maintain an unusual degree of political and cultural independence from other states as well as from the Church to which it was tied.

Arts patronage was a backdrop to the sordid and often brutal political machinations that buffeted the lives of the rulers of the Italian city-states. Major power struggles, issues of paternity and the legitimacy of succession were just some of the problems of a dynastic family. Marriages were arranged to secure political alliances, men of position and power had mistresses and raised illegitimate children as a matter of course, and a woman of Isabella’s stature had to know how to make the best of her lot in order to flourish, let alone survive. Courts vied with each other to attract the best artists of the day as one way to prove their superiority, for Renaissance rulers were judged not only on their prowess in war and in the administration of a state, but also on their magnificence and generosity in courtly life.

Isabella’s letters, of which more than 12,000 survive, illustrate the sphere of influence in which she operated, in the realm where private and public concerns met. A woman esteemed for her grace and charm, but more significantly, for her intellect and her passion for the arts, Isabella knew the value of culture to a city-state whose fragile political existence was constantly threatened by shifting alliances and she managed her state with an arsenal of diplomatic skills.

Musical literacy and a passion for books made presentation copies of music manuscripts appropriate gifts to patrons, and Petrucci’s invention of music printing by moveable metal type further expanded the dissemination of compositions. Entire collections of a newly developing song repertory led to the notation of many pieces whose only source previously had been the memory of those who performed them. Isabella had at one time in her employ both Marchetto Cara and Bartolomeo Tromboncino, two of the composers who contributed most to the increasing popularity of the genre of popular song. Cara, lutenist and singer, figured at the court of Mantua from the time of his arrival in 1494 until his death some thirty years later. Tromboncino who played, sang, and acted was in Mantua sporadically, sharing his time with her father’s court in Ferrara. These two composers contributed the greatest number of pieces included in Petrucci’s prints of Italian secular music. Isabella also commissioned poems from her favorite authors which she then gave to her court composers for musical setting. These exchanges between patron and artists created social bonds between nobles and the performers they enlisted to add luster to their courtly entertainments.

Documentation suggests it may have been Isabella’s father who lured Josquin Desprez, one of the most celebrated musician of his day, to Ferrara from the French court. The Duke reveals his priorities when he ignores the advice of his scout who advised he hire Heinrich Isaac over Josquin for the post of Maestro di Cappella. Writing to the Duke, this well-meaning courtier wrote:

“…To me he [Heinrich Isaac] seems very well suited to serve Your Excellency, much more so than Josquin, because he gets along well with his colleagues, and will compose new works more often. It is true that Josquin composes better, but he composes when he wants to, and not when someone else wants him to, and he is asking 200 ducats in salary while Isaac will come for 120. But Your Excellency will see fit to decide…”  Isabella’s father opted for the higher-priced musician.

“Josquin became my star,” wrote one of Josquin’s students. “The singers in the choir taught me to read and write, music as well as words…but Josquin taught me how to twist and turn one of these melodies until it became suitable to the Holy Virgin…In the first Easter Mass I sang, I was astonished when I realized that the Alleluia contained the tune of a hunting song I had learned years before…he seized music wherever he could, whether from Gregorian chant, from bagpipe tunes…or rattle rhymes of the children on the street…”

This contemporaneous quote refers to a compositional technique that defines much of the music of the time. Cantus prius factus, literally meaning ‘previously composed melody,’ was one of the most important structural elements in the music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The melody that served as the starting point for a new composition was often borrowed from chant, but secular songs were also used. Our set of pieces using the tune “J’ay pris amours” features a popular song in the kind of music Isabella performed alongside both courtiers and professional musicians at court. When making music, social distinctions became blurred and a composer might become a genuine friend to a talented, noble lady upon whose patronage he depended.

The celebration with song of pre-Lenten Carnival was a long-standing tradition and guests were entertained by the greatest possible variety of diversions. Streets were lined with horse-drawn floats, Moors performed torch dances, clowns sweated and rolled and slapped one another, Tromboncino sang his songs with tears in his eyes, meals were endless and the company danced until early morning. “Scaramella,” a humorist parody of soldierly customs may have figured in a “tableaux-vivant” from a mobile stage. With quick chord changes and lively syncopated rhythms, this pre-existing tune is quoted in the tenor first and then in the second strophe at the lower fifth.

The most common poetic form in Italy around 1500 was the most popular secular song form: the frottola. Sources suggest that this genre originated in an earlier, unwritten repertory, one that arose from the practice of declaiming poetry to an instrumental accompaniment. The music was fashioned to fit a given poem, perhaps as a way of committing it to memory. These pieces are defined by syllabic declamation and musical phrases that correspond to the number of verses. Pieces that presumably began their existence as melodies sung to a lute or keyboard were now printed by Petrucci as consort songs with the sustaining sonorities of the accompanying instrument written out as separate parts. The best known of these pieces is Cara’s Forse che si forse che no (“perhaps yes, perhaps no”), which was to become a motto of the Gonzaga family and placed intarsia on the ceiling of a room in the ducal palace. El Grillo also belongs to this genre whose text draws a moral that in matters of love, fidelity is worth more than sweet fanciful talk.

One of the properties Isabella loved to visit within the Mantuan marquisate was Lake Garda, where she was greeted with gifts of fruit and fish, the prized products of the region. In summer, she would make excursions here for boating, swimming and horseback riding. We end our concert with a call to the fishing boats by the locals. In its immediacy, this text takes us time traveling to the moment of the hauling in of the catch to be presented as gifts to the visiting dignitaries.

Laura Jeppesen ©2017


Music from the Court of Isabella d’Este

Deborah Rentz-Moore, mezzo-soprano ~ Aaron Sheehan, tenor

Emily Walhout, treble and bass viol ~ Jane Hershey, tenor viol

Laura Jeppesen, tenor and bass viol

  1. Infidelity:

Comment peut avoir joye                                                                                         Josquin des Prez c.1455-1521

“How can one find joy while subject to the vagaries of fate?”

Mauldicte soit envie                                                                                                  Alexander Agricola c.1445-1506

“Cursed be envy and jealousy, without which I would have a friend.”

Les biens d’amours                                                                                                    Jannes Martini      c. 1440-c.1498

“Of all the blessings of love, I get the smallest share.”

La tortorella                                                                                                                 Jacobus Obrecht c. 1458-1505

“How guileless the turtledove, who bereaved of mate,

mourns and weeps melodiously.”

1. Appearances: ‘duplicity is the daughter of diplomacy’

“J’ay pris amours” à 3                                                                                               Anonymous

“Jay pris amours” tout au rebours à 4                                                                  Antoine Busnoys


“J’ay pris amours à ma devise” à 4                                                                        Martini

“J’ay prise amours” à 2                                                                                            Anonymous

“Jam pris amours”                                                                                                    Anonymous


III. Mastery: ‘truly divine and inimitable’

Ile fantazies de Joskin                                                                                             Josquin

Nymphes des Bois (upon the death of Ockeghem)




  1. Fortuna: ‘one blessing, three evils’

Fortuna Desperata                                                                                                    Heinrich Isaac


Fortuna d’un gran tempo                                                                                        Martini

Donna di dentro                                                                                                        Isaac


  1. Personalities: court and country

La Bernardina                                                                                                           Josquin

La Morra                                                                                                                    Isaac

Le Burguygnon                                                                                                         Anonymous


  1. A day in the life: carnival!

Scaramella                                                                                                                Josquin

Forse che si, forse che no                                                                                      Marchetto Cara


El Grillo                                                                                                                    Josquin

A la pesca                                                                                                                 Anonymous