article 71: On the ricercars of the Bourdeney Codex

The late 16th-century Bourdeney Codex (thus named after its last private owner), kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, contains, besides 469 works of vocal polyphony, 16 anonymous ricercars in open score. I recorded one of them in 2017 (Cavazzoni / NAXOS) and had wanted to have a closer look at the others for many years. They were edited in both open and keyboard score by the American musicologist Anthony Newcomb for A-R Editions, an establishment still active mostly in digital publications.

The work I recorded was an outlier among the 14 which Newcomb attributed to Jacques Brumel (or Brunel, Brunello, etc.): a fantasia on a madrigal by Cipriano de Rore, where the composer added a fifth voice and reworked the others – a masterpiece in homage to a masterpiece. It gave me high hopes for the other 13 “ordinary” ricercars. When I finally got around to them the other day they turned out to be very far indeed from ordinary.

They are of a type I knew mostly from Frescobaldi’s first publication, the Fantasie of 1608, where about 90% of all the notes are thematically connected though the use of every learnèd device in the book; virtuoso counterpoint to a degree, but boring musically – a kind of intellectual parlor game regarding which the adjective “dry”, so unjustly applied to other kinds of ricercars, would be well chosen. The Bourdeney pieces are also too long, within range of the ineffable Jaques Buus, who, at 270 breves, holds the record for both length and vacuity.

This odd genre is strongly associated with the illustrious little court of Ferrara, toward the end of its glorious century of musical prominence; a final fireworks just before the duchy devolved to the Papal State in 1598. A fateful meeting took place there among Carlo Gesualdo, his musical retinue, and the circle of musicians around Luzzasco Luzzaschi, a student of de Rore and Frescobaldi’s teacher. The Prince of Venosa arrived in Ferrara in 1594 to marry the duke’s daughter, and stayed more than two years to make music. He pronounced the Ferrarese far superior to the Venetians. Chromaticism had been explored there since de Rore’s Calami sonum ferentes (see article 67) – after that, it seems, the ultimate depths of counterpoint were to be plumbed.

Anthony Newcomb (1941-2018) was one of the greatest experts on 16th-century music the 20th century produced, and I tremble at having to disagree with almost all his conclusions regarding the Bourdeney ricercars. He postulated a line of dense works of this type which went Annibale Padovano (1556) - Bourdeney/Brumel - Luzzaschi - de Macque - Frescobaldi. He thought a separate, less learnèd Venetian line went Willaert - Buus - Merulo - Andrea Gabrieli.

I was not familiar with the 1556 ensemble ricercars of Padovano, but found an amusing French edition from 1934 which enabled me to check them. I cannot agree with the late Mr. Newcomb that they are any farther along in terms of complexity than the collections of 1543 and 1551 composed by his chapel master when he was organist at San Marco, Adrian Willaert. Newcomb generally seems unaware of just how far Willaert had already advanced in complexity and the use of inganno. A recently-discovered letter shows that Frescobaldi owned a printed collection of Willaert’s ricercars, undoubtedly the oft-reprinted, brilliant à 3 set of 1551.

Nor do the ricercars of Luzzaschi fall into the category of extreme density represented by the Bourdeney pieces. At least two printed books of his have been lost, but a manuscript copy of his Secondo Libro turned up in Umbria in 1980. It shows Luzzaschi holding a middle ground – striving for maximum intensity of entrances without sacrificing basic musicality, and remaining otherwise surprisingly conventional. But who knows what that master of the chromatic-enharmonic archicembalo kept reservata/secreta for his patrons, in the same way that the contents of Willaert’s Musica Nova of 1559 had been in sole possession of the dukes of Ferrara for decades?

The Bourdeney ricercars stand thus seemingly orphaned; no obvious progenitors, and an obscure line of descent. Whom are they by, and when were they composed?

Newcomb’s attribution to Jacques Brumel was new (and markedly less emphatic than the A-R preface) at the time his essay on them appeared in “Frescobaldi Studies” (ed. Alexander Silbiger, 1987), and has to my knowledge stood unchallenged since. The works had previously been ascribed by Carol MacClintock to Jacob de Wert; both men worked at Ferrara, and both were known as “Giaches” by the Italians. I now think MacClintock was probably right.*

In the foreword to the A-R edition Newcomb sets great store by Padovano 1556 as fons et origo of this new style, but as just mentioned, I cannot accept that; not only because the density of entrances and the use of various classes of inganno is nowhere near as great as is found in the Bourdeney works, but also because Padovano conserves the euphony and harmonic cohesion found in the works of the Mouton-Willaert-de Rore school. These qualities are for the most part sadly lacking in the pieces under discussion, for all their contrapuntal ingenuity. They are, in fact, of necessity choked off by the mosaic-like texture which is their whole point.

Furthermore, Newcomb thinks Brumel composed them under the influence of Padovano before the former’s death in 1564. This would suppose not only a rapid pace of work, but also a huge gap in quality and style vis à vis the only securely attributed pieces by Brumel, those few found in the important collection of manuscripts kept at the cloister library of the little Romanesque church in Castell’Arquato. (Naoko and I were not allowed to see them when we turned up unannounced at the priest’s door; the folks at the department of Beni Culturali were molto severi about that kind of thing, we were gently informed.)

Newcomb allows that Brumel’s music found in that archive would have to have been earlier than Bourdeney, but I cannot believe that both could possibly be by the same man. Brumel had an outstanding reputation as a performer; to name just one reference to his qualities, Cosimo Bartoli wrote that Brunel played “with more grace, with more art and more musically than any other, whoever he may be.” But nothing is heard of him as a composer. It is true that in 1567 Claudio Merulo advertised an upcoming book of ricercars by “Giaches da Ferrara”. So soon after his death this surely referred to Brumel, but the work either never appeared or was lost, and we have no way of knowing if the pieces really existed, or whether, if they did, they were those preserved in the Bourdeney Codex.

Jacob “Giaches” de Wert (1535-96), in contrast to Brumel, was one of the most famous, masterful and prolific composers of the 16th century. Zarlino especially praised him as excelling in counterpoint. Tantalizingly little is known with any certainty about his rather turbulent life. He shuttled around courts in the Po valley from the 1550s, with ample opportunities for interaction with de Rore. His longest time of employment was for the Gonzagas at Mantua; but it is clear he spent as much time as possible in Ferrara. Este-Gonzaga relations were close, the liberal atmosphere in Ferrara suited Wert better than Counter-Reformation Mantua, and he had a long and scandalous affair in Ferrara with Tarquinia Molza, the famous poet-singer who was herself a composer. This period of Wert’s activity in Ferrara is within the time frame when such pieces were coming into being there, in contrast to the era of the long-deceased organist Jacques Brumel.

Wert is only known as a keyboardist through one contemporary account, but that is more than sufficient to establish his credentials. At the Imperial Diet in Augsburg in 1566, his improvisations were so impressive that he was offered employment at the Prague court of Maximilian II. This contradicts Newcomb’s assertion that “No evidence indicates that Wert was even known as either” an organist or a composer for the keyboard.

Newcomb places the Giaches ricercars in Brumel’s lifetime (ca. 1560) mainly because of their length; such long ricercars are “unheard-of” (sic the A-R foreword) in the later 16th century. This is an example of argumentum ad ignorantiam, or “Russell’s Teapot”. Who is to say that a master of counterpoint like Wert might not over a number of years create structures of a new kind for his own amusement or that of friends, patrons or a gifted lover, of any length he liked? And in the earlier essay Newcomb has to admit that this argument is seriously undermined by the existence of a set of ricercars of similar lengths, “a clumsy dutiful imitation” of the Bourdeney style by the Ferrara organist Luigi Mazzi (1596!).

Newcomb’s other arguments for Brumel strike me as equally weak. Whoever composed these ultimately less-than-fascinating works, the brief fad for the type radiated from Ferrara. Instrumental compositions by Gesualdo show similar tendencies; the gauntlet was taken up, possibly through pre-1594 contacts with Ferrara, by his servant Jean de Macque, and the center of such activity shifted to their residence in Naples with the works of Mayone and Trabaci. The “mosaic style”, as it has been appropriately called, had a late Neapolitan blossoming in the works of Dal Buono and Salvatore, both published in 1641 – a remarkable instance of the persistence of local memory.

Its finest manifestation came with the aforementioned 1608 Fantasie of young Geronimo Frescobaldi Ferrarese, as he signed himself on the title page of his first published keyboard collection. He obviously wanted to establish himself as supreme master of the most difficult genre in his field, and to pay homage to his native city’s musical heritage before sweeping all before him in Rome.

*The connection of the anonymous Bourdeney ricercars to one of the two “Giaches” in contention comes from a concordance to four of them in one of the Chigi MSS in the Vatican Library, attributed there to “Giaches” tout court.

October 27, 2022

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