Mantova’s musical glory

(historical notes)

City in northern Italy. It was one of the most important musical centres of the Renaissance. Documents relating to music date from the late Middle Ages: Sordello da Goito, a ‘bons chantaire e bons trobaire’ from the province of Mantua, was active early in the 13th century. Music derived great benefit from the Gonzaga family, who established their supremacy at Mantua in 1328; as early as the 14th century Mantuan piffari and trombetti were famous throughout Italy. Instrumentalists, organists, singers and dancers were later attracted to the court from all parts of Italy and abroad, and music theory was taught by the humanist Vittorino da Feltre, who was at Mantua from 1425. Johannes Legrense worked in this environment, and Gaffurius was educated there in 1473–4. Well-known theatrical spectacles were supplied with new music, such as that by G.P. della Viola for La representatione di Phebo e Phetonte (1486) and that by the lyre player Atlante Migliorotti for the revival of Poliziano’s Orfeo (1491).

At the end of the 15th century music was cultivated much more assiduously under the enthusiastic patronage of Isabella d’Este, daughter of Ercole, Duke of Ferrara, and a pupil of Johannes Martini (sometime composer at her father’s court). The frottola, strambotto, ode, capitolo and sonnet all flourished, together with other similar poetico-musical forms. The pre-eminent musicians who worked at Mantua were Bartolomeo Tromboncino, a native of Verona who served the court intermittently from 1487 to 1513 and perhaps later, and Marchetto Cara, who was at Mantua from 1495 to 1525. In addition many major figures of the period had contact with the Gonzaga court: the Italians Michele Pesenti, Antonio Caprioli, Filippo da Laurana and the other frottolists, and such illustrious oltremontani as Josquin, Martini, Compère and Carpentras.

Much chamber music, both vocal and instrumental, was produced (seefigs.1 and2), and there are also references to songs being performed during theatrical performances: Serafino Aquilano sang on stage, personifying Pleasure in a performance at court in 1495 of his own allegorical dialogue, and music and songs by Tromboncino were heard during Galeotto del Carretto’s Beatrice (1499) and Nozze de Psiche e Cupidine (1502) and during the magnificent productions of comedies by Plautus (Asinaria and Casina) at Ferrara in 1502. The practice of preparing elegant and elaborate musical intermedi was established in this period and was subsequently maintained without interruption.

In 1510 Francesco II established a permanent cappella, something that had already been attempted by the Marquis Federico. The new choir, with singers mainly from Ferrara, was heard for the first time on 12 January 1511 in the churches of S Pietro (the cathedral) and S Francesco. The singing teacher in 1515 was P. Domenichino; the music master from 1513 to 1515 was G.M. da Crema. In 1534 Jacquet of Mantua was appointed magister puerorum; from 1539 he was maestro di cappella at the cathedral, which he himself had entered as a singer in 1527, the organist there from 1521 to 1556 being Girolamo Mantovano (de Adaldis).

The construction of the Palatine basilica of S Barbara (1562–5;fig.3) and the formation of its own cappella was the most important musical event of Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga’s reign (1550–87). The liturgy of S Barbara, granted by the pope at Guglielmo’s request, differed from that of Rome and gave rise to an unusual repertory of music. Various parchment choirbooks survive (in I-MAc), as does nearly all the original repertory of polyphonic music (in I-Mc). Wert was maestro di cappella at S Barbara from its foundation until 1582, after which, for reasons of health, he confined his activities to the private ducal chapel; his successor was G.G. Gastoldi. The organists were Cavazzoni (from 1565) and Rovigo (1590–97), and the organ was built by G. Antegnati.

Guglielmo Gonzaga, who was himself a composer, favoured many famous artists with his patronage. Alessandro Striggio (i) served the court from 1574. Between 1568 and 1587 there were dealings with Palestrina, who composed masses for S Barbara but did not accept the offer of a permanent post there. Soriano was active in the duke’s private chapel from 1581 to 1586. Unsuccessful attempts were made in 1586–7 to engage Luca Marenzio.

Under Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga (1587–1612) music in Mantua again flourished on a magnificent scale. Among those who succeeded Wert as maestro di cappella in the ducal chapel were Benedetto Pallavicino (1596) and Monteverdi (1601). Monteverdi arrived in Mantua, followed by his brother Giulio Cesare, in 1589; he worked his way up from viola player to maestro and finally left the city in 1612. The eminent Mantuan Salomone Rossi, who effected a reform of Hebrew religious chant, also worked at the court, as director of instrumental music. The maestro di cappella at the cathedral from 1593 to 1597 was Lodovico Viadana, whose Concerti ecclesiastici (1602) were of great importance in the development of Baroque church music. G.G. Gastoldi was succeeded as maestro di cappella at S Barbara by Antonio Taroni and Stefano Nascimbeni.

Alongside this imposing amount of church music and chamber music (every Friday evening Duke Vincenzo gave a concert in the ducal palace), there were also theatrical entertainments: Monteverdi’s Orfeo (libretto by Striggio, 1607); his Arianna and Il ballo delle ingrate and Marco da Gagliano’s Dafne (all to librettos by Rinuccini and all performed at the festivities celebrating the wedding of Francesco Gonzaga and Margherita of Savoy in 1608; seefig.4); L’Idropica (Guarini, 1608), with Chiabrera’s intermedi set to music; and La Maddalena (Andreini, 1617), with music by Monteverdi, Rossi, Muzio Effrem and A. Guivizzani. The court singers included Lucrezia Urbana, Caterina Martinelli and Adriana Basile. The Teatro Castello or Cavallerizza functioned from 1549; the ducal theatre (later called the Vecchio), opened in 1608 with Monteverdi’s Arianna.

With Vincenzo’s death the greatest period in Mantuan musical history closed. Musical activity tended increasingly to reflect that of other major centres, particularly Venice. Musicians working in Mantua during the 17th century included Frescobaldi (for a few months in 1615) and Effrem (1616–20); Sante Orlandi followed Monteverdi as maestro di cappella at court (1612–19) and was succeeded by Francesco Dognazzi (1619–43); Amante Franzoni was maestro di cappella at S Barbara (1613–20) and Marco Antonio Ziani later worked in the same church (from 1686). Ottavio Bargnani was organist at S Barbara (1607–27), Cazzati was maestro di cappella and organist at the church of S Andrea (1641), and Domenico da Bologna occupied the same post at the cathedral (from 1678). Opera continued to flourish: the maestro di cappella to the last duke of Mantua, Ferdinando Carlo, was the renowned Caldara (1701–7), whose earliest venture at Mantua had been a performance of L’oracolo in sogno (1699) in collaboration with Antonio Quintavalle and Carlo Francesco Pollarolo.

The end of the Gonzaga dynasty and the start of Austrian domination in 1708 meant that Mantua became subject to the cultural hegemony of Vienna. The theatres for the most part gave revivals of Viennese and Milanese productions, sung by artists recommended by Vienna. The Regio Ducale Teatro Nuovo opened in 1732 but was burnt down in 1781; it was reopened in 1783 with Sarti’s Il trionfo della pace. Among the memorable first nights at the theatre were La Candace o siano Li veri amici (1720) and Semiramide (1732), both by Vivaldi, and L’Alessandro nelle Indie (1784) by the young Cherubini.


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