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A Florentine Villanella Journeys North: A Case Study in Musical Transmission

Una Villanella fiorentina in viaggio verso nord

Iceland was a remote part of Europe during the medieval and early modern periods; travel by sea from Denmark took around three weeks and ships only made the journey twice a year, in spring and autumn (Jónsson 1998, 191). Most of the inhabitants, estimated at ca. 50,000 in 1600, lived on farms scattered along the coast. There were only two small villages: the hamlets surrounding the cathedrals of Skálholt, in the south, and Hólar, in the north, each numbering roughly 100 people. To most Europeans, Iceland must have seemed a strange, even frightening place. Antipope John XXIII, in a letter dating from 1413, referred to it as “insula maris in finibus mundi” — the island at the end of the world (Þorkelsson 1906–13, 23).

Yet, while it may seem that Iceland was a place unconnected to developments in continental music, the surviving sources tell a different story. Around 100 fragments of liturgical chant manuscripts survive from prior to the Reformation, as well as over 150 music sources from the early modern period. There must once have been many more; after all, Icelanders had valorized writing and manuscript production since the Middle Ages.

One manuscript songbook in particular, now in the Arnamagnæan collection at Copenhagen University (DK-Kar, Rask 98), provides a compelling glimpse into the traditions of music in Iceland during the early modern age. It was written around 1660–70 and is known by its shelfmark, Rask 98, since it belonged in the early nineteenth century to the noted Danish linguist Rasmus Christian Rask, who probably acquired it during an extended stay in Iceland from 1813–15 (Hjelmslev 1941, 171). This is the most substantial Icelandic music manuscript of the seventeenth century to have survived and it contains a total of 223 songs, over half of which are unique to this source. The manuscript’s heading announces this to be a book of imported songs in translation: ‘MELODIA. A few foreign tunes to Icelandic poetry, many of them useful for spiritual entertainment.’ The heading is not entirely accurate, since 11 of the songs have Latin texts, one is in Danish, and one has no text at all. Rask 98 is a notably eclectic manuscript, bearing witness to the variety of music-making in seventeenth-century Iceland. It contains hymns from local and foreign hymnals, secular songs, chant in Latin as well as in Icelandic translations, archaic two-part polyphony, and single as well as multiple parts from four-part polyphonic pieces by continental composers, including — in the exhibit presently under examination — the Florentine maestro di cappella Francesco Corteccia (1502–71).

Among the ‘foreign tunes’ in Rask 98 is Vera mátt góður (no. 138, 43r-v). The ‘bass-like’ characteristics of this piece — notated in F-clef and mostly moving by fourths and fifths — were already remarked upon by one scholar in the early twentieth century, although its origins remained elusive (Þorsteinsson 1906–09, 281). As it turns out, this is the bass part to Corteccia’s Madonnʼio tʼhaggi amatʼet amo assai, one of the 16 pieces printed in Adrian Willaert’s popular collection of canzone villanesche alla napolitana in Venice in 1544/1545. (Cardamone 1978). As the name for this secular genre suggests, the canzona villanesca was a simple, homophonic piece, easily sung even by amateurs, and thus presumably at a level that Icelandic schoolboys, far away from the European cultural centers, were able to manage.

Yet the story of this Italian song’s journey to Iceland is more complicated than this. In the Lutheran heartlands of Saxony and Thuringia from the 1570s onwards, as Stephen Rose has shown, pastors and teachers were repelled by the erotic texts of Italian villanellas and madrigals, yet could not resist the singable qualities of the repertory. Seeking to purify these settings by replacing the Italian texts with devotional or moralistic words, they hoped to create morally uplifting pieces suitable for schoolboys (Rose 2016). The first such collection, Cantiones suavissimae, printed in Erfurt by Georg Baumann in 1576, contained contrafacta of Italian songs, edited by the Magdeburg cantor Leonhart Schröter with Latin texts by the Mühlhausen teacher Ludwig Helmbold. Item no. 19 in this anthology is Corteccia’s villanella, set to a Latin contrafactum (Esse bonum licet) that encourages the singer/listener to immediately adopt a virtuous life. It is this text that appears to Corteccia’s bass part in Rask 98, in an anonymous Icelandic translation. It partly reads: “if you think: ‘later, later I have resolved to begin my new life’, your short life and ill fate will be known to all men, but if you think: ‘at last, at last with help from God I shall make my life better’, you will live longer and find fortune ever.”

Several features of Rask 98 suggest that this manuscript was written at Skálholt, the cathedral of the southern diocese in Iceland and also home to a Latin school of roughly 24 students divided into two classes. Among the contents of Rask 98 are pieces only known from one other manuscript, written nearly a century earlier by the Bishop of Skálholt himself; it also contains hymns known to still have been in the cathedral school repertory in the eighteenth century. It also transmits tenor and/or bass parts to pieces by Paul Hofhaimer, Ludwig Senfl, Jacobus Clemens non Papa, and Corteccia, as well as the fashionable Susanne un jour and settings from the widely used Buchanan psalter, a volume of Latin psalm paraphrases in classical meters by the Scottish humanist George Buchanan, set to homophonic four-part odes by the Rostock cantor Statius Olthof (Widmann 1889). While the scribe of Rask 98 did not copy the soprano and alto parts, evidence suggests that four-part singing was practiced at the Skálholt school in the second half of the sixteenth century. One of the schoolmasters there, Erasmus Villatsson (ca. 1520–1591), was born in Denmark and studied there before relocating to Iceland. The chronicler Jón Halldórsson writes in his 1719 ‘Chronicle of the School-Masters at Skálholt’ that Villatsson was ‘an outstanding singer, the first to use Discant and such singing in this land. Many of his descendants are also fine singers.’ (Halldórsson 1916–18, 16; Guðmundsson 2000, 159). The term ‘discant’ seems to be employed here to refer to four-part music in a general sense; it is also used in three Icelandic manuscripts in its more common meaning, to designate the highest part in four-voice polyphony. It would hardly be surprising if Villatsson, the teacher who introduced ‘discant’ to Icelanders, had brought with him a handful of recent music prints when arriving from Denmark to take up his new post at the Skálholt Latin school.

But Villatsson only held the post of schoolmaster from 1561–64; he then became a priest in one of the diocese’s most sought-after parishes, and subsequently married the bishop’s daughter. It seems unlikely that he would have been responsible for bringing the 1576 Erfurt print back to Iceland, since he is not known to have made further trips to the continent. But Iceland was in frequent contact with Germany and Denmark, and several natives are known to have studied at German universities in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. For example, Oddur Stefánsson studied in Copenhagen and Rostock in ca. 1583–90 and immediately took the post of schoolmaster in Skálholt upon his return to the island. He was considered among Iceland’s most learned priests, and one source relates that his nephew spent a year with him after completing the Skálholt school, “to study singing” (Benediktsson 1909–15, 536). Two other schoolmasters were noted for their fine knowledge of music: Gísli Guðbrandsson (schoolmaster 1583–85) and Sigurður Stefánsson (schoolmaster 1595), but where they attended university (presumably Germany and/or Denmark) is unknown. Any of the three abovementioned priests, scholars, and singers could easily have brought back a volume of Italian villanellas edited for use in German schools. They must then have set to work on translating the texts in order to introduce them to their Icelandic students, or enlisted the aid of one of their school colleagues. The extended travels of Corteccia’s canzona serve as a reminder both of the strong influence of Italian culture in sixteenth-century Europe, and that music travelled far and wide — in this case from Italy to Germany and on to the farthest north, the very edge of the world itself.

The Icelandic version of Vera mátt góður enjoyed an unexpected and unusual revival in the twentieth century. The contents of Rask 98 were published for the first time in 1906–09, in a hefty tome (almost 1000 pages) titled ‘Icelandic folk songs’ (Íslenzk þjóðlög), which contains transcriptions of vernacular singing made by the priest and composer Bjarni Þorsteinsson and his colleagues, as well as his transcriptions of music from old Icelandic manuscripts. He rendered Vera mátt góður in triple meter (whereas the original is in duple time) and described it as a ‘kind of a bass solo, and thus very different from the other songs in this book’ (Þorsteinsson 1906–09, 281). Writing during Iceland’s final push from independence from Denmark (achieved in 1918), Þorsteinsson emphasized that even though Rask 98 contained ‘foreign songs’, according to its title page, they had ‘lived with the country for hundreds of years and therefore deserve to be called Icelandic’ (Þorsteinsson 1906–09, 207). In its triple-meter guise, Vera mátt góður was included in a 1960 volume of Icelandic folk songs arranged for voice and piano by the Austrian pianist Ferdinand Rauter, and it was released in 1978 on a popular LP of Icelandic folk songs performed by the progressive rock/folk band Þursaflokkurinn (‘The Flock of Trolls’), where it was performed as a ‘bass solo’ just as Þorsteinsson had implied in his volume (Lund 1960; Hinn íslenzki Þursaflokkur 1978). It has since appeared on several other albums, including a performance by the Danish-Swedish folk singer Hanne Juul (Juul 1993), as well as in instrumental and choral arrangements by Icelandic composers. In Iceland, the story of Corteccia’s 1545 song seems to be an ongoing saga.



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