Bartolomeo da Bologna (also Bartholomaeus de Bononia) is another one of those composers you should have heard of, one of those who changed music forever because his innovation was part of the change from Medieval to Renaissance sensibilities. You’re going to find this subtle, but I think you’ll also find it interesting: Bologna invented the parody form.
Yup, I know you’re thinking that parodies are one of those things, like the names for the notes (see Odo of Cluny), and do-re-me (see Guido D’Arrezzo) that have always existed (except they haven’t), but they’re really only about 700 years old. In the musical sense, parodies are very young.
The obvious interpretation of what I mean is those fabulous comedic skits where something serious is turned into something ridiculous. In music, it’s more the other way—something frivolous is turned into something sacred. In truth, it should be called the paraphrase form, where a secular song is reworked into something to be used as part of liturgy.
Another thing about Bologna is that he’s one of the few Italian composers of the early 15th century to have been reliably attributed. There were few composers native to this region for nearly the whole century—for about a hundred years, there was a dry spell in Italy. Elsewhere in Europe, composers in France, Flanders, and Germany, along with England and other British Isles were plenty productive. Most of the musicians composing in Italy at the time were imports from the north (see Johannes Ciconia).
Very little is known about Bologna’s private life. We can presume that he is from Bologna by his name, and it’s known that he spent part of his life in Ferrara. He was a Benedictine, possibly a monk or even the prior of San Nicolo in Ferrara, and he was definitely organist at the cathedral from 1417. His name still appears in the cathedral’s records in 1427, but he disappears after that.
He’s also associated with the chapel of the Antipope John XXIII (c1370-1419). Bologna, and one of his ballades (Arte psalentes) is thought to address to the singers in the pope’s chapel choir.
Another composer, Antonio “Zachara” da Teramo (c1350-c1415, biography to come), probably overlapped Bologna in his service to John XXIII. Zachara’s work influenced Bologna, but his parodies are freer, less literal. Bologna quoted large and contiguous sections of his own secular music and composed new melodies around them.
Only seven of Bologna’s pieces have survived (although there are probably more that didn’t have attribution). He wrote two ballata (Vince con lena and Morir desio), one ballade (Arte psalentes), one rondeau (Mersi chiamando), one virelai (Que pena maior), and two mass movements in parody of his other works (the Gloria, based on Vince con lena, and the Credo, based on Morir desio). All of his pieces are related to the ars subtilior style that flourished in Avignon, Bologna, and other regions held by the antipopes during the Western Schism.
He wrote one Italian- and one Latin-texted ballata, and both his rondeau and virelai have Italian texts and have much simpler musical forms. It was the end of the 14th century, and music notation had evolved far enough (see The History of Music Notation) to produce rhythmic nuance and virtuosity. The timing of both ballatas makes it clear that he wrote them expressly for Antipope John XXIII.
Parody began with Bologna in the Renaissance, but it hardly stopped there. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750, biography to come) borrowed well-known folk tunes to set a chorale, and these proved popular enough that he parodied himself repeatedly—if you listen to Bach chorales, you’ll find that they’re very much alike (the text is the only aspect with significant changes), and many of his cantatas house familiar themes from his chorals and his other sacred works. Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (c1525-1594, biography to come), probably the best known 16th century Italian composer of all, wrote a parody Mass, Missa Assumpta est Maria based on his own motet by the same name. So it was an idea that endured.
Bologna’s music shows the influence of the rhythmically straightforward, melodious Franco-Flemish style of the early 15th century, although sadly, none of his French-texted works have survived. There was a serious shortage of Italian innovation at the time, and there was a happy invasion of Franco-Flemish musicians (like Johannes Ciconia) from the north, keeping Italy fresh with new works.
“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” By Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.
“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.
“A Dictionary of Early Music, From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.