Also Gherardellus de Florentia, Ser Gherardello, and rarely, Niccolo di Francesco.
Gherardello da Firenze was an Italian composer during the flowering of 14th century polyphony. A contemporary of Francesco Landini, he was one of the first composers of the Italian ars nova (a term used to connect all the new techniques that were being developed in France, Belgium, and Italy).
He was probably born in or near Florence and he spent most of his life within 20 miles of there. Many of his contemporaries sought their fortune in the north, so it’s interesting that he stayed home. Not much is known about his private life, except that he wasn’t the only composer in the family. His brother Jacopo (dates unavailable) and his son Giovanni (dates unknown) were also composers, although none of their music survives.
The first mention of Gherardello is when he shows up in the records of the Florence Cathedral as a clerk, at Santa Reparata, in 1343. He soon became a chaplain there (from 1345-1361), and was rather notably there during the Black Death years (1348 was the worst of it in Florence).
He joined the Benedictine order at Vallombrosa in Tuscany (about 19 miles south-east of Florence) in 1351, presumably as a monk. Later, he went back to Florence and became a prior at San Remigio, a 400 year-old church that had been reconstructed in the previous century.
It’s interesting that early 14th century Italian songs show no French influence, as the next century would bring a much greater mix of the two sensibilities—almost a competition. The French didn’t make themselves known in Italian music until around 1365 in the works of the later Florentine composers, like Francesco Landini and Johannes Ciconia).
Despite that, Gherardello’s Gloria and Credo show the influence of Guillaume Machaut’s French style. Gherardello was known for his liturgical compositions, but sadly, only two Mass movements have survived. In fact, very few of anyone’s Mass movements have survived from before 1400, partly due to the wars that raged and partly due to the paucity of parchment and standardized notation.
In the end, 16 of his works (10 madrigals, five ballate, and a caccia), are in the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come), along with a portrait of him. He was especially famous for the caccia, called Tosta che l’alba (more about that in a moment).
His works show up in other collections from the period, especially in Tuscany, that contain only or mostly secular songs. It’s interesting to note that a great number of otherwise ecclesiastical composers who wrote mostly monody also wrote secular polyphony, although motets (sacred madrigals) by Italian composers during this period are very rare.
Gherardello’s two Mass movements are for two voices, which was the most common arrangement at the time. All of his madrigals are in two voices, the five ballate are monophonic (unison), and his one caccia is for three voices.
Monody (unison voices) was out of style. Of the few documented composers of the time, only Lorenzo da Firenza (d. 1372, biography to come) and Gherardello continued the tradition of monophonic ballate. Each wrote five such pieces, the style of which is less florid than the two-voice madrigals that they wrote. Melismas (where the melody wiggles around on a single syllable) do occur, particularly on the first and penultimate syllables of poetic lines. When the intervening text is set syllabically, as is common in chant, the stylistic influence of the madrigal is unmistakable.
Gherardello wrote one of the best known (as evidenced by how many collections it appears in) hunting caccias, called Tosto che l’alba (As soon as the dawn). Tosta’s two upper voices move in canon (one sings a theme and the other repeats it), and the lower voice moves more slowly in cantus firmus (a chant-like song that provides a kind of “home” to the other, more wiggly parts).
Like all caccias, Tosto che l’alba is a hunt—a chase or catch. In this case, it literally describes a hunt, with musical imitations of calling the dogs and sounding the hunting horn. It’s both light-spirited and comic.
A sonnet lamenting Gherardello’s death was written by Simone Penuzzi (dates unavailable) in 1362-or 1363, but there are musical pieces that, if written by him, make it possible that he lived another 20 years after that.
“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.
“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.
“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.
“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hippin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.