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Also Franciscus caecus, Francesco il cieco, Francesco degli organi and Ferancesco da Firenze. Florentine sources never use a surname, but called him Franciscus de organis or Francesco degli orghanij.

Francesco Landini is probably the most well-known composer, poet, and performer from 14th century Italy. He was—and is—often considered the Italian counterpart of Flemish composer and poet Guillaume Machaut. Both were endowed with considerable talent, although musically, Machaut explored every compositional innovation of the time, and Landini limited himself to only a few. Landini’s music represents about a quarter of the surviving Italian music from the period and it’s preserved in diverse sources in Florence and elsewhere.

Landini’s father was Jacopo del Casentino (c1297-1358), a noted painter in the school of Giotto di Bondone (c1267-1337). He (Francesco) was born in northern Italy, probably Florence or in nearby Fiesole. His great-nephew, the humanist Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498), was his biographer, and lists his birthplace as Fiesole, but Francesco had been dead for 27 years when Cristoforo was born, so there’s no way to know if it’s accurate or family folklore.

Blinded by smallpox before he was a teenager, Landini studied music instead of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a painter. He also studied the seven liberal arts (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical theory, dialectic, rhetoric, and grammar), plus philosophy and astrology.

He learned to play the lute, the organ, and other instruments, he sang, he wrote about philosophy, religion, and politics, he wrote poetry, and, of course, he wrote music. He invented instruments, including a stringed instrument called the syrena syrenarum that combined features of the lute and the psaltery, and is believed to be the ancestor of the bandura (a Ukrainian folk instrument that has a flat playing surface like that of the psaltery or zither and is long-necked like a lute).

Jacopo da Bologna (fl.1340-c1386) was Landini’s teacher on the organ before 1351. Landini was gifted and his talents brought him attention from the other notables of the time—he was friends with poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374). He also spent time in northern Italy prior to 1370, and wrote a motet dedicated to Andrea Contarini (d.1382), who was Doge of Venice from 1368-1382. Landini’s music is well represented in northern Italian collections, so he probably spent considerable time there.

Landini became organist at the Florentine monastery of Santa Trinita in 1361 and at the church of San Lorenzo from 1365 onward. He was heavily involved in politics and religious controversies, but managed to stay in the good graces of the authorities anyway.

He was crowned with a laurel wreath in Venice by King Peter of Cyprus (1328-1369) upon the recommendation of a jury that included his good friend Petrarch. He was also employed by the Veronese court and visited northern Italy from Florence, serving, as usual, as an organist.

Petrarch wasn’t Landini’s only literary pal. He also wrote to and received letters from poet and novelist Franco Sacchetti (c1330-c1400).

Landini is a principal character in Giovanni da Prato’s Paradiso degli Alberti, which is a narrative poem from around 1425 that records scenes and conversations in Florence. Prato includes a legendary incident regarding Landini’s skill as a performer: On a very hot day, the audience remained in the shade, with a thousand birds singing in the treetops. Landini played the organ to see whether the birds would respond in kind. At first, many of the birds fell silent. But then they resumed their song and sang even more enthusiastically than before. One nightingale in particular seemed to be enjoying it, and it came over and perched on a branch above Landini’s head.

He knew most of the other Italian composers of the time, including Lorenzo da Firenze (d. c1372), who was also at Santa Trinita, and Andreas da Florentia (d. 1415), whom he knew in the 1370s. Around 1375, Andreas hired Landini as a consultant on the organ construction at the Servite house (one of the mendicant orders of Catholicism) in Florence. Records of receipts for wine show that it took the two of them three days to tune the organ. Landini also helped build the new organ at the Basilica Santissima Annunziata in 1379. Also in 1379, Landini was paid 9 solidi for writing 5 motets—a rare record of payment to a composer. In 1387, he was involved in building an organ at the Florence Cathedral.


 
Composer Biography: Francesco Landini (c1325-1397)
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He frequently used what would later be called the “Landini-cadence,” especially in upper parts. (It’s also called the Landini 6th) This name was given to a cadential formula (a sequence of notes that indicates the end of a piece or a change from verse to chorus) in which the 6th degree of the scale (in the do-re-mi sense) is interposed between the leading note (the penultimate note of the scale) and its resolution to the tonic or final degree (the “do” note). Examples appear aplenty in the music of Landini, but it was already common, and it appears in 15th and 16th century polyphony as well.

The Landini cadence can also be heard in the songs of Gilles Binchois.Gherardello da Firenza is the earliest composer to use the cadence whose works have survived, and he was roughly Landini’s contemporary.

Hardly any poetry or texts for Landini’s music can be securely attributed to him, although the texts of the autobiographical songs, in the Italian dolce stil novo that are associated with Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch are presumably his. He was a distinguished poet in his own time, though, and he was awarded poetic honors in Venice.

Of his 140 ballata, 89 are for two voices, 42 are for three, and nine survive in both two- and three-part versions. The two-part ballata are presumed to be his earlier works and resemble madrigals in texture, with two texted vocal parts. Many of the three-part ballata are in a treble-dominated style that feature a solo voice with two untexted accompanying parts that were most likely sung, like in Machaut’s canons.

In his entirely vocal two-part ballata, the upper voices were more florid than the lower. Some of the pieces are so regularly rhythmic that they were probably intended as dances. It’s his three-part ballata that are his most incredible, with a modern “consonant” sound, a kind of musical foreshadowing of what was to come (chords and harmonies).

Only one of his three-part pieces was transcribed for keyboard. It can be found in the Codex Reina.

His music tends to be smooth and melodic rather than dissonant—you have to remember that chords and harmony hadn’t been invented yet. He wrote particularly sweet harmonies. Sonorities containing thirds and sixths are plentiful, though they never begin or end a section or a piece.

His vocal melodies are charming, arranged in arching phrases and often moving step-wise. They’re decorated with varied and occasionally syncopated rhythms, but are smoother in both pitch contour and rhythm than most melodies by Machaut, to whom he is most often compared. Melismas (wiggly melodies) on the first and penultimate syllables of a poetic line are characteristic of the Italian style, as is the clear, almost syllabic declamation of melody between melismas.

The end of every line, and often the first word and the mid-point or caesura (pausing point) of a line, is marked by a cadence, frequently the Landini cadence, and consist of a lower voice descending by steps, and the upper voice decorating its ascent by first descending to the lower neighbor and then skipping up a third—the Landini cadence. This cadence became ubiquitous in both French and Italian music in the late 14th and early 15th century.

In addition to his 140 ballata, he wrote 12 madrigals (texted polyphony, like a motet), one caccia (like a round, but more complex), and one virelai (the French version of a ballata).

There are two modern editions of Landini’s and other trecento secular repertory prior to Johannes Ciconia: Leonard Ellinwood’s “The Works of Francesco Landini,” and Leo Schrade’s “The Works of Francesco Landini, Polyphonic Music of the 14th Century.”

He was the master of many instruments, especially the organetto, a small portative organ. According to 14th century chronicler Filippo Villani (fl. late 14th century, early 15th), Landini played the organetto “as readily as though he had the use of his eyes, with a touch of such rapidity (yet always observing the measure), with such skill and sweetness, that beyond all doubt he excelled all organists within memory.”

After the 1370s, he was organist and cappellanus at San Lorenzo, where he would be buried in 1397.

Now to the music. There’s not a lot of difference in the trecento between the French and Italian idioms—relatively few Italian composers for the whole century were innovators (a failure for which they would make up in spades in the coming centuries). So if you heard music from the 14th century, it would sound much the same if the composer were Flemish, French, English, or Italian. (The English would really branch out during the Tudor years—for more on that, read my post On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player.)

Landini displayed his Italian heritage by performing outdoors (as was the style in Italy and you saw it in Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” Boccaccio lived from 1313-1375), and by describing the outdoors in his texts. The intention was to move the listener rather than to charm or challenge, like in the French and English styles.

There are records of Landini writing sacred music, but it’s all lost. At the time, Italian church music was Gregorian chant. Polyphonic liturgical music was the occasional exception, but it was even more rare in Italy than elsewhere in Europe.

Two-part religious polyphony was the new rage all over Europe from Spain to Poland and in all the lands peripheral to French musical culture. But the only complete polyphonic Italian Mass of the period was a composite: the Gloria and Agnus Dei were by Gherardello da Firenze, theCredo by “Frate Bartholino” (Bartholus de Florentia, fl. c1410-1425), and the Sanctus by Lorenzo da Firenze (biography to come). Paolo da Firenza (biography to come) contributed a three-part Benedicamus Domino in a later style, with a chant tenor in long-note values—thecantus firmus that is evidence of the French influence.

With none of his sacred music available, it’s possible to assume that the bulk of Landini’s work was secular, the polyphonic ballata, which was the Italian version of the virelai (a musical format, possibly the descendent of troubadour songs). It wasn’t a new form, as Gherardello da Firenza had already written some, along with others of Landini’s predecessors and peers.

Landini wielded the polyphonic ballata masterfully. His earlier works are predominantly in two parts, with both parts sung or one sung and the other instrumental, and occasionally in three parts, sometimes entirely vocal but most often with an instrumental tenor or countertenor.

Landini used the new French notation, although, as he was blind, it was someone else who wrote his music down. (If you want to know about the whole history of music notation, check out The History of Music Notation.)

French notation used a six-line staff (the Italians were using a four-line staff with ledger lines for individual notes that exceeded the four-line range). They used dots to separate one breve (the shortest note value in medieval music—modern music uses this term for the longest note) from the next. Breves had downward-extending diagonal stems that indicated a longer note. There were also flagged stems on minims and dragmas (other flavors of notation indicating duration) that indicated triplets, duplets, and quadruplets, plus one-note ligatures that indicated a held note (like across-the-bar in modern notation).

At any rate, as I mentioned, most of his surviving works are ballata, of which roughly two-thirds are for two voices and one third is for three voices. His style ranges from simple dance-songs to intricate canonic (Bach would later be a fan of this style, where a melody is cascaded among voice parts) or isorhythmic forms, synthesizing the Italian style of his predecessors with French influences, and displaying a distinctive gift for melody.

The two known likenesses of Landini depict him as blind—his eyes are closed and darkened—and both show him holding a portative organ. One image is carved on his tombstone in San Lorenzo, Florence. The other is a painting in the Squarcialupi Codex, where he is shown seated at his organetto. The painting has a decorative border that includes a psaltery, three kinds of lute, and another small portative organ, played by St. Cecelia, the patron saint of music and musicians.

Landini is buried at San Lorenzo, Florence. His gravestone was lost until the 19th century, but is now displayed at the church, replete with the carving.

Sources:

“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.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000.

“Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

“The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900-1600,” by Willi Apel. The Mediaeval Academy of America, Cambridge, 1961.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1 Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960.

“Medieval Music,” by Richard Hippin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978.