Also known as Paulo Tenorista and Magister Dominus Paulas Abbas de Florentia (as he’s called in the Squarcialupi Codex.)
Musically, Paolo da Firenza was conservative and progressive at the same time. He borrowed and combined musical practices from the past and the innovations of his own times, both Italian (old school) and French (new school). He had a distinctively rich and varied musical style. More music from ars nova period survives from Paolo than any other composer except Francesco Landini (c1325-1397), with whom he was friends.
It’s not known if Paulo was born in Florence, but he did live most of his life there, so it’s probable. His father’s name is thought to have been Marco and his family was poor. Paolo is thought to have had three brothers, but their names and what became of them isn’t known.
Paolo became a Benedictine monk around 1380 and his portrait in the Squarcialupi Codex shows him in a suitable black cassock. In 1401, he took the abbot position at Saint Martin al Pino and later became the rector of Orbetello, where he stayed until 1427. In around 1410, he supervised the compilation of the Squarcialupi Codex.
As abbot, he must have been a public figure, because in 1404, Paolo witnessed the signing of a document written at the cardinal’s house in Rome. The only other known date from his life comes from his madrigal Godi, Firenze, which celebrates the victory of Florence over Pisa in 1406.
Much of Paolo’s work is secular and all is vocal, although some of the attributions on Paolo’s ballate are erased in the source. All of his known output is for two or three voices, and through sources or stylistic elements, it’s all datable prior to 1410. Four of his vocal duets are credited to “Don Paolo,” and “P.A.” Is the composer of another 13 pieces.
He wrote three types of songs: 13 madrigals, more than 40 ballate, and two liturgical pieces. The three types of songs represent a sort of chronological journey. Paolo began with the traditional two-voice ballata but soon picked up the French fashion of three voices.
His use of the madrigal form—a third of his 30 surviving secular pieces are madrigals—is unusual at this time, when other forms had largely superseded it. His madrigals reveal a mixture of progressive and conservative elements, some with French influence (more on that in a minute). His two liturgical pieces combine an upper melodic line in the Italian manner with a cantus firmus. He also wrote at least one musical treatise.
His vocal duets use traditional forms and styles. One unusual feature is the provision of open and closed endings for the ritornelli of six madrigals; in one of these, the text doesn’t require repetition of the music (a ritornelli returns both in melody and text—the word means “return”). The same madrigal has open (doesn’t resolve to a satisfying ending) and closed endings (does resolve) in the first musical section (there’s an A and a B section). Earlier composers didn’t use these kinds of endings, although Lorenzo da Firenze (d. c1372) and Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340-c1386) used them in one piece each. It’s the number of times Paolo used these endings that’s unusual. The departure from common practice is less important, though, than the variety of rhythmic and melodic figures.
Paolo went beyond the two-part madrigal only once, in the three-voice Godi, Firenze when Florence defeated Pisa in a small war (remember, Italy was a collection of small city-states, much like Germany was at the time, each with their own rulers and armies). Perhaps the celebration that inspired him also encouraged him to leave his fuddy duddy ways behind.
Where his madrigals are conservative, his ballata are innovative, and he wrote more in the new style of three voices than for two. He was the first composer to do that in the case of the ballata. Of the 26 pieces concretely attributed to Paolo, only six are in two voices. Ten have the French disposition of solo cantus (chant-based melody line) with instrumental tenor and contratenor (higher voices sung against the chant melody), and ten have the hybrid form of vocal duet with instrumental contratenor. Three of these last also exist as vocal duets without a contratenor, but the three voice versions are probably the original.
Of his sacred music, the Benedicamus Domino is for two voices, and Gaudeamus omnes in Domino is for three voices.
With Landini and Andrea da Firenze (d. 1415), Paolo’s output marks the end of Florence’s dominance over Italian musical styles as musicians and their patrons moved to Milan, Venice, and Padua, and eventually on to Rome. Even Paolo spent the end of his life away from Florence.
Paolo’s ballate are the most modern of his works, being mostly for three voices, and all are lyrical, melodic and use some of the more extreme rhythmic intricacies of the ars subtilior school. Landini’s influence, which would have predominated Florence in the late 14th century, is evident in both the madrigals and the ballate.
Paolo was one of the supervisors who produced the musical anthology called the Squarcialupi Codex (blog post to come). Despite this, the 32 pages reserved for his works, with his portrait (in the black cassock of the Benedictine monk) on the first page and his name at the top of the rest, contain nothing but empty staves. Some think his music wasn’t yet available, although other sources suggest that he was simply away from Florence, attending to the needs of Cardinal Acciaiuoli (d. 1409) at the deadline.
Paolo’s unique style is evident in the sound of the music and in the notation that he used. He used Italian notation and its varied note shapes, mixed with notation of the French principles of mannered notation that introduced new (and needlessly) complex ways of expressing rhythmic patterns. His manuscripts combine Italian and French notation and show the influence of the Avignon mannerist school of ars subtilior in their rhythms, which are complex and intricate.
Using music notation was considered progressive in the 14th century, especially in Italy, and the proportional survival of Paolo’s secular to sacred music may be representative of a trend to document all music, not just sacred.
A resurgence of interest in the Renaissance in the 1970s translated Paolo’s work into modern notation, so it’s a lot easier for us to perform now.
His date of birth is estimated based on information in his will, written within a day or so of his death. When he resigned as abbot in 1433, he was approximately 78 years old. He died in Florence at the age of 81.
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