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Luca Marenzio
The Career of a Musician between the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation

by Marco Bizzarini

Translated by James Chater

Published September 2003

Ashgate; ISBN 0 7546 0516 7; 370 pages, 10 b/w illustrations, 40 musical examples £49.50
MusicWeb price £42.50

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Luca Marenzio is one of those composers whose work we might be familiar with; we might even have performed some of his madrigals or sacred music. But we never learn much about his background, beyond a short, rather bald paragraph - something that would be true of many 16th century composers.

This book, originally written in Italian by Marco Bizzarini, is an attempt to shed some light on Marenzio’s background. It is not a biography; we do not possess enough materials to write a conventional biography. The book is subtitled ‘The Career of a Musician Between the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation’ and Bizzarini sheds a fascinating light on the background to a musician’s career in 16th century Rome.

Marenzio was born in Brescia in 1553 or 1554. Early on he received training at the court of the Gonzagas in Mantua. He then moved on to work for Cardinal Madruzzo. On Madruzzo’s death, Cardinal Luidi d’Este (owner of the famous villa in Tivoli) became Marenzio’s patron. D’Este tried to get Marenzio a place in the Sistine chapel choir. If he had succeeded, then Marenzio the composer of sacred music would be far better known than Marenzio the composer of madrigals. As it was, the attempt failed and Marenzio went on to pour forth a stream of madrigals. His greatest period for madrigals was whilst he was working for d’Este and it is though that the Cardinal sponsored the many collections of Marenzio’s madrigals that were published.

On d’Este’s death, Marenzio was freelance for a time. Rather curiously, this meant that if someone wanted to employ him they had to clear it with Marenzio’s father in the absence of a patron. Marenzio then went on to work for the Grand Duke of Tuscany (who had been Cardinal Medici). As a result, he was involved in composing for the Florentine intermedi which were produced for the Grand Duke’s wedding. These intermedi are famous as being important precursors of fully fledged opera, but Marenzio seems to have had no inclinations in this direction.

His time with the Grand Duke of Tuscany was short and he returned to Rome working successively for Virginio Orsini, Duke of Bracciano and the two more Cardinals. At this point, Marenzio’s career takes an even more fascinating, and poorly documented turn. He is sent to work for the King of Poland. Sigismund of Poland was fond of large-scale poly-choral music and sent to Italy for a musical establishment and director of music. Marenzio worked for a few years in Poland before returning to Italy and another poorly documented period which ends in his death.

The documents for Marenzio’s life are limited. His surviving letters are impersonal ones and Bizzarini has done a brilliant job at synthesising the results of his own and other people’s research to shed light on Marenzio’s career. This means that the book has an extremely extensive set of notes and critical apparatus which can be off-putting to the casual reader. But there are other aspects of the book which might make it difficult for the average reader.

The language of James Chater’s translation has a tendency to be over-flowery. This might be because Bizzarini’s original text is like that, but I feel a good editor could have simplified things. A good editor is something that the book needs. The text is very inconsistent with its treatment of quotations in Italian, sometimes translating them but sometimes not, sometimes relegating them to the footnotes. This sort of thing is very off-putting to the casual reader, and title of pieces and collections of music are usually kept in Italian (or Latin) with no translation offered.

This was a highly political period in Rome and Marenzio was involved as he worked for a series of patrons who were involved in the labyrinthine politics of the day. To give a good background to Marenzio’s story, Bizzarini has to include much information about the papal politics and too often this is done with a surprising lack of clarity. The problems often relate to simple things, for instance at one point the new Pope, Pope Sixtus, is referred to by three different names in the space of two paragraphs. Too often the narrative thread gets lost in a welter of detail and the reader must closely read a section to understand the underlying implications. (The opening of chapter 19 is extremely unclear about Marenzio’s transfer of employment from Cardinal Montalto to Cardinal Aldobrandini).

The entire structure of the book is also somewhat labyrinthine. Sometimes events in the narrative give rise to parenthetical chapters which could better have been dealt with in more chronological order. I understand that in such a work, a thematic organisation rather than a chronological one is desirable. But the book opens with Marenzio already working for Cardinal d’Este and we must wait for chapter 10 before we learn about his origins and early years. Then at the end, Marenzio dies in chapter 21 to be followed by 5 further chapter on Marenzio’s music and aspects of his career which could better have been integrated into the text.

But the book does deal very well with Marenzio’s music. More than 40 musical examples are included and, apart from the final chapters, the musical analysis is skilfully integrated into the narrative. Given the lack of documentary evidence, Bizarrini uses the music to help shed light on Marenzio the man.

This is a book containing much important information about a significant 16th century composer and it sheds fascinating light on the mechanisms by which a Roman composer in the period might construct a career in music. It is unfortunate that the book’s structure and editing mean that it could be rather off-putting for the casual reader.

Robert Hugill



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