Friday, August 7, 2015

HIP, HIP . . .

From the front lines of historically informed performance…

by Kate van Orden

                                                                                                   5 August, 2015
For the better part of a century, musicians and musicologists have used performance as a laboratory. Behind much of it has been material history: Instrument builders restored harpsichords and viols to playing condition; players rescued flutes and bassoons from the dark corners of antique shops, old theaters, and organ lofts; and makers coordinated with museum curators to measure and copy items in their collections in a great project of archeology and revival. Treatises, letters, and anecdotal accounts offered up information about scoring, and reconstruction began to reinhabit original sites of performance. In the 1980s, the eighteenth-century court theatre of Drottningholm swung back into action with the operas of Mozart employing period staging, San Marco in Venice rang with canzone of Giovanni Gabrieli on early brass, and in 2005—to mention just one spectacular reconstruction—Le Poème Harmonique recreated the premiere of the Molière-Lully collaboration Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme with original staging conforming to the limitations of the temporary theater erected on the first floor of the Chateau of Chambord, lighting provided by over 500 candles, seventeenth-century gesture and pronunciation, and a full orchestra with ample continuo.

But these ventures have relied on the architectural and staging advantages of  theatrical environments to assist in imaginative time-travel. Audiences walk into a church or theater or focus their attention on the action framed by a proscenium, all of which help spectators sink into the past that performance offers up for a few hours. What about the many ephemeral settings in which music was made, the streets and palace courtyards that provided the backdrop for musical pageantry? What of the Te Deums and royal entries, Corpus Christi processions, fireworks, and equestrian or mock naval events mounted with music?

Arrival of the Pikes
Last month, Marignan 2015 brought historical reconstruction to a new scale in a series of performances based on a spectacle designed by Leonardo Da Vinci to celebrate the victory of François Ier at Marignano, Italy, in 1515. Best-known to musicologists as the inspiration for Clément Janequin’s rousing chanson La Guerre, the Battle of Marignano proved such a defining event of François’s long reign that a frieze of it decorates his tomb at St. Denis. Three years after the victory, in May of 1518, the marriage of Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, again put François at the center of international politics, and the pressure to assert his greatness mobilized the royal household to produce a spectacle that would impress its Italian guests. Held at Amboise across a period of two days, Leonardo’s magnificence culminated with a festive reenactment of Marignano featuring glitteringly armored French knights, troops costumed as German and Swiss mercenaries, newly invented pyrotechnics, a gigantic faux castle, and cannon fire so loud it broke windows half a kilometer away.

The raw materials for last month’s reconstruction consisted of ambassadorial avvisi, letters, court chronicles, and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, which allowed the historian Pascal Brioist (Professor, Centre d’Études de la Renaissance, Université François Rabelais de Tours) and a veritable army of scholars, costume designers, choreographers, riders, directors, and designers to reimagine the 1518 event. Transcriptions and reproductions of key evidence are provided in the lush booklet Marignan 1515/2015, Grand spectacle historique inédit d’après Léonard de Vinci and on the glorious website, which highlights the research leading up to the production.

Geoffroy Lopez as François Ier
Compressing the two days of banquets, dancing, and mock warfare into two hours, Marignan 2015 opened with historical background conveyed in a conversation between Leonardo and the strapping young François Ier that was staged as asides between rounds in the king’s fencing practice. Then the extensive and gorgeously costumed court entered in procession led by a band of minstrels. Stationing themselves in a royal pavilion, the courtiers cheered on the combattants in a jousting tourney and enjoyed a ballet with music from a loud band. The highpoint of the spectacle was the mock battle that turned around assaults on a fortress constructed—now as then—from a wooden skeleton covered with painted canvas. A pulley system released one section of the fortified walls to produce a breach when the cannons fired thunderous smoky blanks at them, a posse of Venetian knights galloped in to buck up the French troops and German Landsknechts, and the Swiss pikemen finally capitulated. Then François Ier dispelled the carnage by reviving all the players who “died” in the battle and declaring a lasting peace. Photos of the event are courtesy of Jean-Louis Pironio, and stay tuned for a film that is currently in the works.

Over 10,000 spectators attended the performances, which included over 300 actors, horsemen, and musicians. Even Mick Jagger took in one of the shows in Amboise, and the popular press in France was considerable. With parades before the performances, a free concert of music from the Medici Codex that incited two standing ovations, and historic crafts and food for sale, a Renaissance Faire atmosphere certainly surrounded the event, but all the more reason, it seems to me, to call out the scholarly insights enabled by the reconstruction. To take one striking example, the international scope of the collaboration brought together forces from across Europe, as did early modern warfare, diplomatic missions, and the 1518 marriage ceremony itself. From “Medici” Florence came the Corteo Storico in glorious red, blue, and yellow livery with a rank of drummers, fifes, and trumpets perfect for parades and announcing the arrivals of dignitaries; the Compagnia della Fenice took the part of the Swiss pikemen in the battle, with the Bund Oberschwäbischer Landsknechten opposing them in the role of German mercenaries. These groups set up their own camps and spent the week living their parts, mostly in costume and dining on sixteenth-century foodstuffs cooked over open fires using traditional means. A magnificent royal blue tent emblazoned with gold fleurs-de-lys provided backstage space for the king and some of his courtiers.

Thus the two-hour spectacle was embedded in a lived setting where differences of vernacular language, customs, food, clothing, shelter, military expertise, dance types, and musical style all came to the fore both onstage and off. Indeed, the encampments set up at the Parc de Beauvais in Romorantin, which also included fifty artisans from the group Les Forges de la Brume, turned out to be a major attraction, where people could watch blacksmiths operate a small forge, women spinning and weaving, and all stages of food preparation in a massive open kitchen. Children played Renaissance games, soldiers gambled and crashed out exhausted under shade trees, and some of the German women cleaned the arquebuses they shot off noisily during the show. The effect was that of a Brueghel painting come to life, a scene nicely captured by director Jean-Louis Dumont and his assistant Sandro Pasqualetto in the staging of the nighttime bivouac that separated the two “days” of battle. Another counterpoise to the firepower, swordplay, and jousts that made the performances so exciting was the commanding presence of Geoffroy Lopez as François Ier, who electrified the audience, adding the rhetorical elegance of his royal “harangues” to what otherwise would have been a mere demonstration of martial arts; so too, Patrice Zonta, as Leonardo Da Vinci, projected the brilliance of that wonderful scientist, poet, musician, and inventor who spent his last days at the Clos Lucé in Amboise and was the mastermind behind the 1518 festivities, down to working out costume designs and the stage machinery that operated the falling walls of the fortress. A mechanical lion designed by Leonardo and recreated by Michel Campana for the event was a magnet for crowds before and after the show and helped underscore the technological sophistication of the engineering that went into the staging.

Michel Campana demonstrating the mechanical lion for ladies of the court.
The total experience of Marignan 2015 came very close to what I imagine the BBC mini series Victorian Farm achieved for English country life, in which the archeologists Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn and domestic historian Ruth Goodman reenacted the experiences of daily life in historical clothing and architectural spaces using the tools and materials available at the time to get at the otherwise dimly documented basics of provisioning a household and staying warm, fed, clean, and dry. (See Goodman’s How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk to Victorian Life [New York, 2013]). Participating in Marignan 2015 brought home to me the practicalities of life for a wind player on the road in the sixteenth century, the social station of most musicians, the kinds of music that worked best to enliven Renaissance festivities, and the limited times and places for polyphony at court.

Next will be for France and England to reconstruct the meeting of François Ier and King Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold for the 500th anniversary in 2020. Sign me up to play some music by Jean Mouton or William Cornyshe for Mass in the temporary chapel constructed for the summit or dances for revels in the 100,000 square foot “palace” built of wood frame and canvas for Henry’s court. Replete with carved entry gates, windows, and beautifully painted timbered ceilings, some of these materials were so exquisite that they were repurposed after their month in the field. And the model for the 1520 event? It was Da Vinci’s spectacle of 1518, a legend in its own time and reborn in our own thanks to the research of Pascal Brioist, his ability to mobilize an international army of talent, and the support of a legion of backers, especially the Centre d’Études Supérieures de la Renaissance, R2V2 (Romorantin), and le Parc Leonardo da Vinci au Clos Lucé, who co-produced the event.

Kate van Orden is Professor of Music at Harvard University, past editor of the Journal of the American Musicological Society, and an early instrumentalist.

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