The works of Anthonello de Caserta (spiral bound)


Performer’s edition, spiral bound

In 1950, when the first modern anthology of late fourteenth-century French songs was published in the United States, its editor, Willi Apel, asked his colleague (and fellow émigré) Paul Hindemith to write a preface to the volume. Hindemith turned his composerly eye to the assembled songs (some 80 works) and extolled the workmanship of what he called “miraculous microcosms of sound.” Their counterpoint, control of sonority, and text-music relationships, he suggested, would repay careful study by modern composers who were searching for a musical language. The aspects of this repertoire Hindemith singled out for admiration are still those that capture our attention today. The songs collected there, including all eight surviving French works by Anthonello, acquired the label “Ars subtilior” in an important article published in 1963 by the German musicologist Ursula Günther, and since then, the label and its attendant complexity of musical language has been at the forefront of research on the songs. Since that publication of Apel’s French Secular Music of the Late Fourteenth Century, Anthonello’s songs have appeared in other anthologies, and the music of the “Ars subtilior” has been studied extensively. But the music tends to be studied as a collective–the “Ars subtilior repertoire”–and almost no composer of the period has had the luxury of an edition of his own, Johannes Ciconia being a notable exception.


The editors of this volume have therefore done musicians and scholars a major service by bringing together for the first time all the known attributed songs, plus some anonymous works plausibly by him, by this spectacular late medieval composer. Scarcely present in the historical record, Anthonello’s name comes down to us only because of attributions in two principal manuscripts, the Modena codex that collects his French songs, and the Lucca codex that collects his Italian songs. The split between French and Italian songs, and the stylistic difference between the two, is so striking that at least one scholar has wondered whether they were the product of two composers who happened to have the same name. Most scholars do not share this doubt, though, since both the French and the Italian songs connect Anthonello to the environs of the Visconti court of Milan at the turn of the 15th century. We should take the opportunity to consider what it means that a single composer in this period wrote works of great stylistic variety (again, Ciconia is a model for this). The late fourteenth century was arguably a time when it was newly possible to consider composing in different genres, registers, and languages: vernacular song in a variety of languages was on the rise and ever more music was circulating in writing.


“Great artists” are created when their works are collected together in written form (something that Anthonello’s older contemporaries Francesco Petrarch and Guillaume de Machaut knew very well). By presenting us with a musical personality of considerable variety and complexity, the editors of this volume have given us a starting point for a re-evaluation of this remarkable composer. His ballades in the “Ars subtilior” style feature beautiful, languid lines and exquisite contrapuntal dexterity, calling to mind Hindemith’s description of the “cantilever technique of spanning breathtakingly long passages between tonal pillars.” Anthonello must have been deeply versed in the music and poetry of his great French predecessor Guillaume de Machaut, for not only did he set a ballade text by Machaut but his music is saturated with Machaut-like effects of melody and counterpoint. At the same time, he was fluent in the song traditions of his native Italy. He turned to an Italian form, the madrigal, to write the one overtly ceremonial work in his oeuvre, Del glorioso titolo d’esto duce, where he pulled out all the stops, filling it with striking metric changes, highly ornamental, sequence-laden melismas, and energetic rhythms.  Anthonello’s other Italian songs, all two-voice ballatas, are much simpler, with shorter phrases, more humble texts with word repetitions, and simplified counterpoint, features that the great musicologist Nino Pirrotta identified as relating to the unwritten popular tradition of song.


Did Anthonello write more songs than the fifteen for which we have a secure attribution? Surely the answer is yes, and the question is how to identify them. The works collected in the Appendix are there as a result of the editors’ historical detective work combined with musical insight: each work there has a reasonable chance of being a work of Anthonello, either because of its location in manuscripts or because of its style. I hope this appendix sends people in search of more anonymous songs that could be his, bringing to current attention lovely works that are languishing in modern editions without being heard. As of this writing, Anthonello’s French songs are much better represented in modern recordings than the Italian songs, and virtually all of the songs in the Appendix await modern performance.

Anne Stone




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