Johannes Ciconia’s “Merçe o morte” (with a free transcription)

Johannes Ciconia’s Merçe o morte is an extraordinary example of early fifteenth-century song. Several features set it apart, including the repetition of affective words using short melodic motifs, its extremely economical use of musical material, and indeed its immediate appeal to many listeners today. That several of Johannes Ciconia’s songs show similar features led music historians to suspect that he was the composer of this song that was known only from anonymous sources up until 1988. Moreover, the song survives in two different slightly versions. When John Nádas discovered a new leaf in the Archivio di Stato at Lucca (Italy) that contained the Tenor and a unique Contratenor of Merçe o morte ascribed to “Johanes Ciconia”, the matter of the song’s composer was more or less settled. The discovery of this new music fragment brought the total number of sources to four (links are to the fabulous online images of these sources; a freely obtainable login may be required):

  1. Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, ms. 2216, fol. 51 (Image: DIAMM) – Different Cantus and same Tenor (both texted)
  2. Lucca, Archivio di Stato, ms. 184, fol. LIIv (Image: DIAMM) – Texted Cantus and Untexted Contratenor (incomplete), tenor lost
  3. Paris, Bibliothèque National de France, n.a.f. 4917, fols. 18v-19r (Cantus and Tenor) (Image: Gallica) – Texted Cantus (with a minor error) and Texted Tenor
  4. Pistoia, Archivio Capitolare di Pistoia Bibliotheca musicalis, B. 3. 5, fol. IVv (Image available on Archive’s website: you will need to click on image ‘4v’): Texted Cantus and Untexted Tenor (both with some minor variants/errors)

Nádas’s discovery of a hitherto unknown Contratenor voice for this song in the Lucca manuscript raises new questions. Other sources transmit a Cantus and a Tenor voice only. Two-part songs (or songs transmitted in two parts) were not unusual even in the early fifteenth century. Even well into the same century, some songs circulated as a fixed Cantus-Tenor pair with different Contratenors. But was the contratenor in the Lucca fragment by Ciconia? Ciconia was more than sufficiently skilled to write three-part compositions, so why wouldn’t he have also written the Contratenor?

Rather than addressing this question head on, which seems to have been a fruitless endeavour in previous critiques, let me take a slightly roundabout way by approaching this song analytically.

You are invited to click on the following link to view in a new window a pseudo-diplomatic transcription using original note shapes that I prepared earlier (option- or left-click to download this file to your computer): Merce_o_morte_Las_Pz_recon. This transcription includes a reconstruction of the end of the Contratenor. I will refer to this transcription in the following discussion.

A young Leonardo Giustinian may be the poet of Merçe o morte (see Fallows 1995). The text adopts the trope of the suffering lover wishing to “die” but he is prevented from doing so by a woman who will not return his “affections”:

Merçe o morte, O vagha anima mia
Oymè ch’io moro o graciosa è pia

Pascho el cor de sospir ch’altruy no’l vede
E de lagrime vivo amaramente.

Aymè, dolent’ morirò per la merçede
del dolce amor che’l mio cor t’apresente

O Dio, que pena è questa al cor dolente
falsa çudea almen fa me morir via.

Merçe o morte, O vagha anima mia
Oymè ch’io moro o graciosa è pia.


Mercy or death, my fair soul,
alas that I die, graceful and pious (vain?) one.

I feed my heart on sighs that others don’t see
and I live bitterly on tears.

Alas, I shall die suffering for the reward
of tender love that my heart offers you.

O God! what pain is this to a suffering heart!
False Judas at least make way for me to die.

Mercy or death …

Ciconia regularly repeats small textual and musical phrases in his setting of Giustinian’s text. The use of textual and musical repetition in several of Ciconia’s songs hasn’t gone unnoticed (Pirrotta 1994; Fallows 1995). Whether this represents a popularising of the genre or a musical innovation by Ciconia is a matter for debate beyond this humble blog. The repetition of “merçe”, “O Dio”, “O morte”, “que pena”, “Oymè”, “ch’io moro”, “el cor”, “de lagrime”, and so on, seems designed to elicit emotional responses from listeners. Most of the repeated words, even “falsa çudea” (false Judas) represent what William Reddy has called emotives, that is words or phrases which might evoke emotional responses.

Rather than representing a popularising genre, the repetition of emotives may look back to ancient rhetoric which held that repetition of certain words or phrase, when used judicially, is like plunging a weapon repeatedly into the same wound (see for example Rhetorica ad Herrenium, 4.12.18). An ancient Roman orator living in a world still dominated by close combat warfare and gladiator games would have readily understood this analogy. This sense would have been grasped in the late middle ages, not only because close combat warfare was still prevalent, but because of analogues that existed in courtly poetry. Regularly poets refer to the heart of the lover being wounded repeatedly by love’s dart, a reference to the imagery inherited from antiquity of Cupid inflaming the heart’s of lovers with his darts. By coupling these textual emotives with small repeated melodic phrases that are often musically similar to one another (one might say they are motifs, although this is a somewhat loaded term), Ciconia creates a musical analogue to rhetorical emotives.

There is an astounding level of congruency between the poetic and musical structures of Merçe o morte. I would like to discuss this relationship not in terms of musical rhyme (since this is simply not the case), but in terms of how music contains analogues of rhetorical techniques that parallel its text’s rhyme structures. The following comments apply mostly to melodic repetition in the uppermost Cantus voice, although repetition of the Cantus-Tenor pair is sometimes observed and repeated sections of the Cantus often exhibit similar contrapuntal relations with the Tenor.

A two-bar proem or introduction is followed by a four-bar melodic figure (bb. 3-6) that recurs in bb. 17-20. The latter might be considered a musical anaphora, that is a musical analogue to the figure of speech in which each phrase or sentence begins with the same word or words, but the end of the phrase/sentence is different.

There is more repetition. Bars 10-16 are the same as bb. 20-25 (phrase A), and bb. 36-40 as bb. 46-50 (phrase B). There is a musical rhyme across both sections: the ending of first section (bb. 27-30) is the same as the last three bars of the second time ending concluding second section (bb. 50-52). This is like the musical analogue of the figure of speech known as the epiphora, where each phrase or sentence ends with the same word(s). Bars 7-9, 31-35 and 41-45 contain new musical ideas, and function like conjunctions or bridges between repeated musical material. The structure of Merçe o morte might be represented in this way:

Proem(1-2) Anaphora+[Conjunction]+A(3-16) Anaphora+A+Epiphora (17-30) || [Conjunction]+B (30-42) [Conjunction]+B+Epiphora (43-52) (2nd time).

The purpose of this analysis is two fold. The Contratenor from the Lucca manuscript does not participate in the process of musical repetition in the Cantus and often in the Tenor. Although the Contratenor responds in a similar rhythmic fashion to the other voices at places like the repeated Anaphora in the first section, there is melodic difference. This suggests that the Contratenor is an afterthought, but it doesn’t  prove that the Contratenor is not Ciconia’s. Yet analysis of Ciconia’s three-part motets suggests that the composer was capable of conceiving three part textures in which all voices were composed with a clear sense of a integrated musical whole, including repetition of melodic ideas across paired voices.

Analysis also permits the reconstruction of the lost last seven bars of the Contratenor. The identification of repeated phrases and the repeated cadences at the end of each section permits me to reconstruct with some confidence these lost seven bars so that resemble the surviving portions of the Contratenor. But my analysis also reassures me that the reconstructed proportions don’t need to be exactly the same as where the surviving Contratenor voice corresponds to the earlier repeated sections of music.

Select bibliography

Fallows, David. “Leonardo Giustinian and Quattrocento Polyphonic Song.” In L’edizione Critica Tra Testo Musicale E Testo Letterario: Atti Del Convegno Internazionale (Cremona 4-8 Ottobre 1992), edited by Renato Borghi and Pietro Zappalà. Studi E Testi Musicali Nuova Serie 3, 247-60. Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 1995.

Nádas, John, and Agostino Ziino, eds. The Lucca Codex: Codice Mancini: Lucca, Archivio De Stato, Ms 184. Perugia Comunale “Augusta,” Ms 3065, Ars Nova. Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 1990.

Pirrotta, Nino. 1994. “Echi di arie veneziane del primo Quattrocento.” In Poesia e musica e altri saggi, edited by Nino Pirrotta. Scandicci (Florence): La Nuova Italia. Originally published in Interpretazioni veneziane. Studi di Storia dell’Arte in onore di Michelangelo Muraro (Venice: Arsenale, 1984): 99–108.

2 thoughts on “Johannes Ciconia’s “Merçe o morte” (with a free transcription)

  1. Thank you for this incredibly informative post. This piece is being performed (2 voices) in our university early music ensemble’s upcoming concert, and the translation and the rhetorical analysis are very helpful and provide much valuable insight into the piece! — Angela

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