I’m currently writing a chapter on the material representation of canons in early sixteenth-century northern Italian art. The number of canons in art suggests that they played an important role in the musico-visual culture in courts and ecclesiastical institutions of this time. Some better known examples of canons in paintings include the Agnus Dei II of Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales in Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Music and Ockeghem’s Prenez sur moy in one of the intarsia of Isabelle d’Este’s grotta at the Ducal Palace in Mantua.
Following a suggestion from Jessie Ann Owens and after reading Kate Van Orden’s two recent books on sixteenth-century print culture and materiality, I have become interested in how canons are materially represented in early modern art, that is, on what surfaces and media they appear. Some are shown in books, some on placards (or even slabs of stone), and quite a few on little throw-away sheets of paper. The visual evidence for this last type of surface is interesting when one also considers many known examples of individual compositions sent with letters in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: music must have been copied on a single sheet or small booklet that could be inserted with the letter packet. Even the type of book being depicted is interesting: some are upright quartos or even folios, while others are tiny oblong octavos. Each suggest different social and institutional attitudes to books; the church choirbook in contrast to the partbook used in courtly and wealthy households.
Many examples of music notation, like Isabella d’Este’s copy of Prenez sur moy, are found in intarsia, an art form (some call it a minor art form, but I don’t agree) consisting of inlaid woods used to produce entire scenes, still lifes, and decorative panels. Northern Italian intarsia from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries are truly astounding. Besides examples from ducal courts at Gubbio, Mantua and Urbino, there are several early 16th-century examples from cathedrals and monastic churches in Lodi, Padua, Piacenza and Verona. The work of master woodworker and artist Giovanni da Verona (1457–1525) is particularly notable in relation to the latter, as is that of his students such as Vincenzo dalle Vacche. From 1523 to his death, Giovanni undertook commissions for monasteries near Lodi. Today some of these survive in the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lodi, Italy.
Wanting to learn more about Giovanni and his creations, I was recently reading Elena Bugini’s La Musica di Fra Giovanni da Verona (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014) when I noticed that one of the pieces of music shown in a panel from Lodi cathedral looked very familiar and was more than likely a canon. While there are quite a few canons that start with successive ascending conjunct motion through a third (including the children’s round Ah, poor bird), this was no ordinary, unison canon. Despite a lack of text, the notation was clear enough to read. After a few minutes, the penny dropped. I was looking at the notation of Jean Mouton’s En venant de Lyon, a 4-in-1 stacked canon at the fourth above.
Mouton’s canon is well known as the second oldest example of stacked canon, that is a canon in which each voice imitates the first one (ie. the one that is written out) at the same interval higher than the last one (see further examples in Gosman 1997; Burn 2001). For example, a second voice might imitate the first at the fourth above the first, and a third at the fourth above the second (that is a seventh above the first voice). This is exactly what Ockeghem’s three-voiced Prenez sur moy, the oldest stacked canon from the last quarter of the fifteenth century, does. In the early sixteenth century, Mouton went one better than Ockeghem and wrote En venant de Lyon for four voices, each voice also entering a fourth higher than the previous one.
To my surprise, no literature that I know has identified the music in the fifth stall on the right of Lodi Cathedral as Mouton’s stacked canon. Bugini (2011: 87) follows Genèsi (1987: 78) who opines that it is a canon at the octave and unison based upon the Christmas hymn A solis ortus cardine. Clearly it isn’t, though I hadn’t thought about the possibility of the hymn being Mouton’s inspiration. There is no mention of En venant de Lyon in Lodi cathedral in the new Mouton edition (CMM 43/5, ed. MacCracken 2014) nor an otherwise excellent recent article by Peter Urquhart (2015) that discuss the canon.
Bugini, Elena. 2014. La Musica di fra Giovanni da Verona. Paris: Classiques Garnier.
Burn, David J. 2001. “Further Observations on Stacked Canon and Renaissance Compositional Procedure: Gascongne’s Ista est speciosa and Forestier’s Missa L’homme armé.” Journal of Music Theory no. 45 (1):73–118.
Genèsi, Mario Giuseppe. 1987. “Un breve saggio di polifonia rinascimentale: il ‘canone’ a due voci del coro ligneo di Giovanni da Verona nel Duomo di Lodi.” Archivio Storico Lodigiano no. 106:73–87.
Gosman, Alan. 1997. “Stacked Canon and Renaissance Compositional Procedure.” Journal of Music Theory no. 41 (2):289–317.
MacCracken, Thomas G. 2014. Joannes Mouton Opera Omnia V. Missae Sine nomine I & II, Credo a 4, Magnificat et Cantiones, Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae 43/5. s.l.: American Institute of Musicology.