Johannes Ciconia and Ars Subtilior : Bridging Machaut and Dufay

ciconia1

Johannes Ciconia was a Franco-Flemish composer, mainly active in Italy around 1400.  Born in or around Liège, a Flemish bishopric, he moved to Italy at a young age and remained there for his entire life.  In 1955 Heinrich Besseler suggested that the period between the death of Guillaume de Machaut in 1377 and the beginning of Guillaume Dufay’s career in 1420 be named ‘the era of Ciconia’, in acknowledgement of the quality and prominence of that composer’s works in a period considered to lack a single ‘great’ composer. Yet, the suggestion never really took hold; Ciconia was unique in both his biographical profile and compositional style and not entirely representative of his generation.[1]

During this period, the style referred to as ars subtilior was very popular in Northern Italy, and Ciconia wrote in a variety of styles, some looking back to the ars nova and others looking forward to the Renaissance.  In only a few works could it be said he was writing in the ars subtilior style.

Ars Subtilior is the highly refined musical style of the late 14th century, centered primarily on the secular courts of southern France, Aragon and Cyprus.  The development of the idiom may be traced in successive, roughly chronological stages. Of these, the post-Machaut generation – De Landes, Franciscus, Grimace, Pierre de Molins, Solage, Susay (A l’arbre sec) and Vaillant – was largely engaged in developing the classical ballade style of Machaut.[2]

Ciconia wrote both secular (French virelais, Italian ballate and madrigals) and sacred (motets and Mass movements, some of them isorhythmic) in form. He is also the author of a theoretical treatise, Nova musica which survives in two manuscripts. Nova musica will disappoint those who hope to find links with contemporary compositional practice. The treatise is speculative and deals with the discipline (ars) of music. It is resolutely unpractical and non-polyphonic in its orientation, avoiding treatment even of hexachord solmization.[3]

The complete works of Ciconia can be found on not one but two excellent recordings.  The first was released in 1982 by the Huelgas Ensemble, PaulVan Nevel (dir.), and re-issued on CD in 1998.  This is a 3-CD set that includes all the music that can reliably be attributed to Ciconia but is somewhat dated in performance mannerisms.  Although this set may now be of interest primarily to collectors and specialists, it has obviously not been superseded in its scope, and its historical importance, though greatly changed in nature in the intervening years, is unquestioned.

A possibly better choice would be the recording released in 2011: Antoine Guerber and Diabolus in Musica take on the sacred music and the motets; La Morra, directed by Corina Marti and Michał Gondko, present the songs. It works well. Diabolus in Musica go for a bright and light sound that contrasts very much with the heavier performances of Paul van Nevel. La Morra prefer a more ruminative and thoughtful approach to the songs that is again entirely different from what has been heard before – including what must be the slowest-ever performance of ‘Per quella strada’. As with any complete recording, some tracks are better than others, but we do get a new and clearer aural picture of who Ciconia was.[4]

Another noteworthy recording, although incomplete, it is devoted entirely to Ciconia is Homage To Johannes Ciconia (1370-1412) , Ensemble Project Ars Nova, 1992.  Long out of print, it is available on most streaming services and Amazon will sell a CD-R replica of it.


[1] Anne Stone. “A Singer at the Fountain: Homage and Irony in Ciconia’s ‘Sus une fontayne’.” Music & Letters, Vol. 82, No. 3 (Aug., 2001), pp. 361-390. Oxford University Press, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3526160.
[2] Nors S. Josephson. “Ars Subtilior.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/01361.
[3] Giuliano Di Bacco, et al. “Ciconia, Johannes.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40689.
[4] David Fallows, “Review: CICONIA ‘Opera Omnia – Complete Works’,” Gramophone Magazine, (Aug., 2011), accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.gramophone.co.uk/review/ciconia-opera-omnia-complete-works.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s