Michelangelo’s Song

The Italian Renaissance has given us great music as well as great art. But the music remains little known, and the great solo songs when performed have been let down by a stilted, over-literal and under-expressive performance style. In our video, which presents one of the classic songs of the period, we adopt a very different and new approach, taking our cues from the Renaissance itself. Michelangelo, who wrote the words of the song, could be as eloquent with the pen as he was with brush and chisel and was highly regarded as a poet by his contemporaries. He met regularly with his circle of other accomplished writers and poets. I imagine a sort of Poets’ Round Table in the Eternal City. The poem to which the song is set – Come harò donque ardire (‘How, then, will I ever have the nerve’) – appears in a songbook alongside works by Petrarch and other celebrated poets.

Written around the time he completed the Sistine Chapel ceiling and was creating his statue of the Dying Slave or ‘slave to love’, as I see it, his words are as passionate as his painting or sculpture. They are a lament for unrequited love, the poet abandoning hope and sinking into resignation and despair. The composer of the song, Bartolomeo Tromboncino, was one of the leading star musicians of his time, a singer and lutenist serving such prominent patrons as Isabela d’Este and Lucrezia Borgia. The song itself, one of the most affecting works of its kind in the early Italian repertoire, conveys a remarkable depth of personal feeling.

Our performance style in the video is based specifically on the musical treatises and related sources of the early Renaissance, when singing was regarded not as an isolated art but essentially as a variety of persuasive speech. Singers of the period – unlike those of more recent times – modelled their art on that of the actor or orator, giving their words the natural emphasis and rhythm of actual speech (and heightening their effect by appropriate gestures). That not only meant avoiding monotonous rhythms and artificial accents but also, more positively, taking liberties with the scores, varying the tempo, adding nuances, stretching and swelling notes in expressive ways, emphasising certain words, downplaying others, always ensuring that every syllable came across clearly. This creates an irregular vocal rhythm which contrasts expressively with the underlying metric pulse of the song provided by the lute. In the video Kate Macoboy has a way with the words of the song that reflects that of a native Italian speaker, projecting the words of her song with flair, freedom and directness. We discover that a singer’s toolbox was extensive when we read descriptions from writers of the dramatic passion rendered in inflaming the listener’s mind as well as moving their emotions.

Here are some examples of her Renaissance-inspired workings. In the second line of the poem, beginning ‘Senza voi’ (‘without you’), ‘voi’ falls on a weak beat, she deliberately comes in early, ahead of the lute and gives the important word the emphasis it needs. Another example is in the fifth line, beginning ‘Che’l miser’ (that miserable’). The first word, ‘che’, is given a long note and rests in a prominent position in the score, but ‘miser’ is one of the most important words in the line requiring emphatic delivery. The singer shortens the unimportant written note, ‘che’. It serves as a pickup note to ‘miser’ where Kate accents, swells and lengthens the first syllable of this word, cutting short the second, as in normal speech. In this case, notated rhythms needed adjustments. Nuances like these recur throughout the song and are the key to its expressive effect.

The Arab Hall at Leighton House is similar in size to the rooms where this music was performed in Michelangelo’s time and has a suitably modest yet sympathetic acoustic. It provides a splendid yet intimate setting for a singer and lutenist to express this elegant, heartfelt song.

Robert Meunier, the lutenist and musical director in the video, has been playing and researching early Italian Renaissance song and solo lute repertoire for over thirty years. He has taught the lute, recorded for CD releases with Chandos, CRD and BIS and radio broadcasts, and performed throughout Europe and North America both as a soloist and with specialist ensembles.

Kate Macoboy, Australian soprano, is a highly experienced ensemble singer and soloist. She performs regularly in the UK, Europe and Australia freelance with the leading ensembles, Ars Nova Copenhagen and Chamber Choir Ireland (under the direction of Paul Hillier). In 2010, she completed a Master in Advanced Vocal Ensemble Studies under scholarship at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. She also sings with a number of professional church choirs in London and has recently had European engagements with The Bach Consort and The Danish Radio Vokalensemblet, and a tour to Hong Kong with Theatre of Voices.

Bartolomeo Tromboncino 1520

(Antico/Giunta) Come harò donque ardire
senza voi mai, mio ben, tenermi’n vita,
s’io non posso, al partir, chiedermi aita ?
Quei singulti, quei pianti e quei sospiri
che ‘1 miser cor a voi acompagniorno,
madonna, duramente dimostrorno
la mia propinqua morte e’ mei martyri.
Ma se ver è che, per absentia, mai
Mia fidel servitù cada in oblio,
II cor come presago di mei guai,
per adimpir el vostro van desio,
vi fa lexequie del sepulchro mio.

Michelangelo Buonarroti

How, then, will I ever have the nerve
without you, my beloved, to keep hold on life,
if at our parting, I cannot find help within myself?
Those sobs, those cries, those sighs
that accompanied my miserable heart to you,
my lady, harshly confirmed
my approaching death and my torments.
But if it is true that once I am gone
my faithful servitude may be forgotten,
my heart, anticipating my afflictions,
to fulfill your empty wish,
prepares the funerary rituals for my grave.