On the Hunt: "Popular" (?) Music from 14th Century Italy: Part II - Gherardello da Firenze

Having now featured a chace from 14th century France and a caça from 14th century Spain, it is only appropriate that I feature the Italian parallel during the 14th century, the caccia. The chace, caça, and caccia (literally “the hunt” in French, Spanish, and Italian respectively) are essentially regional variations on the musical canon or “round”, called rota, or rondellus in the British Isles during the 14th century and after. The rota most parallels the chace, caça, and caccia in form, and feel, since the rota is a type of canon at the unison on a secular, pastoral theme. The most famous English rota from this early polyphonic period is “Sumer is icumin in”.

These pieces adopted the word for “the hunt” as their classification because the action of the canonic voices, each following, imitating, or “chasing” each other, stood as a metaphor for the chasing of the hunter after their prey. Furthermore, the lyrical subject of many canons from the period was a depiction of a hunt. For example, see my previous post on the French chace, “Se je chant”.

The Italian caccia achieved its highest popularity as a stand-alone musical composition during the 14th century Italian Ars Nova (also known as the Trecento). Musically, the caccia is a texted canon typically between two upper voices, to which is added an un-texted lower part called the tenor (not to be confused with the modern sense of the word). The caccia’s development coincided with the popularization and development of the 14th century madrigal, which involved the exchange between two upper, typically non-canonic, texted voices against an accompanying, un-texted, lower tenor.

In fact, the text of cacce (the plural of caccia) often take one of two forms when depicting their pastoral scenes: either the madrigal with a regularized metric, rhyme, and syllable pattern, or free verse with a random number of syllables per line with or without a metric or rhyme pattern. As is traditional in the 14th century madrigal, a ritornello may occur as the final section of the caccia, as is done in Gherardello da Firenze’s famous caccia, “Tosto che l’alba” (“As soon as the dawn appears”). (see Kurt, Gherardello)

The Composer: Gherardello da Firenz

As is typical with most medieval personages, records of Gherardello are few and vague at best. Most of his biography is extracted from church financial records wherein his clerical appointments are accounted. Even his name, "da Firenze", is a vague pointer, meaning only "of Florence". Consequently, ascertaining his blood relations from the entire populace of Florence and differentiating his personage from numerous others sharing his name is difficult if not impossible.

What we do know with some modicum of certainty is that Gherardello was born around 1320 near Florence, but not necessarily in Florence. He had two close relations, whom also became composers of note: his brother, Jacopo, and son, Giovanni. No works by these relatives survive unfortunately. The first mention of Gherardello is found in the records of the now nonexistent Florentine church of Santa Reparata, which stood where now stands the famous Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Gherardello was apparently employed as a clerk for Santa Reparata. In 1345, he was ordained and was promoted to chaplain of the same church until 1351.

Sometime after 1351, he was accepted into the Benedictine monastic order of Vallombrosa (approximately 30 km. south-east of Florence) and later became Prior to the church of Santa Trinità in Florence. It is believed that Gherardello died sometime around 1364, this date largely extrapolated from a series of sonnets lamenting his death written between 1364 and 1366 by the Florentine poets Francesco di Simone Peruzzi and Franco Sacchetti. However, some compositions attributed to Gherardello would likely place his year of death well after the 1360s. (see Kurt, Gherardello)

Gherardello, like many of his contemporaries, wrote both sacred and secular music. However, most of Gherardello’s surviving and most widely circulated oeuvre is secular, including five monophonic ballate, ten two-voice madrigali, and the three-voice cacciaTosto che l’alba”. Of the well attributed pieces, only two sacred compositions survive. The most comprehensive collection of Gherardello's work is in the Squarcialupi Codex, in which 16 of his works are prominently featured: 10 madrigals, five ballate, and the caccia. This 15th century Florentine illuminated manuscript is the single largest primary source of music of the 14th-century Italian Trecento. Interestingly, the Squarcialupi Codex features many of the only known images of its featured composers. Gherardello’s portraiture from the codex is shown below (for a view of the complete page, see the links to the manuscripts further below).

Gherardello da Firenze (c. 1350)

The exceptionally luxurious design of this page is typical for the entire codex. Excerpted below, the top of the left page shows a cherub pointing to the composer while holding a scroll, on which is written the composer’s name. Here, the name is written across the top of both leaves in Latin as “Magister Ghirardellus de Florentia”, meaning “Teacher Gherardello of Florence”. The term magister, while fine translated as "teacher", expresses a particularly high proficiency in an area of study, and so “specialist” or “professor” might be a more accurate representation.

Squarcialupi Codex, Gherardello da Firenze
Squarcialupi Codex, Gherardello da Firenze

Serpentine floral, pastoral, and various whimsical designs supply further decoration of the page and illustrate aspects of the page's music. For example, at the bottom of the left page one can see the dog, “Carbon” (meaning charcoal – the color of which is aptly depicted), catching the deer as narrated in the music’s text (see further below for text and translation). Along the side of the left page, one can also see a dead pheasant, a common symbol of the hunt.

Squarcialupi Codex, Tosto che l'alba (carbon the dog)
Squarcialupi Codex, Tosto che l'alba (pheasant)

The music displayed on this page is Gherardello’s famous cacciaTosto che l’alba”. The status of this piece in his oeuvre is perhaps implied by its placement as Gherardello’s first work in the Squarcialupi Codex. We know that Gherardello’s caccia “Tosta che l'alba” is one of two of his most widely circulated works (the other is the madrigal “Sotto verdi Franchetti”). Currently, it is his most recorded and best known work among modern scholars.

The Music: “Tosto che l’alba”

Along with the above excerpted Squarcialupi Codex, there are two more sources for Tosto che l’alba. All three are shown below (by clicking on the image you may enlarge and/or download it - note that some of the images may not be viewable on your browser, and you may need to download the file).

Tosto che l'alba - Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana [I-Fl], MS Mediceo Palatino 87 “Codex Squarcialupi”, no. 40 fol 25v-26r.

Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana [I-Fl], MS Mediceo Palatino 87

“Codex Squarcialupi”, no. 40 fol 25v-26r.

Tosto che l'alba - Bibliothèque Nationale [F-PN], MS fonds italien 568 “Pit”, no. 40 fol. 25v-26r.

Bibliothèque Nationale [F-PN], MS fonds italien 568 “Pit”, no. 40 fol. 25v-26r.

Tosto che l'alba - British Library [GB-Lbl], Add. MS 29987, no 31 fol. 25r.

British Library [GB-Lbl], Add. MS 29987, no 31 fol. 25r.

For the most part, each of these sources, despite their varying qualities and implied financial backing, faithfully preserves the piece. There are some minor differences, mostly in the addition or subtraction of a few passing tones and the adjustment of a pitch or two to one of its neighbors. For my comparative transcription of the three manuscripts check out the link below. For the performance score I have created for this piece, I took those differences between the sources I think to be the most prudent. If you would like the performance score, click the link below.

Comparative Transcription Performance Score

Like Denis le Grant’s (d. 1352) “Se je chant”, Gherardello’s “Tosto che l’alba” attempts to musically portray the sounds and excitement of a hunt. First, the rapid compound meter gives the piece an upbeat, running, ebullient feel that one might themselves have as they leave home the morning of the first hunt of the season (I wouldn’t honestly know – I have never hunted – but I can image that such a sensation might be present).

The off-beat hocketting texture we first hear in measure 9 of the performance score heightens the sense of excitement and ebullience, almost like someone falling over themselves in their fervent preparation. The hunters are waking up, getting ready, and heading out, and one might image that they are talking over each other and tripping over themselves in the excited preparation for their day in the mountains. By measure 11, the music has broken out into full swing, with all voices “awakened” (participating in the canon) and with the rhythmically excited cadential arrival at the high F, our new melodic high point. The excitement of the music clearly parallels the mood of the text at this moment.

From measure 11, the piece skips along as the hunters prepare themselves for their day of adventure. They rouse each other and then rouse the dogs. They wake “Viola” and “Primera,” which might be the dogs formerly mentioned, since these feminine names were probably not names of any male hunters. However, there is evidence that women were allowed to, and sometimes did, join the hunt during the Middle Ages, as shown in this contemporary depiction below. For a further discussion of these names and their possible symbolism, see further below.

Up until about measure 18, we are firmly oriented about F-major, which ornaments the excited rhythm of the music with a sense of joyousness. However, by measure 18 we begin to move out of an F-major center, and by measure 23, we are firmly in a new center on A-minor once everyone is “in place” “on the mountain’s side”, as the text of the measure translates. The A-minor mood persists until the Ritornello beginning in measure 47. The minor mode (A-aeolian to be more precise) further heightens the drama of the music. With a move from major to minor, we add a sense of anxiety – a move from simple excitement upon waking for the hunt to the excitement of the hunt itself, a mood tinged with adrenalin as everyone waits on the mountain with the anticipation of the approaching kill.

The music from measure 23 to 30 stays within a confined range and does not break out into the melodic extremes until the “Sta' avvisato!” (“Watch out!”) of measure 30. At this point, the melody does a very literal call, all re-percussed on the high F. As used before to call everyone awake in measure 11, the high F is used here again to call everyone to attention. After this call to attention, the melody drops again, more quietly imploring everyone to “Beat the bushes on every side” in search of the allusive prey.

Once “the horn is sounding” again in measure 34, both voices break out into the high extreme of their range. The "comes" (or following voice of the canon) calls out again with “Sta' avvisato!” (“Watch out!”) and the "dux" (or leading voice of the canon) hits the highest point in the entire piece on a high-A, calling out “Ayò, ayò! A te la cerbia vene!” (“Hey, hey! The deer is coming your way!”), either imitating the excited call of the hunter to his companions or the sound of the aforementioned horn. Cleverly, this musical portrayal blurs the lines between the sound of the horn and the call of the man. Furthermore, both canonic voices cleverly coincide their climatic calls, each reinforcing the other’s excitement and solidly bringing the piece to its climax.

This high range and excitement are maintained until the second voice (the comes) does its call on high-A. After this call in measure 40 through 42, the music winds down when the dog, “Carbon”, has clearly caught the prey. The piece moves quickly from a strong center in A-minor back into the original center of F-major, guiding the emotional transition away from the anticipation of the kill and back to the jubilation of the beginning.

The hunt is not over however! The mood of the music suddenly changes with the arrival of the Ritornello (“refrain”) section, accompanied by a dramatic shift in modality to G-minor (or G-Dorian to be precise). One of the hunters “who was up on the mountain” calls out to remind us that there is more hunting to be had. While we might be satisfied with our first success, the day is long from over. He calls out, “Now to the other deer!” and then he blows his horn. The singing voices cleverly imitate the sound of alpine horn calls in measures 52 through 56 with the perfect-fourth leaps between high D’s and G’s. The piece then comes to a quick close with a cadence from G-minor to the original tonal center of F.

While the piece is simple in is contents and generative form, Gherardello has done a subtly masterful job of making a process oriented piece, like a canon, into a convincing and dramatically compelling vignette. He has accomplished this, first, by timing critically dramatic arrival points of the voices so that they coincide. Second, he uses the tenor voice to cleverly reorient the harmony of the upper voices so that we have emotional shifts throughout the piece, paralleling the emotions implied by the text. Last, he uses the singing voice in such a way as to imitate the sounds of the natural voice and the hunting horn, all to serve the context of the text’s dramatic arch.

It is clear on many levels why this is and was considered the greatest recorded work of Gherardello. It is not only a piece that is readily entertaining to listen to (whether you know the text of not), but it is also a cleverly and carefully constructed piece that clearly fuses music and text into a relatively complex narrative drama using only the austere and simple resources of the canon.

What’s in a Name?

Any symbolism of the names in the poem is questionable. Given the available symbolism and Medieval/Classical mythology that would have been known to 14th century Italians, the best hypothesis I can make regarding these names (if there is even any intended symbolism), is that they reference either the general character of women, dogs, or or the arrival of Spring. The spring hypothesis seems unlikely however, since it requires the corruption of “Primera” into the Italian word for Spring, “Primevera”. Thus, I favor either the women or dog hypothesis.

Because the violet is low growing and its flowers are obscured under its leaves it was often associated during the Middle Ages not only with humility or chastity, but also affection, faithfulness, and watchfulness, all reasonably desirable characteristics of a virtuous woman or loyal dog.

Primera” could perhaps be a medieval corruption of the Italian “primo” or “prima,” since in modern usage “primera” is not Italian but Spanish (alas, my Medieval Italian is not what it could be). Thus, “Primera” could simply be a lady’s name or reference that dog which is the “best” or the “first” - the alpha dog necessary to take on any hunt to lead the pack of hounds.

In conclusion, these names seem somewhat confusing. The most likely interpretation in my mind is that If they are names of some female fellow hunters, which is possible during the Middle Ages. If they are dogs, which seems less likely, we must accept the corruption of “Primera” into the modern “prima”. Since any variety of names could have been picked, one should think that these names were picked for a reason. Unfortunately, the full reason, if one exist, is not available to me.

Italian Text:

Tosto che l'alba del bel giorno appare, ,

disveglia gli cacciatori:

“Su, ch'egli è tempo! Alletta gli cani.” “Tè, Viola! tè, Primiera tè!”

“Su 'alto al monte co' buon' cani a mano

e gli brachetti al piano

e nella piaggia a ordine ciascuno!” “Io veggio sentiro uno de' nostri miglior bracchi!”

“Sta' avvisato!”

“Bussate d'ogni lato ciascun le macchie,

chè Quaglina suona!” “Ayò, ayò! A te la cerbia vene!

carbon l'a pres'ed in bocca la tene.”

Del monte que' che v'era su gridava:

“A l'altra, a l'altra!” e suo corno sonava.

English Translation:

As soon as the dawn of a fine day appears

It awakens the hunters.

“Get up! It is time! Rouse the dogs!”

“Up, Viola! Up, Primera, awaken!”

“Up the mountain now, with the good dogs on their leashes,

and the hounds down on the plain,

and on the mountain’s side every one in place.”

“There, I see one of our best hounds sniffing!”

Watch out!”

“Beat the bushes on every side the horn is sounding!” “Hey, hey! The deer is coming your way!”

Carbon has caught it in his mouth and is holding it!”

The man who was up on the mountain called out: “Now to the other deer!” And he blew his horn.


Primary Sources:

Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana [I-Fl], MS Mediceo Palatino 87 “Codex Squarcialupi”, no. 40 fol 25v-26r.

Bibliothèque Nationale [F-PN], MS fonds italien 568 “Pit”, no. 40 fol. 25v-26r.

British Library [GB-Lbl], Add. MS 29987, no 31 fol. 25r.

Secondary Sources:

Atlas, Allan W. Renaissance Music: Music in Western Europe, 1400-1600. New York: Norton, 1998.

Davison, Archibald T., and Willi Apel. Historical anthology of music: Oriental, Medieval and Renaissance

music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.

Huck, Oliver. "The Early Canon as Imitatio Naturae." In Canons and Canonic Techniques, 14th–16th

Centuries: Theory, Practice, and Reception History; Proceedings of the International Conference, Leuven, 4-6 October 2005, edited by Katelijne Schiltz and Bonnie J. Blackburn, 19-46. Leuven: Peeters, 2007. 7-18.

Tertiary Sources:

Ernest H. Sanders and Peter M. Lefferts. "Voice-exchange." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music

Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 18, 2016,


Kurt von Fischer and Gianluca D’Agostino. "Caccia." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford

University Press, accessed December 18, 2016,


______"Gherardello da Firenze." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press,

accessed December 18, 2016,


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