Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and the Secular Music of Quattrocento and Cinquecento Italy

(Fresco from Simone Martini’s public fresco in Assissi, Italia. For more information on this Italian master of fresco art, see

Medieval music is my favourite area of research to explore. Every time I read up on it, I find that I discover more areas for further exploration, higher degrees of intricacy and artistry and completely “new” sounds to explore. From the depth of tone of polyphonic chant, the chansons of the French trouvéres to the remaining Sephardic musical tradition from Andalusia, there is a world of genre music and artistry to be found in a tradition that spans a millennia. Many associate this period in history with stifled creativity, monotonous chant and repressive institutions. These all may be part of the history of the middle ages, however, they are just that – a single part of a world that contained diverse models of artistic production and beautiful expressions of creativity.

This blog post was initially inspired in part by Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, an enormously successful fantasy novel which follows a troupe of actor-musicians (jongleurs – if you prefer) as they become involved in a plot of resistance and restoration of the eradicated empire of Tigana. Guy Gavriel modeled the world of his novel on the history of early modern Italy, where city states continually would invite foreign powers to invade to help them ward off worse enemies (this would, not surprisingly, often be the Pope). The musician-actor protagonists of the novel are introduced early on, with a brawl in a tavern and a performance of mourning song for the royal family. While Kay insists that the world drawn in his novel is intended specifically to be Renaissance Italy, I found a connection to Chinese mourning performances in the latter instant. It is quite common for families to hire bands to sing songs of mourning and wailing throughout China when a beloved family member passes – often engaging in physically intensive wailing. For an east-Asian audience, such performances would be readily familiar – for a Euro-North American one – they are without doubt less common. I recommend reading Liao Yiwu’s Corpse Walker for fuller and more intricate details, as well as a fascinating book in its own right.

Kay’s Tigana is hardly alone in staging a medieval plot of intrigue viewed through the eyes of an actor – one finds many such examples among media – including perhaps most famously Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal which does focus on the life and death of a crusader – but extensively follows the lives of an acting troupe, who accompany him on his long journey. Kay’s actor-musicians are very much in line with the representation in Seventh Seal, notably performing a wide variety of skills, including acting, musicianship and storytelling. Musicians in the medieval period were hardly just a musician. A musician had to be a skilled actor, clown and storyteller in order to find continuous work across the medieval world. The jongleur a term which refers to musicians, actors and most literally to “jugglers” – was an every(wo)man of entertainment – a person who could accomplish a wide variety of performances and make a career out of it.  Because of the close association between the fictional world of Tigana and that of early modern Italy, this post will focus primarily on the music of Italy during the QuattroCento.

Prior to diving in to some of the most distinctive aspects of this period in Italian music, it is worthwhile to consider the significant cultural influence from the Troubadors and Trouvères of Southern France. Those who are acquainted with the various regions of Italy understand that while Italian may be the lingua franca, French, German and countless dialects each vie for their share of the linguistic landscape of the country. Northern and central Italy have long histories of French occupation that begin with Pepin and end with the fall of Napoleon in 1814. Northern Italy has been a multi-cultural landscape for the powers of Europe for several centuries and the influence of musical trends from other regions no doubt played a part in shaping what would come.

langue doc

(Image from p.216 Jeremy Yudkin’s Music in Medieval Europe)

The Troubadors/Trouvères (see the distinction between langue d’oc and langue d’o’i’l to understand this regional difference) were a group o professional artists who were accepted into the highest social circles as a result of their musical genius. Etymologically, the name “troubadours” derives from the Occitan word “trobar” (Yudkin 215) which means to “invent or compose” (215). An important distinction to make here, however, is that the Troubadors/Trouvères rarely performed their own music. Performance was accomplished by minstrels and joglars, a professional who excelled in a wide variety of entertainment purposes, as noted above. (215). While the lines between the two professions are certainly permeable, the Troubadors were generally considered of higher class than the jongleurs, who were regularly perceived as falling into the disreputable lower classes. The Troubador was a highly esteemed personage to find in a medieval court. As a result of their high standing, the Troubadors were able to travel far and wide and enjoy hospitality in foreign kingdoms and courts.  The most famous of these musical arrangers included the likes of Guillaume de Machaut, Adam de la Halle, and, believe it or not, Richard de Coeur Lyon (Richard the Lion Hearted) of England.


(Image from Elizabeth Aubrey’s Music of the Troubadors, p 256) Shown: a likeness of Perdigon of Lesperon.

One of the most popular and, according to Nesta de Robeck, the most “aristocratic” (De Robeck 65) of musical forms, the madrigal genre is essential in understanding the music of early modern Italy. The form is a “direct descendant” (65) of the Ars Nova, a theoretical musical movement that abandoned the unadorned Gregorian plain-chants in favour of polyphonic and iso-rhythmic choirs of four or five voices.  The Ars Nova is powerfully represented by the chansons of Guillaume de Machaut, the most celebrated of the French trouvères, who has left the world with not only excellent transcriptions of the messe de nostre Dame but some of the largest collections of secular chansons and medieval French folk music. It is in the tradition of Guillaume’s innovation and blending new rhythms and melodies with traditional chants that the Italian madrigal found fertile soil and grew into its own.

Luca Marenzio, a late cinquecento composer who had arranged roughly five-hundred madrigals over his lifetime, remains the representative composer of the genre. He is noted in music history as the predecessor of later developments in Italian music, namely the innovations of Monteverdi and the creation of opera as we roughly know it today. Luca was born in Coccaglio in 1553 near Brescia, Italy. His musical up-bringing is familiar to students of Italian music of the era: first finding a position in Rome under Cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo as a choir singer, later finding employment as, again, a choir member and later a composer, for the court of the Cardinal Luigi d’Este, a member of the ruling dynasty of Ferrara. Ferrara, while having the reputation of being the ruling grounds of some of the worst excesses of government tyranny during the period, was also, under the stewardship of Duke Ercole I (1471-1505), an ideal environment for the flourishing of the Italian musical arts. Ercole inaugurated a series of theatrical performances which Prof. d”Ancon called “the direct cause of the rise of secular drama in contradistinction to the old mystery plays and sacra rappresentazione” (72-3). Where other Italian cities still cursed secular (and sacred) drama and its supposed immoralities, the court and city of Ferrara regularly hosted productions of Terrence and Plautus and even an adapation of the legend of King Arthur by Orlando Innamorato ( 73). It is in this environment that Luca Marenzio was able to cultivate the art of the madrigal. Listen to this piece composed by Luca Marenzia and performed by Qvinta Essençia for a sampling of the most popular musical form of Early Modern Italy.

The developments and techniques most commonly associated with the Madrigal are demonstrated chromaticism, dissonance as a musical tool and “word painting” – a technique whereby a musical gesture(s) “reflects” the literal or figurative meaning of a phrase (from the Oxford Music Online). For example, if the words indicated that one is ascending to the heavens, the melody would contain a rising vocal line. This tradition undoubtedly arose from the creative expressions of the caccia, an Italian hunting song that often used complex rhythmic expression to indicate the speed of the chase and its participants. Another fun example to understand this type of musical expression is À L’Arme, À L’Arme, which I have linked below, a medieval piece that illustrates the hyperbolic expression of a fighting match in the voice-pairings.

So while my initial response to seeing the mourning music and travelling group in Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel evoked what I had read about Chinese ceremonial mourning performances, the novel is best understood in the context of music in late medieval and early modern Italy, whereby the jongleurs were paid to entertain, a job which involved playing music, the exhibition of strange animals, acrobatics, juggling, telling jokes and singing (Yudkin 351-2). Devin and his group of performers are no Gregorian plain-chanters, nor are they the aria singers of the later Casa Bardi. This kind of musical group is only possible in Quattrocento Italian culture, where the influence of the Troubadours made itself felt and initiated the rise of these complex vocal arrangements produced for the courts and aristocracies in the form of the madrigal.

Not only was the grand majority of music improvised through memory during this period, the overall trend towards the “second rhetoric” (385) in early modern music is representative of the complex obsessions with wordplay in the arts generally at this time. The second rhetoric was considered the revival of the great arts of rhetoric and oratory of the Classical Greek and Roman periods, one where clever word play, puns, elaborate imagery and intricate patterns of meter and rhymes were the prevailing artistic models and the arts, through music, the visual arts,  literature and even speech-making, all borrowed from this new obsessions with the ancient arts. Kay’s novel presents a world where the word is key to the continued existence of a place, namely, Tigana itself – a kingdom broken by the invading forces of two aligned-hostile dukes. In his creation of a world in which memory and wordplay are the essence of world-building itself, Kay pays homage to a tradition long ago and far away – and helps contemporary readers place themselves in this environment.

Works Referenced: 

Carter, Tim. “Word-Painting: Grove Music.” Word-Painting | Grove Music, Oxford Music Online, 28 Nov. 2017, Accessed July 14th, 2019. Website.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Penguin, 2016. Print.

Robeck, Nesta de. Music of the Italian Renaissance. Da Capo Pr., 1969. Print.

Yudkin, Jeremy. Music in Medieval Europe. Oxford University Press, 2017. Print.

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