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2 July 2008


Savonarola is intensely loved by diverse and contrary people for diverse and contrary reasons; and intensely hated by equally diverse and contrary people for equally diverse and contrary reasons. The friar's influence on art, politics, philosophy and religion has been debated for six centuries. Patrick Macey's book Bonfire Songs: Savonarola's Musical Legacy and its accompanying compact disk bring attention to his influence in the less considered realm of music. The first half discusses laude: the vernacular, extraliturgical songs that arose with the mendicant orders. Savonarola composed several, which were sung in processions and popular religious festivals during his republic.

More fascinating is the second half, discussing Latin motets musically alluding to the martyred friar, written by the greatest composers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Most commonly, this allusion was made by quoting a popular melody for Ecce quam bonum, the first verse of psalm 132, which was the motto of Savonarola. In his Lenten sermons, he often placed the tune on the lips of the elect when explicating his visions of doom. The Dominican friars of St. Mark sang it in procession several times weekly, and the citizenry of Florence spontaneously broke into choruses of Ecce quam bonum while throwing their vanities to the flames. After Savonarola was hanged and burned, it became an expression of solidarity and resolve among his disciples.

The tune was woven into complex polyphonic motets that served as coded eulogies sung to the friar at private low Masses in the court chapels of commiserative noblemen, or as statements of civicalism in the religious ceremonies of the restored Florentine republic. Outstanding examples of these include Jean Richafort's O quam dulcis and Philippe Verdelot's Laetamini in domino. The latter is particularly delightful; the Ecce quam bonum melody is sung in canon by the tenor voices in an AATTBB motet. Macey heard echoes of Savonarola in the setting of the Miserere by Josquin DesPrez.

The fiftieth psalm is associated with Savonarola because he wrote a gloss on it while awaiting execution. Having been brutally tortured on the rack, with only his right arm spared to enable him to sign his confession, the doomed friar wrote a stunningly beautiful meditation on the psalm. Wracked with guilt for having capitulated under torture and denied his visions, he was tempted to depair but found refuge in God. He began also a gloss of psalm 30, finishing only to the third verse before the summon of the hangman. The beginning paragraphs of these meditations were themselves set as polyphonic motets. At least seven motets of the Infelix ego were written: by Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, Nicola Vicentio, Simon Joly, Orlande de Lassus, Jacob Reiner, William Byrd. The setting by Byrd is the most famous, and one of the composer's greatest works. Two motets of the Tristia obsedit me are known, by Clemens non Papa and Claude Le Jeune.

Surprisingly, these contrapuntal extolments were to a man who detested polyphonic music. His harshest condemnation was preached on 5 March 1496:
The Lord wants not these things; rather He says: Remove from me the uproar of your songs, I will not listen to the songs of your lyre. God says: Take away your beautiful canti figurati. These signori have chapels of singers who appear to be in a regular uproar, as the prophet says here, because there stands a singer with a big voice who seems to be a calf and the others howl around him like dogs, and one cannot understand a word they say. Give up these canti figurati, and sing the plainchant ordained by the Church. You wish to play organs too; you go to church to hear organs. God says: I listen not to your organs.
One might facetiously observe that the admirers of Savonarola love him for such contrary reasons that they do not mind contradicting Savonarola himself. 

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