Lionheart will be performing April 6 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in conjunction with the gallery’s exhibit of 14th-century Italian art. Photo by Jim Allen

Lionheart brings back 14th-century hymns of praise

  • March 30, 2013

TORONTO - The Renaissance has always been worth looking at — all those gorgeous paintings and striking sculptures — but it’s also worth a listen.

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s current exhibition of religious art from 14th-century Florence — Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art — will have plenty of rarely seen and spectacular paintings, but it will also feature music that hasn’t been heard in centuries. The early music vocal group Lionheart will sing a program of hymns of praise from a Florentine collection called the Laudario of Sant’ Agnese.

It’s been impossible to sing these lauda, or songs of praise, since the early 19th century when the one-of-a-kind manuscript was pulled apart so that individual pages could be sold to collectors. Two pages remain missing, but 24 of the original 26 known pages have been brought together for this exhibition.

The Laudario of Sant’ Agnese was no ordinary hymn book. It was designed and illustrated by one of the most significant painters and craftsmen at the very beginning of the Renaissance, Pacino di Bonaguida. Di Bonaguida’s panel paintings of the crucifixion of St. Nicholas, St. Bartholomew, St. Florentius and St. Luke will be on display. Music that inspired some of the artist’s work will be played in the gallery.

Putting the Laudario back together is one of the accomplishments of the AGO exhibit, which has been jointly mounted with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The original book featured paintings on the left-hand pages with the first few lines of music and text below the painting. But the rest of the song was on the right-hand page, which was the back of another painting.

“When the page gets cut out of the book, the page with the painting, it just gives you the beginning to the music,” said Lionheart co-founder and baritone Richard Porterfield. “You’re lucky if you get a few lines. And then on the back of that page are the words to the end of another song, which doesn’t help you at all.”

Once Lionheart had a complete manuscript, there was a serious musicological effort that went into figuring out how the music would have sounded as it was performed by tailors, butchers and construction workers who would have gathered in the Compania di Sant’ Agnese — a kind of prayer group cum union of a rising class of urban tradesmen.

“That’s sort of the geeky side, figuring out that in Quartona they sung that syllable on a G but in Florence they sung it on an A,” Porterfield told The Catholic Register.

The notation for the music is very similar to standardized notation for Gregorian chant. The difference is that this wasn’t liturgical music. It was closely related to folk song and dance music of the time. That means it should have a meter to match the rhythmical poetry the music is based on.

“There’s some irregularity and quite a bit of syncopation in our version. It’s definitely an interpretation,” said Porterfield.

Listeners will be able to tap their toes, he said.

Lionheart is looking forward to performing surrounded by the paintings and sculpture of the time and place where these lauda were originally part of daily life.

“We strive for everything we can to allow the listeners to be transported to the time and place,” said Porterfield.

Lionheart’s performance at the AGO’s Walker Court is free with admission to the gallery. The music begins at 2 p.m. April 6.

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