The Borgias - a musical background

February 26, 2013

Musical selections from The Borgias
by Edward C. Yong

Just as 3PP's reviews of The Borgias have focused on the art and historical events of the era, the show also contains selections of music designed to evoke the feel of the period. As a practitioner of early music, I am often asked about the accuracy of the background music used in the series, so would like to offer the following clarifications and examples. Generally speaking, there was a reasonable amount of period music, though with some distinct exceptions. The following examples are from the first season of the show, including the episode depicting Lucrezia's wedding, which receives the most interest for its musical selections.

Episode 1 & 2 : The Poisoned Chalice/The Assassin
During the opening scene of the death of Pope Innocent VIII, the sombre choral music is O Vos Omnes (a 6) by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1612), Prince of Venosa. Gesualdo's style is dissonant, weirdly chromatic (even Stravinsky thought him strange), and emotionally intense. Sometimes his style is described as 'spooky', and Gesualdo himself was a tormented character, and his life can only be described as colourful. O Vos Omnes, liturgically is the Fifth Responsory from Tenebrae (Matins) of Holy Saturday. The text reads "O all ye that pass by attend and see: If there be any sorrow like unto My sorrow", referring to Christ in agony, and is rather appropriate for a deathbed scene. The piece itself was not published until 1611, and Gesualdo was only born in 1566, making the music more than 100 years too late for the scene in question.

The next selection of period music occurs during the post-conclave genital examination scene. The folksy lute piece is a Pavane by Pierre Attaingnant (c.1494-1551), and is reasonably in style for the period. I can't find a reference anywhere, but I suspect the piece is track 3 from Between Two Hearts by the lutenist Ronn McFarlane. I wouldn't be surprised, as two tracks by McFarlane are used in the opening episode of Season 2, as Ronn McFarlane's blog tells us. link

When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia changes from his red cardinalatial robes to the white papal robes, the choral bit is Ierusalem, Surge (a 6) by Gesualdo. Liturgically, this is the Second Responsory from Tenebrae (Matins) of Holy Saturday. The music is dramatic, like a light piercing the darkness, but the text is rather sombre: "Arise, O Jerusalem, and put off thy garments of joy; put on ashes and sackcloth: For in thee was slain the Saviour of Israel. Shed thy tears like a torrent, day and night, and let not the apple of thine eye be dry." Definitely not a happy piece, unless the musical producer intended a sort of subtle commentary on the election of such a man as pope. 

During the procession through the streets of Rome on the way to St Peter's for the papal coronation, the most anachronistic and unsuitable music appears: Zadok the Priest by Georg Friedric Händel, which was written for the 1727 coronation of George II of Great Britain. To Anglophiles, this piece really is the quintessential piece of coronation music. Nevertheless it was intended for the coronation of a secular Protestant monarch, and hence out of place for a Papal coronation, not to mention being over 200 years too late. As the new pope enters St Peter's, Ierusalem, Surge gets played again. Nicely dramatic, but also anachronistic.

Episode 3: The Moor
The music playing during the consistory scene is Vidi Speciosam by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), a Spaniard from Castille, who became the leading composer of the Roman School of sacred polyphony together with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Victoria's style is marked by symmetry, plentiful imitation, and a mystical intensity. Eventually ordained as a priest in Rome, he was at various times organist and chapelmaster for the German College, the Roman Seminary and Saint Apollinare in Rome. He returned to Spain in 1587, being named by King Philip II as chaplain to his sister, the Dowager Empress María, daughter of Charles V, at the Monasterio de las Descalzas de Sabnta Clara at Madrid from 1581. Victoria worked for 24 years at Descalzas Reales, as chaplain and convent organist.

Alexander VI and Cattaneo discuss the upcoming marriage of Lucrezia and Giovanni Sforza while Lucrezia takes dancing lessons from a teacher playing a dancing-master's kit. This scene is rather interesting from a musician's perspective, as it is done in a recognisably 16th-17th century manner, with the dancing master providing the dance melody. The instrument the teacher plays is a Kit Violin, also called a Pochette or Dancing Master's Kit, and is a small violin meant to fit into a pocket, used by dance masters in noble courts as well as street musicians. The first mention of this instrument is in 1517, but it could well have existed already at the time of the story.

Lucrezia and the son of the Doge of Venice dance outside the audience hall. The music is an Italian saltarello of the 14th Century, and is the first example of music in the series that would have existed at the time of the events, though possibly about 100 years too early and might have been out of fashion by this time.  A saltarello was a lively dance characterised by leaps and jumps, so the little hops made by Lucrezia and the Venetian boy are quite appropriate. The music in question may be found as the second part of track 8 on the cd by the Dufay Collective.

Episode 4: Lucrezia's Wedding
During the wedding ceremony itself, the music is Salve Regina by William Cornysh (English, 1465-1523), taken from the Eton Choirbook, compiled around 1490-1502. The piece is typical of the florid Tudor style popular in the British Isles at this time.

It seems the greatest interest is in the music for the ball after Lucrezia's wedding. While the music is clearly not actually played by the band shown, the band is a good attempt at the appearance of a Renaissance dance band. Visible are at least 2 viols, 3 Renaissance lutes, bowed strings (vielles?), recorders and cornetti. An archlute is visible at, even though lutes with extended necks do not appear till the late 1580s.

The first dance when Giovanni Sforza and Lucrezia bow to each other and Lucrezia talks about Giovanni's voice is a late 14th century Italian trotto, played on recorders and bowed strings (possibly rebecs, vielles or viols) and Renaissance guitar. The music may be found as the second part of track 8 on the cd by the Dufay Collective, also posted at YouTube (below).

When the couples start dancing the earlier saltarello is repeated - this is quite appropriate as the two pieces are found next to each other in manuscript. Cesare, bringing his mother in, speaks of dancing a passamezzo, which is a duple-metre dance popular in Italy c.1550-1650. Music for the passamezzo is all based on a 8-bar chord progression, and exists in two versions, the passamezzo antico and moderno. The well-known Greensleeves is based on the Romanesca bass, a variant of the passamezzo antico.

The livelier dance with words and castanets is A La Buena Vida, composed around 1611 by the Spanish composer Juan de Arañes. Unfortunately it is not a passamezzo, as Cesare mentions earlier, but rather a chaconne, but never mind! The track is taken from Villancicos Danzas Criollas 1550-1750 by Jordi Savall, Hespèrion XXI & the Cappella Reial de Catalunya. For those interested in seeing a live performance, watch this version performed in 2010 by an Italian ensemble:

What would have been nice is some music from the Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez, regarded as the greatest composer of the Renaissance by all his peers and many succeeding generations, would have been extremely appropriate. Josquin worked for the Sforza family in the 1480s, first for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in exile at Ferrara, then the senior Sforzas at Milan. He was then a member of the Sistine choir from 1489 to 1495, under Innocent VIII and Alexander VI. He would likely have sung at the coronation of Pope Alexander VI as well as the consistory that created Cesare Borgia cardinal. Recent restoration work has revealed a 'JOSQVINJ' carved into the wall of the Sistine Chapel together with the the names of hundreds of other singers in what appears to be a traditional practice from the 1400s till the 1700s, and may be the only autograph we possess of his. Musical examples here: link

In the course of preparing for this post, 3PP received many requests to identify the song performed by young Benito Sforza in the season 2 episode The Choice. The song type appears consistent with a Renaissance frottola, but to date identification has eluded us. If anyone can identify the song, or confirm it was a creation for the show, please leave a comment below - hniyazi

edit many thanks to Christian Opitz of  L'Historien Errant for the ID of the frottola left in the comments below. Per fuggir d'amor le punte is by Marchetto Cara - a performance by Marco Beasley can be heard below.

Further searches reveal that the TV show version was performed by a young singer named Michael Cheney (and not the actor playing Benito - Noah Silver). This version can be heard here link.

Edward C. Yong read Classics at King's College London, and lives in Singapore, where he teaches Latin & Greek, sings bass and plays lute in Cappella Martialis, Singapore's only early music ensemble (link). His interests include fencing, church history & liturgy, as well as eating and drinking far beyond his doctor's orders.


Edward Goldberg said...

Edward and Hasan--Many thanks for this fascinating discussion! You have rendered a valuable service to those who have been scratching their heads over the musical signals sent off by the Borgias series. I see that they are every bit as strange and varied as the visual signals--but similarly, they tend not to be entirely invented. In regard to Benito Sforza's mysterious song, I cannot comment on the music (or the little of it that survives Benito's rendering) but the Italian is triggering serious alarms. "Vagabondo in piano e monte" seems like a bit too much of a good thing, rather in the romantic mode, with Leopardi and Pascoli coming to mind (nineteenth century). And I find myself thinking of Nino Rota's "What Is A Youth?" for Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet". In fact, if Nino Rota cooked up a unused piece of occasional music for that film and it was translated back into Italian, it might run something like this! I hope that others will have more concrete ideas. But in the meantime, many many thanks! Ed G.

Anonymous said...

What a great post, thank you! Not that I've ever seen The Borgias, but I do love that kind of music and, coincidentally, A La Buena Vida in the Jordi Savall version has been on heavy rotation on my stereo for several weeks now :-)

Regarding the frottola mentioned in the addendum: It appears to be a piece titled Per Fuggir d'Amor Le Punte composed by Marchetto Cara who, according to wikipedia, was well-conneceted with the Gonzaga and Medici and lived from c. 1470 - c. 1525.

Unknown said...

Wonderful! Many thanks @historienerrant for the ID. Marchetto Cara it is - I will update the post and embed a vid, giving full credit of course

@Edward Goldberg - I had a feeling it wasn't a later pastiche!


Edward Goldberg said...

Many thanks to Marcus Opitz! Now we know--vagabondo in piano e monte, et al! The Marco Beasley performance really is gorgeous, isn't it?!

TheFascinated said...

Please continue on with season 3! This series of articles has been very interesting and informative. It's a wonderful supplement to the show for someone interested in both art history and the show's deviation from historical record. It has also been a useful comparison to the A&E show Borgia, which is great (I recommend watching to any fans of this show) and SOME what more historically accurate at times, although of course artistic license is taken there as well. I am most intrigued by the events of Season 3, and passionately ask you to post more articles! Even if they are compacted and less often, it would be great to read about the true events relative to those in "Lucrezia's Gambit" (307) and those regarding Naples leading up to it. I'm also curious about what is known more about Micheletto. And it is quite amusing to recognize works of art and pieces of music from periods after the show's timeframe. My knowledge of art history is in its formative stage, so these articles are quite inspiring to continue that education. I will continue to research in my own time(which is limited as an undergrad), but these articles are a wonderful way to learn about this historical fiction television hobby of mine! Thanks for the music supplement, it was the missing piece! Please continue on with season 3!

Thingumbob said...

Many thanks for your article. I would be very grateful to see a scene with Leonardo da Vinci playing his famous lute at some future date in one of these supposed period pieces.

me said...

I second this plea. We miss your reviews. I loved reading them for season 1 and 2. And watching without them feels incomplete.

Natalie said...

Are you going to review another Borgia show, from Tom Fontana and Canal+? I found it to be much more compelling and historically accurate than Neil Jordan one.

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