Queen of the Arts: Catherine de’ Medici

Feb 13, 2019 | blog, Le Jardin, Renaissance | 0 comments

In our April program, Le Jardin de Mélodies, we will journey to 16th-century France to experience the music popular at the exclusive Parisian royal court.

During the 1500s, France was ruled by a series of kings who were part of the Valois dynasty, including three brothers—Francis II (who ruled from 1559 to 1560), Charles IX (1560 to 1574), and Henry III (1574 to 1589). While these men all held the title of “King of France,” a powerful woman was behind the scenes, guiding their political and cultural decision-making from the beginning: their mother, Catherine de’ Medici.

Catherine ruled as regent for her first two sons—Francis and Charles, who were only 14 and 10 when they came to power, respectively—and was also heavily influential in the court of her third son, Henry. All told, Catherine was a de-facto ruler of France for almost 30 years, making her one of the most powerful female leaders in French history.

As a member of the elite Medici family in Italy, Catherine was exposed to fine art, music, architecture and dance as a child, and is credited with bringing many of these Italian traditions into France when she married Henry II of France in 1533 at the age of 14.

When Catherine moved to France, she brought with her many of the most accomplished architects, woodworkers and artisans of northern Italy. She also brought well-known Italian musicians and dancers, insisting that her ladies of the court, and later, her fours sons, be trained in dance. This led to the creation of a new art form—the ballet de cour (or ballet of the court), which were stylized dance moves performed by noblemen and women, similar to a ball.

Under the influence of Catherine, the French court also became famous for putting on extravagant entertainments, known as magnificences, that featured jousting, fireworks, and fully-staged dramatizations, often based on Greek myths, that heavily featured music, dance, and poetry. This developed into what we think of ballet today, with music, dance and verse set into a coherent story.

These lavish public entertainments were politically savvy: Catherine used them to quell rumors that the French monarchy was going bankrupt and to promote civic harmony among the Catholics and Calvinist Huguenots during the Wars of Religion (1562-1598).

Although Catherine’s festivities didn’t bring the Catholics and Hugenots any closer together, they did have an enormous impact on the arts, as the popularity of this new type of entertainment spread throughout Europe.

In our program, we will be performing some of the music that was popular during Catherine’s time, including raucous dance music, ceremonial tunes, ballads for solo voice as well as polyphonic music for voices, all of which were published by the royal music publishers Adrien LeRoy and Pierre Attaingnant.

David Douglass, co-artistic director of the Newberry Consort, first explored this music in the mid-1990s as director of The King’s Noyse, an ensemble that also included lutenist Paul O’Dette and soprano Ellen Hargis. At the time, Douglass partnered with musicologist Kate van Orden to delve into the voix de ville repertory (a term that later became vaudeville), which would have been performed by a violin dance band in Catherine’s court.

That first program was originally inspired by a set of instruments from the court of her son, Charles IX, that still exist today at the National Music Museum in South Dakota. Douglass even had copies of those original violins made, which they played on their 1997 CD, “Le Jardin de Melodies.” We will be playing new replicas of those same instruments in our April concert as well.

In this concert, we hope to embody the raucous, revelatory spirit of the music that was popular during Catherine’s reign of influence. Our violin band will feature Douglass and Miriam Scholz-Carlson on violin, Allison Cooke and Daniel Elyar on viola; and Jeremy David Ward on bass violin. Other musicians will include O’Dette and Charles Weaver playing a variety of plucked string instruments, including Renaissance guitars, lutes, and citterns; Dan Meyers playing recorders, drums, tambourine, bagpipe, and pipe and tabor; and singers Hargis, Hannah De Priest, Matthew Dean, Nathan Dougherty and Joseph Hubbard.

We hope you’ll join us for this entertainment extravaganza April 5, 6, and 7!

And don’t miss our gala fundraiser, A Musical Banquet, following the April 7th matinee of Le Jardin de Mélodies! Join us for a four-course meal, live entertainment and a live auction at Evanston’s elegant Halim Time & Glass Museum. For more information on the gala, click here.

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