Francesco Canova da Milano

b Monza 18th August 1497- d 15th April 1543

His contemporaries called him "Il divino", "a miraculous lute player", he was the most famous lutenist of the Renaissance. Francesco Canova da Milano, was the son of a musician, Benedetto Canova, and was born in the small town of Monza, near Milan on 18th August 1497. Francesco, was possibly given some early instruction in the lute by Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa, one of the most renowned lutenists working for the Gonzaga family of Mantua, but he must have been a prodigious young player, for by 1519 he was already receiving payments from the papal treasury, having secured what must have been the most prestigious position for a lutenist in Italy.
In all, Francesco spent most of his adult life in Rome working in the service of popes Leo X, Adrian VI, Clement VII and Paul III. At some time between February 1526 and 1528, perhaps after the sack of Rome in 1527, he appears to have left papal employment and moved to Piacenza. Shortly after this, in 1530, he may also have been engaged as the organist at Milan Cathedral.
By 1535, however, Francesco was once again in Rome, this time as a lutenist in the service of Cardinal Ippolito de´Medici; he was also teaching Ottavio Farnese, the grandson of Paul III. In 1536 the first four printed editions of Francesco´s music appeared in Venice, Milan and Naples. These were the only publications pf his music to be published during his lifetime, but it was to prove to be only a small part of his total achievement as a composer. More music survives by Francesco than any other lutenist of the time; it can be found in over 40 printed tablatures, produced between 1536 and 1603 in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
His music is also found in 25 manuscripts of equally diverse provenance, including three English lutebooks. Francesco´s surviving output includes fantasias and ricercares, idiomatic and free-ranging pieces written specifically for the lute, and a large number of intabulations or arrangements of chansons, madrigals and motets. Apart from the duet version of La Spagna, however, there are no surviving dances by Francesco, but it seems unlikely that they were not part of his repertoire. It is quite probable that he invariably improvised his variations on the well known-dances of the day.
In fact, Francisco de Salinas, in his "De Musica" of 1577, recollects hearing Francesco at the court of Paul III improvise a galliard on the ground.
In 1538 Francesco was working in the household of another of the pope´s grandsons, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. He is described as "Messer Francesco da Milano, musico", and mentioned as being among the "gentilihomini et camerieri" of the Cardinal. In June of that year, Francesco, accompanied Paul III to Nice for his meeting with Charles V and Francois I. He played before Francois, who rewarded him handsomely with 225 livres for the pleasure he gave with his performance. Interestingly, one of the most reliable sources of Francesco´s music attributes two of his compositions to one "Francesco da Parigi" and it is possible that Francescos success in France was such that he stayed on after Pope Paul´s departure from Nice, long enough in fact to be called "Francesco of Paris".
By 1539, however, Francesco´s name appears once more on the papal account books. Francesco, very likely remained in the service of Paul III until the end of his life. During these later years in Rome he had as pupil the young Florentine, Perino degli Organi. Perino´s name first appears on the papal expense accounts in 1537, when he was only thirteen years old; he was later to become Francesco´s most distinguished pupil. In 1546, Perino, published one of the most reliable and thoroughly annotated editions of Francesco´s music.
Francesco died on 15th April 1543, survived by his father, Benedetto. A memorial tombstone for Francesco was erected by his father at the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Milan, but the church was destroyed to make way for the now world famous opera theatre, La Scala.
Although the influence of earlier lutenists can be found in Francesco´s works, the complexity and quality far exceeds those of all but a few of his contemporaries. His fantasias and ricercars range in style from the almost improvisatory works popular with his predecessors to finely honed pieces which employ point-of-imitation techniques. Throughout Francesco´s work one is impressed with his skill in manipulating and developing a few musical ideas until every permutation has been explored, but all the while maintaining a perfectly balanced structure within the composition.
His music is often flamboyant, virtuosic, passionate and complex, yet for the player, these demands are always well placed upon the instrument and sound well, not something that can be said about the compositions of many of his contemporaries. There are many descriptions of Francesco´s consummate skill as a performer, those that heard him were transfixed by the "angelic sound of the divine Francesco". None, however, is more telling than that of Pontus de Tyard, who in describing the powers of music, relates the story told him by Jacques Descartes de Ventemille of a performance by Francesco:

Music is the sovereign mistress for solacing grief, appeasing wrath, curbing boldness, tempering desire, healing sorrow, easing the misery of poverty, dispelling weakness, and soothing the pangs of love. You could relate....a great number of ancient stories on this subject, but you would hardly find one of a more striking proof than that which was recently told us to the same end by Monsieur de Ventemille...who while staying in Milan...was invited to a sumptuous banquet given in honour of one of the most illustrious groups of the city and in the house of the same elegance where, among other pleasures of rare things assembled for the happiness of these select people, appeared Francesco da Milano - a man who is considered to have attained the end (if such is possible) of perfection in playing the lute well.
The tables being cleared, he chosed one, and as if tuning his strings, sat on the end of a table seeking out a fantasia. He had barely disturbed the air with three strummed chords when he interrupted conversation which had started among the guests. Having constrained them to face him, he continued with such a ravishing skill that little by little, making the strings languish under his fingers in his sublime way, he transported all those who were listening into so pleasurable a melancholy that - one leaning his head on his hand supported by his elbow, and another sprawling with his limbs in careless deportment, with gaping mouth and more than half closed eyes, glued (one would judge) to those strings (of the lute), and his chin fallen on his breast, concealing his countenance with the saddest taciturnity ever seen - they remained deprived of all sences save that of hearing, as if the spirit, having abandoned all the seats of the senses, had retired to the ears in order to enjoy the more at its ease so ravishing a harmony; and I believe (said M. de Ventemille) that we would be there still, had he not himself - I know not how - changing his style of playing with a gentle force, returned the spirit and the senses to the place from which he had stolen them, not without leaving as much astonishment in each of us as if we had been elevated by an ecstatic transport of some divine frenzy...

Christopher Wilson
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