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Music from the Time of Marco Polo 1
John Thompson and FA Schola
Tartu Early Music Festival, Tartu, Estonia
Assembly Hall, Tartu University Main Building; 7 October 2005, 7 PM
馬可波羅時代音樂 2
Performance at Tartu  

This program consists of music Marco Polo (1254-1324) could have heard in late 13th century Hangzhou, China, if indeed he went there; and music played in early 14th century Italy, after he says he returned home. John Thompson plays the Chinese music on the guqin silk string zither from tablature published in 1425 CE, but clearly copied from earlier sources. The Estonian early music group FA Schola plays the Italian music on flutes, bells and harp; the main source is the London manuscript BL. add. 29987 (London, British Library, Additional 29987), dating to about 1400, but also clearly containing older music.

Program Outline

The program alternates between the Chinese and Italian melodies; a few connecting notes are added to make some transitions more smooth.

  1. Istampita Isabella
    hear excerpt; read details
  2. Emperor Yu's Meeting at Mount Tu (8.33)
    - Recalling China's past glory; a melody intended to instruct Kublai Khan
  3. Istampita Palamento
    - also Istampita Parlamento; hear excerpt; read details
  4. Celestial Air Defining Ruibin Mode (1.19) and
    Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers (listen; 5.57)
    - modal prelude, then political protest shrouded in a description of natural beauty
  5. Istampita Tre Fontane
    - hear excerpt; read details


  6. Guangling Melody (22.06; anon.)3
    - Nie Zheng avenges his father by killing the King of Han: longest melody in the repertoire
  7. From Quan ye voy le duc tens venir (anonymous; hear excerpt) and
    Allelulia (Johannes Tinctoris; hear excerpt)
    - from caccia/madrigali in Codex Rossi, and from a mass in a Segovia Cathedral manuscript
  8. No Ulterior Motives (2.12) and
    Wine Mad (listen; 2.41)
    - attaining one's aims without desire; using drunkeness to avoid serving corrupt rulers
  9. Istampita Belicha
    - hear excerpt; read details

On the Marco Polo theme page there is a general introduction to qin melodies relevant to this theme; timings are from the Shen Qi Mi Pu recordings. The Italian melodies as played here are all about 8 to 10 minutes long.

The main source for the Italian melodies, the London manuscript BL. add. 29987, is a unique manuscript containing some of the most interesting medieval monodic instrumental music. Its 88 folios (123 titles) were written down in Italian trecento notation near Milan, Italy, around 1400, but its music is clearly older. Most notable are the 15 long and extremely interesting estampies (istampita) and salterelli. The manuscript writes these out monophonically, and does not specify the instruments to be used. Those used here all have historic records from that time period.

The estampie was an important medieval dance and music form.4 Those in BL. add. 29987 shed some light on the structure, sonic textures and decorative techniques of 14th century Western instrumental music. We are aware that Arabic music had a considerably influence on the development of European music. Indeed, an Asian flavour can surely be felt in the estampies in question, yet they remain unmistakeably European.

Estampies are all are replete with chromaticisms. They typically have four to six verses, repeated twice, with an "open" and "closed" ending. Verses often incorporate a substantial portion of the music in the previous one, so they gradually grow in length. The first verse usually introduces the main theme of the piece, the second verse constitutes a variation of this theme in a high register, and the third in a low register. As a rule, the final verses have varying time signatures, often also changing in tonality.

The program has, in addition, a harp solo arranged from two important 15th century vocal scores. The first is included in Codex Rossi (1370, Italy, Venice; also called Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rossi 2155), one of the earliest surviving sources of Ars Nova music in Italy; the other is an Allelulia by Johannes Tinctoris (ca. 1430 - 1511), from a manuscript preserved in Segovia, Spain.6


John Thompson

For updated biographical notes, see in the 2008 program and the short website bio. Online music from the present program is linked at #4 and #8 above. More recordings at Hear Qin.

Centre of Early Music Festivitas Artium, Schola (FA Schola)

For updated information, see in the 2008 program

For this program FA Schola consists of the following performers and instruments. The links also are to the updated information in the 2008 program:

  1. Raho Langsepp, transverse flutes

    See in the 2008 program.

  2. Lilian Langsepp, medieval harp

    See in the 2008 program.

  3. Helena Uleksin, bell set and flute

    See in the 2008 program. 7

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Music from the Time of Marco Polo: 2007 Program (February; the 2008 program premiered December 2007)
With the large number of available melodies, many variations on the original program are possible. Thus, a new version of the program was played three times in Estonia for Chinese New Year 2007, 16 February in Parnu, 17 February in Tartu, 18 February in Tallinn.

For the 2007 program the qin melodies for these programs were as follows:

    First Half:
  1. Emperor Yu's Meeting at Mount Tu (8.33)
    - Recalling China's past glory; a melody Mao Minzhong intended to play for the edification of Kublai Khan
  2. Song of the Woodcutter (07.43)
    - By contrast, Mao Minzhong expresses a leisurely life in the country, avoiding a sullied society

    Second Half

  3. (Defining) Jiao Mode (1.10)
    Exemplary Woman Prelude (3.35)
    - Honoring a virtuous woman of ancient times
  4. Celestial Air Defining Jiao Mode (0.48)
    Ascending the Great Void (2.27)
    Liezi Rides the Wind (5.36)
    - With an appropriate frame of mind, a Daoist can be anywhere at any time
  5. Three Repetitions of "Plum Blossom" (6.04)
    The earliest known version of one of the most popular qin melodies: two friends meet; one plays "Plum Blossom" on the flute.

    Further alternates/substitutions:

  1. (Defining) Gong Mode (1.02)
    Seeking Seclusion (3.10)
    - Finding an honorable friend
  2. Wine Mad (6.05)
    - a drinking song
  3. Captured Unicorn (3.10)
    - Confucius sees a bad omen

FA Schola played music from the 2005 program plus Chinese melodies for the New Year; there was also something played together: part one; part two - digitized.

2. "Marco Polo" in Chinese
There is more than one way of writing the name "Marco Polo" in Chinese. 4550.122 says "馬可波羅一譯馬哥孛羅". In modern Chinese "馬可波羅" is pronounced "Ma ke Bo lo"; "馬哥孛羅" is pronounced "Ma ge Bo lo". It is also often the custom when transliterating foreign names to separate them, thus 馬可•波羅, etc. Since apparently there is no record of Marco Polo having been mentioned in pre-modern Chinese documents, there is no officially correct way of writing his name in Chinese. (Return)

3. Guangling San has a beautiful virtuoso style, but its 21 minute length may swing the mood to strongly in one direction. See footnote above for a sample program without Guangling San. (Return)

4. See the Wikipedia online article. Christiane Schima: Die Estampie, Thesis Publishers, Amsterdam 1995. is "probably the best commentary written on the subject" (Raho Langsepp). (Return)

5. The original is polyphonic. (See also the version in a Florence manuscript dated ca. 1380/90 or 1400.) (Return)

6. The original is polyphonic. See #28 in a Tinctoris work list. (Return)

7. There are numerous medieval illustrations of small chime bells, most commonly showing them played by the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Some illustrations are online, for example, at nnms and wc. (Return)

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