Seicento presents music from a lavish 16th-century wedding

Musical interludes from La Pellegrina were unmatched for splendor

By Peter Alexander Nov. 1 at 3:30 p.m.

It was the wedding of the century.

The marriage of Fernando I de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, with Christina of Lorraine was celebrated in Florence, Italy, in 1589 with all the pomp and splendor of which only the Medici were capable. And they made sure everyone knew it, too.

Fernando I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Christina of Lorraine

One of the grandest events of the month-long celebration was La Pellegrina (The pilgrim woman), a five-act play that was embellished by six elaborate intermedii—musical interludes—with music by by six different composers. Placed before, after, and between the acts of the  play, these interludes featured extravagant sets and costumes and virtuosic music, all designed to demonstrate the wealth and power of the Medici family.

The musical interludes have been recorded but are rarely performed live—and as far as research can tell, never in Boulder until now. Selections from five of the six intermedii will form the next program by Seicento Baroque Ensemble, with performances Friday through Sunday in Boulder, Arvada and Longmont (times and locations below), under the direction of Seicento’s artistic director, Amanda Balestrieri.

Bernardo Buontalenti, costume design for La Pellegrina

For this performance, Seicento will only have 12 singers rather than the usual 25, due to COVID, but this core group will be supplemented by an additional paid singer and a solo octet, plus two violins, two violas da gamba, a theorbo/lute/Baroque guitar player and harpsichord. Proof of vaccination and masks will be required of all audience members. Both in-person and virtual tickets are available through the Seicento Web page.

It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of the wedding celebration, which was more than a year in planning, and especially the intermedii. While La Pellegrina the play made no great impression then or since, the musical interludes were clearly the most brilliant star of the event, which included banquets, balls, and even a mock naval battle. 

For the play and its attendant interludes an entire new theater was constructed, offering the latest in theatrical capabilities. The elaborate settings were designed by Bernardo Buontalenti, who set the standards for late renaissance stage spectacles. Music was commissioned from the best known Italian composers of the time, including the Florentine court composer Luca Marenzio, plus the early pioneers of Baroque opera Giulio Caccini, Jacopo Peri and Emilio de Cavalieri—names all prominent in music history if not in most listeners’ experience. 

Bernardo Buontalenti, costume design for La Pellegrina

So successful was the theatrical spectacle of La Pellegrina that it became the model in both musical and theatrical style for early Baroque opera, which for many years excelled as a means for courts and kings to display their wealth. The splendor of the intermedii remains unsurpassed by any stage music of the era, and they represent one original source of the entire artform of opera.

Balestrieri chose these pieces specifically for Seicento’s post-Covid return to the stage. Not only is the resumption of live performances a cause for celebration, the year also marks the ensemble’s tenth anniversary season. “I wanted a grand piece of great beauty that is less well-known,” she wrote in a description of the program. “[I wanted the concert] to stand out and offer some relief from the funereal music performances emerging in late pandemic programming.”

In an intriguing coincidence, Seicento’s founding 10 years ago grew from another Colorado premiere, of music written only a few years after La Pellegrina. That performance of the Vespers composed in 1610 by Monteverdi led directly to the current Seicento ensemble.

Balestrieri explains how she arrived at the singers who will perform the music from La Pellegrina. “Our chorus is a volunteer chorus,” she writes. “Many singers decided to wait until the spring to sing with us again because of COVID, either for their own health or their children’s, since some have young children not yet eligible for the vaccine.

“Anticipating this, I hired one additional chorus tenor, making 13 total singers (for) the full chorus, plus eight chorister/soloists to make up the solo octet that will sing everything. A few of the full chorus will join the octet for a few numbers, the full chorus sings about four choruses, and the octet sings the rest of the numbers.”

She decided not to attempt the entire musical score, which runs more than 90 minutes, both because one venue asked Seicento to limit its performance to 60 minutes as a COVID precaution, and also because of limited rehearsal time for the singers. With a total time of about 50 minutes for the music, Balestrieri expects the entire performance to finish in about an hour, with no intermission.

Both the subjects and the social milieu of the intermedii are likely unfamiliar to most modern listeners, but Balestrieri has taken that fact into account. “The intermedii were originally elaborately costumed and staged tableaux representing both mythological stories well-known to the original audience and homage to the royal couple,” she writes in her notes to the performance. 

Bernardo Buontalenti, design for the final scene of La Pellegrina

 “The context will be explained in the program, and the texts and translations should do the rest.”

And so for the Seicento performance, there will be no royal couple. And no elaborate costumes, much less the lavish stage machinery of the original. But much of the splendor resides in the music, and that will be very much present.

# # # # #

La Pellegrina: “An Italian Intermezzo” 
Music performed at the wedding of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Florence in 1589
Seicento Baroque Ensemble and guests
Amanda Balestrieri, conductor

7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 5, First United Methodist Church, Boulder
7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, United Methodist Church, 6750 Carr St., Arvada
3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 7, Stewart Auditorium, Longmont Museum

In person and virtual tickets available here.

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