Caccia: Music for the Hunting Season

Hey, it’s almost hunting season! Time put on your camouflage gear, load up your rifle and … settle down by a crackling fire and listen to some music. Those poor animals never did anything to you, goddammit.

After all, we’re no longer living in the middle ages: a time when entertainment options were limited and killing animals was an acceptable pastime.

The caccia was a piece of music that described the hunt.

Pictured: medieval fun for all (except the deer)

The hunt was a major theme for artists in the middle ages: it’s the subject of countless tapestries and miniatures. Their musical equivalent is the caccia, which blossomed during the transitional period between medieval and renaissance music.

“A caccia should be served like a piece of venison meat: still a bit raw.”

Place and time: Trecento

If you were an art lover in fourteenth-century Europe, Italy was the place to be. Insanely rich rulers supported painters, sculptors and poets who added to their prestige. This Trecento was also the time when it became acceptable to write literature in your own dialect – instead of Latin. Writers such as Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio all jumped at that chance and earned their ticket to eternal fame.

And they’re not the only ones who did well. During the Trecento, the medieval craftsman was turning into the renaissance artist. This is the first era in music history for which we know so much important composers by name: Jacopo da Bologna, Niccolò da Perugia, … and the most famous of them all: Franscesco Landini. We even know what they looked like (sort of).

Caccia music composer Francesco Landini

Landini with his late-medieval keytar

Caccia: music that marries form and content

These Trecento composers specialized in secular songs: madrigals, ballatas and caccias. The caccia is a very specific kind of song:

  • The subject of its text is the hunt (inevitably mixed with some romance).
  • It’s for three voices of which the upper two sing (more or less) in canon.
  • It often contains sound imagery: onomatopoeia that imitate the sounds of the hunt.

As you can see, the form of the caccia is entirely appropriate for its subject. Because of the canon, the voices are actually chasing each other.

There are a lot of caccia music pieces in this Squarcialupi Codex.

Most caccias reached us through the Squarcialupi Codex. This page shows Gherardello da Firenze with his … accordion?

Listen to a caccia

Unfortunately, only about twenty caccias survived. What’s more, most recordings are a bit too smooth for my taste. A caccia should be served like a piece of venison meat: still a bit raw.

This recording of Gherardello da Firenze’s masterpiece Tosto che l’alba is a great example.

That’s the way I like it: without gently plucking instruments in the background and with singers who are not afraid to thread the fine line between singing and yelling like a wild boar in agony (just listen at 1:10). After all, that’s the whole point of a caccia, isn’t it?

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