The title of Vilnius based international early music ensemble Canto Fiorito refers to florid singing, enriched with ornaments and diminutions and speaks about the dialogue between human voices and singing wind instruments, creating a wide palette of colours and expressive means that serve to the semantics of music.
Canto Fiorito started its activity in December of 2012 when early music professionals from various countries gathered in Vilnius to play the concert of Giovanni Battista Cocciola music, composed in this city in the seventeenth century. This musical experience inspired the formation of the team, passionate to continue making music together and building the grounds of historically informed performance in Lithuania. Consisting of 5 Lithuanian singers and various instrumentalists from Brazil, Argentina, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, Spain, United Kingdom, Poland, Lithuania and other countries, the ensemble is dedicated to the research and performance of medieval, renaissance and baroque music, with a special attention to the early music heritage related to the history of Lithuania. Soon after the formation of Canto Fiorito, it became the most active early music ensemble in Lithuania, which in two years produced 10 unique musical programs, mostly presenting to the public the pieces that have never been played in Lithuania before, performed in 16 concerts in 8 cities of Lithuania.
The ensemble is also dedicated to early music education in Lithuania, organizing commented educational concerts, lectures, seminars, master courses for pupils, students and teachers of music, professionals and amateurs players as well as all interested public. Canto Fiorito has implemented residency projects in small village of Paparčiai, actively involving communities of the region into early music activities.
Links between the past and present often disclose unknown layers of artistic life, as well as saving interesting facts of musical life from oblivion. The discovery of 17th-century manuscripts of musical scores has increased our historical store of later Lithuanian music, showing the everyday life and work of musicians who lived here. They have also helped to describe Lithuania’s long road to the family of Christian countries of Western Europe.
It all goes back to the mid-13th century when the united Baltic tribes created their own state – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In the 14th century the country developed a mighty military force, its lands stretching across the whole south-western part of Eastern Europe. Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas (c. 1275–1341), in an attempt to have closer ties with West European countries, sent letters to foreign lands inviting knights, merchants, crafts people as well as Franciscan and Dominican monks to come to the Duchy and work there. The capital city of Vilnius soon became the political and cultural centre of a large region. Political and economic factors were not the only important factors in the life of the Duchy – international ties expanded and news spread of the musical culture and of the music that was performed in the palace of the rulers.
The inter-dynastic union of the King of Poland and Lithuanian Grand Duke Sigismund the Old was instrumental in the spread of innovations in cultural life. In 1518 the latter married Princess Bona Sforza d’Aragon (1494–1557), a member of the powerful Milanese House of Sforza. The new queen and duchess maintained the traditions of Italian culture. She took good care of the education of her son Sigismund August (1520–1572), who while still a child, was elected Lithuanian Grand Duke, and in 1544 became the vice-regent in Lithuania, settling in Vilnius. During his rule, the renaissance-style palace of the Lower Castle was built in the capital city and the royal band was expanded. These musicians came from various countries to play string, wind and brass instruments, also percussion. Valentin Bakfark, a famous lute player in Europe, worked there for a long time. Diomedes Cato (before 1570 in Venice – after 1607), was a lute virtuoso player and composer, who served the Vasa family and other Commonwealth noblemen.
The changes in musical culture that took place at the turn of the 16th century were very important for Lithuania. The great stylistic discoveries and innovations of that period reached the country from Western Europe rather quickly. It was the time when the northern reserve that dominated public life in the 16th century became overshadowed by a baroque world vision.
At the end of the 16th century, when the Reformation movement had subsided and Catholicism revived, baroque art soon reached the northernmost Catholic country – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Many noblemen who wished to redeem their own sins and those of their fathers because of the confessional fallacies, returned to Catholicism and became patrons of Church art. Among other things they supported sacral music in the churches that they maintained.
Many innovations in musical life appeared between 1587–1648, when the country was governed by the rulers of the Commonwealth of the Two Nations – the representatives of the Swedish Vasa dynasty, famous for their exceptional love of Euterpe, the ancient Greek muse of music. The best performers were invited from Italy, among them the famous Italian composers Luca Marenzio, Tarquinio Merula and Marco Scacchi who worked for the royal band. Its instrumentalists – violinists, viola players, organists, trombonists, theorbo and lute players, also wrote secular and church works that reflected the spirit of the time. Italian musicians fostered various musical genres and spread essential baroque-style discoveries and innovations: basso continuo, seconda practica, stile moderno, musical rhetoric, theory of affects. functional harmony. All this was crowned by dramma per musica performances. In the palace of the Lower Castle in Vilnius there were three premieres: in 1636 Il ratto di Helena, in 1644 Andromeda and in 1648 Circe delusa. The band that was famous throughout Europe became a source of baroque music and a model to be followed by the noblemen in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
One of them was Leo Sapieha (1557–1633), a known statesman and military figure, diplomat, lawmaker, patron of arts, Vilnius voivode, Grand Hetman of the Duchy, who prepared for publication a distinguished juridical document – the Third Statute of Lithuania (1588). The world outlook of this nobleman was determined by his decision to turn to Calvinism from Orthodoxy and to become Catholic in 1586. Sapieha funded the construction and renovation of many churches, such as the Vilnius Bernardine monastery with the Church of St Michael, which later became the family mausoleum.
Sapieha kept close ties with the royal Vasas, not only as a statesman but also as an undoubted
authority on music, and was entrusted with the duty of managing the band. His moral beliefs
and religious devotion encouraged the nobleman to lavishly support church art, music and
The Vilnius royal band under Sapieha was known all over the country, while the greatest celebrity was its leader, Italian composer and performer Giovanni Battista Cocciola (second half of the 16th–beginning of the 17th century). His level of professionalism and creativity was, at the very least, the equal of any of his royal band colleagues. Since very little is known about the composer’s life either in his native country or abroad, literary mentions of his name allow much scope for different interpretations of his life. It is possible that Cocciola arrived in the Commonwealth of the Two Nations together with some of his countrymen. Soon he was noticed by Sapieha who invited him to lead the palace band, and there he spent a long period of his creative life. Serving a distinguished politician, Cocciola had many chances to socialise with his countrymen in the band, to share his experience and repertoire and make music with them at the Vilnius Lower Castle palace and sacral spaces.
The first mention of Giovanni Battista Cocciola as being a well-known composer of motets, was in a treatise by Michael Praetorius named Syntagma Musicum (1619, Leipzig).
Ernest Ludwig Gerber’s reference book Historisch-Biographisches Lexikon (1790, Leipzig) provides essential facts about the composer thus: “... a famous composer of the past century from Vercelli as the concertmaster of the Lithuanian chancellor Leo Sapieha. In Venice in 1612 a motet and four editions of a Mass for eight voices with basso continuo was published. In Bergman’s collection Parnassus musicus (1615, Venice) there are various motets by this composer.”
Another important source was Concentus harmonici ecclesiastici printed in Antwerp in 1625 of two-, three-, four- and five-voiced compositions with basso continuo. The title page points out: “Joannis Baptistae Cocciolae Vercelensis. Illustrissimi Domini D. Leonis Sapihae Cancellarij Magni Ducatus Lituaniae Musicae Magistri.”
Information about this publication was printed in the Frankfurt book fair catalogues in the autumn of 1625 and spring of 1626 (Karl Albert Göhler, Die Messkataloge im Dienste der Musikalischen Geschichtsforschung, Leipzig, 1901).
In the 18th century when the biographies of more famous composers started to be published, the name of Giovanni Battista Cocciola became known. He was noted as the concertmaster of the royal band of the Lithuanian chancellor Leo Sapieha, and that his motet and eight-voiced Mass with basso continuo were printed in Venice in 1612. The fact that Cocciola was a Sapieha musician, was also noted in other 19th-century publications.
This information was not only important for the composer but also for his employer – the name of Sapieha and his ambitions as an art patron were also made known to the world.
Cocciola’s works have been discovered in the collections of musical notes manuscripts in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany.
It is not known when Sapieha invited Cocciola to serve in his palace in Vilnius. Drawing on a 1612 publication in Venice it could have taken place at the beginning of the 17th century. It is also possible that Sapieha followed tradition and commissioned Cocciola to write music. Thanks to him, Cociolla’s music spread in neighbouring and more remote countries. Together with other Sapieha’s musicians, as was customary in those days, the composer undoubtedly accompanied his master on trips to the churches and monasteries funded by him. On those trips musicians used to copy printed and handwritten music sheets from one another and exchanged repertoires. In this way their work spread in the Commonwealth of the Two Nations and West European countries. Cocciola’s composing technique was similar to that of many other composers of sacral music, displaying both renaissance and baroque characteristics - the use of rhetoric figures, basso continuo and basso sequente, change of metre, polychorality, the melodic expression of polyphonic and harmonic texture. Their great variety demonstrates Cocciola’s exceptional talent and the extent to which his work enriched the musical life of the Commonwealth.
*In 1569 when the Lublin Union was concluded, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy
of Lithuania came to be called the Commonwealth of the Two Nations.