Francesco Landini (ca. 1335-1397), the greatest Italian composer before the late 16th century, was also a poet.
Italian art music first came to the fore in the middle third of the 14th century. Earlier music—and there certainly was much of it—seems to have been largely confined to monophony: Gregorian chants and the songs of the troubadours and of St. Francis of Assisi. Then, suddenly, polyphonic music began to flourish in the mid-14th century, particularly in Florence, culminating in the work of the poet-musician Francesco Landini.
The son of a painter, Landini became blind in childhood because of smallpox; but he acquired great virtuosity on the organ, built organs, and invented a new stringed instrument, probably similar to the harpsichord, which emerged during his time.
Although honored as a poet in both Latin and Italian, Landini's extant poems are almost exclusively for his own musical compositions. These, although many seem to be lost, constitute about a quarter of all Italian music surviving from the period 1340-1480. They found widespread popularity and reappear in many manuscripts and in arrangements for keyboard instruments. Only one small fragment of a motet has come to light, although Landini is known to have written quite a number. What remains are 154 secular songs, which are of three types, madrigals, caccie, and ballate, all in two or three voice parts.
The madrigal, very different from the more familiar 16th-century type, was the first Italian poetry set to music; hence its name, which means "in the mother tongue." It flourished particularly in the generation before Landini. His 11 madrigals are usually composed for two or three vocalists, but voices and instruments may combine on each melodic line. Each madrigal consists of two musically different sections, the first serving the two or three three-line sections of the poem and the second one the concluding two lines of text.
The caccia—the same word as the English "catch"— was a hunting or fishing song, set in the form of a canon or round. Its poetic form is that of the madrigal, so that each caccia falls into two canonic sections. In some madrigals, also, one of the two sections may be composed as a canon. Only two of Landini's caccie are extant.
The rest of Landini's output are ballate, essentially songs for a solo voice with the accompaniment of one or two instruments, though some of them are written for two or three voices. Their poetic form differs from that of the madrigal, for a refrain, modeled after the second section of the stanza and sung to the same melody, was sung at the beginning of the ballata and repeated after each of the usually three stanzas.
With his lyrical, songlike melody Landini stands out among his contemporaries. His songs possess an easy-flowing grace and are charmingly harmonized. The texts are in part by him and in part by his Florentine compatriot Franco Sacchetti. Their subjects are quite varied: religion, love, convivial companionship, and historical events.
Further Reading on Francesco Landini
A good account of Landini's achievements is in Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960). Alec Harman, Medieval and Early Renaissance Music (1958), is also recommended.