Cantilena is an extended fantasy on a theme of the same name by my first composition teacher, Robert Lau. His title employs the modern definition of “cantilena” as an instrumental melody that aspires to the qualities and affects of a sung melody. My title evokes a much older meaning, referring to a wide range of musical types that includes various 13th-century secular refrain forms of northern France as identified around the turn of the 14th century by theorist Johannes de Grocheio, including the “estampie.”
The estampie was a rambunctious dance in triple meter that followed a simple formula: A-open refrain-A’-closed refrain, B-open refrain-B’-closed refrain, etc. The extended, quick central section of Cantilena follows this formula, with the refrains clearly referencing the two phrases of Lauʼs melody, deployed in various canonic arrangements. My estampie is flanked, first by an “intonazione”—a quasi-improvised warm-up for the musicians in which they test rhythmic and harmonic motives to come and check their tuning (the strings in my intonazione play only open strings and natural harmonics in this section)—and, secondly by a “carole,” which in Cantilena is a relatively straightforward presentation of Lauʼs original tune. I was inspired to follow my estampie with this carole (akin to our contemporary “carol”) by another theorist of de Grocheioʼs time: “and as soon as [the minstrels] had stopped the estampies that they beat, those men and women who amused themselves dancing, without hesitation, began to take hands for carolling” (quoted in McGee, 2001, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 333).
The unusual instrumentation of Cantilena came from the personnel available to me, comprising former winners of the Joseph L. and Vivian E. Steele Music Scholarship administered by The Foundation for Enhancing Communities. My writing for this ensemble—oboe, trumpet, viola, double bass, and piano—is decidedly and somewhat surprisingly homogeneous, but allows extended spotlights to focus on each of the fabulous musicians for whom it was composed: ToniMarie Marchioni, Alan Tolbert, Maxwell Alemán, Devin Howell, and Chris Whittaker.