Enigma Fortuna: Zacara da Teramo complete works

Enigma Fortuna
Zacara da Teramo complete works
La Fonte Musica, Michele Pasotti
Alpha Classics, ALPHA 640. 4 CDs, 3h57’53

Antonio Zacara da Teramo (nicknamed Zàcara because of his short stature) seems to have been born in or shortly after 1360 in the Abruzzi region close to the Adriatic coast. Confusion over his name (his music survives under such names as Zacar, Zaccara, Zacharie, Zachara, and Çacharius amongst others), led to the assumption that he was actually several different composers. His parental family were scribes and manuscript illustrators, and his early years were in the same profession, despite being severely disabled, with several fingers and toes missing. He moved to Rome in 1391, where he sang in Pope Boniface IX’s papal choir as well as being a scriptor litterarum apostolicarum (Papal secretary). He later was part of the chapel of antipope John XXIII in Bologna during the 1414 Schism. This four-CD box set from La Fonte Musica, directed by Michele Pasotti, is a world premiere of Zacara’s complete works.

The texts to his music are often bizarre. As the excellent programme notes opine, they can “verge on indecipherability … while also exhibiting a taste for the grotesque and obscene. In this world, biblical quotations and sexually explicit references coexist, as do gatherings of cardinals and infernal divinities, God and fortune, disease and prayers, popes, devils, barbers, hunters, merchants, women singing in the bass register mocking a tenor in love, proverbs, popular mottos, dialectal expressions of all kinds running alongside highly refined enigmas in Latin, intertextual games between music and words, words written backwards, trilingual texts, flowers and coloured inks for writing, women-flowers and musical proportions, mythological figures, cuckoos, starlings, crows, frogs, mice, cats, wolves, dogs, pigs”

The texts to Antonio’s music also reveal a remarkable amount of information about his own life. For example, he suggests that he had a deformed spine, was of limited stature, and only had ten digits divided between his hands and feet.

The music is also often as bizarre as the words, with wonderfully obscure harmonic twists. But in the outstanding recording, the musicians of La Fonte Musica treat it all with due respect, singing and playing in a manner that reveals the details of the intertwining musical lines. Particular mention must go to sopranos Francesca Cassinari and Alena Dantcheva, whose vocal purity and clarity add much to the texture. The varied vocal and instrumental forces (drawn from eight singers and ten multi-instrumentalists) are well-chosen, bringing a wide variety of aural textures to the music. The accompaniments include four fiddles, recorders and shawm, trombones and slide trumpet, clavicymbalum and Gothic organ, Gothic harp and medieval lutes.

A considerable amount of research went into the preparation for this recording, including adding missing parts to many of the pieces. A ‘scientific board’ is acknowledged in the notes with experts from Australia, Italy and Germany. The texts of the pieces are translated into French and English. Antonio’s vocal works are balanced by instrumental pieces which, although I couldn’t find an acknowledged as such in the notes, are from the Codex Faenza, one of the earliest manuscripts of keyboard music dating from a few days after Antonio’s death in the years around 1415.