The “Mona Lisa” is arguably the most famous painting in the world. It is an icon and its creator, Leonardo da Vinci, is considered by some to be a Renaissance genius. Da Vinci is known today as a painter, sculptor, inventor, writer, scientist and architect. But most don’t know him for his skill as a musician.
That’s something the University’s School of Music and Dance hopes to change. Tonight in the Beall Concert Hall at 8 p.m., it will host “The Da Vinci Codex,” a concert featuring music of da Vinci’s time.
“The thing that’s interesting to us musicians is that da Vinci was a famous musician, and it’s not something we remember him for,” School of Music and Dance professor Eric Mentzel said.
Da Vinci was a master of an instrument called the “lira da braccio,” a European string instrument much like a medieval fiddle. Mostly at court, Italian Renaissance poet-musicians would improvise music and recitations of poetry or song on this instrument. Da Vinci was described by early biographer Giorgio Vasari as “the best improviser of rhymes of his time,” according to “The Da Vinci Codex” program notes.
“It was a very special ability, and Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most famous practitioners of that art in Italy,” Mentzel said.
An oral tradition, the art of the lira da braccio is largely forgotten. None of da Vinci’s music survived because it was never clearly written down.
But “The Da Vinci Codex” takes that into consideration. The concert will showcase music by composers da Vinci knew, songs he would have heard, dances he might have danced, as well as spoken narration from his own writings and that of his contemporaries.
The title of the performance is a play on the title of Dan Brown’s infamous novel, as well as the idea of a codex — a handwritten early book. Da Vinci’s abundant sketches, observations and writings exist today in codex form; the concert stands in as his missing book of music.
“If da Vinci had a book at home, this is the type of music that would be in it,” Mentzel said.
The concert will be performed by The Toronto Consort, a leading professional Canadian chamber ensemble that performs medieval, Renaissance and early Baroque music, some of which was featured in Showtime’s “The Tudors.” The ensemble uses choral parts and instruments like the lute, recorder, guitar, flute, early keyboard and percussion to bring old music alive.
“It’s a great way to be immersed in the sounds of an ancient age,” Mentzel said. “(The music’s) not religious or somber. There’s a lot of lighthearted music in this period, with a lot of the sunny Italian tradition shining through.”
The concert is organized around da Vinci’s life story, following his birth, youth, career spent as an inventor and artist in Italy and time in France, where he died.
“The whole show is quite theatrical,” Toronto Consort member and artistic director David Fallis said.
The group loves the music it performs, Fallis said. When written down, the music of this early period appears simple — much like a jazz lead sheet.
“Musicians were expected to add their own ornamentation,” Fallis said. “It’s a great repertoire for people who like to add their own ideas to music.”
The written music doesn’t designate how slow or fast or how loud or soft a piece is — or even what instrument to use.
“That makes it great fun to do this,” Fallis said.
The Toronto Consort’s touring manager approached the University to host the concert. The ensemble will also be performing at Marylhurst University in Portland, at Oregon State University in Corvallis, at Western Oregon University in Monmouth and in Seattle.
“We just thought we’d try to find people in the neighborhood who were interested,” Fallis said. “Lots of people won’t have heard this music before. We find that when people hear it they often quite enjoy it.”