They were the first self-made millionaires in modern history: a group of Italian merchant princes whose quest for human self-sufficiency would become the defining energy of their age.
The Renaissance, as their era would be called to reflect their interest in the rebirth of classical antiquity, would trigger perhaps the most breathtaking explosion of art the world has known.
In burgeoning urban centers like Florence, they prayed, plotted, ran municipal affairs and held court in a style grand enough to inspire envy among the kings and popes who were their contemporaries. Their Spanish counterparts would do the same as they turned to culture for recreation and spiritual edification.
And as they accomplished it all, music accompanied them.
A lucky Howard County audience will experience the splendor of that music Saturday evening when Candlelight Concerts opens its 27th season by presenting Piffaro, a seven-piece Renaissance band modeled after those civic, chapel and court wind bands that were the rage in 14th-, 15th- and 16th-century southern Europe.
The mixed ensemble of winds, strings and percussion will play a program titled "Italy and Spain at the Crossroads."
Piffaro, founded in 1980 as the Philadelphia Renaissance Wind Band, has created a niche for itself by bringing this music to life on a large and varied collection of early wind instruments, augmented by guitar and percussion.
Quacking double reeds such as shawms and crumhorns -- as well as bagpipes, recorders and the sackbut, forerunner of the modern trombone -- were the instruments brought to Italy by northern European musicians the Italians called "piffari." (The term apparently was a Mediterranean adaptation of "Pfeifer," the German word for one who whistles.)
The Renaissance Italian music Piffaro renders so expertly on its recordings for the Deutsche Grammophon's Archiv label is festive, bold, bright fare full of syncopations and danceable rhythms. Often the pieces fairly burst with the energy of polyphony, the multivoiced style of composition begun in the Renaissance that would find its realization in the complex counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach a few hundred years later.
Some Piffaro selections have immense charm, such as Giorgio Mainerio's "La Parma," a sparkler for flutes, harp and lute.
Often, the music begins simply, then grows in rhythmic and harmonic complexity as it progresses. One example of this, also by Mainerio, is "Putta nera ballo furlano," which begins with a static bagpipe drone and becomes more joyously ornamented as the crumhorns, recorders and percussion enter atop the sustained tone.
Truly, as this glorious music spins its web, we can nod, smile and acknowledge that, if nothing else, those great Renaissance families like the Medici, the Pazzi, the Pitti and the Borgias really knew how to have a good time.
Candlelight Concerts presents Piffaro in concert Saturday at 8 p.m. at Smith Theatre on the campus of Howard Community College. Tickets: 410-715-0034 or 301-596-6203.
Pub Date: 10/14/99