Fortune’s tunes

The Mannes Collegium’s Spring concert will be this Monday, April 27, at 8:15 in Goldmark Hall at Mannes, 85th Street east of Amsterdam Avenue. It’s free, but don’t be late, it’s also short. Our subject this semester is Fortune, as portrayed in music from late 15th and 16th century Italy (and dipping into the early 17th). I’ve written some rather rhetorical notes, and they, along with the program order, are below.

— Canto della fortuna, Anonymous Florentine
— Son Fortuna onnipotente, Filippo Lurano, in Petrucci, Frottole Libro tertio, Venice 1505
— Fortuna che te chiova destraciarme, anonymous, in Panciatichi ms 27, Florence, early 16C
— Arboro son, anonymous strambotto, text attrib. to Isabella d’Este, in Modena, bibl. Estense, Ma.a F.9.9, 1495-6
— Corri fortuna, Heinrich Isaac
— Regi et guidi, anonymous, in Petrucci, Frottole Libro septimo, Venice 1507

— Fortuna desperata a3, anonymous, Paris 4379 c 1470
— Fortuna desperata a3, Josquin des Pres
— Fortuna desperata a4, Johannes Martini, Casanatense 2856
— Fortuna desperata Litany (Sancte Petre), Isaac

— Aria from L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Claudio Monteverdi, 1640
— Se le carte me son contra, Franciesco Varoter, in Petrucci, Frottole Libro sexto, Venice 1505

— Hayme Amor, Hayme Fortuna, Fra Ruffino Bartolucci d’Assisi, Venice c 1502
— Fortuna d’un gran tempo, Martini, Florence Bnc Ms Banco Rari 229, c. 1490
— Donna/Dammene/Fortuna, Isaac, ditto
— Ogni ben fa la fortuna, Marchetto Cara, in Petrucci, Frottole Libro tertio


We recognize the figure of Fortune as a woman with a wheel: perhaps she is blindfolded, like indifferent Justice, or two-faced, holding a spoked wheel; perhaps there are figures on the wheel, at the pinnacle and spun down to the nadir. This variable figure is more or less familiar to us from her representations in Medieval and Renaissance art, and from such sources as the modern Tarot deck. But her Greek ancestress, Tyche, appeared with a cornucopia (to show the bounty she might bestow) or a rudder (to steer the fates of men), as well as the wheel. Roman towns often had a localized Fortuna whom they propitiated for the community’s safety. Always she seems to be slippery, offering good and punishing, or simply surprising, with evil outcomes. Cicero, Seneca, and other classical authors speak of Fortune’s wheel, but the late antique writer Boethius, in his bestselling Consolation of Philosophy, sets the form in which the pagan goddess will endure in the Christian era. Boethius complains that Fortune, with her “whirling wheel,” has done him ill. (Boethius, after a long and dignified career as a statesman and scholar, was unjustly imprisoned by Theodoric, the emperor he served, and ultimately put to death; he wrote the Consolation in prison.) Philosophy explains that he has no case against Fortune: her supposed gifts were never real, so he has no cause to complain they’ve been taken away. Nature is inconstant; why should human life be anything else? The Good is distinct from any merely material goods in life. The inevitable turning of Fortune’s wheel should act as a reminder to look beyond this plane for ultimate judgement of good or ill, and Fortune is God’s agent in enacting the fate of men and redistributing favor. This argument, taken up by Dante among others, suggests a way that the pagan image can be reconciled with Christian thought.

The Consolation was a school text during the Middle Ages and passed the image of Fortune and her Wheel to authors including Chaucer, Boccaccio, Dante, and, in the fifteenth century, Malory, who says: :Fortune is so variaunt, and the wheel so moveable, that there nis none constant abyding.” A famous image of the rota Fortunae appears in the thirteenth-century Carmina Burana manuscript (and if Orff’s “O Fortuna!” is now pounding in your head, my apologies).

How many attitudes Fortune has, and makes us show! There is the cornucopia-bearer, Bona Fortuna; but even she must be propitiated, for her gifts can be withheld. The subtle, inevitable verso of Good Fortune is Mala Fortuna. We can postulate, with Boethius, a Fortune who simply executes a determinate destiny, but it is hard, it goes against nature to regard her as objective and single, rather than doubled. She may share Justice’s blindfold but she is not Justice, she is not concerned with the right, with what we deserve. When we see her with her wheel, we are prompted to see her as representing a cycle, up and then down, inexorably rolling the poor up (hurrah!) and the rich man down (also hurrah! because resentment and Schadenfreude drift like an acrid odor across our philosophies). We can see her as bland and blind in her upping and downing, or simply whimsical (an unpredictablility not easily matched with the posited cycle), or actively malicious. In any case she answers only to herself. And so, although she is nobody — not Zeus, not Juno, not God — she wields tremendous power through what Jerome Frakes calls “the capricious and transitory power of disorder.” Even today, as Lady Luck, she puzzles us, and while we pay lip service to her autonomy, we hope she will make an exception for us, as Sky Masterson pleads: “Luck, be a lady tonight.”

So which ladies will we see this evening? There is Fortune the All-Powerful. “Fortune can do anything; no leaf turns without her will.” “I am Fortune, omnipotent, Queen of the Universe!” “Through you alone, Fortune, is a man made happy.” “The miserable world turns as you please.” There is Fortune whose wheel turns for ill: “Fortune sinks me below her wheel, O unhappy one against whom Fortune speaks.” There is malicious Fortune: “Desperate Fortune, wicked and cursed.” There’s random Fortune who turns the cards: “I had good luck for a while in this game; if it doesn’t get better I’ll pick a different one.” There’s a more ornamental Fortune, between whom and Love a man is tortured, or the benign one who, gracious and lovely herself, for long has given him a lover. But in the end, it’s Fortune’s two faces we acknowledge: “Every good is done by Fortune, and every ill is born from her, every prize and every disaster.”


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