Have you ever heard of moresche? No? Staff writer Mia Lindheimer heads to the Italian Academy to discover what it’s all about—and why no one but renaissance music enthusiasts seems to know about it.
Opera, to most regular people, is simply a high class way to entertain oneself with music. It’s so exclusively high class, in fact, that you’ll probably have to learn an entirely new language to understand fully. Moresche, however, isn’t opera: it’s kind of pre-opera, with lots of similar musical flairs but also a little more relatability and a lot more (often crude) humor. That’s what makes a moresche performance actually pretty entertaining to watch, even if you’re the youngest person in the room. (Trust me, if you’re a Bwog reader and you go to a moresche concert, you will almost definitely be the youngest person in the room).
Moresche, put into a broad context, is a form of commedia dell’arte, which can be basically understood as renaissance Italy’s Saturday Night Live. Performers would often wear masks and impersonate stereotypical figures from Italian life: you’ve got your pathetic street boy trying to woo a girl out of his league, the annoyingly witty bachelor, the lofty rich boy, and the basis of moresche, African slaves.
Using slave culture as comedy here troubles me on a pretty fundamental level. Aside from the blatant and cruel racism, which was of course a seemingly inherent part of European culture at the time, the way moresche uses very direct attacks to personal identities of the slaves to derive laughs from an audience is pretty despicable.
Before the performance, the director of the Ensemble gave a talk about the creation of their performance, where they found the information about the wedding at which all these pieces were performed, and a bit of what European culture was like at the time. However, all he really mentioned about this genre’s focus on parodying slave culture was that, during the early 16th century, Italy (and Europe as a whole) was experiencing an influx in African slave labor. While it’s easy to brush off the racist humor with the acknowledgement that it was simply part of their culture back then, is that really how we should take it?
During the performance, the woman next to me was having a truly fantastic time. She laughed (albeit politely and quietly) at almost every joke, even though they were rather uncomfortable when framed against the significantly less (at least blatantly) racist background of New York City in the modern day. Here are a few examples of the jokes in the songs (the gibberish was a common way to make fun of Kanuri, the language of the Bornu empire that most of the slaves came from):
“Lucia: Giorgio, you are filthy,
you pissed the bed!
You tell me it’s sweat like wilting leaves
—he smells like fish!
Bornu man, unfaithful!
Zeekay leezee, dirinidirinidina! Bastard who comes from Bornu!
Giorgio: I am from Bornu.
“Katarina: The pox can come to you,
Like a wretch, you son of a bitch.
Get out of here, drink your fill
in the kitchen like a black cat.
Giorgio: Since you don’t want to show yourself,
I’m leaving forever.
Katarina: Away, slave thief,
Son of a bitch,
My lady would be found, never,
In Georgio’s arms, never,
behind any door, never”
“Giorgio: All black people are struck dumb
when they see white people.”
Though the music proved entertaining, the voices beautiful, and the instruments well-played, I left the performance thinking a little more about why many in the audience laughed at a paid maid treating a black man like an animal who should drink off the kitchen floor. It makes sense to me that this genre is not one of Italy’s most popular; though full of perky beats and fun, audience members are forced to face racism head-on, and I suspect that isn’t so fun for many.
Magical costuming via The Italian Academy