Alla Battaglia

Heinrich Isaac
Mixed choir
Choir a capella
A4, 9 pages


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This is a performing edition of Isaac’s Alla Battaglia, which I hope will be useful to vocal ensembles of various kinds. The original music was laid out in F major, which only really works well for a group of male voices equipped with a countertenor, high and low tenors, and a solid low bass. By transposing the music a whole step higher to G major, as I have done here, it almost becomes possible to use sopranos (though a mezzo is best if singing one to a part). It also makes the bass part slightly more amenable to baritones with low notes, while the tenor parts still lie within normal professional range. In groups with more than one singer to a part one can of course mix the voices a little, particularly by using both alto and tenor on the Altus part—I have performed it thus on numerous occasions. Other transpositions are of course possible, but the options are not endless, and the choice will naturally depend on the particular voices involved. Alla Battaglia can certainly be performed by a solo quartet (ATTB)—with or without instrumental doubling. Given its original festive purpose, a very appropriate scoring would be a strong vocal group (probably more than four voices, but all male) accompanied by cornetto and three sackbuts. The music also works perfectly well sung unaccompanied and with more than one voice to a part, though I would hesitate to use more than about a dozen singers altogether, sixteen at most. In fact, the music survived for the longest time primarily as an untexted instrumental piece: the first modern edition being published in Vienna in 1908 (Denkmäler Der Tonkunst In Österreich, Volume XXXII).

In 1983 Timothy McGee published an article that established the full text of Alla Battaglia and showed that its subject was the Florentine siege of the fortress of Sarzanello, which began in 1485 and lasted two years.[1] As an inland city Florence was constantly struggling with coastal rivals such as Pisa and Genoa for access to the sea, which could in turn be guarded by a stronghold such as the castle at Sarzano. The Florentines laid siege to it therefore, to recover it from their enemies, the Genoese, and consolidate their access to the Mediterranean. In June 1487 they finally succeeded. In a more recent article Blake Wilson establishes that Alla Battaglia was composed in 1487 in celebration of the Florentine victory.[2] For anyone interested in more detailed knowledge of the work’s background, both of these articles are essential reading. I am indebted to both authors, and also grateful to Ross Duffin for many words of wisdom.

Concerning tempo, my starting point would be one beat (at ca. 60) per bar, in duple and triple time alike. In reality one can of course be more flexible. I have made my own choices about musica ficta and text underlay, and modernised some spellings where I felt it facilitated the pronunciation. The small added notes of embellishment are of course optional and to be sung only the second time around.

Paul Hillier

[1] "Alla Battaglia": Music and Ceremony in Fifteenth-Century Florence, Timothy McGee, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Summer, 1983), pp. 287-302.

[2] Heinrich Isaac among the Florentines, Blake Wilson, Journal of Musicology, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 97-152.

OTHER WORKS BY Heinrich Isaac



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