a cappella Friday: Madrigals

A cappella music (without instrumental accompaniment) is particularly enjoyable for me to listen to. As a poet (and an avocational musician), I am drawn to the similarities that poems and a cappella music have. Lyrical phrasing, meter, rhyming, and onomatopoeia mean so much to a cappella music, because it relies so heavily on the human vocal element.

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Yes, I know it is not Friday, but I’ve been working on this idea for a while, inspiration struck, and who am I to argue with the Muse.

A madrigal, it seems, has several definitions.
1. It is short poem, from Medieval times, often about love, and suitable for being set to music.
2. It is a song for two or three unaccompanied voices, developed in Italy in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
3. It is a polyphonic song using a vernacular text and written for four to six voices, developed in Italy in the 16th century and popular in England in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Having sung in small groups in my younger years, I remember many of these songs. They had terrific harmonies, moving lines. I never really thought of the lyrics then, but all of these were musical settings of poems. The arguments of poetic forms still occuring then, apparently.

O, that the learned poets of this time
who in a lovesick line so well can speak,
would not consume good wit in hateful rhyme,
but with deep care some better subject find.
For if their music please in earthly things,
how would it sound if strung with heav’nly strings?

The song was published in Orlando Gibbons’s First Set of Madrigals and Motets of 5 parts (1612). A snippet of a recording can be found here, or you can do a search on Spotify or some other internet music source.

Perhaps his best known madrigal is The Silver Swan. A beautiful recording is given here.

The silver Swan, who, living, had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

FRANCESCO PETRARCA, 1304-74, better known as just “Petrarch” provided a large trove of the Italian madrigal lyrics. His Canzoniere is a collection of love songs and sonnets. His sonnets are largely credited with saving the form from obscurity. There is a great deal of information about his Muse Laura, and the origins of his poetry.

Early madrigal music dates back to 14th century Italy as a developed two- or three-line verse supported by identical music. Over time, Italian madrigals were recognized as the beginning of “word painting,” the combining of text and music to create a feeling.

*At this time I can’t find an internet recording of the following madrigal to share, but the words in Italian alone are worthy of a read.

Come talora al caldo tempo sòle
semplicetta farfalla al lume avezza
volar negli occhi altrui per sua vaghezza,
onde aven ch’ella more, altri si dole:

cosí sempre io corro al fatal mio sole
degli occhi onde mi vèn tanta dolcezza
che ‘l fren de la ragion Amor non prezza,
e chi discerne è vinto da chi vòle.

E veggio ben quant’elli a schivo m’ànno,
e so ch’i’ ne morrò veracemente,
ché mia vertú non pò contra l’affanno;

ma sí m’abbaglia Amor soavemente,
ch’i’ piango l’altrui noia, et no ‘l mio danno;
et cieca al suo morir l’alma consente.

The Italian is beautiful just in sound alone (it is a Romance language, after all), the English translation (courtesy of http://petrarch.petersadlon.com/canzoniere.html?poem=141) goes like this…

As at times in hot sunny weather
a guileless butterfly accustomed to the light,
flies in its wanderings into someone’s face,
causing it to die, and the other to weep:

so I am always running towards the sunlight of her eyes,
fatal to me, from which so much sweetness comes
that Love takes no heed of the reins of reason:
and he who discerns them is conquered by his desire.

And truly I see how much disdain they have for me,
and I know I am certain to die of them,
since my strength cannot counter the pain:

but Love dazzles me so sweetly,
that I weep for the other’s annoyance, not my hurt:
and my soul consents blindly to its death.

The form evolved over the years and by the 16th century consisted of a refined four to six parts, offering twelve lines of lyric verse with love, desire, humor, satire, politics, or pastoral scenes as the theme. Gibbons and Sir Thomas Morley (1557-1602) are among the more prolific writer/composers of the period.

My bonnie Lass she smileth

When she my heart beguileth. Fa la. . . . .
Smile less, dear love, therefore
And you shall love me more. Fa la. . . . .
When she her sweet eye turneth
O how my heart it burneth! Fa la. . . . .
Dear love, call in their light,
Or else you’ll burn me quite! Fa la. . . .

Finally, the madrigal has been parodied, quite successfully

Peter Schickele (PDQ Bach) penned “My Bonnie Lass, She Smelleth” as a parody of Morley’s “My Bonnie Lass She Smileth”

My bonnie lass, she smelleth,
Making the flowers Jealouth.
Fa la la (etc.)

My bonnie lass dismayeth
Me; all that she doth say ith:
Fa la la (etc.)

My bonnie lass; she looketh like a jewel
And soundeth like a mule.
My bonnie lass; she walketh like a doe
And talketh like a crow.
Fa la la (etc.)

My bonnie lass liketh to dance a lot;
She’s Guinevere and I’m Sir Lancelot.
Fa la la (etc.)

My bonnie lass I need not flatter;
What she doth not have doth not matter.
Oo la la (etc.)

My bonnie lass would be nice,
Yea, even at twice the price.
Fa la la (etc.)

Singing Hey Nonny Nonny Nonny No.

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