LOS ANGELES MASTER CHORALE
MAGNIFICENT MADRIGALS — APRIL 21, 2002
PROGRAM NOTES BY PETER RUTENBERG
“Madrigal” is a word that almost every non-musician knows without knowing exactly what it means. We’ve heard of madrigal ensembles, perhaps seen their ornate, Elizabethan costumes, or enjoyed a feast of foods long since vanished from the supper board while listening to them by candlelight. We associate certain characteristics with madrigals, such as lightness and grace, wit and emotion, and even an overriding sense of charm and diversion.
All of this is true, but the first musical concoction called a madrigal bore little resemblance to what we understand by the term today. That madrigal evolved during the early 14th century, with its two- or three-line verse set to the same music, followed by a closing refrain. Extinct by the mid-15th century, the name was resuscitated in the 1530s to describe verse, tone and imagery modeled after the style of Petrarch — and the musical form that embraced it. Initially serious in mood, with only three or four voice-parts, and preferring the French chanson and Latin motet styles over the flimsier Italian frottola, the madrigal continued to develop over the 16th century — thanks to an infusion of creative impulses from the likes of Arcadelt, Willaert, Palestrina, Lassus, and Marenzio. Luzzaschi and Gesualdo explored the emotional netherworld through chromaticism, and Monteverdi advanced the genre with his “concerted” (that is, accompanied) versions.
The excitement spilled rapidly over the Alps and northward to England where Morley led the late-Elizabethan madrigal craze, together with Byrd, Gibbons, Wilbye, Weelkes and many others, leaving a lasting legacy of clever delight that suffuses our choral culture today. Even Gilbert & Sullivan saw fit to include “A Merry Madrigal” in The Mikado. Renewed interest in a cappella part-singing over the course of the 20th century has further expanded its definition, while several composers have translated its “charms” into a modern idiom, for example, Samuel Barber and Halsey Stevens. Like the ‘string quartet’, the madrigal was designed to amuse and impress its performers first, but like the string quartet again, it became an indispensable form of audience entertainment over its long life.
Nature’s whims and love — requited or otherwise, platonic and otherwise — are the preferred topics. Indeed, graceful forms of sexual innuendo pepper many a text, even as the music surges toward exquisite climaxes of restrained ecstasy. Renaissance composers had a wealth of sensuous and well-modulated poetry to draw on. Short verse structures such as the quatrain (four lines in rhyme) suggested musical forms, but left plenty of room for the “fa la” and other nonsense-refrains that intrigued them by allowing a bit of free-form creativity. (Most composers of the age earned their living at least in part through church service where ritual and liturgy kept such freedoms at bay. Madrigals and consort music for instruments gave them freer rein.)
“Spring” in the Renaissance had much more of a tangible persona. She arrived scantily-clad, dancing on two feet, strewing flowers and colors and wreaths of glee to all in her path. She gaveth and she even tooketh away, for it was said that a man deprived of love “would never see spring again.” John Bennet’s All creatures now plays on all the jocularity of the season, with its light-hearted, chuckling lines. Thomas Tomkins appropriates his preferred hues for Adieu, ye city-prisoning towers. One of the stars of Musica Transalpina — the collection that finally pushed Tudor England into the Italian Renaissance — was Luca Marenzio whose dashing style plays true to form in Già torna a rallegrar l’aria e la terra, while the great Thomas Morley applies his subtle sleight of hand to the nuanced allegory in April is in my mistress’ face: she may be smiling, but her heart is cold as ice.
Los Angeles composer Donald Crockett pays homage to the age of the madrigal with his diptych entitled Broken Charms, composed in 2000 for Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale and given its world premiere performance on this concert. Subtitled “Two Elizabethan Lyrics for Unaccompanied Chorus,” the work gains inspiration from two period poems about magic. Care-Charmer Sleep, a sonnet by Samuel Daniel, pleads for the spell of ‘sleep’ to keep the speaker away from “day’s disdain.” The first section, marked “languid and flexible,” sets up a more agitated middle section that paints the poem’s ‘shipwreck’ metaphor with aggressive motives and curt, angular rhythms, before recalling the opening mood. The second poem in quatrain form, Thrice toss these oaken ashes in the air by Thomas Campion, is a swirl of melodic incantations designed to woo the object of the author’s desire, but to no avail: “In vain are all these charms I can devise. She hath an art to break them with her eyes.”
John Wilbye, whose style is noted for sweep and sustained emotion, and Michael East, who was an important publisher as well, are the two Britons in the third set that includes their Lady, when I behold and Poor is the life respectively. They are paired with two Italians known for their powers of musical persuasion: the father of the Italian Baroque and master madrigalist, Claudio Monteverdi, and the notoriously-jealous Prince of Venosa, Carlo Gesualdo. Monteverdi’s Ah dolente partita models the free emotional expression of failed love with anguished outbursts and searing dissonance. Gesualdo’s Luci serene e chiare is more so. For the uninitiated, the good prince was at least love-crazy, if not entirely certifiable. His music belies a pained heart and a tortured soul and he wears both robustly on his madrigals. (Thus, it was for good reason that Igor Stravinsky was asked to compose the missing parts to three of his sacred motets in 1960.)
Birdsong has fascinated composers from earliest times. Here are several studies, replete with all manner of chirping, hooting and warbling. Thomas Vautor’s enchanting Sweet Suffolk Owl sings out from its perch one of the most memorable of all Elizabethan tunes. Jacob Arcadelt’s Il biano e dolce cigno laments the dying swan’s last song even as it spawned a number of imitator’s by other composers. Orlando Gibbons’ swan dies a sonorous but decidedly English death, while Cipriano de Rore opts to scale the heights of a craggy mountain in Strane ruppi. Gibbons skill as a madrigalist resurfaces in Dainty Fine Bird, book-ended by two Monteverdi favorites — Ecco mormorar l’onde (artfully painting a seascape at dawn) and Quel augellin che canta (a blissful birdsong amid burning hearts).
Swiss composer Frank Martin was born in Geneva, Switzerland, the son of a Calvinist minister. Lauber and Dalcroze were his principal teachers, with early stylistic influences from Schoenberg and Debussy. Major works with chorus figure prominently among his repertoire, including the remarkable dramatic chamber oratorio, Le Vin Herbé from 1941 (the Tristan and Isolde story), In terra pax from 1944, and Golgotha from 1948. Martin wrote and dedicated his Songs of Ariel to Felix de Nobel and the Netherlands Chamber Choir, completing them in January of 1950. The five pieces that make up the cycle are taken from Martin’s opera based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest — and include the animal sounds of “Come unto this yellow sands,” the ominous tolling of the bell in “Full fathom five,” and the closing “Where the bee sucks, there suck I.” While the dense and sonorous harmonies are reminiscent in places of Martin’s better-known and earlier Mass for double choir, performed on these concerts in November 1998, the rhythms and ambience are thoroughly dictated by Shakespeare’s ageless language and the tenor of the dramatic context, making these works truly “madrigals” in the guise of opera choruses.