By Peter Rutenberg
The first musical concoction called a madrigal bears little resemblance to what we generally 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 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" (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 20th century has further expanded its definition.
Nevertheless, not all the works on this program fit neatly into the madrigal category, for an entire concert of such works would invariably amuse the performers more than the audience. Madrigals were originally sung around the table after dinner, as the evening's self-made entertainment. Indeed, the published part-books had each voice-part facing a different direction so that all could sing from one source. Even so, the same intimacy, harmonic inventiveness, melodic whimsy, "moodiness," and rhythmic vitality - all hallmarks of the genre - inform the balance of today's selections in one way or another.
Samuel Barber - a singer's composer - worked closely with his publisher, G. Schirmer, to produce different versions of his most popular works, such as a choral version of his popular song, Sure On This Shining Night, and his own arrangement for chorus of the ever-popular Adagio for Strings known as the Agnus Dei. The tightly wound melodies and astringent harmonies offer a profound musical setting for the closing text of the Mass Ordinary, their tensions aptly portraying the cleansing of sin and the prayer for peace.
In a somewhat lighter vein, the English symphonist, part-song author and prolific church composer Charles Villiers Stanford's motet for six voices, Beati Quorum Via, builds on the interplay between light and dark, using high and low trios of voices echoing the same music to draw the fine line between good and evil. The gentle triple meter pulses its subtext of "trinity" beneath the soaring melodies and velvety harmonies.
Thoughts of Claude Debussy as a composer of vocal music turn naturally to the voluptuously undulating music of his opera Pelleas et Melisande. A more intimate side is seen in his Trois Chansons after the Renaissance poetry of Charles d'Orleans. These texts become the music, acting as canvases awash in imagery and mood, first in the gently swaying homage to a beautiful woman, then in the evocative May dance, with its wordless chorus supporting the melodic text, and finally, in the French equivalent of a Bronx cheer for Winter - that most disagreeable season!
Swedish composer Hugo Alfven is highly regarded for the mood imagery of his musical "paintings." Aftonen is no exception, as here he captures the tranquil stillness of a Scandinavian evening with unaffected simplicity. The measured rhythms and subtle harmonic shifts continue through a texture that alternates approaching darkness (suggested by the bass drone) with the last rays of filtered light (portrayed by the upper voices, in close chords and flickering arpeggios). Later in the program, Alfven's frolicsome triple-dance A Maiden Is In A Ring bubbles with accordion-laced folksiness and the fiddler's fiery flair.
Friede auf Erden, Op. 13 from 1907 is an early work of Austrian-born composer Arnold Schoenberg, scored for eight-part choir. Its tortured text proffers bleak images of a crime-infested, war- torn world, symbolized in the music by densely-wrought counterpoint and anxious harmonies verging on the dissonant in their complexity. "Still it is an eternal hope that the weakest shall not fall victim to every robber and shameless murderer," it declares, concluding, "A royal race will blossom forth with sturdy sons whose shining horns will trumpet bravely: Peace on earth!" The triumph is symbolically reflected in the broad D major harmony of the final chord.
Morley, Monteverdi and Gesualdo all steep in the font of inspiration for Morten Lauridsen's Madrigali- Six "Fire Songs" on Italian Renaissance Poems. The burnished texts and resonant echoes from Italy's Golden Age form the close-packed layers of the songs' translucent fabric. Like a crystal ball peering back across the ages, unanchored to any time, the composer summons forth all manner of revelation. These evocations, seemingly random in prospect yet laboriously and ingeniously assembled in retrospect, capture the essence of that time with simultaneous utterances in the parlance of today. Everything hinges on the first sonority - what Lauridsen calls the "fire chord": it is at once the hitching post and germinal womb which (a thorough analysis would show) informs virtually all that follows. Ultimately transformed, or rather forged in passion's fiery furnace, the "fire chord" also sizzles as the final sonority.
To accomplish this, Lauridsen draws on an armory of compositional techniques, not simply in skillful display, but because - like the 16th century composers whose stile rappresentativo he memorializes - the texts and their adequate expression require it. A prominent feature of the harmony is polytonality. Ives used it to represent separate musical happenings converging on one location. In the Madrigali, it likewise portrays a confluence of memories that coexist in the consciousness. The listener's balanced attention brings these multiple images into clear, audible focus. Many of the cycle's explosive climaxes rely on the compounding of harmonic tension through density and dissonance. The cadences, both sectional and final, recall and replay the ubiquitous closing suspension of the madrigal period with great interpretive variety.
Melodically speaking, there are the bouncy, light tunes of an Orazio Vecchi or Giovanni Gastoldi, along with Morley's English take on these Italianisms; there are Gesualdo's defiant departures; Monteverdi's soaring, almost Romantic, fantasies and his sharp, snappy turns in equal measure; in places, there is even evidence of Heinrich Schutz's Opus 1, with the ferocity of melodic leading found in his Italian Madrigals (written in Italy while the composer studied with Monteverdi). With respect to rhythm, a number of dance patterns are represented in duple and triple meters, and the resultant hemiola from playing both simultaneously.
The texture varies constantly among the historical possibilities, with imitative counterpoint yielding chordal movement and just as soon drifting back into counterpoint, or brief canonic activity between momentarily rival factions in the choir. Vertically, one or two voices may expand rapidly to four or as many as eight. The formal structure follows a variety of older models, although each piece is distinct within the cycle. In brief contour, they are: I - AABBAA; II - ABABCCAB; III -ABBA; IV - ABA; V - AABBAA;VI- AABAA.
In all, the Madrigali are a tour de force of 20th century a cappella writing whose inventiveness and attention to detail honor their 16th century paragons. Vocally demanding in the best bel canto tradition, they are rewarding to perform and will surely take their place among the great choral works of the preceding century. They are dedicated to and were first performed by the USC Chamber Singers under the direction of Rodney Eichenberger on 10 April1987.
Partsongs in the 19th century - like the 16th century madrigal- were usually for the purpose of light entertainment, and were sung at weekly musical soirees and matinees, and at larger public concerts. Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms all wrote avidly in this genre. Following on the tradition of the glee song and the clubs that proliferated in its service, their colleagues in Victorian England, such as Stanford, Elgar, Parry and later Delius, were equally in tune with this elevated form of pastime. Henry David Leslie, a London-born conductor and composer, was an active exponent. At the age of 33, he formed an a cappella choir that took his name, grew in renown over its 25 years, and won first prize at the Paris Exhibition in 1878. Despite holding many teaching and conducting positions, Leslie maintained a special interest in the development of amateur musicians. Later in life, he moved to the west country to train village choirs, founding the Oswestry School of Music as well as a festival there. In addition to symphonies, much of what Leslie wrote was vocal or choral in nature, including oratorios, opera, cantatas and part-songs. 17th century English poet Robert Herrick has proved fertile ground for many composers in search of classically-rooted texts. The brief verse from his Charm Me Asleep finds a lovely setting in the comforting music of Leslie. Like the Madrigalists, he paints pictures with each of the words: "charm me asleep" plays to a catchy theme, "melt" drifts airily and chromatically into lush chords, and "ravish'd" undulates sensuously through its tuneful pattern - all passed imitatively from voice to voice. The spell they cast would weaken the eyelids of even the fiercest insomniac.
Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, long popular on the European scene, has steadily and deservedly gained in reputation in this country. Like Morten Lauridsen in Les Chansons des Roses, Rautavaara has found great inspiration in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke - in this case, from his "seminal" work the Duino Elegies. "Over the years," the composer writes, "I would take it out, finding myself particularly drawn to the first elegy, whose angel figure took on the role of a personal 'animus.' My orchestral works Angels and Visitations, Angel of Dusk and Playgrounds for Angels are all musical personifications of this figure. Only as recently as 1993, however, when the international choral body 'Europa Cantat' wanted to commission a large-scale choral work from me, did I feel that the time had come to set the angel elegy. It had evidently matured in my subconscious in the interim, since the process of composing the work was swift, eager and fluently self-assured. The basic pitch material is derived from four triads which together form a twelvenote row. The way this material is applied, however, stands in considerable contrast to methods usually used for atonal music. In consequence, the tone of the work is mellow even at its most dramatic; poetic, yet expressive." (Translation by Andrew Bentley; Helsinki: Edition Fazer)