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December 3, 2023: Brentano String Quartet; Antioch Chamber Ensemble

The rise and fall of the English madrigal is remarkable in that it occurred within such a short period of time—roughly a quarter of a century—but what makes its performance and study so rewarding is the quality of the output of the composers within that short period. The English madrigal owes its existence to its Italian and Flemish models, which were being published by 1540, but the first English publication of what could be considered madrigals did not occur until 1588 with William Byrd’s Psalms, Sonets, and Songs. Madrigal singing was becoming popular in England before this, but for decades the only music available was that of the continental composers.

English madrigalists were in a position to draw from some of the best literature in the English language for their lyrics. These composer were contemporaries of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Sidney, Donne, Spenser, Fletcher, Chapman and many others, and quite possibly were intimately acquainted with them. In “The Ape, the Monkey and Baboon,” Thomas Weelkes refers to the Mermaid Tavern, a famous club to which many of these poets belonged, and to which in all probability some of the great madrigalists belonged as well.

Unfortunately it was not the custom to print the name of the author of the lyrics in music books, so it would be·nearly impossible to prove authorship of most madrigal lyrics. Also the poems themselves do not exist outside of the madrigal song-books, and many madrigal composers probably wrote their own lyrics, but it would be natural to suppose that some of the great poets wrote a few of the poems or suggested a line here and there. Weelkes indicated pretty clearly that he did not write his own lyrics. He describes himself as “untoucht with any other arts, and I hope, my confession is unsuspected, many of us Musitians thinke it is as much praise to be some what more then Musitians,” which in addition to suggesting that he wrote none of his lyrics, implies that other musicians did. 

The sole purpose of the madrigal was to enhance the beauty of a given text with appropriate music. Carefully setting individual lines and even individual words was the Italian idea which the English adopted. The structure was determined·by the text and often. new material was employed for each line. Rapid changes of mood were demanded by certain texts. The Italian methods of word painting and creating contrast were sometimes extreme in order to achieve a “dramatic” style. All Elizabethans “word painted,” but this did not completely dictate the form of their madrigals. Whereas many Italian madrigals tend to be more a series of contrasting episodes, English madrigals tend to be a more unified whole.

Because  “word painting” and “phrase painting” conventions were common practice among Elizabethans, much of what seems trite or trivial to the modern mind was completely ordinary and acceptable then. There are countless examples of these word painting devices. Words like happy, joy, fly, sing, or laugh were almost always set to phrases of rapid notes. The flight of a bird could be specifically portrayed by the curve of the notes. Words such as weep, moan, sobs, loud lamenting were set with slower notes, discords, or suspensions. “Dancing” was almost always set in triple rhythm. A device used by almost all madrigalists to set a “sigh” was to precede it by a rest for a more realistic effect—the list goes on forever. Since these realistic methods were used by all, the great composers stand out as the ones who did not let them become trivial or interfere with the beauty of their work.

Our first selection, “All Creatures Now” by John Bennet (fl. 1575–1614), was first published in the famous 1601–03 collection edited by Thomas Morley, The Triumphs of Oriana, which represented twenty-three English madrigal composers. It has long been thought that “Oriana” referred to Queen Elizabeth I, but an alternate theory suggests that Anne of Denmark (later Queen of England) was being honored in an early failed attempt to push out Elizabeth I in order to restore Catholicism in England. Text painting abounds, already apparent in the opening phrase at “merry.” Note, in particular, Bennet’s glorified treatment of the concluding word, “Oriana.”

William Byrd (c. 1540–1623) is regarded as the founder of the English madrigal school since he was the first to publish “madrigals,” though not so named (see above) and “Though Amarillis Dance” first appeared in that 1588 collection. Although most of his contribution to music was in the area of church music, his madrigals are equally rewarding, some naturally exhibiting elements of his church style. Here though, triple meter and lively rhythmic play suggest the dance, and the effect of the popping “Hey ho”s in the refrain is delightful.

Thomas Weelkes (?1576–1623) was one of the most gifted of the English madrigal composers, and like Byrd, he was also a composer of church music. Little was known about his life until 1597 when he published his Madrigals to 3. 4. 5. & 6. Voyces, many of which show his familiarity with the Italian madrigalists. The influence of Thomas Morley, who was apparently one of his good friends, shows more in his second book, published just one year later: Balletts and Madrigals to Five Voyces, which includes one of the all-time favorites in the madrigal repertory, “Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints above.” Here in this ballett (a form marked by its “fa-la” refrains), Weelkes’s wit and brilliance shines.

Thomas Tomkins (1572–1656) was born to a family of musicians—son of a choirmaster and vicar—and, based on one of his dedications, appeared to have studied with William Byrd. He also marked up a copy of Morley’s Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music (1597), and must have been known to him personally, because Morley included one of his madrigals in The Triumphs of Oriana (see above). Tomkins’s Songs of 3.4.5. & 6. Parts (1622), besides the madrigal dedicated to Byrd, included “Adieu, Ye City Prisoning Towers” in its mixed compilation of sacred songs and madrigals. This lesser-known madrigal scintillates with its lively word-painting, rapid-fire imitation, and metrically contrasting sections.

John Wilbye (1574–1638), one of the finest of the English madrigalists, was born to a prosperous tanner and soon entered the service of the Kytson family, remaining in their service for most of his career. Like other English madrigalists, he was influenced by Thomas Morley, but his style is often more subtle in his word painting. Though less prolific than some of the other madrigalists, he was a master of polish and sensitivity, as the classy melancholy of “Draw on Sweet Night” exhibits so well. He characteristically used varied repetition to expand and reinforce, such as here with the return of the opening music. Scholar David Brown goes so far as to say that this madrigal “is not only Wilbye’s finest single achievement, but perhaps also the greatest of all English madrigals.”

We close with a return to Thomas Morley in his iconic “Fyer, Fyer!” published in his First Booke of Balletts to Five Voyces (1595). Yelling “Fire!” has always been an effective warning, and here in this ballett (think “fa-la” refrain), he likens that kind of emergency to being smitten in love. Admittedly, the cries of “My heart” never sounded so enjoyable.


Bennet: All Creature Now

All creatures now are merry minded,

the shepherd’s daughters playing,

the nymphs are falalaing.

Yon bugle was well winded.

At Oriana’s presence each thing smileth.

The flow’rs themselves discover,

birds over her do hover,

music the time beguileth,

See where she comes,

with flow’ry garlands crowned,

queen of all queens reknowned.

Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana,

“Long live fair Oriana!”

Byrd: Though Amarillis Dance

Though Amarillis daunce in green,

like Fayrie Queene,

and sing full cleere,

Corina can with smiling cheer:

yet since their eyes make hart so sore,

hey ho, chill* love no more.

My sheepe are lost for want of food,

and I so wood:

that all the day,

I sit and watch a heardmaid gaye:

who laughes to see mee sigh so sore,

hey ho, chill love no more.

Her loving lookes, her beautie bright,

is such delight:

that all in vaine,

I love to like, and lose my gaine:

for her that thanks mee not therefore,

hey ho, chill love no more.

Ah wanton eyes my friendly foes,

and cause of woes:

your sweet desire,

breedes flames of ice and freese in fire:

yee skorne to see mee weep so sore,

hey ho, chill love no more.

Love yee who list I force him not,

sith God it wot,

the more I wayle,

the lesse my sighes and teares prevaile,

what shall I doe but say therefore,

hey ho, chill love no more.

*Obsolete word meaning I will. 

Weelkes: Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints above

Hark, all ye lovely saints above

Diana hath agreed with Love,

his fiery weapon to remove.

Fa la la.

Do you not see

how they agree?

Then cease fair ladies; why weep ye?

Fa la la.

See, see, your mistress bids you cease,

and welcome Love, with love’s increase,

Diana hath procured your peace.

Fa la la.

Cupid hath sworn

his bow forlorn

to break and burn, ere ladies mourn.

Fa la la.

Tomkins: Adieu, Ye City-Prisoning Towers

Adieu, ye city pris’ning towers,

better are the country bowers.

Winter is gone, the trees are springing,

birds on ev’ry hedge sit singing.

Hark, how they chirp, come, love, delay not,

come, come, sweet love, O, come and stay not.

Wilbye: Draw on, Sweet Night

Draw on, Sweet Night, best friend unto those cares

that do arise from painful melancholy.

My life so ill through want of comfort fares,

that unto thee I consecrate it wholly.

Sweet Night, draw on! My griefs when they be told

to shades and darkness find some ease from paining,

and while thou all in silence dost enfold,

I then shall have best time for my complaining.

Morley: Fyer, Fyer!

Fyer, fyer, my heart!

Fa la la la.

O help, alas, o help! Ay me!

I sit and cry me,

and call for help, alas,

but none comes ny me!

Fa la la la.

O, I burne mee, alas!

Fa la la la.

I burne, alas, I burne! Aye mee!

Will none come quench mee?

O cast, cast water on,

alas, and drench mee!

Fa la la la.

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