Sunday, 11 March 2012


As the Renaissance reached its height (around 1530), the madrigal was born. It grew in importance as the 16th century proceeded and only began to die out some time around 1630. So the form had a good run of about a hundred years. 

Madrigals are unaccompanied polyphonic part-songs written on secular rather than sacred themes. As to how many voices were involved in any particular madrigal, that was at the composer's discretion. England produced its fair share of fine madrigal writers, among whom Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) stands out as being among the cream of the crop.

The Wikipedia article on Weelkes (linked to above) tells us many interesting things about Weelkes. He became the organist at Chichester Cathedral sometime around 1601 but got in trouble with the authorities there for "his heavy drinking and immoderate behaviour". Wikipedia also tells us that Weelkes "has been appointed successor to Andre Villas-Boas as Chelsea FC manager as of 6th March 2012". Quite a long and varied career then!

One of the main features of madrigal writing is word-painting and Weelkes was a master word-painter. One of his best-known works is the 6-part madrigal As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending

As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending,
She spied a maiden queen the same ascending,
Attended on by all the shepherds swain,
To whom Diana's darlings came running down amain.
First two by two,
Then three by three together,
Leaving their goddess all alone, hasted thither,
And mingling with the shepherds of her train
With mirthful tunes her presence entertain.
Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana,
Long live fair Oriana!

The pictorial touches might strike you as naive in their inspiration but the panache with which they are carried out is impressive. You will hear descending scales at "descending" and rising scales at "ascending". Descending scales re-appear at "running down" but because "Diana's darlings" are running these descending scales are quick-moving ones. When the poem says "two by two", Weelkes sets the words for pairs of voices and when it says "three by three" Weelkes responds by setting it for groups of three voices before all six voices come together for "together". When Diana is left "all alone", Weelkes set the words for a solo voice. When "Long" is set, the bass sings in long notes. 

There's a fine example of another feature of English madrigals, which also found favour with some European composers, in O Care, thou wilt despatch me. This is the false relation (or cross-relation) - a dissonance caused by two simultaneously-sung notes in different parts. It's a false relation because, due to a convention of the time, rising minor scales would use different notes to falling minor scales (music students will recognise these as the difference between melodic and harmonic minor scales) and those contradictory notes would generally be a semitone apart making their simultaneous sounding a particularly spicy dissonance. Listen out for the word "deadly" in this setting.  

O Care, thou wilt despatch me,
If music do not match thee.
So deadly thou dost sting me,
Mirth only help can bring me.
Hence Care, thou art too cruel,
Come, music, sick man's jewel.
His force had well nigh slain me,
But thou must now sustain me.

In the section beginning at 'Hence Care', you will hear some extraordinary harmonic changes (modulations). This use of chromaticism to portray deep emotion is something that strikes us now as sounding remarkably 'modern'. It was an innovation of the time, after all the euphonious harmonies of preceding generations and, though chromatic elements became a useful part of the tool-box for the composers of the Baroque and Classical ages, this level of chromatic disruption didn't really blossom again until the Romantics and their successors came along. Even today (and especially when taken even further, as in the madrigals of Gesualdo), this late-Renaissance chromaticism can still take us by surprise. Subtly, Weelkes's hopes for the consolations of music to counter all this angst - his 'fa la la la la's - are not all set in jolly major keys. Some are sung in the minor, thus better reflecting the ambivalence of hope.

Fascinating music. Wonder how Chelsea will fare today?

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