Mad about madrigals

Orlando Gibbons.
Orlando Gibbons.

This afternoon the sky gradually turned grey and then almost black. A few unwelcome claps of thunder sent the dogs scuttling into their usual hiding-places. Almost exactly on cue the rain arrived in torrents, but at least it saved me watering the garden. I began to think of this time of year in The Old Country, and a melancholy time of year it was too. The clocks had dutifully been put back an hour and the grey, sullen days seemed depressingly shorter. It must have been especially bleak at this time of year in Britain’s Elizabethan era, which in case you have forgotten, was the second half of the sixteenth century.

This brief window in history is often described as England’s Golden Age. It was a renaissance in every sense of the word and saw the boundless flowering of poetry, music, theatre and literature. National pride expressed itself through classical ideals, international expansion and especially the naval triumph over the dastardly Spanish, who had been bitter rivals for years. It was an age of exploration and as the historian John Guy noted, “England was economically healthier, more expansive, and more optimistic…than at any time in a thousand years”. The Brits had never had it so good.

But all this must have been small comfort in late November if you lived in a draughty house with precious little lighting and heating. If there were enough candles to spare, you could read because thanks to the invention of the printing press, books were becoming more plentiful. You could play cards or as many women did, do a bit of embroidery. Or you could make music.

In her fascinating book Elizabeth’s London, Liza Picard writes that “anyone of reasonable education would be expected to sight-read and sing part-songs, sometimes accompanied by a lute or more instruments….Most men could play the lute (and) one was available to the waiting queue of customers in any barber’s shop to while away the time.” If you couldn’t play an instrument or read music, you would have been considered a dullard, a social misfit or both.

Printed music had become increasingly available and madrigal singing was a popular pastime in educated circles. The madrigal was a short unaccompanied song for several different voices. These part-songs were not religious, but settings of secular poetry and many composers tried to reflect the meaning of the words in the music.

Madrigals were produced in their thousands especially in Italy. In England, they became hugely popular after the publication of Nicholas Yonge’s Musica Transalpina in 1588, a collection of Italian madrigals complete with alternative English verses for those who couldn’t get their tongue around the original language. Madrigals were intended for home performance and private amusement and some of the top composers turned their attention to the genre. You see, there was money in it.

Thomas Morley (1557-1602): Now is the Month of Maying. The King’s Singers (Duration: 02:04; Video: 720p HD)

This is a madrigal in all but name. Strictly speaking, it’s a ballett which was a light-hearted rhythmic part-song often with a rustic or romantic theme and usually with a “fah-lah-lah” chorus. This one appeared in Morley’s 1595 publication First Book of Ballets for Five Voyces. The opening line sums up the tone of what’s to come: “Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing.” The text is full of deliciously bawdy double entendres and includes the line “Shall we play barley break?” which means roughly, “Let’s go for a roll in the hay.”


Thomas Morley also had a more serious side. He was one of the leading composers of the day and also wrote an important reference book entitled A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke. It’s still essential reading for those studying music of the renaissance. I have a copy here, and it is neither plain nor easy.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): The Silver Swanne. Ping Voices (Duration: 01:27; Video: 720p HD)

In 1612, Orlando Gibbons published his First Set of Madrigals and Motets, apt for Viols and Voyces. It consisted of twenty pieces, but notice how he cunningly implies in the title that they can be played or sung – a common marketing strategy at the time.

The first piece is the lyrical, bittersweet madrigal entitled The Silver Swanne. The lyrics tells of the swan which sang for the first time only when death was imminent. It’s not the merriest subject you might agree, but as well as romantic or erotic themes, madrigal composers loved doleful, melancholy subjects and reveled in thoughts of impending death, unrequited love, broken promises and other things that would send most people in search of a gin and tonic. And on reflection, I think I shall do just the same.