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Sex, Drugs, and Madrigals

  • First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
  • Google Calendar ICS

Sex, Drugs, and Madrigals

October 24, 2010: First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

Bimal Desai, Jen Hayman, Allison Hedges, Michael Johnson, Ken Olin, Cory O’Niell Walker, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Ellen Womer, and Rick Womer.

My Spirit Sang All Day                               Gerald Finzi (1901–1956)                                     

C’est trop parlé de Bacchus                 Pierre Certon (c. 1515–1572)                         

Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!                        Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623)

Come Let Us Drink (excerpts)                     Henry Purcell (1659–1695)

         I Gave Her Cakes

         Tom Making A Manteau

Art of the Ground Round (excerpts)          P.D.Q. Bach (1807–1742?);

         2. Please, Kind Sir               squarely edited by Peter Schickele

         3. Jane, My Jane

         6. Nellie Is a Nice Girl

Madrigal                                              Kenneth Leighton (1929–1988)

Sing We and Chant It                           Thomas Morley (1557–1602)

Can’t Buy Me Love                            John Lennon (1940–1980) and Paul McCartney (1942–); arr. Keith Abbs

Fair Phyllis I Saw                                        John Farmer (1570–1605)

Matona mia cara                                 Roland de Lassus (1532–1594)

Madrigali                                                     Morten Lauridsen (1943–)

       I. Ov’è, lass’, il bel viso?

II. Quando son più lontan

    III. Amor, io sento l’alma

     IV. Io piango

      V. Luci serene e chiare

     VI. Se per havervi, oime

Madrigal                                                    Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)

Au joly jeu  Clement Janéquin (c. 1485–1558)

By definition, madrigals are secular works. In practice, they are also a uniquely flexible musical genre, as evidenced by the eras spanned in today’s program: this concert features works from the early sixteenth century, when madrigals first came to popularity in Italy, France, and England, juxtaposed against nineteenth- and twentieth-century interpretations of those first exemplars.

As is true today, a secular piece in the sixteenth century dealt with non-sacred subjects, including, to our delight, sex and drugs. Many madrigals draw upon the amorous poetry made popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, chronicling both romantic success—as in John Farmer’s “Fair Phyllis I Saw,” in which Phyllis and her lover “fell a-kissing”—and despair, such as Morten Lauridsen’s “Io piango,” which laments, “So trapped by Love am I / That ever I lie in torment.” To further stress the significance of the text, madrigals draw heavily on “text painting,” a Renaissance technique in which the melodic lines reflect the meaning of the lyrics in pitch, rhythm, and expression.

Notably, these pieces are all written in the vernacular; we sing today in English, French, and Italian but, unusually for a chamber chorus, we have nothing in Latin. Indeed, many historians posit that the word “madrigal” came from the Latin “matricale,” which means “in the mother tongue.” In the Renaissance, Latin was the language of learned scholars, clerics, and bureaucrats; everyday vernacular was the language of lovers and revelers.

The choice of text was not the only way in which Renaissance composers made their secular intentions clear. Madrigals, like many other pieces from the Renaissance, are polyphonic works, in which multiple independently moving voices create an intricately textured melody. In the late sixteenth century, the church tried to ban polyphonic music, fearing that the moving parts would be a distraction from sacred text. Composers eager to embrace the new technique prevailed over their church sponsors in the latter half of the century, but by then the conflict had been well established. To write in polyphony in the early sixteenth century, as several of today’s composers did, was to flaunt the church’s established code of conduct. In other words, Elvis Presley was not the first musician whose “moving parts” scandalized traditional authorities.

In the interest of underlining the pervasiveness and adaptability of these themes, today’s program is deliberately arranged in non-chronological order, with complementary elements appearing and reappearing in works from different eras and aesthetics. We open with

Gerald Finzi’s vibrant “My Spirit Sang All Day,” the third of his Seven Partsongs set to poems by Robert Bridges (1844–1930). Finzi (1901–1956), a luminary in early twentieth-century British songwriting, had a thorough grounding in English literature and was noticeably conscious of text in all of his compositions, setting musical phrases to reflect the emotional progression of the poems. Here, Finzi echoes Bridges’ frequent interjections of “O, my joy!” with equally lively—and equally joyous—crescendos and vivacity.

Pierre Certon’s “C’est trop parlé de Bacchus” and Thomas Weelkes’ “Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!” serve to firmly anchor our repertoire in texts of revelry, not just love. Interestingly for composers celebrating the joys of liquor and tobacco, both Certon (c. 1515–1572) and Weelkes (1575–1623) were primarily employed by the church; the former served as master of choristers at Sainte-Chappelle in Paris, and the latter held a series of organist positions at English churches and cathedrals. Both, however, made their fame as secular composers, and both encountered trouble with ecclesiastical authorities: as a young man, Certon was nearly jailed for playing ball at Notre Dame and refusing to attend Mass, while Weelkes was discharged from his post at Chichester Cathedral because of public drunkenness.

Weelkes could have benefited from Certon’s instruction: in “C’est trop parlé de Bacchus,” Certon brags about his ability to drink copiously without getting sick, advising his fellows to imitate his accomplishment. Weelkes’ piece, however, is notably more intricate; in the opening verses, Weelkes employs a hocket, a medieval technique in which the rhythm of one voice—here, the alto line––is deliberately opposed to those in the other parts, creating a sort of hiccup (“hoquet” in French) in the rhythm. “Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho!” extols the purported virtues of smoking tobacco, which became wildly popular in sixteenth-century Europe after Columbus’ crew brought it back from the Americas. Although Europeans generally smoked recreationally, they had learned of the indigenous American practice of using tobacco medicinally, which accounts for Weelkes rejoicing in tobacco as a panacea.

Men were not alone in their interest in such products; Henry Purcell (1659­–1695) chronicles a seduction by way of gift-giving in “I Gave Her Cakes,” in which a suitor presents a young woman with several types of alcohol, cakes, and jewelry while peppering her with kisses. Whether because of the gifts or because of the kisses, the young woman does seem to relent, and the pair is “wondrous merry.” 

Purcell’s “I Gave Her Cakes” is more a descendant of madrigals than it is a true madrigal. Instead, “I Gave Her Cakes” and “Tom Making A Manteau” are both catches, a polyphonic form popular in the seventeenth century, when traditional madrigals were on the wane outside England. Like madrigals, catches are unaccompanied, secular, and attentive to their texts. Unlike madrigals, catches are sung in the round, such that different parts enter at different times, and the lines can be carefully layered to reveal unexpected innuendo once all parts join in.

It is worth noting that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both madrigals and catches were overwhelmingly composed and sung by men. When women are factored in, they exist only as objects, usually of a man’s sexual conquest, and there are no extant madrigals composed by women crowing about the returned kisses of a male paramour. This is unsurprising: few women would have had the necessary linguistic or musical training available to their brothers. Any woman who did have such opportunities would have been too genteel to dream of putting her name to a bawdy or rollicking song.

Because Purcell’s catches were written to be sung by men’s voices alone, they don’t translate well to a mixed-voice setting; the juxtaposed lines are meant to be sung within the same vocal register. Rather than preserve their original arrangement, however, we found it more suggestive to grant Purcell’s catches to the women of the choir, putting a new spin on the old heteronormative texts.

As a counterpart, the men present three catches from P.D.Q. Bach’s Art of the Ground Round. Bach’s catches were obviously inspired by Purcell, as they use the same technique of overlapping voices revealing new texts. Bach (1807–1742?), however, interprets catches within the baroque tradition, adding a part for discontinuo, performed today on the euphonium. Baroque pieces commonly had continuo parts consisting of a simple line played by a bass instrument and an ornamental keyboard part. By contrast, Bach preferred the bass line alone, especially later in life, when his age and girth prevented him from comfortably reaching both ends of a keyboard simultaneously.

Kenneth Leighton’s “Madrigal,” using text by John Fletcher (1579–1625), introduces a modern interpretation of the madrigal form and completes the battle of the sexes laid out in the catches. Here, though, Leighton (1929–1988) repudiates the endless madrigalian reliance on love poetry; dissonant chords underlie the poet’s ominous warning that lovers commit themselves to betrayal when they commit themselves to one another.

We return to the traditional madrigal setting in “Sing We and Chant It,” by Thomas Morley (1557–1602). Morley’s piece is an old chestnut to

Renaissance choirs, with its bright melodies and its earnest promotion of the good life. The cheerful “fa la la” of Morley’s chorus is, interestingly enough, neatly echoed in Keith Abbs’ madrigalian setting of The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” adding actual rock and roll to this program of musical revelry. “Fair Phyllis I Saw,” by John Farmer (1570–1605), and “Matona Mia Cara,” by Roland de Lassus (1532–1594) flesh out our selection of classic madrigals. “Fair Phyllis,” in particular, is a sterling example of text painting; as Amyntas searches “up and down” for wandering Phyllis, the four voice parts echo his movements. “Matona,” on the other hand, reveals just how much bawdiness can be hidden behind lovely melodies; the joke is that the narrator, a German soldier, speaks such poor Italian that he doesn’t realize the full meaning of his words.

Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali draws inspiration—and text—from the earliest madrigals, but to a very different effect. A major figure in twentieth-century American composition, Lauridsen (1943–) is known for the lush density of his choral pieces. Madrigali, a six-part song cycle, is also known as the “Fire Songs,” because the piece draws extensively on a sonority called the “fire chord,” which opens the set and recurs throughout. The cycle blends stylistic qualities of early madrigals, like text painting, hockets, and counterpoint, with Lauridsen’s signature contemporary harmonic structure.

Like the Lauridsen Madrigali, Gabriel Fauré’s “Madrigal” bridges the divide between Renaissance madrigals and contemporary composition. Fauré (1845–1924) himself nimbly occupied the liminal space between the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century and the burgeoning modernism of the twentieth. “Madrigal” employs Fauré’s customary lyricism against the now-familiar refrain urging pleasure instead of solitude. Interestingly, for all that “Madrigal” is a nineteenth-century composition, it is frequently performed by ensembles that otherwise limit themselves to the music of the Renaissance.

We close today with a return to the true Renaissance madrigal in the form of Clement Janéquin’s “Au joly jeu,” the oldest piece on the program. Janéquin (c. 1485–1558), like Farmer and Purcell after him, depicts a light-hearted scene of flirtation and coy playfulness, in which the melodies bounce along as merrily as the couple described in the text. We find Janéquin’s work especially fitting as a closing piece because of its vintage: as Janéquin was one of the first composers whose music was printed using the modern techniques of movable type, he embodies the shift from medieval to modern practices of composing and performing. So, too, do madrigals and their descendants forge a connection between the music—and musicians—of the sixteenth century and those we enjoy today.

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Music to Hear

  • First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
  • Google Calendar ICS

Music to Hear

Sunday, June 6, 2010
First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia 

Maura Caldwell, Bimal Desai, Jen Hayman, Michael Johnson, Ken Olin, Joy Wiltenburg, Caroline Winschel, Rick Womer

Lobet den Herrn                                                 Knut Nystedt

Sicut cervus                             Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

God Be In My Head                                       Jackson Berkey

Ave verum Corpus                                                William Byrd

Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day                   Philip Stopford

Esto Les Digo                                                            Kinley Lange

Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?             Nils Lindberg

 Le Chant des Oyseaux                                       Clément Janequin

Music to Hear                                                 George Shearing 

                    I. Music to Hear

          II. Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?

                 III. Is It For Fear To Wet A Widow’s Eye

                 IV. Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind

                  V. Sigh No More, Ladies, Sigh No More

When Chestnut Street Singers was founded in the winter of 2010, the ensemble’s original mission was clear: the group was to be a Renaissance choir. Almost immediately, however, the singers realized that although they loved singing Victoria and Palestrina, they didn’t want to deny themselves the privilege of working with more contemporary, albeit still Renaissance-inspired, works.

It is therefore very appropriate that we open today’s concert with Knut Nystedt’s setting of Psalm 148, “Lobet den Herrn.” Nystedt, one of the luminaries of twentieth-century Norwegian composition, is well known for his homages to Bach; indeed, the psalm text is best known musically in its Bach setting. Beyond his dedication to Bach, however, Nystedt frequently bases his choral works on medieval and Renaissance harmonies and textures. This juxtaposition—contemporary elegance with Renaissance techniques—perfectly exemplifies Chestnut Street Singers’ approach and ideology.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” and Jackson Berkey’s “God Be In My Head” offer a similarly complementary pairing. Palestrina (c. 1525–1594) is one of the best-known composers of the Italian Renaissance, famous both in his own lifetime and in musical scholarship. Most notably, he is often credited as the “Savior of Church Music”: when some church officials tried to ban polyphony from sacred music, fearing that the moving parts would interfere with the intelligibility of holy texts, Palestrina forcefully defended his technique. Like “Sicut cervus,” Jackson Berkey’s “God Be In My Head” features a simple, sacred text embellished by moving textures. The piece opens with a traditional chant incipit, and as it was commissioned in 1993 as an easy-to-memorize “signature piece” for the University of Wisconsin, the text repeats even as the harmonies build.

William Byrd’s “Ave verum Corpus,” which was published in 1605 with other pieces using private devotional texts, hearkens back to the Renaissance. Byrd (1540–1623) nimbly composed in many of the forms current in England at the time, ranging from consort music to secular English tunes to sacred music for both Protestant and Catholic communities. “Ave verum Corpus” appeared in Byrd’s collection of Gradualia, which contained more than one hundred motets using Catholic liturgical texts. Byrd was nonetheless favored by England’s Protestant monarchy; in 1575, Elizabeth I granted Byrd and Thomas Tallis a joint twenty-one-year monopoly on the patent for printing music and ruled music paper. They celebrated by producing an elaborate set of motets dedicated to and lauding the queen. Although his career as a printer was a financial failure, Byrd was overwhelmingly popular and successful as a composer during his lifetime. Today he is remembered even by non-musicians on November 21, when he—along with Tallis and John Merbecke—is venerated with an Episcopal feast day.

Like Byrd, Clément Janequin (c. 1485–1558) also has a place in the histories of both performed and printed music. Janequin was a Parisian contemporary of Pierre Attaingnant, who, several decades after Gutenberg, was the first to use single-impression movable type for printed music. Attaingnant published over 1500 chansons, but his output overwhelmingly featured Janequin above all other composers. As a result, few composers were more popular during their lifetimes than Janequin. The bulk of Janequin’s work is secular, and some of his most famous pieces are long, sectional chansons mixing onomatopoeia with traditional text. Besides “Le Chant des Oyseaux,” Janequin also composed “La Chasse” and “La Bataille,” which, as their titles suggest, call for the singers to imitate the sounds of a foxhunt and a battle.

Along with Nystedt, Philip Stopford, Kinley Lange, Nils Lindberg, and George Shearing represent the more contemporary composers on today’s program, though all of them dabble in earlier forms and traditions. Besides the obvious musical references to the traditional sound of Renaissance-era choirs, their textual choices are equally evocative. Appropriately for a springtime concert, we have the pleasure of featuring two complementary settings of “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”, William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, first published in 1609. While Stopford, Lange, and Lindberg are earlier in their careers—in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Sweden, respectively—Shearing is a well-established jazz pianist and composer in both his native Britain and in the States. His virtuosity in jazz and swing reinterpretations of classical techniques is especially evident in the five-part set “Music to Hear,” featuring Shakespearean texts, close jazz harmonies, and accompanying piano and double bass.

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