Monday, 12 December 2011

The Madrigal Quartet

Last Spring Quince, an English friend who sings alto in the choir, and I thought it would be amusing to sing 16th century English Madrigals in deepest France.  But the question was how and who with?  She suggested Netty as soprano with Jean-Louis as bass and fortunately they both liked the idea.  Jean-Louis speaks good English and although Netty prefers to speak French, she knows some English and has sung in many languages since childhood so that's not a problem.

So what’s a madrigal?  This brief definition is a good one A part-song for several voices, typically arranged in elaborate counterpoint and without instrumental accompaniment.”   There are madrigals in French, Italian, English and other languages. For his total output, and the quality of his work, Monteverdi is a towering figure among composers of madrigals; but I think that, in terms of the wide variety of composers whose work is still remembered and sung, it’s true to say that the genre reached its full flowering in Elizabethan England around the end of the 16th century.

I found this excellent site, which has a wide collection of sheet music and midi files from many English madrigal composers and volunteered myself as secretary/librarian to the quartet.  Quince chose her favourite “April is in my Mistress’ Face” by Thomas Morley (1567- 1603).  I chose two madrigals, “Lady When I Behold the Roses” by John Wilbye (1574-1638) and “Weep O’ Mine Eyes” by John Bennett (1575-c1614).  Jean-Louis was busy and went with the flow until later, when he introduced us to some other good music, which we will be singing in public next summer.

Netty wanted to sing a sacred choral piece from the same era, “Ave Verum Corpus” by William Byrd (1543-1623).  At first I was not keen to go in that direction, and I doubted that it was possible with just four voices, but having heard it I was so impressed that I needed no further persuasion.  We've tried it in the local church, which has an amazing acoustic, and it really sounds superb.  Here it’s sung by an American amateur quartet.  Their balance isn’t completely correct but musically it’s excellent.

I don’t read music straight off the page, and I’ve only been singing for a couple of years, so learning these difficult pieces is a challenge.  We are told that, in Elizabethan times, singing madrigals was after dinner entertainment and that they used to sight read their parts!  They must have all been trained in music from childhood! 

I use Notation Composer to edit and play the midi files, so that I can see the music at the same time as I hear the sound.  You can change the instrument timbre and volume for each voice and switch them on and off, you can also transpose and print out the parts.  Midi files almost always sound very mechanical and need an awful lot of work on tempo and dynamics to get them to a standard that’s suitable to use even for a backing track.  I usually just learn the notes and then carry on with the rest of the quartet.  That’s when it gets even more difficult.  Somehow the foundation on which you have learnt the notes is now totally unstable and it has to be painfully rebuilt, but this time by the group!  We meet once a week for an hour and a half and after that I’m quite tired.  I also tend to run out of voice, but that's because I'm not singing properly and forcing the high notes!
The Performance
I had the idea of doing a short performance for friends and family before Christmas, which took place yesterday. Fortunately the others in the quartet didn’t need much persuading.  We called it a public rehearsal so that we could restart if we fell apart or didn't start together. The programme and the words are given below. I gave it the title of "A Year on the Merry-go-Round of Love" (it sounds better in French)!

By adding “Now is the Month of Maying” by Thomas Morley (1567- 1603) to start and finish it, a cycle of songs on the theme of a year of love is created. 
This version by the King’s singers of “Now is the Month of Maying” is excellent.

We adapted ours for four voices.  I later regretted this choice because there's a passage, when we all separate to sing Fa-la-la’s, that I just couldn’t get right.  Over the weeks I tried and tried, and it was becoming very embarrassing!  Finally, thanks to some very last minute work with Quince, it was almost right, and in performance yesterday I think it was acceptable but not always completely accurate.  Our short programme was well received but I made mistakes and we all know that we can do better still!
At times progress can seem slow and very frustrating, but the others all think that we have done very well in eight months.  When we get it right there’s a real sense of ensemble and we are all listening to each other.  The balance of voices is good and they blend well, but on the recording that Jean-Louis made I am lacking in volume. (When I asked some of the guests later, they said that my voice could be heard, so now I'm left wondering just how much I need to step it up).   I know, however, that I need guidance in voice production to bring the placement of the voice forward and to aid projection, especially in the higher range.  Someone from the choir has volunteered to help two of us, but I also need professional training.

The Cabaret
The Quartet has now been volunteered to sing at a “Cabaret” evening in a nearby village in February.  I had visions of being booed off the stage for singing an English madrigal at such an event, but apparently people do all sorts of things from popular to serious and there’s no stage, you just stand up at your table.  We’re only expected to do one piece and to my horror it’s “Now is the Month of Maying” but I’ve found this very short bawdy French song written by Clement Janequin (1485–1558) who is the best known French madrigal composer.  The 16th Century French is full of double meanings, but for those of us who don’t know the language that well I had help to prepare a translation.  I think that it’s real cabaret material! This version by the Ensemble Clement Janequin is so light and airy.  I can’t imagine a better interpretation.

Ung mari se voulant coucher
Avecques sa femme nouvelle
S’en vint tout bellement cacher
Ung gros maillet en la ruelle.

« Helas, mon amy » Ce dist-elle,
« Quel maillet vous voys-je empoigner ».
« C’est, ce dist-il. Pour mieux coigner,

« J’ay », se dict-elle, « ung peu vescu,
mais coup de maillet, n’ay oncq eu.
Quand gros Jean me vient besoigner,
Il ne me coigne que du cul. »

A husband, wishing to sleep
with his new wife,
is hiding a large mallet
between the two palliasses of the bed.

"Alas, my dear”, she says to him,
“What is this mallet you have in your hand?"   
'Tis to bang better”, he replies.

"I’ve been around a bit”, she says,
“but never yet been banged by a mallet. 
When big John comes to nail me,
He bangs me only with his ...."

A Year on the Merry-go-Round of Love

Portrait of an Unknown Lady - Marcus Gheeraerts II 1595

A young man meets his true love
Now is the Month of Maying.  Thomas Morley (1567 - 1603)

Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing! Fa la la la la!Each with his bonny lass, upon the greeny grass, Fa la la la la!
The Spring, all clad in gladness, doth laugh at Winter's sadness! Fa la la la la!
And to the bagpipes’ sound, the nymphs tread out the ground! Fa la la la la!
Fie then!  Why sit we musing, youth’s sweet delights refusing? Fa la la la la!
Say, dainty nymphs and speak! Shall we play barley break? Fa la la la la!

He writes poems to her beauty
Lady when I behold the Roses sprouting.  John Wilbye (1574 - 1638)

Lady, when I behold the Roses sprouting,
Which clad in damaske mantells deck the arbours:
And then behold your lips, where sweet love harbours,
My eyes present me with a double doubting:
For viewing both a-like, hardly my mind supposes,
Whether the Roses be your lips, or your lips the Roses.

But unlike her beauty, her love for him fades with the seasons
April Is In My Mistress’ Face.  Thomas Morley (1567 – 1603)

April is in my mistress' face,
And July in her eyes hath place.
Within her bosom is September,
But in her heart a cold December

The end of the affair! O to drown in these Spring tides!
Weep, O Mine Eyes.  John Bennet (1575 - c1614)

Weep, O mine eyes and cease not,
alas, these your spring tides me thinks increase not.

O when begin you to swell so high
that I may drown me in you?

But after spring, comes the summer again
Now is the Month of Maying.


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