Sunday, December 9, 2018

Hark! A madrigal or two.


One of the joys of the holiday season for us is taking in a performance of the Christmas Revels. There are a number of Revels organizations around the country -- our local branch is the Washington Revels -- but in all of them, everyone involved is a volunteer, and every year they put on a holiday show that features a different historical era or nation or both.

In DC, this year's show is set in Elizabethan England. There's a very loose storyline -- Elizabeth I travels to the town of Norwich to celebrate Yule with the country folk, and there runs into Will Kemp, a former member of Shakespeare's theater troupe. Kemp has just completed a marketing stunt: he has Morris danced the 100 miles from London to Norwich (which really happened, just not at Yule). Anyway, the point of a Revels show is the music; the storyline is a convenient scaffolding on which to hang a bunch of songs and dances. And they make the audience get up and sing, too. (One of these years I'm going to nail the arpeggio in the third part of "Dona Nobis Pacem," I swear it.)

Fun fact to know and tell: I went off to college intending to major in music. My first semester disabused me of the idea pretty rapidly, but I did gain a few things, among them an appreciation for Renaissance music. So I was pleased, but not really surprised, during yesterday's show when I found myself fa-la-la'ing along to a song I recognized because I have a recording of it.

I couldn't have told you the name of the tune, however; I had to look it up. It's a madrigal called "Hark all ye lovely saints above" by Thomas Weelkes. Wikipedia says Weelkes was the organist at Winchester College around 1600. Then he moved to Chichester Cathedral after earning a music degree from Oxford. He is best known for writing vocal music -- madrigals as well as music for Anglican services. He also apparently had a drinking problem and was a "notorious swearer and blasphemer." That last bit endears him to me, but apparently not to the church elders, as eventually he was fired. He died in London at the age of 47.

Okay, so what's a madrigal? It's a type of secular choral music developed in the Renaissance and featuring up to eight people singing in harmony. The part about harmony is important. Until medieval times, every piece of music was monophonic -- in other words, it had a melody and that was it. Gregorian chant, for example, is monophonic. But in the Middle Ages, composers began introducing a second melodic line as a counterpoint. By Weelkes' time, 400 or so years later, things had gotten crazy. In fact, the Elizabethan age is considered to be the greatest era for music in English history. (Until the Beatles, I guess.)

The thing about Weelkes is that he created moods with his music. Here's "Hark all ye lovely saints above" with the lyrics so you can follow along. The song is in a major key, but when he gets to "why weep ye?" it switches to a minor key. The same thing happens later, on "ere ladies mourn." It's a little like a tone poem. (Think of the fa-la-las as the Renaissance version of shoo-be-doo-wop and they won't seem so weird.)


This is not the recording I own, by the way. Mine is on Welcome Sweet Pleasure by the Waverly Consort, an album that was never released on CD. As it happens, the title tune from that album is another madrigal by Weelkes. Here's a version of it. (Fair warning: More fa-la-las ahead...)


On that happy note, have a great week!

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These moments of polyphonic blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Welcome, Yule!

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