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A Review of the English Madrigal School of Music

By:   •  October 27, 2013  •  Essay  •  1,219 Words (5 Pages)  •  1,289 Views

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A Review of the English Madrigal School of Music

When one (the average American) thinks of a madrigal, or madrigal singing, an English king's court musicians with lute and flute come to mind; perhaps the sounds that would accompany a Shakespearian play may be conjured as well. However, madrigals had a much earlier start. Madrigals began as "…two different forms of Italian music, one related to the poetic madrigal in the 14th [century], the other the most common form of secular vocal music in the 16th [century]," (Columbia)*. Due to the invention of movable type and printing press, madrigals spread and evolved throughout Italy and eventually Europe*. This brief period is known as the English Madrigal School and is responsible for the popular interpretations and conceptions, as mentioned before, of madrigal music.

English Madrigal School Music derived from poems from the Elizabethan Period. This period was during Her Majesty's reign, Queen Elizabeth I, from 1558 to 1604 (Brittania)*. William Byrd and Thomas Morley were well known composers of this popular style. Parties and functions in the royal court demanded madrigals. Elaborate costumes and hats with brilliant colors were meant to impress along with the light, gay music. The most common setting for this music, other than it's prime and most prestigious venue of royal courts, were the homes of aristocrats and wealthy upper class citizens. Entertainment is the key word when thinking of an English madrigal. Small get-togethers, parties, and dinners almost always had madrigal singing involved. In fact, if a host were to have a dinner party, he or she might be expected sing a madrigal or two for their attendees. It was also not uncommon to have music handed out to all guests after dinner to commence in a lively tune or two. Such pieces were often sight read by the guests.

Since the English Madrigal School Music was mostly sung a capella, save for a few instruments such as lute or recorder for accompaniment, expression was important. Madrigal singers would not only engage the audience with facial and body gestures, but would periodically turn to each other while singing. They also stress the main style of writing achieved for English Madrigal School music: polyphony. That is, each voice line (at times) had an independent melodic or harmonic idea in compliment to the other parts. Contrast came form dynamics and different text that comprised the verses. Although the polyphony style was prominent, the voice parts were sung in equal volume with no part overpowering the other at the beginning of the piece and alternated to a polyphony phrase until a unified ending. Contrast came form dynamics and different text that comprised the verses.

As mentioned before, madrigals are very festive pieces and were most sung on holidays such as Christmas and St. Valentines Day. Most can readily recall the popular carol "Deck the Halls" and its catchy theme. The popular premise of secular madrigals, although a number of them were sacred as well, was love, adoration, youth, the spring season, eating and merriment, and even involve mythological references. Many tell a story or fable. Others warn of making much of youth before time has run out. In all, a light, frolicked theme is always in play.

There are very key, detailed elements that make English Madrigal School pieces so unique. Madrigals alternate between text and lilting "fa-la" sections (see attached music example). The text is always derived from a poem. Each phrase of the stanza has seven syllables. The "fa-la's" that are sang emphasize happiness and gayety. The fricative "f" of "fa" and the lighter "l" of "la" would more so emphasize the different stresses, entrances, and motion of each part. When the texts are sung, the only contrasts are the words of the verses and the dynamics. The first stanza of the text is repeated, usually, as piano vice mezzo forte or forte.

"Now is the Month of Maying", one Thomas Morley's best known pieces, exemplifies many of these styles and characteristics mentioned in the previous paragraph. Like many madrigals it is sung in 5 parts (3 to 6 being common). The overall piece, indicative of most madrigals, starts with an introductory statement that gives the premise and main theme of the piece: "Now is the month of maying, when merry lads are playing." It speaks of spring and later references courtship and youth. In the last four moving measures of the song, the polyphony style is accented. More so, an interesting pattern can be seen. Pentatonic

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