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  • Research and text by Chris Whent at HOASM (Here on a Sunday Morning - WBAI 99.5 FM New York)
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IV. The High Renaissance (16th Century)

IVm. England Through 1635

IVm2. The English Madrigal

The most characteristic Renaissance development was the madrigal, in Italy closely married to words, dominantly Petrarchan. Indeed the nature of the Italian madrigal was defined by the closeness with which it expressed the wordsŃone sees that it is on the way to declamatory solo-singing and so to opera. The English madrigal, though giving expression to the words and often going in for word-painting, remained musically determined. Though it is impossible to give precise explanations of these subtle inflexions, this is probably due to the strong element of the native part-song, with its gift for melody (which everybody noticed to be an English characteristic), continuing into and through the dominance of the Italian madrigal, to emerge again with the English Air, melodic solo-song with instrumental accompaniment. We can recognize now that the English madrigal was neither wholly English, nor wholly Italian. As so much in English musical culture, it was the result of fruitful cross-fertilization. To vary the image, it covered a spectrum from the English part-songs of Byrd , who refused to write in the Italian style (though he could), to the madrigals of Morley at the other extreme which were wholly Italianate.

In any case, in this field the influence of Italy was at its highest; there were signs of its being prepared before the madrigal burst into fashion at the English Court and with cultivated musical circles--for, as a sophisticated art, its vogue was essentially aristocratic. The curious figure of Thomas Whythorne is that of an individual, isolated precursor--though, like John Shute and William Thomas, he had had contacts with the Dudleys from Edward VI's time. In Mary's he traveled on the Continent studying music, especially during six months in Italy. In 1571 this bore fruit with Whythorne's publication of his Songs for three, four and five voices: one hardly knows whether to call them madrigals or part-songs. One thing merges into another.

Italian madrigals had been coming in from the 1560's, but it was not until Armada year that Nicholas Yonge published the first and most important collection of them in translation, Musica Transalpina. Yonge had been stimulated by the output of the Netherlands music-publisher, Phal╦se; in the ten years 1588-98, five anthologies of Italian madrigals were published in London, along with the first crops from English soil. Yonge was a layclerk of St. Paul's who mentions 'a great number of gentlemen and merchants of good account, as well of this realm as of foreign nations ... by the exercise of music daily used in my house, and by furnishing them with books of that kind yearly sent me out of Italy and other places.' Here now was a middle-class public for the art, though five years earlier Yonge had come across Neapolitan madrigals Englished not long before 'by a very honorable personage and now a Councillor of state.' Ferrabosco's compositions were drawn on more than anyone else's: another indication of his importance as a link with Italy. They were in a conservative style: the book represented the taste of English music-lovers for the serious-minded, the earlier style of Marenzio , not the later, more extreme.

Marenzio was the greatest composer of madrigals, his vast output covering the whole range of the genre. In 1590 Thomas Watson came out with his First Set of Italian Madrigals Englished, which was mainly devoted to Marenzio . Watson made free versions of the Italian directly under the music, sometimes according to the meaning, sometimes according to the note: a compromise, so that one must not judge his versions in vacuo as poetry. He prevailed on his friend William Byrd to contribute two settings of 'This sweet and merry month of May' 'after the Italian vein', though he wrote no more in it. The work was dedicated to Essex:

Inclyte Mavortis, Musarum dulcis alumne,
Accipe iuncta Italis Anglica verba notis ...

Here was propaganda for Italian culture from Marlowe's friend. It is important not to overlook Watson's significance on the grounds of much of his work being in Latin--it was well appreciated by the Elizabethans. He translated Petrarch's Canzoniere into Latin, as also Tasso's Aminta. His Hekatompathia (1582) was the first sonnet-sequence in effect, his posthumous Tears of Fancy (1593) the first actual one. Watson may not have had his friend's genius, but we do not know what he might have accomplished: he died, aged only thirty-six, some months before Marlowe.

The leadership of the campaign for the Italian madrigal was immediately taken over by Byrd's pupil Thomas Morley ; himself a gifted composer, he carried it forward by example as well as precept. He wrote the classic Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music (1597), the best manual of instruction for singing, vocal music and composition, of the time; and from it we learn much about the condition of contemporary music. The book was dedicated to Byrd, 'in all love and affection to you, your most addicted Thomas Morley.' Behind it was Morley's long experience with cathedral choirs, now infused with his addiction to everything Italian. His first Canzonets for three voices of 1593, dedicated to the Countess of Pembroke, were direct imitations of the light-hearted type of brief Italian madrigal. Its fresh, bright, somewhat brittle, style took on at once, and the book went into several editions. He was extraordinarily energetic and prolific; volume after volume followed in quick succession: a First Book of Madrigals for four voices, the first in which the Italian name was used, next year.

In 1595 Morley produced two volumes. The First Book of Ballets introduced a gay new type of composition straight from Italy, modelled mainly on Gastoldi, with both English and Italian words. It was dedicated to Sir Robert Cecil, himself a connoisseur of music. A German edition of this was published at Nuremberg in 1608. The First Book of Canzonets for two voices also contained a number of instrumental fantasies. His expressive gifts and effective variations of rhythm endeared him to a wide public, and that he was an original creator is witnessed by the fact that such pieces from these books as 'Now is the month of maying' and 'Sweet nymph, come to thy lover' are still favourites with us. The Canzonets for five and six voices, of 1597, contain Morley's maturest work and reveal him well in sad and affecting moods as well as cheerful: he was clearly of a mercurial temperament.

Not content with this, in these years Morley made two collections of Italian madrigals, adapting the words to English. The second of these is dedicated to Sir Gervase Clifton: 'Good sir, I ever held this sentence of the poet as a canon of my creed: that whom God loveth not, they love not music ... For your part, I cannot easily tell whether I may more commend in you Art itself or the love of art ... It is not with you as with many others which for form affect it much.' In addition to the Italians Morley included two Italianate madrigals by the gifted Catholic exile, Peter Phillips , who became organist to Philip II's daughter and son-in-law at their Court in Brussels. Nine volumes in seven years!--with his important manual on music, and a volume of consort lessons for instrumental ensemble. The flood of musical publications made 1597 an annus mirabilis; it was the year after the expiry of the Byrd-East printing monopoly. Thomas East was the man who changed the face of music-printing , partly by his adoption of Italian standards, his introduction of Italian compositions, and by more prolific publishing. He was keen. Tallis and Byrd had not made their monopoly very profitable, probably because they were not business men--their minds were elsewhere.

Morley crowned his career by editing the famous Triumphs of Oriana in 1601. This was the culmination of the cult of the Queen in music, celebrating her victories over all her enemies (the last of them being Essex). The idea was derived from the Venetian Il Trionfo di Dori of some years before. Over twenty leading composers and amateurs joined together to do honor to the famous old lady (who had been such a good friend to music).

The English school reached its peak with Thomas Weelkes , the most original madrigalist, and John Wilbye , the most polished; both were deeply indebted to Morley , both surpassed him. Weelkes had the most restless, exploring musical imagination of any, achieving greater extremes of expression within the compass of one madrigal, as well as width of human experience, from care-free drinking or tobacco songs to care-laden masterpieces, like 'O care, thou wilt dispatch Me.' With him one is relieved from the Petrarchan obsession with the love of women (the women themselves must often have been bored!). There is a whole spectrum instead, from the Cries of London, 'New Walfleet oysters', or 'The ape, the monkey and baboon', through the bell-like gaiety of 'On the plains', to the most astonishing of madrigals, 'Thule, the period of cosmography', and 'The Andalusian merchant'. These last, with their fantastic descriptiveness, the musical leaps from Hecla's fire to 'frozen climes', the references to cochineal and china dishes and 'how strangely Fogo burns', throw the mind back to the world of the Madre de Dios with its cargo of cochineal, the Chinese Ming porcelain that came into Burlegh's possession and, tricked out in Elizabethan silver garnishing, is to be seen now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is not fanciful to see the physical expansion of their world reflected in the explorations and discoveries of their minds.

Weelkes was familiar with the chromatic expressionism of the Italians, but it corresponded with his own emotional needs and trials. In his finest madrigals in this vein, 'Hence, care, thou art too cruel', and 'Cease sorrows now', one hears the autobiographical inspiration. He wrote more madrigals than any, except Morley , but, with his intensity of temperament, crammed the bulk of his work into four early years. He was about twenty-two when he produced his first set in 1597: 'unripe in regard of time', he said in dedicating 'the first fruits of my barren ground' to a Hampshire gentleman who had been good to him. From the time of the severe Bishop Horne there had been no organ in Winchester College. Not until Weelkes' appointment in 1598-9 was the organ restored to chapel services. In 1598 Weelkes followed Morley with a set of Ballets--these delightful compositions are always distinguished by Fa-la refrains. He displayed a wider range than most in his choice of words, in this volume drawing upon Barnabe Barnes as in the former from Barnfield's poems in The Passionate Pilgrim. In his dedication to Edward Darcy, who became Groom of the Privy Chamber, Weelkes says pathetically, 'although poverty hath debarred them [musicians] their fellow arts-men's company, yet nature hath set their better part at liberty to delight them that love music.'

Weelkes' masterpiece came in two volumes he published in 1600, the first with a dedication to Lord Windsor. Once more there is the defensive note: the impoverished musician could hardly expect a lord to 'descend to the notice of a quality lying single in so low a personage as myself.' Weelkes' one and only talent was music: 'I confess my conscience is untouched with any other arts . . . many of us musicians think it as much praise to be somewhat more than musicians ... and if Jack Cade were alive yet some of us might live.' It seems sad that, 'without the assistance of other more confident sciences', discouragement should often have weighed down the spirit of -one capable of such a joyful masterpiece as -

Why are you ladies staying,
And your lords gone a-maying?
Run, run apace and meet them,
And with your garlands greet them ...


Hark! hark! I hear some dancing
And a nimble morris prancing,
The bagpipe and the morris bells

As one reads the score here and now, the Elizabethan Maytime meads of Winchester are brought before one's eyes.

The Second Set of 1600, all composed for six voices, was dedicated to George Brooke, who fetched up on the scaffold three years later for conspiring with the Catholic Father Watson against James I ('the fox and his cubs'). This set opens with the bellicose and descriptive, 'Like two proud armies marching in the field', and includes the wonderful 'Thule'. This virtually closed Weelkes' marvelous madrigal output, seventy compositions, some of them more contrapuntally elaborate than any other. He moved on to Chichester and Church music. In 1608 there came a kind of coda, Airs or Fantastic Spirits for three voices. These are on a smaller scale, in a quite different vein: they reveal the humors and quirks of Weelkes and his drinking and smoking companions:

I swear that this tobacco
It's perfect Trinidado ...
Fill the pipe once more,
My brains dance trenchmore.
It is heady, I am giddy,
Head and brains,
Back and reins, joints and veins:
From all pains
It doth well purge and make clean.

Or, for a familiar theme in social life:

Some men desire spouses
That come of noble houses.
And some would have in marriage
Ladies of courtly carriage.
But few desire, as I do
The maidenhead of a widow.

John Wilbye , who never married, writes of nothing but love; he is the most perfect artist of the school. Kerman pays tribute to 'the seriousness of his approach, the sensitivity of his grasp of poetry and language, the polish of his style and the subtlety of his musical ideas and their treatment', and compares him to Marenzio .

Wilbye published no more than two volumes, but they contained sixty-four madrigals. He was a perfectionist: it was impossible for the genre to go further in style, in delicacy of imagination and unerring touch--and in fact its vogue was passing. Wilbye has never failed to evoke response, and such masterpieces as 'Sweet honey-sucking bees' and 'Flora gave me fairest flowers'--he seems to have written or adapted his own words--have never been forgotten. When one hears the lovely 'Draw on, sweet night', it still evokes those green spaces under the cedars of Hengrave, summer or autumn night drawing down over the distances of the park, the shadows growing round the house while the vanished voices murmur those cadences of evocation and longing.

Of the other leading composers of the time Orlando Gibbons published only one First Set of Madrigals and Motets of 5 parts in 1612. The title draws attention to the fact that the two genres were not far apart in Gibbons' mind. Motet meant grave, intellectual music, usually of a religious character, vocal polyphony; Gibbons' madrigals hardly differed from that, still completely polyphonic, austerely beautiful, set to texts of a highly ethical character from Spenser and Sylvester. Gibbons' lofty music is of a complex character with subtle rhythms, but the splendid 'The Silver Swan' keeps his work in this kind alive to us. His setting of Ralegh's 'What is our life' has the lines


Our graves that hide us from the searching sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done,

which serve to show us that on some stages at least curtains were in use. The songs were dedicated to Hatton's nephew and heir, the younger Sir Christopher, musical and extravagant: 'they were most of them composed in your own home ... they are like young scholars newly entered that at first sing very fearfully.'

Thomas Tomkins did not publish his madrigals until 1622, when they were on the way out and the lute-song had already taken first place in favour; in consequence they have always been neglected, though among the finest in their kind. The volume was appropriately dedicated to Pembroke, Lord Warden of the Stannaries of Devon and Cornwall, and is singular for each number being separately dedicated. From this we can reconstruct Tomkins' musical circle; no less than five musical brothers and his own son Nathaniel; Gibbons , Dowland , John Cooper (called Coperario from long residence in Italy), John Danyel , Phineas Fletcher the poet, Dr. Heather who made the splendid collection of music at Oxford and founded the professorship there.

In addition to these men of genius, others of talent and many amateurs of distinction contributed to the vogue in its brief glory; we can note only a few for the light they throw on society. Giles Farnaby , who published his one volume in 1598, was a composer of real originality, with a love of bold chromaticism and ingenious rhythms. 'Construe my meaning' is one of the finest madrigals; he did not fear to set 'Susanna and the elders' already set twice by Byrd and Lassus. The book was dedicated to Ferdinando Heybourne , 'for your manifold courtesies and loving kindness at all times', with Latin verses by Anthony Holborne , a personal servant of the Queen, who had published The Cithern School the year before, jaunty verses by Dowland , others by Hugh Holland, a Cambridge don, and Richard Alison .

Next year Alison published his Psalms, and in 1606 a volume of madrigals dedicated to Sir John Scudamore, gentleman usher to the Queen and standard-bearer to her Pensioners. He was the son of the Sir Scudamore of The Faerie Queene, whom we see in armour, or rather his carapace, in the Metropolitan Museum. Alison was a serious soul, who chose his words from Thomas Campion and Chideock Tichborne. He was grateful for 'those quiet days which by your goodness I have enjoyed'--evidently at Holme Lacy in Herefordshire, where he provided the music. The talented Michael East , at one time organist of Lichfield, was very prolific, publishing no less than five Sets, well over a hundred madrigals. He dedicated his first to another Herefordshire gentleman with Court connections, Sir John Croft; his second to Sir Thomas Gerard, of the Catholic branch of the family, with a tribute to his 'indefatigable assiduity in the private exercise [of music], which hath gained you such a perfection that way as. is rare in a gentleman of your rank.' One of the madrigals was in praise of tobacco--several such were devoted to the craze, as were a number of the riotous songs of the gifted but eccentric Tobias Hume .

The composers were sometimes professionals, connected with cathedrals, sometimes stewards or tutors in the house, or gentlemen amateurs. Thomas Bateson was organist at Chester; he sent his madrigals to his friend, the soldier Sir William Norris, as they were composed in loose papers. Francis Pilkington was precentor of Chester, and a gifted lutenist. He dedicated a First Set of madrigals, 'from my mansion in the monastery of Chester', to Sir Thomas Smith of Hough; his second to Sir Peter Legh of Lyme. It included a pavan for olpharion made by William, Earl of Derby (we remember, from Aubrey, that Ralegh's brother, Carew, had a delicate clear voice and played skillfully on the olpharion). Various verses paid tribute to 'Thine and the Muses' friends of Chester'; so there was a musical circle there, around the cathedral. Not far away, in Lancashire, Ralph Assheton was the patron of a gifted madrigalist in John Bennet .

In East Anglia we find another group. Richard Carlton was master of the choristers at Norwich Cathedral and wrote mostly in a serious vein, several settings to words from The Faerie Queene. He dedicated his book to Thomas Fermor of Norfolk; it included an elegy for a Norfolk knight, Sir John Shelton, slain in a duel. Henry Youll was tutor to the sons of Edmund Bacon in Suffolk; apparently all four brothers were at Cambridge together, and Youll recalls 'what a solace their company was once to you when I nursed them amongst you.' He writes as an amateur, whose main employments are otherwise; but his Canzonets have charm and individuality, while his choice of words--from Sidney, Ben Jonson, Sir John Davies--indicated a man of taste.

John Ward , an accomplished madrigalist, also had good taste in verse, setting poems from Sidney and Drayton. He served in the household of Sir Henry Fanshawe, the Exchequer official who owned a fine collection of musical instruments at his house in Warwick Lane. Henry Lichfield was steward to Lady Cheney at her splendid 'Court-like' house at Toddington, near Luton: 'so I, bestowing the day in your ladyship's necessary businesses, borrowed some hours of the night to bestow upon these my compositions ... yet it pleased your honor with gentle ear to receive them, being presented by the instruments and voices of your own family.' The lady is saluted with charming verses by Christopher Brooke:

Unto that vale-like place of lowly height,
Where joy, peace, love make an harmonious chime,
Where civil sports, music and Court delight
Do run divisions on the hours of time,
Where reigns a lady crowned with highest merits
On whom the muses and the graces wait ...

Leicestershire had another group, which included the cultivated Beaumonts and Villierses--the Duke of Buckingham's mother was a Beaumont; their madrigalist was an accomplished professional, Thomas Vautor , who published an excellent volume in 1619. With them we come back to the Court, upon which the whole musical movement pivoted.

Closely associated with the Court was John Mundy , organist at Windsor and Eton, whose father had been a notable composer of Church music. Mundy sought Essex's patronage 'as under privilege of a religious sanctuary.' He set English verses by Lupo , one of the Queen's Italian musicians, Tichborne (again), and Oxford's poem, so revealing of the edge on his temper, the insatisfaction, the aristocratic disdain:

Were I king I might command content,
 Were I obscure unknown should be my cares,
And were I dead no thoughts should me torment,
 Nor words, nor wrongs, nor loves, nor hopes, nor fears.
A doubtful choice, of three things one to crave:
A kingdom, or a cottage, or a grave.

Robert Jones was the most famous lutenist, after Dowland, and an exquisite and prolific composer of songs. He offered his madrigals to Salisbury, for the encouragement 'you have given to many professors of music', hoping that 'your spirits, which are encumbered with many cares, may a little be delighted in the hearing of these songs.'

Composer┤s bibliography and music

Name and link to Whent┤s Bibliography Years Country # of PDF/Midi Discography # of MP3
Alison, Richard fl. 1580 - 1610 England . Discography .
Bateson, Thomas 1497 - 1550 England cpdl=21 . MP3
Bennet, John c. 1570 - after 1614 England cpdl=29 Discography MP3
Byrd, William c. 1540 - 1623 England cpdl=300 Discography MP3
Carlton, Richard 1558? - 1638? England . . .
Cornysh, William c. 1465 - 1523 England cpdl=12 . MP3
Dowland, John c. 1540 - 1623 England cpdl=139 Discography MP3
East, Michael c. 1580 - 1648 England cpdl=29 . MP3
Farmer, John c. 1560 - ? England cpdl=21 Discography MP3
Farnaby, Giles c. 1565 - 1640 England cpdl=45 Discography MP3
Ferrabosco, Alfonso I 1543 - 1588 Italy . Discography .
Gibbons, Ellis 1573 - 1603/9 England . Discography .
Gibbons, Orlando 1583 - 1625 England cpdl=23 Discography MP3
Henry VIII 1491-1547 England cpdl=11 Discography MP3
Hilton (2), John 1599 - 1657 England cpdl=4 . .
Hunt, Thomas fl. 1600 England . . .
Jones, Robert c. 1577 - after 1615 England cpdl=4 Discography .
Morley, Thomas c. 1557 - 1602 England cpdl=219 Discography MP3
Mundy, John c. 1550/4 - 1630 England cpdl=5 Discography MP3
Philips, Peter c. 1560 - c. 1633 England cpdl=18 Discography .
Pilkington, Francis c. 1565 - 1638 England cpdl=17 Discography MP3
Porter, Walter c. 1588 - 1659 England cpdl=1 . .
Thomas Ravenscroft 1592-1633 England cpdl=73 Discography MP3
Tomkins, Thomas 1572 - 1656 England cpdl=31 Discography MP3
Vautor, Thomas c. 1580/90 - ? England cpdl=5 Discography MP3
Ward, John 1571 - 1638 England cpdl=10 Discography MP3
Watson, Thomas c. 1565 - ? England . . .
Weelkes, Thomas c. 1576 - 1623 England cpdl=106 Discography MP3
Wilbye, John 1574 - 1638 England cpdl=48 Discography MP3
Youll, Henry c. 1580/90 - ? England . . .

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