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Fa La La! …English Madrigals

Text by: Amy Carpenter

Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing! Fa la la la la!
Each with his bonny lass, a-dancing on the grass, fa la la la la!
The Spring, clad all 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 delight refusing? Fa la la la la!
Say, dainty nymphs and speak! Shall we play barley break? Fa la la la la!
-"Now is the Month of Maying" by Thomas Morley
A small ensemble of singers enters the stage. They stand in a half circle, facing the audience. A member of the ensemble plays a note on the pitch pipe, and the singers launch into their song. They can hardly stand still, their bodies swaying and heads tilting to the fanciful music. The singers wink and smile at the audience, letting them in on their little jaunt through the country. The tune is light and airy, causing the singers' tongues to skip lithely over the words. The bass voice runs away on the "fa la la," and the soprano quickly follows suit. Soon, the alto joins in, and the tenor gives chase until they all catch up with one another, continuing their musical game. Then, they "fa la la" their way to their destination: the delightful applause of the audience. This is the English madrigal.

Although now seen as a purely English invention, madrigals actually originated in Italy in the mid-16th century. The madrigal style rapidly spread to the rest of Europe, reaching England during the 1580s. The explosion of the popularity of madrigals in England coincided with the invention of a unique, new English form of poetry: the sonnet. The madrigal's lighter style showcased the fluidity of the sonnet's language in a way no previous musical style could. The madrigal remained the preferred form in England long after its popularity waned in the rest of Europe.

Madrigals are entirely non-religious in nature. Some, such as "Now is the Month of Maying," (listen at http://umusing.net/i2mp3/119_nowisthemonth.mp3) are light and playful. Others are woeful and sad. John Wilbye's "Weep, Weep Mine Eyes" (listen at http://umusing.net/imp3/In1416-49.mp3) is one example of this more morose style:

Weep, weep, mine eyes, my heart can take no rest.
Weep, weep, my heart, mine eyes shall ne'er be blest.
Weep eyes, weep heart, and both this accent dry
A thousand deaths, Flaminia, I die.
Ah cruel Fortune! Now, Leander, to die I fear not.
Death, do thy worst! I care not!
I hope when I am dead in Elysian plain
To meet, and there with joy we'll love again.

"Leander" was a play written by William Hawkesworth, which was performed for the first time in1599. Hawkeworth's play is inspired by another Italian play, and tells the story of Leander and Flaminia. Leander is in love with a woman name Flaminia. Unfortunately, another man also seeks her hand. When Leander learns that his rival is none other than the man who saved his life, he gives up his suit and leaves. In the end, the rival learns of Leander's love and relinquishes his suit so that Leander and Flaminia can be together.

Madrigal composers also wrote satirical pieces. Thomas Weelke's "Strike it up Tabor" makes fun of the English dancers of the time (now known as the traditional English Morris folk dancers):

Strike it up, Tabor
And pipe us a favour,
Thou shalt be well paid for thy labour.
I mean to spend my shoe-soul
To dance about the Maypole,
I will be blithe and brisk,
Leap and skip, hop and trip,
Turn about in the rout
Until very weary joints can scarce frisk.

Lusty Dick Hopkin
Lay on with thy napkin.
The stitching cost me but a dodkin.
The Morris were half undone
were't not for Martin of Compton.
O, well, said jigging Alice.
Pretty Jill, stand you still,
Dapper Jack means to smack.
How now, fie fie fie, you dance false.

The tabor was a drum often used with the pipes and lute to play music for the dancers. The dancing is fun until someone gets tired, and a lad gets a little frisky with one of the lasses!

Though dancers were accompanied by instruments, madrigals were sung a capella (unaccompanied). They usually consisted of three to eight vocal parts. Opera had not been invented yet — that particular style would come to fruition during the Baroque era of music. Instead, madrigals were often sung during plays. Thomas Morley, one of the most famous madrigal composers, grew up in the same area as William Shakespeare, and was quite possibly friends with the playwright. Morley set some of Shakespeare's words to music, but it has not been proven yet whether his compositions were actually performed for Shakespeare's plays. Other madrigals, however, were definitely performed with plays. Madrigals were also the precursors for the Baroque choruses.

Although they may seem a lost art form, madrigals are still performed around the world. "The King's Singers" is a famous, all-male singing group who specialize in madrigals, though they do sing other kinds of music, as well. Madrigals are also required singing for high school choirs and choral ensembles, and one can find madrigal singers at Renaissance fairs and in churches. Modern a capella groups can trace their roots back to the madrigal singers. And every year at Christmastime, we sing a carol in the madrigal style: "Deck the Halls."

Madrigals hearken to an age when auto-tune did not exist, and singers had well-tuned ears and could actually stay on pitch. The instant the first notes of a madrigal are sung, they take us back to the age of chivalry and love. They make us dance and careen into the arms of our lovers and remind us to laugh at the silly foibles of life. They nobly express the haunting sadness of lost love. They inspire us to sing what we would ordinarily speak and spur us into belting a boisterous "fa la la" at the world.