The 2013 Renaissance season is off to a dynamic and exciting start at Arbor Consort. First of all, several new people joined us this season, and – fortunately – the tally is still counting. So far the new recruits comprise of two altos, one soprano and one tenor, each of them terrific singers and great company as well. Considering the size of our ensemble, this is an approximately twenty percent addition to the group. Welcome to all our new members!
Second, we have kicked off the season by starting to learn a substantial amount of new repertoire – nine pieces, to be exact. As the repertoire has largely been unchanged for the last couple of years, this comes as true refreshment and extra motivation. Let us take a quick glance at each of the pieces, one by one.
Chi la Gagliarda, by Baldassare DONATO (c.1527-1603), is a light and simple four-part Italian dance piece – as the name suggests, it is indeed written in galliard rhythm. However, the text itself reveals a clever game of double entendre, as the first line may either be read “Who wants to learn the galliard, lady?” or “Who wants to learn about the vigorous woman?” The rest of the lines talk about how “us, masters, never stop playing, be it day or night”.
Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623) is an English composer deeply indebted to the Italian musical forms and style of his day, yet more original and better rooted in the English musical tradition that his more famous compatriot and fellow composer Thomas Morley, who lived around the same time. Weelkes’ three-voice Ayeres (1608) contains short and light incidental music, two of which we have added to our repertoire this year. Come, Sirrah Jack, Ho! Is as close to being an early 17th century advertising jingle as it can get – the song praising tobacco of the brand “Trinidado” as one that has never seen its equal, and bringing into question the good judgment of all those who do not agree on this point.
Like Thomas Morley, Weelkes also collaborated with William Shakespeare in composing songs for his plays. Though, at least in this particular regard, Morley seems to have outperformed Weelkes (both in quality and output), Strike it up, Tabor! is still a lovely and engaging little song from the same volume of three-part songs (Ayeres, 1608). As far as we can tell, it was not intended for any particular play or scene (another contrast to Morley, whose Shakespearian songs are always specific on this account): it is a generic piece about any group of comrades looking for an evening of dance and entertainment in the town’s tavern.
In contrast to Weelkes and Morley, William BYRD (1540-1623), who is most famous for his sacred works, did not intend to mimic the then-dominant Italian musical style. Though he had written a vast body of secular songs, few of those resemble the madrigals of his contemporaries, English or Italian. In fact, our new repertoire song represents one of his rare forays into the composition of madrigals. The five-part Come, Woeful Orpheus is replete with chromatic voice leading and sudden, awkward changes in tonality. But there is method to the madness: Byrd’s intention of parodying the late Renaissance mannerist style of Italy is clear from the text – which, among other things, talks of “sourest sharps and uncouth flats” – just as one hears them in the music itself. Since the mannerist style, embodied by composers such as Luca Marenzio, Luzzasco Luzzaschi, or Carlo Gesualdo, was reveling in the use of strange harmonic leaps as an expressive tool, Byrd’s piece may be seen as a critique of that style, written in musical form.
Italian composer Adriano BANCHIERI (1568-1634) is known for his words “as well as serious dramatic works, people need joyful pieces providing light entertainment – do the former well and enjoy the latter”. Today, he is certainly better remembered for his latter type of music, such as the madrigal Contrapunto Bestiale Alla Mente, the five-part “counterpoint of the animals”, in which a mock-serious cantus firmus is heard in the bass line, while the other parts squeal, bark, meow, and in all sorts of other ways provide a chorus of various creatures yielding the accompaniment.
One of the most influential composers of the early high Renaissance was the Franco-Flemish Cipriano de RORE (c.1515-1565), who spent much of his life working in Italy. His four-part masterpiece Mia Benigna Fortuna is written on the text of Petrarch, the “father of humanism” and the poet who more than all others inspired the imagination of the late-Renaissance Italian composers. The poem, written in the form of a sestina, laments the death of his beloved Laura during the plague, emphasizing the sudden change in his “kind fortune and happy life” to “hating his life and longing for death”. A thorough analysis of this deep and multi-layered piece of music is material for future posts.
Orazio VECCHI (1550-1605) was another Italian composer who, though today better known for his lighter madrigals, was during his time a daring innovator and one of the pioneers of early quasi-operas which eventually led to Peri’s Dafne (the first opera ever written, in 1598) and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607), the opera that brought the genre to life and paved the way for the likes of Händel, Mozart, Weber, Wagner, Puccini, and such contemporary composers as John Adams. So Ben Mi Ch’ha Bon Tempo is a short, strophic, angst-filled and beautiful four-part song with clever use of pseudo-polyphony in its final fa-la-la section.
The song Sumer Is Icumen In (“summer has arrived” in Middle English) was probably written around 1260 (the composer’s identity is uncertain), and as such, it is the first known example of a piece of music employing six-part polyphony. It is essentially a round, with voice after voice entering into the musical frame. Though naturally its harmonic world is somewhat archaic by our standards, it is very much enjoyable and easy to listen to for a piece that was written during the times of the Notre Dame school of composition – a more academic experiment with polyphony within the context of sacred music whose products sound much more weird to the modern ear.
Finally, a simple and lovely French chanson by Claudin de SERMISY (c.1490-1562), Tant que Vivray. The beautiful melody in the soprano line is mostly supported by simple homophonic accompaniment from the other three parts. The song is about the joy a lover feels when, after a long and arduous siege, his/her beloved (“his” in this particular song – though that hardly matters) finally yields and gives in to the passions of love.