Hello again! Time to give you a sneak preview of some of the more profane moments of tomorrow’s concert, as counter-point to the soaring sacred music with which we intend to spoil you.
There’s a definite bird-theme to this post, as all three of the pieces I’ve chosen to highlight here revolve around birds of one kind or another, both literally and as a metaphor for, shall we say, amorous relations. Two of them even mimic their calls within the music – ‘tweeting’ Renaissance-style, as our esteemed Twitter-meister has put it!
The first piece I’m going to look at is soulful rather than light-hearted: the Italian madrigal ‘Il bianco e dolce cigno’ (The gentle white swan) by the Franco-Flemish composer Jacob (also Jacques) Arcadelt (c1507-68), one of the foremost exponents of the genre. Madrigals were secular songs which particularly sought to convey the emotion of their poetic text, and were the principal secular form of the period. They were generally through-composed – each section has its own thematic material – and the classic Italian four-part madrigal, of which this is a prime example, was largely homophonic in texture (the voices mostly move simultaneously). The result is a plangent but elegant poetic comparison between the situation of the swan, who only sings upon his death, and that of the poet dying an erotic ‘death’ and desiring to do so a thousand times a day. This last thought induces Arcadelt to break out of the calm clarity of homophony into a more frenzied imitative texture on ‘mille morte’, to underscore the point. Given the level of influence of the Italian madrigal upon the English version, it’s likely that Arcadelt’s work inspired Gibbons’s well-known example ‘The silver swan’, which is reminiscent in terms of tone and texture.
Now we move on to a more lively, even ribald piece, the French chanson ‘Il est bel et bon’ by Pierre Passereau (1509-1547). The chanson was roughly the French equivalent of the madrigal – that is to say a secular song shaped by its lyrics. The Parisian style of the 1530s tended to employ onomatopoeia and, often, suggestive innuendo; and this song is no exception. In a vigorous, quasi-rustic style it depicts two women discussing the relative merits of their husbands. One revels in the fact that hers is very good to her, even doing the housework and feeding the hens whilst she ‘takes her pleasure’. The audible outbreak of the hens (or is it the women?) clucking ‘petite coquette’ is sufficient commentary on what she’s really getting up to…It’s huge fun!
Finally, our piéce de resistance in this respect: ‘Le chant des oiseaux’ by Clément Janequin (c1485-1558). Janequin was one of the foremost composers of the popular chanson, specialising in the programmatic variety which cunningly recreated particular scenarios through the imitation of sounds. He wrote versions of a hunt and a battle; but this one conjures up the bird calls of the merry month of May. Bring your ornithological ears with you and you’ll hear thrushes, blackbirds, starlings, nightingales and cuckoos trilling away, the subtext being that ‘the god of love is calling you’. The result is a joyful, amorous cacophony that shouldn’t fail to raise a smile!
We hope you enjoy rummaging through our Renaissance treasure-chest – do let us know what you think.