For soprano, tenor, 2 violas, cello, bass
Text: Petrarch, translated by J. M. Synge
Duration c. 26’
First performance: Anna Maria Friman, John Potter, Gavin Bryars Ensemble
Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin May 15th 2004


January 1, 2004

Gavin’s Notes:

Eight Irish Madrigals (2004)

for soprano, tenor, and ensemble

The Eight Irish Madrigals come from my Third Book of Madrigals. There are seventeen madrigals altogether in the Third Book (for soprano, tenor, bass and lute) and the first nine were written for the Huddersfield Festival.  For a concert in Dublin I am making new versions of four of these nine madrigals for two singers and six instruments. In addition, four new madrigals are being written specially for Dublin where they will be given their first performances.

Like my Second Book of Madrigals, the Third sets sonnets by Petrarch, but this time not in the original 14th century Italian but in Irish prose translations by J. M. Synge. I came across Synge’s Petrarch poems in the University of Victoria library, part of a remarkable Synge collection. They were edited by one of Canada’s greatest poets Robin Skelton, who died in 1997 and to whose memory these madrigals are dedicated.

Although Synge first became interested in Petrarch when he visited Italy in 1896 it was not until early 1907, after he had met the American poetess Agnes Tobin and read her translations, that he began to work on his own versions. Part of his intention was to translate love poetry into English but they also served as an exercise in writing prose poetry of the kind he could use in his last play Deirdre of the Sorrows which he wrote in parallel with the Petrarch translations. Both the play and the translations were incomplete at the time of his death in March 1909.

Petrarch’s sonnets are traditionally divided into two collections: “in vita di Madonna Laura” and “in morte di Madonna Laura”  and Synge’s settings are from the second group. During the time that he was writing them he became aware that he did not have long to live and the opening lines of the first poem show this: “Life is flying from me, not stopping an hour”

Only eight translations from Petrarch appeared in the edition of Synge’s Poems and Translations published two weeks after his death and each was given a title in imitation of Petrarch. When four more were added in the Collected Works in 1910 more were included and four of these had titles in a different hand than Synge’s. Robin Skelton added titles to five more in his 1961 edition of Synge’s translations.

Setting Synge’s prose poetry was very different from setting Petrarch’s originals – in many ways harder – but always immensely pleasurable, rewarding and challenging. Coincidentally one sonnet which I set in the Second Book of Madrigals also appears in the Synge collection and therefore in the Third Book. Curiously, this is the penultimate madrigal in each book (the last one of the Eight Irish Madrigals).

The eight madrigals which form this collection are:

1. He asks his heart to raise itself up to God

2. He wishes he might die and follow Laura (tenor solo)

3. He considers that he should set little store on earthly beauty

4. He finds comfort and rest in his sorrows

5. He is jealous of the Heavens and the Earth

6. He understands the great cruelty of Death (tenor solo)

7. Only he who mourns her and Heaven that possesses her knew while she lived

8. Petrarch is unable to contain his grief

Gavin Bryars

Eight Irish Madrigals (Adapted from 3rd book of Madrigals)

(Soprano, tenor, 2 violas, cello and double bass)

Hire Only

1. He asks his heart to raise itself up to God

2. He wishes he might die and follow Laura (tenor solo)

3. He considers that he should set little store on earthly beauty

4. He finds comfort and rest in his sorrows

5. He is jealous of the Heavens and the Earth

6. He understands the great cruelty of death (tenor solo)

7. Petrarch is unable to contain his grief

8. Laura waits for him in heaven (tenor solo -obligato soprano)

Text of Eight Irish Madrigals

for soprano, tenor, 2 violas, cello and double bass [2004]


1. He asks his heart to raise itself up to God

What is it you’re thinking, lonesome heart?  For what is it you’re turning back ever and always to times that are gone away from you?  For what is it you’re throwing sticks on the fire where it is your own self that is burning?

The little looks and sweet words you’ve taken one by one and written down among your songs, are gone up into the Heavens, and it’s late, you know well, to go seeking them on the face of the earth.

Let you not be giving new life every day to your own destruction, and following a fool’s thoughts for ever.  Let you seek Heaven when there is nothing left pleasing on the earth, and it a poor thing if a great beauty, the like of her, would be destroying your peace and she living or dead.


2. He wishes he might die and follow Laura (tenor solo)

In the years of her age the most beautiful and the most flowery – the time Love has his mastery – Laura, who was my life, has gone away leaving the earth stripped and desolate. She has gone up into the Heavens, living and beautiful and naked, and from that place she is keeping her lordship and her reign upon me, and I crying out: Ohone, when will I see that day breaking that will be my first day with herself in Paradise?

My thoughts are going after her, and it is that way my soul would follow her, lightly, and airily, and happily, and I would be rid of all my great troubles.  But what is delaying me is the proper thing to lose me utterly, to make me a greater weight on my own self.

Oh, what a sweet death I might have died this day three years to-day!

3. He considers that he should set little store on earthly beauty

I was never anyplace where I saw so clearly one I do be wishing to see when I do not see, never in a place where I had the like of this freedom in myself, and where the light of love making was strong in the sky.  I never saw any valley with so many spots in it where a man is quiet and peaceful, and I wouldn’t think that Love himself in Cyprus had a nest so nice and curious.  The waters are holding their discourse on love, and the wind with them and the branches, and fish, and the flowers and the grass, the lot of them are giving hints to me that I should love forever.

But yourself are calling to me out of Heaven to pray me by the memory of the bitter death that took you from me that I should put small store on the world or the tricks that are in it.

4. He finds comfort and rest in his sorrows

Sweet spirit you do be coming down so often to put a sweetness on my sad night-time with a look from those eyes death has not quenched, but made more deep and beautiful.

How much it is a joy to me that you throw a light on my dark days, so that I am beginning to find your beauty in the places where I did see you often.

Where I did go long years, and I singing of yourself, I go now, making lamentations for my own sharp sorrows.

It is when I have great sorrow only that I find rest, for it is then when I turn round I see and know you, by your walk and your voice, and your face, and the cloak round you.

5. He is jealous of the Heavens and the Earth

What a grudge I am bearing the earth that has its arms about her, and is holding that face away from me, where I was finding peace from great sadness.

      What a grudge I am bearing the Heavens that are after taking her, and shutting her in with greediness, the Heavens that do push their bolt against so many.

       What a grudge I am bearing the blessed saints that have got her sweet company, that I am always seeking; and what a grudge I am bearing against Death, that is standing in her two eyes and will not call me with a word.

6. He understands the great cruelty of Death (tenor solo)

My flowery and green age was passing away, and I feeling a chill in the fires had been wasting my heart, for I was drawing near the hillside that is above the grave.

       Then my sweet enemy was making a start, little by little, to give over her great wariness, the way she was wringing a sweet thing out of my sharp sorrow. The time was coming when Love and Decency can keep company, and lovers may sit together and say out all things are in their hearts. But Death had his grudge against me, and he got up in the way, like an armed robber, with a pike in his hand.


7. Petrarch is unable to contain his grief

There was one time maybe when it was a sweet thing to love – though I would be hard set to say when it was – but now it is a bitter thing and there is nothing bitterer. The man who is teaching a truth should know it better than any other, and that is the way I am with my great sorrow.

       Herself that was the honour of our age; [and] now is in the heavens where all cherish her, made my [times of ease] in her days short and rare, and now she has taken all rest from me.

       Cruel Death has taken every good thing from me, and from this out no good luck could make up for the loss of that beautiful spirit that is set free.

       I used to be weeping and making songs, and I don’t know at this day what way I’d turn a verse, but day and night the sorrow that is banked up in my heart, breaks out on my tongue and through my eyes.


8. Laura waits for him in heaven

The first day she passed up and down through the Heavens, gentle and simple were left standing, and they in great wonder, saying one to the other:

       ‘What new light is that? What new beauty at all? The like of herself hasn’t risen up these long years from the common world.’

       And herself, well pleased with the Heavens, was going forward, matching herself with the most perfect that were before her, yet one time, and another, waiting a little, and turning her head back to see if myself was coming after her. It’s for that I’m lifting up all my thoughts and will into the Heavens, because I do hear her praying that I should be making haste forever.


(Text by Petrarch, translated by J.M.Synge)



Gavin Bryars