No.1 “A qualunque animale” for eight-part voices (SSAATTBB)
Text: Petrarch
Duration c. 10’

Commissioned by the Morrill Music Library, Villa I Tatti: the Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies, Florence, in memory of F. Gordon and Elizabeth Morrill  

First performance Vox Altera soloists, directed by Massimiliano Pascucci

Villa I Tatti, Florence May 27th 2004


February 1, 2004

Gavin’s Notes:

“A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi” (Fourth Book of Madrigals no. 2) for 8-part mixed choir

In 1998, I embarked on a series of books of madrigals related to those from the Italian renaissance. For the first of these books, I set poems by Blake Morrison which, unusually, were actually written to be set to music as madrigals. For subsequent books, however, I decided to set poets who had been the chief sources of texts for the renaissance madrigalists and for my second, third and fourth books of madrigals I turned to Petrarch. The second book sets fourteen sonnets from Petrarch’s Rime Sparse,  and the fourth, as here, sets longer poems, the sestina form.

Petrarch’s sonnets attracted me initially because of their prominence in sixteenth century madrigal music, but I was also drawn to the heart-rending beauty of the poetry and their sheer technical brilliance.

The purpose of the Rime Sparse (this term appears in the first line of the first sonnet and has the deceptively casual meaning of „scattered rhymes”) is to immortalise the real or imagined Laura, who Petrarch may – or may not – have seen near Avignon shortly before Easter 1327. The ingenuity with which he conceals or alludes to her name can be astonishing. She can be the laurel (sometimes obliquely as ‘the honoured branch’, ‘noble tree’, ‘garland’) and she is ‘l’aura’ (the dawn). Here the “belle frondi” (beautiful leaves) are those of the laurel and the “altri rami” (other branches) are those of the cross. Given that the season (“tempo”) referred to in the penultimate sestina may be Lent it is appropriate that the premiere of this choral setting is at that time.

His rhyme schemes can be virtuosic beyond belief. With the sestina form (six 6-line verses with a final 3-line verse), each verse has the same six words at the ends of lines but in each succeeding verse on a different line. Then in the final three lines all six rhyming words are brought back, three of them as half rhymes. These devices have soemtimes suggested musical approaches, but hey are never there just to demonstrate his cleverness, but are always at the service of the poetry.

This extended madrigal was commissioned by the Addison Singers and was written specially for it. The choir’s director is an old friend of mine, and both my daughters have been members. The piece is dedicated to the Addison Singers, in a spirit of friendship and affection.

Gavin Bryars. March 2007

Fourth Book of Madrigals (Published individually)

  1. A qualunque animale (SSAATTBB) ED 12891
  2. A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi (SSAATTBB) ED 13082

Text of Fourth Book of Madrigals

Fourth Book of Madrigals no.2 “A la dolce ombra” Petrarch: Rime sparse 142

A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi

corsi fuggendo un dispietato lume

che ‘n fin qua giù m’ardea dal terzo cielo;

et disgombrava già di neve i poggi

l’aura amorosa che rinova il tempo,

et fiorian per le piagge l’erbe e i rami.


Non vide il mondo sì leggiadri rami

né mosse il vento mai sì verdi frondi

come a me si mostrar quel primo tempo,

tal che temendo de l’ardente lume

non volsi al mio refugio ombra di poggi,

ma de la pianta più gradita in cielo.


Un lauro mi difese allor dal cielo,

onde più volte, vago de’ bei rami,

da po’ son gito per selve et per poggi;

né giamai ritrovai tronco né frondi

tanto onorate dal superno lume

che non mutasser qualitate a tempo.


Però più fermo ogni or di tempo in tempo,

seguendo ove chiamar m’udia dal cielo

e scorto d’un soave et chiaro lume,

tornai sempre devoto ai primi rami

et quando a terra son sparte le frondi

et quando il sol fa verdeggiare i poggi.


Selve, sassi, campagne, fiumi, et poggi,

quanto è creato, vince et cangia il tempo;

ond’ io cheggio perdono a queste frondi

se rivolgendo poi molt’anni il cielo

fuggir disposi gl’invescati rami

tosto ch’ i’ ncominciai di veder lume.


Tanto mi piacque prima il dolce lume

ch’ i’ passai con diletto assai gran poggi

per poter appressar gli amati rami;

ora la vita breve e ‘l loco e ‘l tempo

mostranmi altro sentier di gire al cielo

et di far frutto, non pur fior et frondi.


Altr’amor, altre frondi, et altro lume,

altro salir al ciel per altri poggi

cerco (che n’è ben tempo), et altri rami.


To the sweet shade of those beautiful leaves

I ran, fleeing a pitiless light

that was burning down upon me from the third heaven;

and already the snow was disappearing from the hills

thanks to the loving breeze that renews the season,

and through the meadows the grass bloomed and the branches.


The world never saw such graceful branches

nor did the wind ever move such green leaves

as showed themselves to me in that first season;

so that, fearing the burning light,

I chose for my refuge no shade of hills

but that of the tree most favoured in Heaven.


A laurel defended me then from the heavens;

wherefore often, desirous of its lovely branches,

since then I have gone through woods and across hills:

nor have I ever again found trunk or leaves

so honoured by the supernal light

that they did not change their quality according to the season.


Therefore, more and more firm from season to season,

following where I heard myself called from Heaven

and guided by a mild and clear light,

I have come back always devoted to the first branches,

both when on earth are scattered their leaves

and when the sun turns green the hills.


Woods, rocks, fields, rivers, and hills –

all that is made – are vanquished and changed by time;

wherefore I ask pardon of these leaves

if, the heavens turning many years,

I have made ready to flee the enlimed branches

as soon as I began to see the light.


So pleasing to me at first was that sweet light

that joyfully I traversed great hills

in order to approach the beloved branches.

Now the shortness of life and the place and the season

show me another pathway to go to Heaven

and bear fruit, not merely flowers and leaves.


Another love, other leaves, and another light,

another climbing to Heaven by other hills

I seek (for it is indeed time), and other branches.


Translated by Robert M. Durling


Gavin Bryars