On Madrigals – written for Aktuel


Occasional Writings

Like many Englishmen I had sung madrigals for pleasure – usually late at night with friends, after several glasses of wine. While these madrigals have their charm, and many are extremely beautiful, I found through embarking on an extended exploration of the madrigal as a creative venture that the richest source lies in the Italian Renaissance.

It was in 1998 that I embarked on a project to write a series of madrigals for the Hilliard Ensemble, eventually deciding to collect them in ‘books’ in the manner of Italian madrigalists, such as Monteverdi or Gesualdo. Indeed, having written many works for the Hilliard Ensemble I sought, in writing these new madrigals, to work within the spirit and aesthetic of those from the Italian Renaissance. I asked my long-time collaborator Blake Morrison if he would be interested in writing some new poems based on the form and content of Renaissance madrigals (John Potter of the Hilliard pointed out that they were chiefly about love and sex – whether an absence or abundance of either). The settings are for 3, 4 or 5-part ensemble and the disposition of these ensembles varies. While most of the four-part madrigals are for alto, two tenors and baritone, there are some for three tenors and baritone. Equally of the 3 three-part settings two are for alto, tenor, baritone, while one is for two tenors and baritone.  The poems cover a wide emotional range. Some focus on the details of loving relationships – with a subtle eroticism or, at times, irony –  others deal with love in a more abstract sense.

Coincidentally the first four settings were written on Mondays (the first three to be ready for the Lockerbie Memorial Concert at Westminster Cathedral in December 1998, the fourth for a session of filming for a TV profile made by Hessischer Rudfunk in 1999). I wrote the remaining nine on successive Mondays in the summer of 2000 in our summer home in Victoria BC, sometimes writing two, and once three, in a day. The songs are published in the order of their composition.

As a consequence I plan subsequent Books of Madrigals, each one to be written on a different day of the week. In this quest I have been guided and helped by John Potter, founder of Red Byrd and former tenor with the Hilliard Ensemble who has pointed me to many less obvious sources (Cipriano de Rore, Sigismundo d’India for example). It was John’s suggestion that I look at Petrarch.

The Second Book (Tuesdays) therefore is for a six-part group – the Scandinavian Trio Mediaeval (3 sopranos) and the three tenors (John plus two from the Hilliard Ensemble) – and sets Petrarch in the original 14th century Italian, those sonnets known as the Rime Sparsi (“scattered verses”), many of which have Laura as their implied subject. In setting these I have been staggered by the richness of Petrarch’s invention, both in the range and choice of imagery and in the extraordinarily subtle poetic devices and techniques that he employs. I chose to write 16 madrigals for this book, using 18 poems (2 madrigals set two consecutive poems). In addition I added an extra one for a radiophonic piece I did for CBC’s celebration of Marconi (“Marconi’s Madrigal”) when I speculated that, in December 1901, the “S” that was transmitted from Poldhu in Cornwall to St. Johns in Newfoundland was, in reality, the first letter of a Petrarch sonnet…..

The Third Book of Madrigals sets J. M. Synge’s translations of Petrarch – into a kind of Irish prose – collected together under the title “Laura in Death. I came across these in the Unibversity of Victoria library, where there is a strong collection of Synge’s work, and this volume had been put together by the poet Robin Skelton. They are being written for Red Byrd (soprano, tenor, bass and lute). Some are for the whole ensemble, but others for each solo voice, the three combinations of duos (with and without lute) as well as lute interludes.

Gavin Bryars


Gavin Bryars