London Revew of Books, November 2008

Once a year, a singing group I belong to works on a few pieces with a coach. Our core repertoire is English and Italian madrigals. We’d practised two by Monteverdi: what else did we want to sing with him? We sightread a massive six-voice English one by Thomas Weelkes, “Thule, the Period of Cosmographie”, and its Second Part, “The Andalusian Merchant”, but rejected it as too difficult. Afterwards, wondering why it was hard, I worked at it on the piano. Then I bought a CD. Most of us in this group have sung madrigals all our lives. What made these harmonies, words and interval leaps particularly difficult?

Weelkes published “Thule”, in 1600, when he was probably twenty-four. No one knows who wrote the text. Suggestions have ranged from Weelkes himself to Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

Thule, the period of cosmographie,
Doth vaunt of Hecla whose sulphureous fire
Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky;
Trinacrian Etna’s flames ascend not higher.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

The Andalusian merchant, that returns

Laden with cochineal and china dishes
Reports in Spain how strangely Fogo burns
Amidst an ocean full of flying fishes.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

Weelkes’s music stresses two key words, “wondrous” and “strangely”, reflecting the way the poem shifts the perspectives from which it does its wondering.

It begins with two long lonely syllables: the top voice evoking the top edge of the world, where Iceland stood on Elizabethan maps. By 1600, “Thule” could mean anywhere in the frozen north. Thule began its literary-geographical life in the fourth-century BC Greek genre of the periodos: the “going round”, the written voyage. “Period” in that sense subtly informs this cosmographically erudite poem. But its manifest meaning (through which “period” came to mean “punctuation point”) is “farthest limit”. Thule is the map’s full stop. The first eighteen bars and first five words sketch a map of the human voice, top to bottom: two sopranos, alto, two tenors, bass.

After “cosmographie”, these voices personify Thule. Each jumps up in turn after “doth” to the personifying verb, “vaunt”. Thule is boasting about Hecla, Iceland’s most active volcano, whose 1597 eruption lasted over six months. On Hecla’s first syllable each voice in turn leaps up again, at first in fourths, but the top voice a sixth and finally an octave: another musical eruption. On “sulphureous fires” they ripple up and down, a sonic image of flickering flame. They fall still on “melt” and the first syllable of “frozen”, but on “thaw the sky” each voice bounces up again, released.

Word-painting like this (ascending scales for “rising”, descending notes for “sinking”) were characteristic of the Italian madrigal after 1550. English madrigalists took it over, but Weelkes is laughing at it, too. Yes, he can mimic the words’ meaning in melodic shape, harmony, rhythm and dramatic contrast. But he can also make them deny it; twice. The first time the voices sing “ascend not higher” they do go higher. (Top soprano to G, not F.) Then, repeating the phrase, they descend.

The Second Part, the southern stanza, has another volcano seen from an alien perspective, not by Thule but by a Spanish trader. And not with upflicking flames: on “how strangely Fogo burns”, the voices trickle down semitone by semitone like lava, in strange chromatic sequences creating stranger harmonies. Sliding from the summit, top F, the first soprano underlines the strangeness with a little additional “how strange”.

This was the passage we found hardest. Our voices moved gingerly downhill as if on screes, trying to keep in tune with no promise of cadence or resolution to support us. Chromaticism (from Greek chroma, “colour”) was another important development of the sixteenth-century Italian madrigal. It introduces tones which don’t belong to the key you are singing in and can, therefore, suggest foreignness and otherness. You don’t know where you are going, harmonically. This is what Weelkes uses to colour “Fogo”, Portuguese for Spanish fuego, “fire”.

Commentators assume “Fogo” is Tierra del Fuego, named by Magellan in 1520. (Magellan was Portuguese, but working for Spain.) But it might also be Mount Fogo – on Fogo Island in the Cap Verde group off Senegal. That island, discovered by the Portuguese, is one huge volcanic cone, and was in continual eruption from 1500 on. But then you lose the geographic swoop, Arctic to Antarctic; and also Andalusia’s connexion with cochineal. “Flying fishes” belong in many tropical waters. (Lots of ups and downs for these; we found their quick splashy runs difficult, too.) But “cochineal” was South America, therefore Spain.

It was through Andalusian cities, Seville, Cadiz, that riches poured into Spain from South America. Drake raided Cádiz in 1587: the Armada in 1588 was Spain’s reply, and it was commanded by Andalusia’s premier nobleman. Andalusia’s golden age began with Columbus and cochineal, newly vital for dyeing and cosmetics, was its red heart. The colour comes from an insect parasite on cactus. (The Spanish kept that secret, along with the monopoly, for centuries.) Cochineal revolutionized European dyeing and became Mexico’s most valuable export after silver. Corsairs pursued it at sea. Its price was quoted on London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges.

“China dishes”, however, suggests a Portuguese slant on “Fogo”. From 1557, the Portuguese traded in Chinese tea and silk. Around 1603, the Dutch captured two Portuguese ships and found Chinese pots in them, used as ballast, which revolutionized Dutch ceramics. Delftware appeared, the Dutch East India Company began importing Chinese porcelain, and the English word “china” came to mean fine earthenware. But in 1600, the adjective “china” meant “Chinese”. These “dishes” are “from China”, therefore Portuguese imports – like the blue-and-white Ming ewer in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, which Raleigh possibly bequeathed to Lord Burghley’s son, having appropriated it when he valued cargo unpacked from a Portuguese ship, the “Madre de Dios”, captured by the British in 1592. It called at Angola and must have passed the Cap Verde Islands.

I decided there were stories about Terra del Fuego and Fogo echoing inside this piece. The more I worked at it, with the piano, the more I felt that what mattered here was stories. The song was a delighted musical reaction to literary learning. “Hecla”’s flames rival those of Sicily (the name almost-rhymes with “Etna”): a sly nudge at the madrigal’s debt to Italy and the classics. (Trinacria was a poetic Graeco-Roman name for Sicily.) What this madrigal breathed was a right to the elsewhere, claimed by a culture where everyone was grabbing at places and artefacts that had been written about but not seen. An over-the-rainbow period (“period” in the temporal sense), of making the foreign your own imaginatively and commercially; when blue dishes and scarlet dye were suddenly chromatic in the visual sense; when fabulousness did not stay on the page, or far-off in Thule, but came alive in English words and music.

It was a period of cosmology, too. By 1600, Kepler had published Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596) and begun his lunar fantasy, the Somnium, which describes a trip to the moon. (Kepler’s Notes explain he is copying the moon journey by the second-century AD satirist, Lucian.) As a student in 1593, keen to bring heliocentrism alive, Kepler wrote a dissertation asking, “How would phenomena occurring in the heavens appear to an observer stationed on the moon?” He developed this idea throughout his life. The Somnium (published posthumously, 1634) imagines astronomy from the perspective of a heavenly elsewhere, and has strange parallels to Weelkes’s text. Its narrator comes “from Iceland, which the ancients called Thule”, where artists have been condemned to perish “in Hecla’s chasms.” Following History of the Northern Peoples, published in Rome in 1555 by Olaus Magnus, an Upsala bishop, Kepler locates the entrance to purgatory in Iceland. (In, again “Hecla’s chasms”.)

Kepler also mentioned in his Notes the contemporary cosmographic fantasy, Ignatius His Conclave (1611), which described a trip to hell. He did not know the author was John Donne, and forged another unwitting link to a contemporary English poet in 1600 when he travelled to Vienna with Frederick Rosenkrantz (cousin of his patron, Tycho Brahe), who previously visited London on a diplomatic mission in 1592 with Knut Gyldenstierne (another of Tycho’s cousins). The pair turned up fictionalized ten years later, in Hamlet.

Weelkes too had links with Shakespeare. So many texts Weelkes set echo Shakespeare that some people suggest the two men collaborated. Weelkes’s Dedication to the book containing “Thule”, makes one of the earliest contemporary Shakespearian allusions: to Henry VI, Part 2 and its philistine character Jack Cade. (“Away with him! He speaks Latin,” Cade says in Act 4.) Weelkes is pro Latin. “If Jack Cade were alive,” he says, “yet some of us might live: unlesse we should think, as the Artisans in the Universities in Poland and Germany thinke, that the Latin tongue comes by reflection.”

Latin was the sixteenth-century intellectual’s internet, the linguistic perspective in which Europeans read each other. In mapping terms, it was both the triangulation point outside everyone’s language, and the sea in which they all operated. (Weelkes would have liked Sylvia Plath’s line, “This is the fluid in which we meet.”) Kepler, and maybe Weelkes’s poet, read Magnus in Latin. Church composers like Weelkes were crafting new music in Latin for the Anglican service. Latin, the elsewhere everyone had in common, was key to the past; but also to other people’s new ideas.

Imagining otherness, imagining alien perspectives on the world, was something which Kepler, Weelkes and Donne, born within a few years of each other in the early 1570s, had in common with Shakespeare (about eight years older). How did the earth look to the moon, what did new sciences and their metaphors say about lovers’ feelings, how did different people perceive each other? Earth’s volcanos “thaw” the sky, a merchant “reports” on Fogo back “in Spain”; and “Thule”’s repeated couplet makes explicit a fundamental psychological and cosmographic parallel by locating the ultimate strangeness in the self.

Each time they sing that, the voices stop after the first four words. Then, slowly, alto, bass and one tenor (joined after two beats by the others) begin a drawn-out “Yet”, whose new harmonies draw attention to the new theme: human nature. On “more”, all voices move together towards the second “wondrous”, whose first syllable five of them hold for six beats, two beats longer than the first “wondrous”, for this wondrousness is “more” important. Meanwhile the first tenor, in a bouncy dotted rhythm, as befits the inner voice of egotism, sings “wondrous I”.

The emotions to be wondered at come with a Shakespearian echo (from The Taming of the Shrew, “Graybeard, thy love doth freeze”, answered by “But thine doth fry”), but their harmonies are not as strange as Fogo’s. On “whose heart with fear doth freeze”, the voices rise optimistically. The last chord, on “fry”, could be celebrating a wedding, not lamenting the global warming of the self. “I” may be freezing and burning; but sounds pretty well on it.

Playing that last chord on the piano, I realized there was no mention of a “you” to love or fear. I’d wavered between two Fogos, but there were three possibilities for what kind of song this was. An off-the-wall narcissistic lovesong, a comment on human nature, or one masquerading as the other.

As a comment on humanity, “wondrous I” nods forward to Hamlet – written (probably) two years later, when the prince tells those young diplomats Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, “What a piece of work is man”. It also parallels an ode in Sophocles’ Antigone, beginning “There are many wonders and none more wonderful than man.” The Antigone, in Latin, reached England by 1548. Another Latin version was performed at Cambridge about 1583. But more importantly than any direct echo, this song saying “There are wonders in the world but the self that travels it is even more amazing” came from a similarly restless, ruthless, exotica-hungry society. Sophocles wrote Antigone circa 442 BC, when Athenians were establishing what turned into, essentially, an empire; roughly ten years before Pericles (in a speech at the start of a war which destroyed that empire) stressed how wonderful Athens was. “Our city is so great that all the products of all the earth flow in upon us.” In sixteenth-century England as in fifth-century Athens, the influx of foreign marvels, so many people, so many artefacts, included artforms. Like those two small Italian imports, the sonnet and the madrigal.

Many madrigals were sonnets set to music, but the two forms pulled in opposite directions. The sonnet was introspection, the crystallization of a thought process, the self arriving at self-consciousness. Its theatre and conflicts were internal and individual. But the madrigal was conversation and polyphony. It too said “I”. But it was many voices saying that “I”, crossing over, answering, competing, harmonizing. The sonnet was manufactured in the thirteenth century and perfected in the fourteenth. The madrigal appeared in the sixteenth, when musicians, their lives and work endangered by religious change, began using in secular song the complex inter-relation of voices they had perfected for church music.

The madrigal genre, I realized as I turned to my new CD, the Hilliard Ensemble (appropriate singers for this miniaturist art) singing “Thule” and other madrigals, was a product of difference and different places. It came from travel; from the sixteenth-century’s version of globalization. It developed in Italy, but the composers who created it came from the north: Philippe Verdelot (born at Les Loges, Seine-et-Marne, around 1480), Adrian Willaert (born in Bruges around 1490) and Jacques Arcadelt (born around 1504, probably in Li?ge) whose singable tunes, sexily Italian in Franco-Flemish polyphony, were blazingly popular. The next generation of madrigalists working in Italy also came from the north. Cipriano de Rore (born 1515 in East Flanders) published over a hundred and twenty madrigals between 1542 and 1565: intense, dramatic, chromatic madrigals which influenced everyone, including fellow northerner Orlando di Lasso (born about 1530 in Mons).

Only the third generation of great Italian madrigalists was home-grown. Gesualdo (born 1560) was a lutenist and nobleman. (Also, incidentally, a murderer.) The internationally revered Venetian church composer Gabrieli studied with di Lasso in Munich. In Venice he made the foreign pupils who flocked to him (like Hans Leo Hassler, Heinrich Schutz, Michael Praetorius) study madrigals as well as large-scale polychoral religious music. Marenzio (born round 1553) is the real heartbreaker. He made word-painting characteristic of the madrigal; his music can change mood and colour in a single phrase; and over the years, his chromaticism became increasingly violent, emotional and wonderfully intense.

Rore’s greatest heir, though, was born in 1567. The revolutionary Monteverdi was the madrigal’s apotheosis and nemesis, who moved it out of Renaissance polyphony into Baroque monody. Till he was forty, madrigals were what he mainly wrote. This was the genre he evolved in. His fourth book was attacked by a cleric, Giovanni Artusi, who condemned the “crudities” and “license” of a new musical style. In 1605, Monteverdi replied by explaining, in the preface to his fifth book, there were now two kinds of musical practice. The first, prima pratica, was polyphony: flowing counterpoint, prepared dissonance, equal voices. The new seconda pratica highlit monody and vocal hierarchy.

Accordingly, in madrigals of his fifth book, the soprano or bass voice sings a clear, single melodic line with recitative, accompaniment, instrumental continuo. Harmony is not foreground but facilitating background. The text is intelligible instantly, because only one voice sings. These madrigals showcase the individual voice very differently from, say, John Dowland (ten years younger than Monteverdi) who was a lutenist, not church composer. From the 1580s to 1620, Dowland wrote wonderfully for the single voice. He was a consummate polyphonist, but his music was driven by expertise in his own instrument whereas Monteverdi’s single-voice writing came from vocal polyphony. He had always loved dramatic effects; now he was exploring drama in a new way. In 1607, two years after he responded to Artusi, came his first opera, Orfeo.

England, meanwhile, was catching up. The sonnet has been called a simulacrum of the Renaissance. The madrigal was, too – but of the sixteenth, not fourteenth century Renaissance. Especially in England. By 1590, the madrigal was travelling back north. Flemish or Danish madrigalists found their way to Italy, to study with Italian masters. The English did not. “Thank God for the English Channel,” one music scholar has said – for Danish composers set their madrigals to Italian words and avoided their own vernacular, while English composers stayed at home, adapted this foreign idiom to their own language and cross-fertilized it with their own musical tradition. While competing to give the Anglican church its own music, in Latin, they could enjoy (especially young, forward-looking ones) making this new, imported, secular genre triumphantly theirs in their own vernacular, and take advantage of a language realizing its own potential in some of the best poetry ever written.

The process began in 1562, when an Italian composer arrived in England. Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder (his son had the same name) paved the way for England’s madrigal boom in the 1590s. He was comparatively conservative, mainly ignored chromaticism and word-painting, and left England in 1578. But ten years later, Nicholas Yonge published Musica Transalpina, fifty-seven Italian madrigals translated into English, by eighteen Italian composers, and the largest number were by Ferrabosco; and the first composer who became famous as a madrigalist inspired by that collection, Thomas Morley (born around 1557, son of a Norwich brewer), wrote light, quick, singable madrigals and admired Ferrabosco’s “deep skill”.

The next most-represented Italian in Musica Transalpina was Marenzio. Yonge published a follow-up collection in 1597 which contained more Marenzio than anyone else. Yonge saw the writing on the Italian wall: with Morley’s younger contemporaries, the madrigal was moving towards drama, towards intensity. Especially with possibly the two greatest English madrigalists, both born in the mid-1570s. John Wilbye took the madrigal’s dramatic contrasts to almost unbearable intensity (recently bereaved, for instance, it’s hard to sing Weep O Mine Eyes or Draw On, Sweet Night dry-eyed). And then there was Thomas Weelkes. Scholars have compared him to his exact contemporary John Donne: in his fantastical (in the Elizabethan sense) style, the way he could combine opposing ideas so rapidly, and the intensity of his emotional power, which also struck his colleagues. At least three contemporary composers echoed the last section of his six-voice lament When David Heard that Absalom was Slain, which expresses the father’s complicated grief through extraordinary textural contrasts and counterpoint: John Ward (surprisingly, for Ward was more stringent and terse than Weelkes and avoided emotional chromaticism), Michael East in his Fourth Set of Books, 1618, and Thomas Tomkins, whose setting of the same text is one of the most poignant laments in any vocal music, anywhere, any genre.

Unlike the sonnet, which is still going strong today, the madrigal lasted a very short time. The great English ones were written, and sung, over a few decades and probably not sung much after 1640. (In Denmark too the madrigal was a short-lived vogue, 1605-1622). “Singing with many voices”, Pepys said in 1667, “is not singing but a sort of instrumental musique, the sense of the words being lost by not being heard.”

Weelkes exemplified the madrigal’s short sharp blast of perfection. From 1597 to 1608 he wrote more madrigals than any English composer except Morley – mostly while organist at Winchester; though around 1602 he went to Chichester instead, as organist and choir master. Things went badly wrong in Chichester. In 1617 he was dismissed as drunkard and blasphemer; in 1623 he died, nearly destitute, in London. But his youthful brilliance, and perhaps especially this eccentric bipartite madrigal, “Thule” plus ”The Andalusian Merchant”, sums up the whole genre and its period.

The madrigal genre might seem a small cosy curiosity today. But as a huge experiment in domestic, secular, vernacular polyphony, it was at the cutting edge of English Renaissance imagination: a volatile, far-fetched and self-centred comment on human greatness, dressed up as a lovesong and bounded in a nutshell. This one, in its two parts, takes less than five minutes to sing.

Why did we find it difficult? Maybe because it is all about new relationships musically, as well as geographically. The climax of strangeness is the chromatic descent on the self-referential words “how strangely”: the chromaticism expresses, perhaps, that hunger for adventure, for wondering what the world looks like to other people, for walking into other worlds and taking them over, which was driving both the period and the genre. Maybe as we sang (or tried to sing) “how strangely”, we were entering English sixteenth-century imagination itself: which laid claim, in every possible sphere, to the elsewhere.

Feeling you have a right to the elsewhere, and to make other people’s things or places your own, is fine in music. But how much violence lies behind this song? Cochineal came from the conquest of Mexico; Aztec cities had to pay a yearly tribute of forty bags each. In 1596 and 7, even Donne took parts in Essex’s raids on Cadiz and the Azores. Then there are those “captured” ships. And an earlier Portuguese “Madre de Dios”, captured in 1567 by the English privateer John Hawkins, with a cargo of slaves. A right to the elsewhere drove the slave trade and colonialism and is as ethically dodgy today as when Elizabeth proudly called Drake “my pirate”. Blair expressed it when he refused to up the tax on flying because everyone has a right to holidays abroad. So do travel editors vaunting of Hecla on newspapers whose other sections worry about climate change, when they forget to mention the carbon footprint it takes to get to Thule. “Dream Travel” says my paper this Sunday. “From the £15,000-a-night hotel to the world’s best B&B: whether it’s the remotest mountain hut in New Zealand or Marathon des Sables, Morocco, we’ll have you reaching for your passport”. These holidays we apparently have a right to (if we can afford them) parody the grimmer elsewhere-seeking going on, of refugees washed up on Andalusian beaches whose own worlds are burning as strangely, now, as Fogo.

No wonder we sang out of tune.

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