February 2020
Swan Song: Playing an Italian Madrigal on Recorders
by Wendy Powers
18th c. engraving by Giovanni Alberto Tameravi
For many years I avoided bringing sixteenth-century Italian madrigals to the recorder consorts I coached at workshops, chapter meetings, and student groups. Madrigals by Verdelot, Rore, Marenzio, Gesualdo, Monteverdi, and others are the epitome of Renaissance vocal chamber music, with structure and gesture governed by their poetic texts by Petrarch and his imitators. How could I approach this rich, often highly chromatic, completely texted repertory on instruments, let alone on the recorder?
The solution that evolved for me was to embrace the texts, to think like a singer, a poet, and a composer. Italian madrigals were a composer’s means of closely reading a poem through a musical lens. It is essential to absorb the meaning and diction of every word of a madrigal to make it work on recorders.
Here is a look at how I, as a consort coach, look at the well-known madrigal for four voices, “Il bianco e dolce cigno” (the white and sweet swan), by the early Franco-Flemish madrigalist Jacques Arcadelt (ca. 1507-1568), with a text by Marquis Alfonso d’Avalos (1502-1546), an Italian nobleman. Arcadelt worked in Florence and Venice during the 1530s. This madrigal was the opening work of Arcadelt’s first printed collection of four-voice madrigals (1539), a book that went through forty-five printings, the most widely circulated madrigal print of the sixteenth century.[1] To follow along, I recommend printing out Allen Garvin’s free online edition .[2]
The text is narrated by a man who compares his situation to that of a dying swan, a bird that only sings at the unhappy end of its life. The man, by contrast, “dies” happily, calling upon the old metaphor of “the little death” (i.e. sexual climax), saying he’d gladly die a thousand times a day.
Among the many performances of this madrigal on YouTube, this one by the Hilliard Ensemble is a standout.
To our jaded modern ears, Arcadelt’s expression of the text’s details are subtle. The bassus voice enters at measure 5 with the narrator’s “Ed io” (and I). After an opening centered mainly around F major chords, an E-flat—a note that is not in the mode of this piece—is strikingly introduced at measures 6 and 11 with the word “piangendo” (weeping). “Beato” (blessed) in measures 21-24 is highlighted in the highest part with a lengthy melisma (i.e., many notes on a single syllable) and the highest note of the piece. Most remarkable is the setting beginning at measure 35 of “di mille morte il dì” (a thousand deaths a day), heard fifteen times in imitation, what one musicologist has called “the first graphic simulation in music of orgasm.”[3]
First, an ATTB recorder quartet should pencil in breaths at any punctuation or before any capital letter (indicating phrase beginnings). The players should take the time to speak the Italian text in unison, then perhaps in the notated rhythm of one or more of the parts. Most Italian words are accented in the penultimate syllable (as in “spa-GHET-ti”) and this can be a great guide to which notes receive greater stress. On a slightly bigger scale, the penultimate note of a phrase is often the “goal” note of a musical thought, particularly in madrigals (as in “Il bianco e dolce CI-gno”). The articulation of this madrigal is primarily legato, and a combination tonguing of T-D would be useful for much of the piece; a more detailed study of how to approach articulation will have to wait for a longer essay.
Much of this piece has a chordal texture, with all four parts moving with the same rhythm, so unisons, octaves, and perfect fifths, particularly at the ends of phrases, should be carefully tuned. Sweeten important vertical major thirds, especially on last notes of phrases (e.g. the top part’s A in measure 5), by either blowing a tiny bit softer or slightly shading one of the open holes, thus gently lowering the major third.
The bassus appearance at measure 5 of “Ed” should stand out—it is the narrator’s persona entering. Don’t let the surprising E-flats in measures 6 and 7 be buried in a blurry texture. Beginning at measure 34, each iteration of “di mille morte il dì” should begin with a light pickup (“di”) leading to a slightly stronger “mil-“ on the beat, so that each imitative entry is clear. Tune the final chord and hold it until it is enough.
If your recorder group feels inspired to rehearse this madrigal, why not videotape your performance and post it on the ARS Facebook page ?
[1] A facsimile of this first print, Il primo libro di madrigali d’Arcadelt a quatro (Venice: Gardano, 1539) is found here .
[2] Allen Garvin has posted his fine edition with translation of this madrigal on CPDL here . All measure numbers refer to this edition.
[3] Susan McClary, Modal Subjectivities: Self-Fashioning in the Italian Madrigal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 66.
ARS Board member Wendy Powers teaches music history and early music notation at Queens College of the City University of New York, and is assistant director and faculty member at Amherst Early Music Festival.
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