The Madrigal Choir Does Madrigals

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," so Juliet argues. The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton has held that name for forty years. So what's in that name? What is a madrigal anyway?

The Madrigal Choir plans to explore--with a light-hearted approach--just that in its upcoming concert "Love, Longing and Lechery: Renaissance Madrigals for Valentines," to be performed Sunday, February 17, 3:00pm at Christ Episcopal Church (10 Henry Street) in Binghamton.

According to Artistic Director Bruce Borton, "We will be singing about love: lost and found, true and not-so true, along with the ups and downs of marriage." The Madrigal Choir will be in renaissance costumes while they romp through joys and turmoil of love and lust. Madrigals are part-songs originating in Italy during the 1520s, in Florence. They evolved as a result of three concurrent developments: a resurgent interest in poetry in the vernacular, the influx into Italy of Franco-Flemish composers who brought with them the French chanson and polyphonic motets, and the invention of moveable type. The first would provide subject matter for this new type of music, the second would provide the form and the third the means for wide dissemination.

Composers of madrigals were looking to infuse emotion into each line of poetry or even individual words, emotion that was consistent with the meaning, something that the average singer--and listener--could relate to. The madrigal moved away from stropic forms to what is known as through-composed music that, in contrast, is continuous, rather than sectional, with repetition of repeated lines rather the same music repeated for numerous verses. The madrigal was secular and as the title of the concert suggests, often about relationships--or the desire for such relationships. Before long, the madrigal became the most important secular form of music in Italy.

The madrigal came to England primarily due to the publication of Nicholas Yonge's (1560-1619) Musica Transalpina in 1588, a collection of Italian madrigals fitted with English translations. Before long, the madrigal was hugely popular in England, initiating an entire school of madrigal composition there. Surviving late into the 16th century in England, these unaccompanied madrigals continued in popularity there well beyond that of the rest of Europe. A madrigal like “Fair Phyllis” is light and light-hearted to match the light-hearted love play suggested by the lyrics. When Phyllis disappears momentarily, the music becomes frantic as her lover Amyntas runs around looking for her. When he finds her, the rhythm changes dramatically as they fall "a-kissing." It’s no surprise that, though "a-kissing" appears only once in the original poem, it is repeated four times in the madrigal. The first couplet and the last are repeated, but the middle one (of lesser importance) is not.

In contrast, a madrigal like "Weep, O mine eyes" is solemn and slow--very slow, the emotion building as each new part enters. This passionate lament takes on a significant irony when the listener realizes that the speaker is addressing his own eyes--and for a reason that is never disclosed. Only the final couplet--each line of a different rhythm--is repeated in this four- line poem.

So join the fun as the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton takes an emotion-infused caper through this delightful musical form.