Revelry and Reverence Program Notes

Earthly Pleasures, Sacred Joys

From the earliest days of the Renaissance up to the twenty-first century, composers have reveled in the intricate mingling of many voices in madrigals and motets. Both kinds of composition grew out of late medieval experiments with polyphony, which used multiple independent vocal lines, rather than a single line (think Gregorian chant) or a dominant melody over chords. At first, many objected to the new style, considering it frivolous, ungodly, or distracting, but, once accepted in papal and royal courts, the popularity of polyphony spread all over Europe.

Motets and madrigals developed side by side and shared many similarities. Both were designed for human voices, not instruments, and focused on making words as musically expressive as possible. This led to “word painting”—using a rising line to depict someone going upward, for instance. Words mattered so much that some believe the term “motet” derives from the French “mot” (word). The two forms differed in two main ways: the specific languages used and the fact that motets depict religious themes and texts while madrigals address more worldly concerns. Up until the Protestant Reformation, all religious music used Latin, but Renaissance composers wrote madrigals to contemporary texts in the modern languages of their respective countries. And yet, the two forms often mirrored each other so closely that one could easily call many motets sacred madrigals.

We begin with a madrigal from before anyone had figured out key signatures. Francesco Landini (c. 1325-1397) was born in Florence and quickly became active in the cultural life of that Renaissance hub. Blind from childhood, he mastered many instruments and became an accomplished singer, poet, and composer; by 1350 he and the great Florentine poet Petrarch were friends and colleagues. “Ecco la primavera” uses only two separate vocal lines. It takes the form of a ballata, a lively dance tune celebrating the return of spring. Landini may also have written the words.

Madrigals developed later in England. They peaked in popularity in the late 1500s and early 1600s, coinciding with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Many familiar English madrigals come from a collection titled The Triumphs of Oriana (1601). The 25 madrigals by 23 different composers all end with the phrase “Long live fair Oriana” (a popular title for the queen). Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) was best known as an organist but also composed both sacred and secular music. “As Vesta Was” provides numerous examples of word painting: vocal lines rise and fall as characters go up and down, a single voice portrays a goddess left “all alone,” and so on. Though the lyrics do not make much sense, they imply that England’s own Virgin Queen easily outshone Vesta and Diana, both virgin goddesses in Roman mythology.

Weelkes’s near-contemporary Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1623) treated the madrigal form far more experimentally, using wild chromatic progressions and odd shifts in tonality that make his pieces feel like disturbing dreams. In fact, his work strayed so far from Renaissance styles that it found followers only in the 20th century; Igor Stravinsky, for example, composed “Monumentum pro Gesualdo,” which includes an arrangement of one of his madrigals, in 1960. The sensational details of Gesualdo’s life may also attract modern listeners. He brutally murdered his wife and her lover, then mutilated their corpses. When authorities came to investigate, they did not arrest or punish him, because he was a prince and hence above the law. Some even accused him of being possessed by a demon. Still, he seems to have suffered remorse for his crimes, which may account for how often his lyrics, many of which he wrote himself, stress pain, death, and agony, as well as love.

Although Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) wrote many madrigals, he focused primarily on sacred music, composing over 100 masses, 300 motets, and 35 settings of the Magnificat. In 1551, Pope Julius III was so impressed by Palestrina’s first book of Masses that he appointed him to lead a choir at St. Peter’s Basilica. Before Palestrina, nearly all sacred music in the Italian states had been composed in France, Spain, and the Low Countries (the Netherlands and Flanders), so his book of Masses was the first composed by an Italian. “Canite tuba” (1572) is a motet for the 4th Sunday of Advent, right before Christmas. It begins with a text from the book of Joel and concludes with portions of Psalms 85 and 70, incorporating many joyous alleluias in 5-part harmony. While less innovative than contemporaries beyond the “Roman school” of composition, Palestrina’s reputation has only grown over the years.

William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) came of age during the upheavals after Henry VIII’s break from the Catholic Church, learning from his teacher (and fellow Catholic) Thomas Tallis how to finesse the religious conflicts of the day. Although openly practicing his faith could have condemned him to death, Byrd composed both Catholic masses and Anglican service music and anthems, as well as songs on secular texts and music for string ensembles and the virginal, an early keyboard instrument. He even enjoyed Queen Elizabeth’s favor so much that she granted him and Tallis a joint monopoly to publish their own music, which is how we have access to all their works, not just the officially approved non-Catholic ones.

Nevertheless, Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus” could not have been performed publicly in England during his lifetime because of its explicitly Catholic text. The words date from the 14th century and have been attributed to Pope Innocent VI. They proclaim the transformation of the bread and wine of Communion into the true body and blood of Christ (Protestants view Communion as a symbolic commemoration, not a physical transformation). We will be performing four different settings of it this evening, with Byrd’s setting the most complete and intimate.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) played a crucial role in the transition from Renaissance to Baroque styles. He became a Catholic priest late in life, composing motets and sacred madrigals, but he also wrote many secular works, including the first opera, even after his ordination. His Fifth Book of Madrigals, which includes “Cruda Amarilli,” drew attacks from contemporaries for what they saw as extreme emotionalism that emphasized words more than harmonies and favored the soprano and bass lines over other voices. Monteverdi took his text from Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd), a tragicomedy in verse that inspired over 500 madrigals by scores of composers. In the story, the heroine, Amarilli, is betrothed to Silvio to fulfill a prophecy, but she really loves Mirtillo who loves her too. Here Mirtillo expresses his seemingly hopeless love in the unexpected dissonances (and melting resolutions) that so offended Monteverdi’s critics.

J.S. Bach (1685-1750) brought many aspects of Baroque musical style that Monteverdi had begun in the early 1600s to their fullest flowering, but Bach came from the Lutheran musical tradition that developed after the Protestant Reformation. In this tradition motets were generally written for particular occasions, often burial services; as in all Lutheran services, worshipers used their native language, rather than Latin. “Komm, Jesu, komm” begins with a longing for death as a release from earthly suffering; the double choirs answer each other like a depressed mind talking to itself. Yet faith in Jesus gives meaning to human pain; the almost dance-like conclusion affirms the text that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life (John 14:6). This section makes up almost half the motet and, as one critic has written, “The listener is cradled in a seemingly endless string of gorgeous suspensions…one doesn’t want it to end.” At last the double chorus joins into one, and the final chorale closes with a serene acceptance of God’s will.

We close the first half of our program with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). He composed his “Ave Verum Corpus” for a choirmaster friend to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, which takes place roughly 60 days after Easter. The choice of text makes perfect sense, since the feast honors the physical body of Christ. Mozart wrote this setting in June 1791 while working on his final opera, The Magic Flute and perhaps on his unfinished Requiem as well. Mozart omits the poem’s closing pleas for mercy and ends with a contemplation of the trial of death. In less than six months, Mozart would face that trial himself.


Romantic composers continued to write madrigals and motets, though not necessarily using those words to describe them. Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) entered a Parisian school for church music at age nine; weekly choral singing was a basic part of the curriculum, clearly preparing him for works like his Requiem. His piano teacher, Camille Saint-Saens, encouraged him to compose, and at 19 he won first prize in the school’s composing competition for “Cantique de Jean Racine.” This motet sets one of the hymns translated from the Roman Catholic Breviary by Jean Racine (1639-1699), one of France’s greatest playwrights. Fauré included Racine’s name in the title because he preferred the elegant beauty of the French text to the Latin original.

German organist and composer Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) and Johannes Brahms knew each other personally and shared a devotion to the music of Bach. Like Bach, Rheinberger focused his efforts mostly on works for keyboard and sacred choral music, but Brahms’s influence shows in his lyricism and harmonies. Rheinberger based “Abendlied” on the Biblical passage that describes the risen Christ meeting followers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). They do not recognize him right away, but they still urge this apparent stranger to stay with them because night is falling. In Rheinberger’s motet, however, the words, still addressed to Jesus, take on a new meaning, almost like a prayer before sleep, asking God to stay with us through the night.

Parisian Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) was a child prodigy who made his concert debut at age ten. In addition to his very successful composing career, which included popular operas and piano compositions, he became principal organist at the official church of the French Empire and influenced the romantic-modern repertoire by encouraging the young Fauré, who went on to teach Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). His “Ave Verum Corpus” has a quiet dignity that becomes increasingly emotional in the repeated section on Communion as a foretaste of the life to come.

Twentieth-century composers also wrote madrigals and motets in ways that combine older and newer styles. Viennese modernist Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) left school early to support his family but soon joined the city’s artistic networks. Soon after 1900, he won acclaim for stretching but not rending the late romantic style of Gustav Mahler. Around 1908, he began to experiment with atonality (a term he hated) or 12-tone serialism; this technique involves using all 12 tones of the chromatic scale in various patterns and became a mainstay of modern music. The madrigal “Two Comely Maidens” comes from a set of folksongs composed around 1930 and seems more consistent with the music he wrote in his pre-serialist days. Yet, in choosing to set folksongs that date back to the 1500s, Schoenberg fits with other modernist composers, such as Hungarian Béla Bartók (1881-1945), who turned to folk music from their native regions for inspiration, especially after leaving those countries behind (both had fled to America during the rise of fascism in Europe). The song tells its story in lines as graceful as in the madrigals of the 16th century.

Our final “Ave Verum Corpus” is by English composer Colin Mawby (b. 1936). An organist and former choral director for the Irish radio service, he has focused almost exclusively on compositions for the English Catholic liturgy, including masses, motets, and hymns. For this service, the Pope honored him with a Knighthood in the Order of St. Gregory in 2006. His setting is the most extroverted and passionate, especially in its emphasis on Christ’s sacrifice for humankind on the words pro homines. It ends with an almost otherworldly meditation on Jesus that recalls the harmonies of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).

We end with a lively work by Ola Gjeilo inspired by an ancient source. Originally from Oslo, Norway, Gjello (b. 1978) moved to the United States in 2001 to study composition at Juilliard and film music at the University of Southern California. The text of “Unicornis Captivatur” comes from a collection of medieval chants called the Engelberg Codex, completed in 1400, which belongs to the Engelberg Monastery in Switzerland. While the poem contains Christian imagery, like the dying lamb (Lamb of God) and a return to life after three days, it also includes enough Fantastic Beasts to satisfy J.K. Rowling. So is this a madrigal or a motet? It combines the sacred and the secular, and it uses Latin, not a modern language. It combines dance-like syncopations recalling Landini and alleluias straight out of Palestrina. Perhaps we have managed to come full circle at last, combining earthly pleasures and sacred joys.

– Susan Wladaver-Morgan