Notes on the Madrigals

These madrigals were written between the summer of 1997 and February 1999. The initial impetus to write them came when I heard a concert of Monteverdi’s madrigals in Milan in 1996. That was the first time I was exposed to the genre in a live setting. During my last year of undergraduate study, I sang as a tenor in the Trinity University Concert Choir. While on tour with the choir, I began to sketch out ideas for the Madrigale a 5 voci.

By that time, I had taken an interest in the vocal music of Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono. The phonetic interplay of words in Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso and Berio’s Cries of London particularly interested me. In staying true to the genre of the madrigal, I was also concerned with issues of polyphonic and imitative writing. In the first madrigal I wanted to create a vocal polyphony in which the imitation became more and more varied with each successive vocal entrance, until the last entry was unrecognizable from the initial statement. The rhythm of the phonetically deconstructed words “L’aura” in the opening bars provided a rhythmic basis for the imitative entrances throughout the composition. The juxtoposition of dense polyphonic sections (where the text is almost completely incomprehensible) and relatively simple homophonic sections also interested me. The more complex poetic words are represented by the polyphonic sections of the piece. Because these ideas are harder to define, the music deliberately sets them in a more complex way. The more immediate, simple ideas of the poem are set in a more direct homophonic way.

The Madrigale per 5 tenori is written for solo tenor and four accompanying tenors. The four accompanying tenors collect and sustain specific pitches in the solo tenor line, revealing the underlying harmonic ideas like a sustain pedal on the piano. The pitches are collected and released in order to highlight structural points and to orchestrate the phrasing of the solo tenor line.

A falling semitone motive announces the beginning of my Madrigale a 3 voci and permeates the composition throughout. The piece is written in a tonal style. In returning to a more conservative language, I wanted to express the feeling of sorrow in a very straightforward way. For me, the emotional response to loss is not a complex one. Rather, it is very direct and painful. In writing tonally I also wanted to capture the feeling of something distant and detached, similar to a moment of clarity when one is experiencing intense emotional or physical suffering.

In college I wrote an extensive research paper on the phenomenon of the castrati. My interest in a high unnatural male voice was piqued even further when I heard recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato. Beyond the obvious fascination with such a morbid chapter in music history, I had a genuine interest to simulate a voice that had been historically described as “other-worldly” and “angelic”. In my compositionPossente Spirito of 1996 I used a countertenor to imitate the castrato voice. In this composition a solo countertenor sings the role of Orfeo and uses the music of his voice to persuade Pluto to release his beloved Euridice. I also included a countertenor in myMadrigale a 5 voci to create a more colorful vocal palette. In writing the Madrigale per 3 contratenori I wanted to concentrate on the specific qualities of that voice. Rather than subjecting the three voices to various displays of vocal virtuosity and extended techniques, I experimented with a variety of registers all sung in falsetto. The opening words “Dodici donne” inspired me to use a modified 12-tone method in which sets of trichords went through a rotation process in the first half. In the second hals I used a series of tetrachords in a similar fashion.

The Madrigale per 3 voci femminili is the last piece in this book. The text for this work is taken from a curious poem in the Canzoniere of Francesco Petrarca. The poem (number 105) describes a series of events that have little narrative connection to each other. The poet simply jumps from one idea to the next creating what seems to be an intentional sense of confusion. Because of the relative lack of cohesion in the poetic content I relied on extensive word painting and poetic structure in order to organize the musical structure.

An alternate version of the Madrigale per 5 tenori is included along with the original version. The four accompanying tenors are here replaced by four violoncelli with some minor modifications.

The madrigals should always be performed a capella with one singer to a part and without vibrato. In extreme cases doublings may be employed. The requested doublings are as follows:

Madrigale a 5 voci : soprano/violin, mezzo-soprano/viola, countertenor/viola, tenor/violoncello, bass/violoncello.

Madrigale per 5 tenori : See Appendix A.

Madrigale a 3 voci: The bass may be doubled by a violoncello.

Madrigale per 3 contratenori: Each part may be doubled by a viola.

Madrigale per 3 voci femminili: Each part may be doubled by a violin.

In all cases of doublings the strings must play muted and without vibrato.

Parts for doublings are available from the author.

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