In the Artists' Own Words
One of the main characteristics that separate human beings from other animals is the ability to communicate through language, and one of the fundamental forms of communication is storytelling. It is believed that early cave painting was a form of narrative, and the development of writing widened the dissemination of stories. The tales of mythology have been hugely popular throughout the ages, with these so-called "false stories" serving as a narrative to explain how the world and humankind came to be in their present form. In a broader sense, myths can refer to any traditional story.
Madrigals—the most polished form of secular choral music, often evoking the pastoral, amorous, or philosophical world of mythology—first emerged in Italy in the early 1530s, swiftly supplanting a somewhat unsophisticated repertoire of native songs. The great popularizer of madrigals in England was Thomas Morley, who in his Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, wrote the following:
"As for the music, it is—next to the motet—the most artificial and, to men of understanding, most delightful. You must possess yourself with an amorous humor so that you must, in your music, be wavering like the wind, sometimes wanton, sometimes drooping, and sometimes grave and staid, otherwhile effeminate, and the more variety you show the better you shall please."
Although the madrigal era was over by 1630, so great were the composers—such as Morley's contemporaries Thomas Weelkes (ca. 1576–1623), John Bennet (ca. 1575–1614), and Thomas Tomkins (1572–1656)—and their collections that it is rightly remembered as a golden age of music.
One of the best-known collections, The Triumphs of Oriana, was compiled by Morley in 1601 in honor of Queen Elizabeth I. This royal gift comprised 25 madrigals by 23 composers, and each madrigal was linked by the same refrain: "Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana: Long live fair Oriana!" Oriana was one of Elizabeth's nicknames, and it links her to the Elysian world of the gods and goddesses of mythology.
The Triumphs of Oriana was inspired by the 1592 Italian madrigal collection Il trionfo di Dori. Published in Venice by Angelo Gardano, the collection was dedicated to Leonardo Sanudo (1544–1607), a nobleman from one of Venice's most respected families. It is believed that the madrigals were written for, or in commemoration of, the marriage of Sanudo to Elisabetta Zustinian in 1577. Again the world of mythology inspired the texts, with each madrigal ending with the refrain "Viva la bella Dori" ("Long live fair Dori"), a reference to the Greek sea-goddess Doris, the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys.
The influence of Il trionfo di Dori seems to have been felt first in England in 1597 with the publication of Giovanni Croce's "Ove tra l'herbe e i fiori" in Nicholas Yonge's Musica transalpina II. The work was given a new English text under the title Hard by a Crystal Fountain. It is likely that Morley was familiar with the entire collection, but he pays special homage to Croce in his own identically named madrigal.
Berlioz said of Camille Saint-Saëns, "He knows everything but lacks inexperience." This was a shrewd assessment of someone who had perfect pitch, wrote his first piano piece at the age of three, gave a concert at which he played concertos by Mozart and Beethoven from memory at the age of 10, and in later years had all the Mozart concertos in his repertory—an astonishing feat at a time when only a handful of them were at all well-known. In "Saltarelle," jolly melodies match Émile Deschamps's witty, almost irreverent poem, in which the villagers' Carnival revelry appalls old women. The young priest turns a blind eye, and the Madonna in her oak tree pardons them, veiling her face when she must. Benedictine monks file out with a melancholy chant, and Carnival ends in a "rain of Lenten bulls."
Francis Poulenc composed his four-movement cantata Un soir de neige during the years of Nazi occupation in France. The text was written by Paul Éluard while serving with the French resistance and dispatched to Poulenc in secret. On the surface, the text brings to life the harshness of a winter night in a French forest, but closer examination reveals images of war and of the great dangers Éluard and his fellow fighters faced from the German army.
The first movement describes how the incessant and inescapable cold weighs heavily on those trapped in it. The second movement warns of the dangerous yet beautiful wolf-a reference to the German soldiers in their splendid uniforms. The third movement finds the poet lost in the forest, helpless as if adrift on a frozen sea. In the final movement, the poet hides from the German soldiers by concealing himself underground. But this only increases his feeling of isolation, and the forest becomes a prison from which he cannot escape.
Goffredo Petrassi's Nonsense dates from 1952 and uses for its text nonsense verse (in the form of limericks) by 19th-century English poet and painter Edward Lear, translated into Italian by Carlo Izzo.
Petrassi, who had been a choirboy in Rome, featured choral music quite heavily in his catalog throughout his distinguished career. He was influenced early on by teacher and composer Alfredo Casella, who guided his artistic outlook to contemporary movements outside Italy, notably to the music of Hindemith and Stravinsky. The non-emotional and objective approach of these two composers is mirrored by Petrassi in Nonsense, in pieces that are at once both concise and witty.
Joby Talbot's extended work Path of Miracles charts the world's most enduring route of Catholic pilgrimage, the Camino Francés, through its four main staging posts in Spain. Talbot describes "Leon"—the third movement and the final post he celebrates before arriving in Santiago—as a "Lux Aeterna"; and like the interior of the magnificent León Cathedral, it is bathed in light. A medieval French refrain-an ode to the sun-punctuates simple observations of lands traversed and hardships overcome. The hypnotic pulse of the pilgrims' walking remains constant throughout the piece, as in other movements of the Path of Miracles, but here the mystical events present no danger. Even the relentless sun, though it may dazzle, does not burn our travellers.
This evening, The King's Singers are delighted to be performing the world premiere of this new arrangement of "Leon," created especially for the ensemble by former King's Singer Philip Lawson.