The Magic of Madrigal

When the Whitehorse Community Choir presents its annual spring concert this week, it will be in a different venue than usual—the Sacred Heart Cathedral on 4th Avenue.

It will also be offering musical fare whose origins trace back as far as 14th century Italy, together with items as modern as the Swingle Singers and the Wailin’ Jennys.

The core of the program is the musical form known as the madrigal.

“I love madrigals,” choir director Barbara Chamberlin says of her program choice. “They’re fun and you can do songs from the 1500s, which we have a few of, and they go all the way to now. People still write madrigals.”

Madrigals are predominantly secular in nature, sometimes with sexually suggestive lyrics, and are usually sung without instrumental accompaniment.

They are characterized by multi-part singing with more than one melodic line (polyphony), rather than the more common single dominant melody with harmonies added to it.

But Chamberlin admits her choices for the upcoming concert don’t all fit a strict definition.

“If you take madrigals as a part song that has a lot of polyphony, then you can apply that to many things. I’ve taken that interpretation loosely,” she says.

Beginning in Renaissance Italy, madrigals later gained widespread popularity in Elizabethan England, with composers such as John Dowland and Thomas Morley (also spelled Morely) setting poems by such writers as Thomas Campion and William Shakespeare to music.

Still, as Chamerlin says, “It doesn’t have to be historical. A lot of composers like writing madrigals as a kind of writing exercise.”

And while madrigals are often associated with small a capella groups such as The King’s Singers, Chamberlin says that’s not always the case.

“There’s some with all different groups. Smaller groups tend to do them, larger groups tend not to do them as much.”

When Chamberlin first presented the choir with the idea of doing a mostly-madrigal performance, it met with a varied reaction.

“Some people don’t know what madrigals are, so I had to explain what they were. Some people knew right away and were very excited about it,” she says.

“But we’ve done madrigals the last couple of times in the Chamber Choir, so I was hoping more people would know exactly what I meant.”

The repertoire available, both historical and contemporary, is so extensive Chamberlin says the choir could probably do nothing but madrigals for the next four or five years.

“I might get bored and everyone might get bored, but there’s that many. There’s a lot of them.”

The full choir will start the program with a 16th century Italian song by Orazio Vecchi, called ‘Fa Una Canzona’.

“The interpretation is ‘to sing a song’, so that’s a very appropriate first piece, I think.”

That will be followed by another of what Chamberlain calls the ‘Top 50’ of madrigals, Morley’s ‘Sing We and Chant It’, then offer a French song called ‘”Bonjour, moncoeur’, written in the 1500s by Roland de Lassus.

“It’s a slow one, a very beautiful one,” she says.

Next will be three others Chamberlin calls “kind of the more sexual ones” of the program.

“So, ‘Of All the Birds That I Do Know’ is a song that is very sexual, but it also has these little birds noises in it, so you go ‘tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet’, but it’s actually ‘yet, yet, yet, yet, yet.’” she explains,

“And ‘Dindirin’ Is a song that’s so old, it’s difficult to tell what language it’s in. There’s French and Spanish and Italian in there.

“And there’s one called ‘Heigh ho! chill go to plough no more’. The story is basically this guy loves this girl, but somehow he’s going to die for it. It’s hard to tell with the stories in these old songs, but that’s what’s so cool about singing them.”

While much of madrigal is secular, light and “dancey”, Chamberlin says there are exceptions, such as the “beautiful and dark and moody” Christian madrigal ‘SuperFlumina Babylonis” by Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina.

On the lighter end of the spectrum are John Rutter’s modern ‘Banquet Fugue’ with lyrics such as ‘guzzle, guzzle, guzzle, munch, munch, gobble, gobble’ and a Caribbean song called ‘Da Coconut Nut’.

With a wide range of offerings by the Chamber Choir, The Neptunes and the Persephone Singers (not all madrigal, strictly speaking), as well as an intermission performance by the Senior Suzuki Strings, Chamberlin promises two full evenings of entertainment this Friday and Saturday, April 27 and 28, starting at 8 p.m.

Sacred Heart Cathedral was chosen as the concert venue for it’s more “intimate setting and warm acoustic tone, she explains.

“We’re hoping that people come and have a really good time. Even though it’s in a church, they can still loosen up a bit.”

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