Ruth Padel

The highlight of the year, for a small singing group I belong to, is an evening’s work with a conductor who specialises in 16th-century music. We practise hard in advance. Our repertoire is English and Italian madrigals, and this year we had two by Monteverdi but were divided over which English one to choose. We sight-read a massive six-voice piece by Thomas Weelkes, ‘Thule, the Period of Cosmographie’, with its second part, ‘The Andalusian Merchant’. But it was too difficult; we rehearsed another by Weelkes instead. I wondered why ‘Thule’ was so hard. I sang it with the piano. I bought a CD. Most of us have sung madrigals for years. What made these harmonies, words and interval leaps particularly difficult?

Weelkes published ‘Thule’ in 1600, when he was probably 24. No one knows who wrote the text. Suggestions have ranged from Weelkes himself to Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

Thule, the period of cosmographie,
Doth vaunt of Hecla whose sulphureous fire
Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky;
Trinacrian Etna’s flames ascend not higher.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

The Andalusian merchant, that returns
Laden with cochineal and china dishes
Reports in Spain how strangely Fogo burns
Amidst an ocean full of flying fishes.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

Weelkes’s music stresses the key words ‘wondrous’ and ‘strangely’, reflecting the way the text shifts the perspectives from which it does its wondering. The madrigal begins with two long lonely syllables: the top voice, solo, evoking the top edge of the world, where Iceland stood on Elizabethan maps.

By 1600, ‘Thule’ could mean anywhere in the frozen north. The first writer to mention Thule was Pytheas, in the fourth century BC, for whom it was an island somewhere north of Britain. The Greek word for a written account of such a voyage as Pytheas’ was periodos, a ‘going round’. But the manifest meaning of ‘period’ here (through which it came to mean ‘full stop’) is ‘furthest limit’. The first 18 bars and first five words sketch a map of the human voice, top to bottom: two sopranos, alto, two tenors, bass. After ‘doth’, each voice in turn jumps upwards into ‘vaunt’. Thule is boasting about Hecla, Iceland’s most active volcano, whose 1597 eruption lasted more than six months. On Hecla’s first syllable each voice in turn again leaps up: at first in fourths, but the top voice a sixth and finally an octave – a musical eruption. On ‘sulphureous fires’ they ripple up and down, providing a sonic image of flickering flames. They descend on ‘melt’ and the first syllable of ‘frozen’, but on ‘thaw the sky’ bounce up again, released.

Word-painting like this (ascending scales for ‘rising’, descending notes for ‘sinking’) was characteristic of the Italian madrigal after 1550. English madrigalists took up the habit, but Weelkes is laughing at it, too. Yes, he can mimic the words’ meaning by his use of melodic shape, harmony, rhythm and dramatic contrast, but he can also make them deny it – and he does this twice. The first time the voices sing ‘ascend not higher’ they do go higher. Then, repeating the phrase, they descend.

In the second part of the madrigal, the southern stanza, another volcano is seen from an alien perspective, not by Thule but by a Spanish trader. This time there aren’t any flames flickering: on ‘how strangely Fogo burns,’ the voices trickle down semitone by semitone, like lava, in strange chromatic sequences creating stranger harmonies. Sliding from the summit, top F, the first soprano underlines this strangeness with an additional ‘how strange’. This was the passage we found hardest. Our voices moved gingerly downhill as if on scree, trying to keep in tune but with no promise of cadence or resolution to support us. Chromaticism was another important innovation of the 16th-century Italian madrigal. It introduces tones that don’t belong to the key you are singing in and thereby suggest foreignness and otherness. This is what Weelkes uses to colour the phrase about ‘Fogo’, which is Portuguese for ‘fire’.

Commentators assume ‘Fogo’ refers to Tierra del Fuego (‘land of fire’ in Spanish), named by Magellan in 1520. It might possibly be Mount Fogo on Fogo island, part of the Cap Verde group off Senegal, discovered by the Portuguese, in constant eruption between 1500 and 1760. But if this is the Fogo meant, the song loses its geographic swoop, Arctic to Antarctic; and the reference to Andalusia and its connection with cochineal would no longer work. ‘Flying fishes’ can be found in many tropical waters (lots of ups and downs for these; we found their quick splashy runs difficult, too), but ‘cochineal’ came from South America, hence the Spanish connection. It was through Andalusian cities such as Seville and Cadiz that riches poured into Spain. Cochineal comes from an insect parasitic on cactus – the Spanish kept that secret, along with the monopoly, for centuries – and the scarlet dye became Mexico’s most valuable export after silver.

But the Andalusian merchant is also carrying ‘china dishes’, which suggests a Portuguese connection. From 1557, the Portuguese traded in Chinese tea and silk. Around 1603, the Dutch captured two Portuguese ships and found Chinese pots in them, used as ballast. Delftware started to be produced, the Dutch East India Company began importing Chinese porcelain, and the English word ‘china’ came to be used for fine earthenware. But in 1600, the adjective ‘china’ would still have meant ‘Chinese’. These ‘dishes’ would have been Portuguese imports – like the blue and white Ming ewer in the Metropolitan Museum, probably appropriated by Raleigh when he valued the cargo of a Portuguese ship, the Madre de Dios, after it was captured by the British in 1592.

Weelkes’s dedication to the book containing ‘Thule’ makes one of the earliest Shakespearean allusions, to Henry VI, Part 2. ‘Away with him! He speaks Latin,’ Jack Cade says in Act IV. ‘If Jack Cade were alive,’ Weelkes says, ‘yet some of us might live: unlesse we should think, as the Artisans in the Universities in Poland and Germany thinke, that the Latin tongue comes by reflection.’ Latin was the language in which Europeans read each other. Church composers such as Weelkes crafted new music to go with Latin words for the Anglican service. Latin was the elsewhere everyone had in common.

Imagining how the world would look from an alien perspective was something Weelkes had in common with Shakespeare. Earth’s volcanos ‘thaw’ the sky, a merchant ‘reports’ on Fogo when he returns to Spain; but the couplet repeated at the end of each stanza locates the ultimate strangeness in the self. Each time they sing the couplet, the voices stop after the first four words. Then, slowly, alto, bass and one tenor (joined after two beats by the other singers) begin a drawn-out ‘yet’, whose new harmonies draw attention to the new theme: human nature. On ‘more’, all the voices move together towards the second ‘wondrous’, whose first syllable five of them hold for six beats, two beats longer than the first ‘wondrous’, for this is ‘more wondrous’ still. Meanwhile, the first tenor, in a bouncy dotted rhythm, the inner voice of egotism, sings ‘wondrous I’. But the harmonies Weelkes gives these feelings do not, in fact, make them sound as ‘strange’ as Fogo. On ‘whose heart with fear doth freeze’, the voices rise optimistically. The last chord, on ‘fry’, could be celebrating a wedding. ‘I’ may be freezing and burning, but sounds pretty well on it. Weelkes is again using the harmonies to contradict the words.

Although the madrigal developed in Italy, the composers who created it came from the north: Philippe Verdelot was born at Les Loges, Seine-et-Marne, around 1480; Adrian Willaert was born in Bruges around 1490; Jacques Arcadelt was born around 1504, probably in Liège (his singable tunes, sexily Italian in Franco-Flemish polyphony, were blazingly popular). The next generation of madrigalists working in Italy also came from the north. Cipriano de Rore (born 1515 in Flanders) published more than 120 intense, dramatic, chromatic madrigals, works which influenced everyone. Only the third generation was home-grown. Gesualdo, born in 1560, was a lutenist and nobleman (also a murderer). Marenzio (born around 1553) made word-painting characteristic of the madrigal: his music can change mood and colour in a single phrase.

Rore’s greatest heir, born in 1567, was Monteverdi, the madrigal’s apotheosis and nemesis. He moved the form out of Renaissance polyphony into Baroque monody. His fourth book was attacked by a cleric, Giovanni Artusi, who condemned the ‘crudities’ and ‘license’ of this new musical style. In 1605, in the preface to his fifth book, Monteverdi explained that there were now two kinds of musical practice. The first was polyphony: flowing counterpoint, prepared dissonance, equal voices. The second emphasised monody and vocal hierarchy. Accordingly, in the madrigals of this fifth book, the soprano or bass voice sings a clear, single melodic line with recitative, accompaniment, instrumental continuo. Harmony is not the foreground but a facilitating background. The text is instantly intelligible, because only one voice sings. These madrigals display the individual voice very differently from those of, say, John Dowland (who was ten years younger than Monteverdi). From the 1580s to 1620, Dowland wrote wonderfully for the single voice. He was a consummate polyphonist, but his music was informed by his knowledge of his own instrument – the lute – whereas Monteverdi’s single-voice writing emerged from the vocal polyphony of church music.

By 1590, the madrigal was travelling back north. Flemish and Danish madrigalists found their way to Italy, to study with the Italian masters. The English did not. While Danish composers set their madrigals to Italian words and avoided their own vernacular, English composers stayed at home, adapted this idiom to their own language and cross-fertilised it with their own musical tradition. In 1562, an Italian composer called Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder had arrived in England. He was quite conservative, and largely ignored chromaticism and word-painting. Ferrabosco left England in 1578, and ten years later Nicholas Yonge published Musica Transalpina, a collection of 57 Italian madrigals by 18 Italian composers translated into English. Most of them were by Ferrabosco. Thomas Morley (born around 1557, the son of a Norwich brewer) admired Ferrabosco’s ‘deep skill’, and wrote light, quick, singable madrigals. The next most represented Italian in Musica Transalpina was Marenzio; Yonge’s follow-up collection in 1597 contained more madrigals by Marenzio than by anyone else. The madrigal was moving towards drama: this is clear, too, in the work of the two greatest English madrigalists, both born in the mid-1570s. John Wilbye took the madrigal’s dramatic contrasts to almost unbearable intensity. And then there was Thomas Weelkes.

The great English madrigals were written over a few decades and probably not sung much after 1640. ‘Singing with many voices,’ Pepys said in 1667, ‘is not singing but a sort of instrumental musique, the sense of the words being lost by not being heard.’ Weelkes exemplified the madrigal’s short sharp blast of perfection. Between 1597 and 1608 he wrote more madrigals than any English composer except Morley, mostly while he was organist at Winchester. Around 1602 he moved to Chichester as organist and choirmaster, but things went badly wrong. In 1617 he was dismissed as a drunkard and blasphemer and in 1623 he died, nearly destitute, in London. Maybe his life is not unconnected to the difficulty we found in his madrigal. Both words and music stage a kind of wonderment at the strangeness of relationships, musical, colonial and geographic. The climax of that strangeness is the chromatic descent on ‘how strangely Fogo burns,’ which, while evoking the elsewhere, also wonders what other places might look like to other people. And how difficult that is, imagining other people’s points of view.