Marconi's Madrigal (Se l sasso ond è più chiusa questa valle) (2001)
for soprano and tenor voices with pre-recorded tape (also for vocal sextet: 3 sopranos, 3 tenors, plus small percussion)
I was commissioned by Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) to write a short piece for radio broadcast as part of the celebration of the centenary of Marconis first successful transmission of a wireless signal, from Poldhu (Cornwall) to Signal Hill (St. Johns, Newfoundland), on December 12th 1901.
I took as a starting point a number of facts about the occasion, as well as knowledge that I had of Marconi through research for an old piece of mine The Sinking of the Titanic. The tragedy of the Titanic was, after all, the first occasion that wireless signals had been used in ocean rescue, and was instrumental in saving many lives. Some survivors were so grateful to him that they expressed the wish, through a collective effort of will, to Marconi their gratitude to him.
What Marconi transmitted in 1901 - or rather what was transmitted to him as he was in Canada - was the letter S in morse: three short dots. I speculated why he should have chosen S, apart from the obvious, and true, fact that this would be instantly recognised and not confused with irregular rhythms or static.
As I was working concurrently on a second book of madrigals, this time setting sonnets by Petrarch, I thought that Marconi could well be trying to begin one of these sonnets, and there are 40 which begin with the letter S. So the piece begins with the first words of each of these in turn, sung on an E flat (S in German), until a sonnet appears which has some connection with the physical situation in which the two groups of people found themselves. I added a distant wind sound in the background as a reasonably strong wind was needed to elevate the kites which were used as aerials.
At the point that the correct sonnet is found, the fourteenth which starts with S, this is then sung as a complete setting, though with a vocal drone E flat sung beneath throughout. The words which are used for this extended drone are taken, in Latin, from Matthew 5, verses 3, 4 and 9 in the Vulgate (3, 5 and 9 in the English) at the beginning of what is called The Sermon on the Mount. At the end of his life Marconi had become convinced that sounds never die, they simply become weaker and weaker. He was trying, by developing more sophisticated listening devices, to capture past sounds and he wanted, ultimately, to hear Christ delivering this Sermon.
Each time that a word in the madrigal begins with the letter S, the appropriate morse signal is heard faintly, as if all the omitted letters were part of some giant cosmic crossword puzzle. At the end of the piece, as the two solo voices approach the expected final cadence in E flat (moving towards B flat an octave apart, against the held E flat) the drone shifts to an F, effectively giving a plagal (amen) cadence, albeit an extremely long one...
The radio version was recorded in England at the University of York, sung by soprano Anna Maria Friman and tenor John Potter, who are the dedicatees. A separate version has been made for live performance, for the Trio Mediaeval Sextet, 3 sopranos and 3 tenors, for whom I have written the Second Book of Madrigals. There the drone is taken by the four other voices.
Se l sasso ond è più chiusa questa valle
(di che l suo proprio nome si deriva)
tenesse vòlto per natura schiva
a Roma il viso et a Babel le spalle,
I miei sospiri più benigno calle
avrian per gire ove lor spene è viva:
or vanno sparsi, et pur ciascuno arriva
là dov io il mando, chè sol un non falle;
et son di là sì dolcemente accolti,
com io maccorgo, che nessun mai torna,
con tal diletto in quelle parti stanno.
De gli occhi è l duol, che tosto che saggiorna
per gran desio d be luoghi a lor tolti
dànno a me pianto et a pie lassi affanno.
If the rock that mainly closes this valley, from which its name is derived, had - scornful by nature - its back turned towards Babel and its face towards Rome,
my sighs would have a kinder path to go towards where their hope still lives; now they go scattered, but still each one arrives where I send him, for not one fails;
and over there they are so sweetly welcomed, as I see, that none of them ever comes back, with such delight they stay in those parts.
It is my eyes that are pained; who, as soon as it dawns, in their great desire for the places they are deprived of, give to me weeping, and to my tired feet, labour.
(Drone text: Beati pauperi spiritu. Beati mites. Beati pacifici.)
(Drone translation: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers.)