First Book of Madrigals

Description: 

Text: Blake Morrison
Duration c. 35’
Dedication: Martin and Rita Cadman
Instrumentation: ATTBar/ ATBar
First performance (3 of madrigals): Hilliard Ensemble, Westminster Cathedral, December 21st 1998

First Book of Madrigals (1998-2000)

In 1998 I embarked on a project to write a series of madrigals for the Hilliard Ensemble, eventually deciding to collect them in 'books' in the manner of Italian madrigalists, such as Monteverdi or Gesualdo. Indeed, having written many works for the Hilliard Ensemble I sought, in writing these new madrigals, to work within the spirit and aesthetic of those from the Italian Renaissance. I asked my long-time collaborator Blake Morrison if he would be interested in writing some new poems based on the form and content of Renaissance madrigals (John Potter, then of the Hilliard, pointed out that they were chiefly about love and sex - whether an absence or difficulties or abundance of either). The settings are for 3, 4 or 5-part ensemble and the disposition of these ensembles varies. While most of the four-part madrigals are for alto, two tenors and baritone, there are some for three tenors and baritone. Equally of the 3 three-part settings two are for alto, tenor, baritone, while one is for two tenors and baritone.  The poems cover a wide emotional range. Some focus on the details of loving relationships - with a subtle eroticism or, at times, irony -  others deal with love in a more abstract sense.

There are many moments in these madrigals when the individual personalities, both musical and personal, of the member of the Hilliard Ensemble suggest approaches to word setting. The most thorough of these, in terms of the range of internal reference, is the fourth madrigal "Just as the ash-glow", while the last piece in the book "Against dieting", was added as an affectionate joke at the expense of the alto David James. But, as with any music written for particular performers, the work has to exist beyond the confines of the local circumstances of its generation and ultimately purely musical criteria overrule such concerns.

Coincidentally the first four settings were written on Mondays (the first three to be ready for the Lockerbie Memorial Concert at Westminster Cathedral in December 1998, the fourth for a session of filming for a TV profile made by Hessischer Rudfunk in 1999). I wrote the remaining nine on successive Mondays in the summer of 2000 in our summer home in Victoria BC, sometimes writing two, and once three, in a day. The songs are published in the order of their composition.

Second and third books of madrigals now exist, for different vocal formations (written on Tuesdays - 6 part -  and Wednesdays 3-part with lute - respectively)  and a fourth - 8-part - is under way.

The First Book of Madrigals is dedicated to my friends Rita and Martin Cadman

First Book of Madrigals (published ED12679)

  1. Web (ATTBar)
  2. Stormy (ATBar)
  3. Almond Tree (ATBar)
  4. Just as the ash-glow (ATTBar)
  5. Within minutes (ATTBar)
  6. Our bodies in the shower (ATTBar)
  7. She'd buy things (TTBar)
  8. All the homely arts and crafts (TTTBar)
  9. In April (ATTTBar)
  10. Who's the more to blame? (TTTBar)
  11. The print of soles (ATTTBar)
  12. My pomegranate (ATTTBar)
  13. Against Dieting (ATTTBar)

 

Text of First Book of Madrigals

 

1. Web (ATTB)

The spider's lurking-parlour

its vestibule of thread

the spin of it walls

closing in and round us

until the hall we entered

hoping to visit life

becomes the manor of our death.

No skylight over the door

no flue of air

only the trap of shadows

and darkness ripening

in the heart of the sun.

 

2. Stormy  (ATB)

I should have seen from your eyes

and the lightning which broke in them

the storms that lie ahead.

 

The white ecstasy of bedsheets,

smashed pots and broken furniture,

the forked static of your touch.

 

But storms pass like headaches do.

Today the rain, in carpet-tacks.

Alone together, we watch the rain.

 

3. Almond Tree (ATB)

We met under the fork of an almond tree

as March came slowly into leaf.

Our love blossomed like a snow-storm.

White confetti paved the street.

 

What are we to do now autumn's here?

Your eyes are cold, my arms have shrunk.

The years seem a tangle of dry twigs.

Can we get through them without love?

 

4. Just as the ash-glow...  (ATTB)

Just as the ash-glow

and cinder-light of the skies

lose all their lustre

once you've seen the moon rise,

 

and the volted daisies

and bruised delphiniums

pale into nothing

when the sunflower blooms,

 

and the swallows

plinking on their long string

sound merely garrulous

if you've heard the lapwing,

 

so the women I'd been eyeing

were a dimmed light

when you walked into vision

that first night.

 

5. Within minutes...  (ATTB)

Within minutes, our first conversation,

I knew.

Out of nowhere, from the rim of a glass,

the flash

of knowledge, as if their were no choice.

Sewn up.

Like the moment the plane drops through

the clouds

and the land spreads out its patchwork,

and you see,

in crushing detail, the future race to meet you.

Just like that.

 

6. Our bodies in the shower... (ATTB)

Our bodies in the shower.

The hisp and plather

of skins under the water.

The smoke coming off us.

The stream within the stream.

We were rinsed clean

of everything but desire.

 

7. She'd buy things...  (TTB)

She'd buy things, expecting our lives to flourish

because the objects surrounding them had changed.

My line was different: no matter how and where

we lived, we were what we were, unalterably.

 

8. All the homely arts and crafts...  (TTTB)

All the homely arts and crafts -

the soft plinth of a tongue,

the Guggenheim of an ear,

the weave of hands and hair -

 

are nothing next to the science

of those eyes unseen until tonight,

this lip lightly charred from

the soft combustion of a kiss.

 

9. In April... (ATTTB)

In April we'll fly to the Lebanon and live among the vines

and the vines will be young and tender

and our bed will smell of cinnamon

and I'll order them not to wake us till we please.

 

I'll keep you safe

If ever you're lost

I'll go about the streets and broadways

and find you and bring you to my bed.

 

10. Who's the more to blame... (TTTB)

Who's the more to blame?

You for having eyes

a soul could drown in?

Or me for falling in?

 

Let's not argue who's to blame.

The only points at issue

are the ones that shrink

and widen in your eyes.

 

My eyes have grown dim

from patrolling the days

like a camera lens,

trawling for your eyes.

 

Here's you in New York.

Here's you in London.

Your eyes are everywhere.

Where are your eyes?

 

11. The print of soles... (ATTTB)

The print of soles across the bathroom floor:

finding them, I felt like Crusoe, and stooped

to test their warmth and wetness, then rose

to follow where they led, not caring that

I knew the end already, as if she were

a stranger, this woman meeting my eyes

in the dressing-table mirror,

one towel tucked just above her bosom,

another knotted round her head,

and waterbeads still fresh on her nape

and shoulders, which I bent to kiss -

meeting your eyes again as I did -

for the first time ever in the world.

 

12. My pomegranate... (ATTTB)

My pomegranate in the wilderness

my sunlit fishpool

my August torrent

and winter coal.

 

No one can quench the flame

of this ecstasy

our love is strong as death

and rich as fire.

 

13. Against Dieting (ATTTB)

Please, darling, no more diets.

I've heard the talk and why it's

good for one's esteem. I've watched you

jogging lanes and pounding treadmills.

I've even shed two kilos of my own.

But enough. What are love-handles

between friends? For half a stone

it isn't worth the sweat.

I've had it up to here with crispbread.

I doubt the premise, too.

Try to see it from my point of view.

I want not less but more of you.

 

Note: The texts of these madrigals were commissioned from Blake Morrison to be set to music.  Subsequently Blake published 11 of these poems, along with others, under the title "Madrigalia" in his volume of Selected Poems (1999). The first ("Web") and last ("Against Dieting") set in my collection do not appear in that edition. The third ("Almond Tree") sets the original version of his poem, which differs slightly from the one in the poetry collection.