Environmental piece
Published in EMC Visual Anthology.
Incomplete performance only.

Eleven madrigals for STTTBarB, setting Petrarch, Bronzino, Battiferri and Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane.

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Note : Fifth Book of Madrigals ("I Tatti")

Fifth Book of Madrigals ("I Tatti")

The Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies - the Villa I Tatti near Florence - has commissioned a number of madrigals from me over the last nine years. The moving spirit behind all these commissions has been the centre's remarkable music librarian, Kathryn Bosi. The first was for the Italian group Vox Altera, who recorded this 8-part madrigal along with the whole of my Second Book (BCGBCD17). Since then I have written eight 6-part madrigals for the German group Singer Pur: four in 2009 and four in 2011. In order to have a complete book three more madrigals have been added to make a book of eleven madrigals The full list is:

(2009: 6-part, STTTBarB - In Memoriam Craig Hugh Smyth)

Cantai, or piango (Petrarch r.s. 229)

I' piansi, or canto (Petrarch r.s. 230)

L'Aura vostr'alma (Bronzino)

Bronzino in ciel l'alma beata luce (Battiferri)

(2011; 6-part - for the 500th anniversary of the birth of the architect Ammannati, husband of the poet Laura Battiferri)

Qual per l'onde turbate (Battiferri)

Fra questa piagge (Battiferri)

Ergitti infin (Battiferri)

Temprato aer sereno (Battiferri)

2013; 6-part, STTTBarB - these continue the pairing of Bronzino and Battiferri, with the addition of a poem by Michaelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane whose setting by Caccini is lost, suggested to me by the scholar and musicologist Janie Cole, who I met through Kathryn Bosi at I Tatti.

Mentre sepolto (Bronzino)

Se fermo e nel destin (Battiferri)

Chi punto ha 'l core (Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane)






Text: Blake Morrison
Duration c. 35’
Dedication: Rita and Martin Cadman
Instrumentation: 3, 4 and 5 voices (A.T.T.T.Bar)
First performance: (first 8) Espo, Finland, December 8th 2000; full set, Engers, August 2001

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

Note : First Book of Madrigals (1998-2000)

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

Note : First Book of Madrigals (published ED12679)

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)


Note : Text of First Book of Madrigals

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.

Duration: c.15’
Instrumentation: 2 pianos.
First performance: Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2 April 1977

Settings of four poems by Laura Battiferri, written for Singer Pur and commissioned by Villa I Tatti  



Note : Four Battiferri Madrigals

Four Battiferri Madrigals

These madrigals setting texts by Laura Battiferi come about from my third project with Villa I Tatti.  The first was a commission from the Morrill Music Library, in memory of Elizabeth and Gordon Morrill in 2004. For this I set a sestina by Petrarca that was performed by the Italian group, Vox Altera, along with a group of other madrigals for six voices that I had written earlier that also set Petrarca. Although new compositions, these works reflect the spirit and aesthetic of the 16th century Renaissance madrigal.


I had first became engaged with the idea of writing music in relation to models from early music when I wrote my first piece for the Hilliard Ensemble in 1988 but it was ten years later that I embarked on a series of books of madrigals. For the first of these books, thirteen madrigals for three, four and five male voices (the Hilliard Ensemble), I set commissioned poems by my friend (and librettist for my second and third operas) Blake Morrison. For these, unusually, I had new poems which were actually designed at the outset to be set to music as madrigals. Having written these, however, and following guidance from the tenor John Potter, for subsequent books I decided to set poets whose work had been used by Renaissance madrigalists and for my second, third and fourth books of madrigals I turned to Petrarch. And, indeed, having started on Petrarch I have stayed with him for a considerable period of time. While the second book, for six voices, sets fourteen sonnets from Petrarch's Rime Sparse, the fourth book, for eight voices, uses the longer sestina form, from the same collection - and the first of these settings "A qualunque animale" was the piece commissioned by Villa I Tatti.


The second project involved my setting 16th century texts, by Bronzino and Battiferri, as well as two by Petrarca. Although, like my second book,  these are for six voices, the formation of the group Singer Pur is very different, comprising soprano, three tenors, baritone and bass (as distinct from the 2 sopranos, mezzo, 2 tenors and baritone for the earlier madrigals). These were written in memory of  Craig Hugh Smyth, a fine art historian and former director of the Villa I Tatti, who was a specialist in Bronzino and Pontormo and the choice of texts reflects the interests of the dedicatee. Through correspondence with Kathryn Bosi, Music Librarian at I Tatti and, through her, Craig Smyth's family, I became increasingly aware of his unusual and quite special character.The Bronzino sonnet is a lament on the death of Pontormo, his teacher, and Laura Battiferri's poem is a direct response to that of Bronzino. As I was also asked to set sonnets by Petrarca, I chose two of his closely linked sonnets, numbers 229 and 230 in the Rime Sparse. Having written the Petrarca setting for I Tatti some five years before, I was familiar with the context. Petrach's sonnets attracted me for many reasons. Initially it was because they have such prominence in sixteenth century madrigal music. But it was also the heart-rending beauty of the poetry and its sheer technical brilliance.  Although I was vaguely aware of Bronzino as a painter, I did not know his poetry and I was grateful for the opportunity to look at previously unfamiliar texts, both of Bronzino and of Battiferri. Indeed having such things brought to my attention made me feel a surrogate part of the Villa I Tatti environment., I always felt during the time that I taught in a university that being alerted to previously unfamiliar work - and following up that prompting - to be one of the chief pleasures of being in an academic community.


The third project concentrates on the poetry of Laura Batiferri alone, and comes about because of the anniversary celebrations for her husband Ammannati. Kathryn Vosi sent me a number of texts and eventually I settled on four : three sonnets, one of which has 11 lines rather than the normal 14, and a sestina. From the poems that she sent there are two further ones that I plan to set so that, in due course, there would be quite substabntial volme of I Tatti madrigals that could form an entire book in themselves, combining Petrarca, Bronzino and Battiferri. These two "bonus" pieces will set a poem by Bronzino plus Battiferri's response, like those from the second concert. As with the commission two years ago, these madrigals are for Singer Pur, and there is the advantage this time of having worked with them directly at I Tatti, of spending time with them socially and having a greater awareness of the character of this quite special ensemble. The two 14-line sonnets, numbers 53 ("Fra queste piagge") and 54 ("Ergiti enfin"), have a link to the area near I Tatti, with their references to Maiano, and to the Mensola, and the shorter sonnet 55 ("Temprato aer sereno") also sings the praises of Tuscany.

With the sestina number 48 "Qual per l'onde turbate" we have the same kind of poetic virtuosity demanded of the 39-line form that I enjoyed with Petrarca's "A qualunque animale". This form has six 6-line verses with a final 3-line verse), with the same six words at the ends of the lines in each verse, but in each succeeding verse on a different line. For the final three lines all six rhyming words are brought back, three of them as half rhymes. As with my seting of the Petrarca sestina, I followed this device by devising precise musical equivalents. With Petrarca this involved having  different cadential phrases associated with each of the six words, and finding ways to join them that don't point to the apparent artifice. With the Battiferri setting, I followed the same structural idea, but becoming more flexible by injecting greater variation in these phrases as the poem progresses.


It was the promptings of I Tatti that started me off on my settings of Petrach's sestine, through Kathryn Bosi and others, and which pointed me towards the poetry of Bronzino and Battiferri. I enjoy the intellectual give-and-take, and being encouraged to follow these promptings. After my second project at I Tatti for example, Dr Janie Cole, whom I met at the concert, sent me her book on the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane and it is very likely that I will set some of this poetry in the future. As a professional composer, I live from commissions and these can take me in many different and sometimes unpredictable directions and I welcome the stimulus of such exchanges. In an ideal world, when I would be free to write whatever I want, I would always chose to write vocal music, and having the pprotunity to set Petrarch and post-Petrarchian seicento poetry, is close to Paradise.



Gavin Bryars, Billesdon October 2011




Duration: 30’
Commissioned by Rambert Dance Company for dance choreographed by Lucinda Childs.
Instrumentation: alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flugelhorn, horn, trombone, piano, electric keyboard, bass,, taped voice (or male alto), 2 percussion.
First performance: Apollo Theatre, Oxford, 16 November 1990.

Note : Four Elements (1990)

Four Elements (1990)

Four Elements was commissioned by Rambert Dance Company for the ballet by Lucinda Childs in 1990. I got to know Lucinda's work through the director Robert Wilson at the time I was working on his The CIVIL WarS. from 1981 to 1984. I had let Lucinda have some tapes and she made a solo dance, Outline, to one of these pieces (Out of Zaleski's Gazebo). The commission from Rambert provided the opportunity, finally,  for us to meet. The initial idea for the dance was hers and we discussed many times throughout that year the nature of the piece, its structure and relative pace. The music falls into in 4 sections: 'Water', 'Earth', 'Air' and 'Fire', each one being given a different musical character in terms of tempo, instrumental emphasis and colour; and theatrical character through different permutations of the 8 dancers ('Earth', for example uses only the 4 females, while 'Air' uses the 4 male dancers), the relative complexity of repetitive movement and the use of space.

Part 1 - 'Water' - is slow and features the bass clarinet and colouristic percussion (including the water gong).

Part 2 - 'Earth' - is at a medium tempo with a slow melodic line for tuned percussion and a mirrored line for wind instruments.

 Part 3 - 'Air' - is fast with an accompaniment by keyboards supporting high solo parts for (in sequence) alto saxophone, flugelhorn, and sax with French horn.

Part 4 - 'Fire' - is slow with overlapping lines for unison brass (trombone, horn, flugelhorn) and amplified double bass, using effects pedals, with bass clarinet, over slow keyboard arpeggios and ends with a Coda in which David James' alto voice sings a short vocalise over low drones from the ensemble....

As well as working closely with Lucinda I also had a fruitful collaboration with Roger Heaton, then music director of Rambert who is also clarinettist in my own ensemble. I deliberately chose to use a range of instruments that I had not used before - especially the combination of instruments in the wind section (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flugelhorn, French horn and tenor trombone). The piece was first performed at the Apollo Theatre Oxford in November 1990 and subsequently filmed for BBC Television's Dancemakers series.

Texts: 2 Petrarch, Bronzino, Battiferri
Six voices a capella (STTTBarB)
Commissioned by Villa I Tatti: the Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies, Florence

In memory of Professor Craig Smyth
Duration c. 14'
First Performance: Singer Pur; Villa I Tatti, Florence, October 16 2009

Note : Text of Four I Tatti Madrigals

Text of Four I Tatti Madrigals


Petrarca: Sonnet CCXIX

Cantai, or piango, e non men di dolcezza

del pianger prendo che del canto presi;

ch'a la cagion, non a l'effetto intesi

son i miei sensi vaghi pur d'altezza.


Indi a mansuetudine e durezza

et atti feri, et umili, e cortesi,

porto egualmente; né me gravan pesi,

né l'arme mie punta di sdegni spezza.


Tengan dunque vèr' me l'usato stile

Amor, madonna, il mondo, e mia fortuna;

ch'i' non penso esser mai se non felice.


Viva o mora, o languisca, un più gentile

stato del mio non è sotto la Luna;

sì dolce è del mio amaro la radice.


Rime Sparse 229 trans. Robert Durling

I sang, now I weep, and I take no less sweetness from weeping

than I took from singing, for my senses, still in love with

heights, are intent on the cause, not its outward effects.


Thence I bring away equally mildness and harshness, cruel

gestures and humble and courteous;  nor do any weights weigh

me down, nor does any point of disdain shatter my armour.


Let them keep toward me their accustomed style, Love, my

lady, the world, and my fortune; I think I shall never be

anything but happy.


Whether I live or die or languish, there is no nobler state than

mine under the moon, so sweet is the root of the bitter!





Petrarca: Sonnet CCXXX

I' piansi, or canto; ché 'l celeste lume

quel vivo sole alli occhi mei non cela,

nel qual onesto Amor chiaro revela

sua dolce forza, e suo santo costume:


onde e' suol trar di lagrime tal fiume,

per accorciar del mio viver la tela,

che non pur ponte o guado, o remi o vela,

ma scampar non potiemmi ale né piume.


Sì profondo era, e di sì larga vena

il pianger mio, e sì lunge la riva,

ch'i' v'aggiungeva col penser la pena.


Non lauro o palma, ma tranquilla oliva

pietà mi manda. e 'l tempo rasserena,

e 'l pianto asciuga, e vuol ancor ch'i' viva.

Rime Sparse 230 trans. Robert Durling

I wept, now I sing; for that living sun does not hide from my

eyes her heavenly light, in which virtuous Love clearly reveals

his sweet power and his holy ways;


thus he is wont to draw from me such a river of tears to shorten

the thread of my life, that wings and feathers could not rescue

me. Let alone bridge or ford or oars or sail.


So deep and from so full a source was my weeping and so distant

the shore, that I could hardly reach it even in thought.


Pity sends me not laurel or a palm but the tranquil olive, and

clears the weather, and dries my tears, and wishes me still to






Bronzino: In morte del medisimo (Pontormo)

L'Aura vostr'alma, or che 'l fier Borea ammorza

Alle campagne I più vaghi colori,

E 'l corso impetra ai vivi argenti, e fiori

Vedova, e attrista ogni terrena scorza;


Col suo dolce spirar, di nuova forza

Par, ch' aer muova, e nuova terra irrori,

Nuovo Sol n'apra, e piante, acque, erbe, e fiori

Ne renda, e ta', ch' a rallegrar ne sforza.


On'io qual fronda al più nemico verno

Dentro agghiacciato, e fuori atro, e negletto,

Orbo del caro mio buon padre, e duce,


Vigor riprendo, e 'l giel distruggo interno,

Degli onor suoi mi vesto, e 'l suo diletto

Seren m'innalza, e scuopre la mia luce.



On the death of the same [Pontormo]

The aura ([l'aura] of your soul - now that the strong

North wind which fades the flowers

and freezes the river to icy silver, and leaves the earth

bare and saddened as a widow, has departed -


seems with its gentle breath, to move the air

with new strength, and bedew the earth, to open up the sky

so that plants, water, grass, and flowers

rejoice with renewed energy.


While I, like foliage in bitter winter,

frozen inside and out, bleak and neglected,

deprived of my dear father and leader,


I am revived and melt the ice within me,

I dress myself in his mantle and his love

and I rise serene, and reveal my own Light.





Laura Battiferri: In morte del medesimo (risposta)

Bronzino in ciel l'alma beata luce

Quant' altro vago, e luminoso aspetto

Atto a produr fra noi più degno effetto

Come fu già del mondo onore, e luce;


Talchè l'erto sentier, ch' a Dio conduce

Fuor di questo mortal breve ricetto,

Mostra sì piano al vostr' alto intelletto,

Ch' uopo non ha di miglior guida, o duce.


Et io, che 'n alto mar senza governo

Quando è più nudo I ciel de' suoi splendori,

Erro sempre alternando or pioggia, or orza,


Già fatta preda al gran Nettuno, e scherno,

Scorgo non lunge I suoi lucenti albori

Sì che la stanca nave si rinforza.




Bronzino, your beautiful soul shines in heaven;

what other lovely, luminous Power

could create among us greater works, honor and brilliance

than the world has ever known;


the steep path that leads to God

beyond this brief, mortal sojourn

is revealed so clearly to you

that you have no need for a better Guide or Leader,


While I, as if on the high seas with no captain,

the sky dark with heavy clouds,

I veer this way and that, seaward or windward,


though I was prey of great, mocking Neptune,

I see not far away the dawning light

and my weary boat takes heart.

Text: George Bruce
Tenor  and piano
Duration c. 12'
First performance: James Gilchrist, tenor, Julius Drake, piano,
Leeds Lieder+, The Venue, Leeds College of Music, October 3 2009

Note : Text of Songs from Northern Seas (text: George Bruce)

Text of Songs from Northern Seas (text: George Bruce)

1. The Fisherman

As he comes from one of those small houses

Set within the curve of the low cliff

For a moment he pauses

Foot on step at the low lintel

Before fronting wind and sun.

He carries out from within something of the dark

Concealed by heavy curtain,

Or held within the ship under hatches.


Yet with what assurance

The compact body moves,

Head pressed to wind,

His being at an angle

As to anticipate the lurch of earth.


Who is he to contain night

And still walk stubborn

Holding the ground with light feet

And with a careless gait?

Perhaps a cataract of light floods,

Perhaps the apostolic flame.

Whatever it might be

The road takes him from us.

Now the pier is his, now the tide.


2. A Departure

The short man waves his hand,

Half turns, and then makes off.

He is going to the country

Taking the road with the field of clover

On one side, the beach in the other,

The beach jarred by white stones,

The clover globed waiting for soft winds.

At the top of the rise within earshot

Of both sea and birds for a moment

He stops. (Stop now for ever there

To witness sea sound, bird note,

Sea town's cries.) But he

As if hurt and shamed,

Moves, head bent, clothes loose upon him.

We would offer blood, cash down,

For a last knowing gesture,

But the hill has him - or the sea.


3. The Helmsman

Write out the wind of his hometown

And reckon its dance, not as the impact

On a wall, but on its history.


This wind that killed in the desert

That slit the ice-cap,

That blasted first life from soil,

That chanted about the Inn at night,

Blew winter at the Babe;


Blows to a flare the light in any

Hero helmsman's brain till his head

Above its circles - hands on wheel -

Is circled by a cloudless constellation.

His eyes are stars, his arms embrace

An unhinged world. Astride the swelling wind

In the empty dawn, in the horizon light

He becomes stature.


4. The Seaman, an Epilogue

For Andrew Stewart


What vision his, Northward he stares

On polar suns that burst and flood

On black and blood-red water

Whose movement breaking the white light

Prismatically, spreads North and North

Salt gold and green to the cold berg's foot.


What vision his when South he looks

From sea to land, across those waterways -

Home, seen now in the perspective of space,

Men minute and shadow-like, active at their doors,

Pulling their doll-like crafts ashore.

He sees their purposes, yet hears nothing,

No pebbles' jar, no thump of boat, no shout

As rapid waters easily o'erwhelm

And run about the low decks and thrust

Aside the boats, returning them to the original sea.


Yet he trusting these shadows,

More real than rock, hearts perdurable

Without doubt or fear - homeward steers.

No.1 "A qualunque animale" for eight-part voices (SSAATTBB)
Text: Petrarch
Duration c. 10’

Commissioned by the Morrill Music Library, Villa I Tatti: the Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies, Florence, in memory of F. Gordon and Elizabeth Morrill  

First performance Vox Altera soloists, directed by Massimiliano Pascucci

Villa I Tatti, Florence May 27th 2004

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Note : "A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi" (Fourth Book of Madrigals no. 2) for 8-part mixed choir

"A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi" (Fourth Book of Madrigals no. 2) for 8-part mixed choir

In 1998, I embarked on a series of books of madrigals related to those from the Italian renaissance. For the first of these books, I set poems by Blake Morrison which, unusually, were actually written to be set to music as madrigals. For subsequent books, however, I decided to set poets who had been the chief sources of texts for the renaissance madrigalists and for my second, third and fourth books of madrigals I turned to Petrarch. The second book sets fourteen sonnets from Petrarch's Rime Sparse,  and the fourth, as here, sets longer poems, the sestina form.

Petrarch's sonnets attracted me initially because of their prominence in sixteenth century madrigal music, but I was also drawn to the heart-rending beauty of the poetry and their sheer technical brilliance.

The purpose of the Rime Sparse (this term appears in the first line of the first sonnet and has the deceptively casual meaning of „scattered rhymes") is to immortalise the real or imagined Laura, who Petrarch may - or may not - have seen near Avignon shortly before Easter 1327. The ingenuity with which he conceals or alludes to her name can be astonishing. She can be the laurel (sometimes obliquely as 'the honoured branch', 'noble tree', 'garland') and she is 'l'aura' (the dawn). Here the "belle frondi" (beautiful leaves) are those of the laurel and the "altri rami" (other branches) are those of the cross. Given that the season ("tempo") referred to in the penultimate sestina may be Lent it is appropriate that the premiere of this choral setting is at that time.

His rhyme schemes can be virtuosic beyond belief. With the sestina form (six 6-line verses with a final 3-line verse), each verse has the same six words at the ends of lines but in each succeeding verse on a different line. Then in the final three lines all six rhyming words are brought back, three of them as half rhymes. These devices have soemtimes suggested musical approaches, but hey are never there just to demonstrate his cleverness, but are always at the service of the poetry.

This extended madrigal was commissioned by the Addison Singers and was written specially for it. The choir's director is an old friend of mine, and both my daughters have been members. The piece is dedicated to the Addison Singers, in a spirit of friendship and affection.

Gavin Bryars. March 2007

Note : Fourth Book of Madrigals (Published individually)

Fourth Book of Madrigals (Published individually)

  1. A qualunque animale (SSAATTBB) ED 12891
  2. A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi (SSAATTBB) ED 13082
Note : Text of Fourth Book of Madrigals

Text of Fourth Book of Madrigals

Fourth Book of Madrigals no.2 "A la dolce ombra" Petrarch: Rime sparse 142

A la dolce ombra de le belle frondi

corsi fuggendo un dispietato lume

che 'n fin qua giù m'ardea dal terzo cielo;

et disgombrava già di neve i poggi

l'aura amorosa che rinova il tempo,

et fiorian per le piagge l'erbe e i rami.


Non vide il mondo sì leggiadri rami

né mosse il vento mai sì verdi frondi

come a me si mostrar quel primo tempo,

tal che temendo de l'ardente lume

non volsi al mio refugio ombra di poggi,

ma de la pianta più gradita in cielo.


Un lauro mi difese allor dal cielo,

onde più volte, vago de' bei rami,

da po' son gito per selve et per poggi;

né giamai ritrovai tronco né frondi

tanto onorate dal superno lume

che non mutasser qualitate a tempo.


Però più fermo ogni or di tempo in tempo,

seguendo ove chiamar m'udia dal cielo

e scorto d'un soave et chiaro lume,

tornai sempre devoto ai primi rami

et quando a terra son sparte le frondi

et quando il sol fa verdeggiare i poggi.


Selve, sassi, campagne, fiumi, et poggi,

quanto è creato, vince et cangia il tempo;

ond' io cheggio perdono a queste frondi

se rivolgendo poi molt'anni il cielo

fuggir disposi gl'invescati rami

tosto ch' i' ncominciai di veder lume.


Tanto mi piacque prima il dolce lume

ch' i' passai con diletto assai gran poggi

per poter appressar gli amati rami;

ora la vita breve e 'l loco e 'l tempo

mostranmi altro sentier di gire al cielo

et di far frutto, non pur fior et frondi.


Altr'amor, altre frondi, et altro lume,

altro salir al ciel per altri poggi

cerco (che n'è ben tempo), et altri rami.


To the sweet shade of those beautiful leaves

I ran, fleeing a pitiless light

that was burning down upon me from the third heaven;

and already the snow was disappearing from the hills

thanks to the loving breeze that renews the season,

and through the meadows the grass bloomed and the branches.


The world never saw such graceful branches

nor did the wind ever move such green leaves

as showed themselves to me in that first season;

so that, fearing the burning light,

I chose for my refuge no shade of hills

but that of the tree most favoured in Heaven.


A laurel defended me then from the heavens;

wherefore often, desirous of its lovely branches,

since then I have gone through woods and across hills:

nor have I ever again found trunk or leaves

so honoured by the supernal light

that they did not change their quality according to the season.


Therefore, more and more firm from season to season,

following where I heard myself called from Heaven

and guided by a mild and clear light,

I have come back always devoted to the first branches,

both when on earth are scattered their leaves

and when the sun turns green the hills.


Woods, rocks, fields, rivers, and hills -

all that is made - are vanquished and changed by time;

wherefore I ask pardon of these leaves

if, the heavens turning many years,

I have made ready to flee the enlimed branches

as soon as I began to see the light.


So pleasing to me at first was that sweet light

that joyfully I traversed great hills

in order to approach the beloved branches.

Now the shortness of life and the place and the season

show me another pathway to go to Heaven

and bear fruit, not merely flowers and leaves.


Another love, other leaves, and another light,

another climbing to Heaven by other hills

I seek (for it is indeed time), and other branches.


Translated by Robert M. Durling