A Visit to the Madrigal Society by Unknown

Everybody has heard of madrigals, and almost everybody has heard of the Madrigal Society; but everybody does not know what madrigals are, and almost everybody has not dined with the Madrigal Society. Not that that ancient and respectable body is an exclusive one,—keeping its good dinners for its own private eating, and its good music for its own private hearing: its freemasonry is extemporaneous, and a visitor is as welcome to the whole fraternity as to the individual who may introduce him.

The Madrigal Society is the very Royal Exchange of musical enthusiasm and good-fellowship, and certainly bears the palm away from its "fratelli rivali." Its component parts are better amalgamated, and the individuals composing them, appear to derive more thorough enjoyment from their attendance, than in any other unions we have seen of the same genus.

For example, at one (which shall be nameless) there is a line of demarcation between the professional and non-professional members; another is so numerous, that it is broken into fifty coteries, as in the boxes of a chop-house; and another enthusiastic little knot of vocal harmonists is so strongly impressed with the sense of one another's capabilities, that the speechifying, and toasting, and returning thanks take up a vast deal more time then the music.

Which of the thousand and one suggested derivations of the name madrigal is the right one, is a question upon which we most humbly beg to decline entering. Whether it owe its origin to some particular feature in the words to which all secular part music was set at an early period; or whether, as some impertinent commentator has suggested, it be a compound of two English words, "mad" and "wriggle,"—the one having reference to the ecstatic state into which the listeners were thrown by their first performance, the other to —— But we dismiss this as unworthy our consideration, and cut the question altogether.

A madrigal may, we think, be best defined as a composition in general set to a quaint little poem on some amatory or pastoral subject, with parts for a number of voices; the majority being for four or five. An unceasing flow of these parts, a kind of "push-on-keep-moving" principle, appears one of its strongest characteristics; one voice taking up the strain ere another lays it down,—seldom moving in masses or "plain-song" and with perhaps only one or two "closes" (sometimes none) until the end. In the conduct of all this, a very peculiar style of harmony is used. They are one and all imbued with a quaintness, which all who have heard madrigals must have felt, and could at once recognise; but which it is quite impossible to define in anything less than a treatise, six volumes quarto at the least,—a task upon which at present we have not the smallest intention of setting to work.

So much for a definition: now for a test. The best confirmation of the genuineness of a madrigal is, the fact of its bearing the weight of a great body of voices; that is to say, instead of its producing its proper effect, each part being sung (as in a glee) by one voice, the number of singers may be increased to any extent. And this, after  all, is the true touchstone of first-rate choral writing. The "Creation" of Haydn, and "The Last Judgment" of Spohr, unquestionably produce their best effect in an orchestra of moderate proportions; but to a chorus of Handel, or a madrigal of Gibbons, perfect justice could only be done by a body of singers that would fill St. Paul's, or cover Salisbury Plain.

We have dined. The cloth vanishes,—there is a pause,—the party simultaneously rise from their chairs,—the waiters at last (thanks to a long course of training, mental and bodily,) show signs of standing still for the next five minutes,—perfect silence pervades the room,—when lo! a gentle murmur of high voices steals upon the ear,—the strain is quickly imitated a few notes lower,—the basses massively close up the harmonious phalanx, and we recognise the imperishable "Non nobis, Domine."

Sobered, not saddened, by the noblest of canons,—the most melodious of those ingenious complexities,—a movement takes place among the party. Do not suppose that the singers are going to the bottom of the table, for in that case nobody would be left at the top; or, vice versâ, to the top, for then the bottom would be deserted. You find your neighbour to the right, has migrated to the other end of the room, and your vis-à-vis has established himself in his place. After being duly puzzled by so unexpected a move, it appears that, unlike other convivial assemblages, the order of precedency is observed here after, instead of before dinner; and that you must shift your position according to your register, not of birth or baptism, but voice. "Order is Heaven's first law," and the high and low characters around you, class themselves accordingly, into altos, tenors, and basses.

This little preparatory bustle over, and everybody again seated, there is a brief pause, which we devote to speculations,—not on the character of our new right-hand man (above mentioned),—not on the contents of the minute-book which the president spreads open before him,—nor on the pile of tomes which almost exclude the bodily presence of the vice,—nor on the gentleman who is going to propose a new member,—but on the "dints" in the table before us. The tops of all tables at all taverns are, and have been from time immemorial, remarkable for an infinite number of indentations varying in size and conformation. This peculiarity is not indigenous to the aforesaid tables; they are supposed, at some distant period of their existence, to have had faces as unruffled as others of their kind; but the eternal succession of thumps from glasses, plates, knives and forks, approbatory of speech, sentiment, or song, furrows their physiognomy with deep, ineffaceable lines,—albeit neither of study, thought, nor sorrow.

The time has gone by for the autobiography of guineas, lap-dogs, sofas, and sedan-chairs; birds and beasts no longer sport their apophthegms to human ears; even the pot and kettle have done calling one another names; "The Confessions of a Dinner-table, written by himself," would stand no chance now; a second edition of the life of Mendoza would be as little likely to take the town. Dinner-tables, like boxers, must count their bruises in silence. Yon deeply-indented furrow, over which our wine is absolutely tottering, is evidently a memento of the days when the feet were regularly knocked off the wine-glasses, and they, like their holders later in the evening, lost  their power of standing alone; when daylight unendurable and heel-taps impossible. No hand lacking the zeal of political excitement could have inflicted so uncompromising a gash as the one near it. Bees'-wax and turpentine have somewhat softened the sharpness of its outline; but its existence is identified with that of the table itself. And that succession of little "dibbs," evidently by the same hand,—what are they, but an unceasing monument to some by-gone beau, who thus tattooed his approval of the best of all possible toasts,—"The Ladies!"

But our speculations are leading us astray; more especially as the music-desks are before us, the books upon them, and "the boys" arrived. And hark! the pitch-pipe—none of your whipper-snapper German Æolians or waistcoat-pocket tuning-forks, but the veritable pitch-pipe which has been in use since the year 1740—sounds the note of preparation, and the order of the day begins in real earnest.

The Madrigal Society does not, as its name would seem to imply, confine itself exclusively to compositions which come under the designation of madrigal. The motett and the ballet, which are variations of the some genus, come in for a share of its notice.

On referring to the book before us, for the number just given out by the conductor, we find—a motett, Dr. Christopher Tye. The baton falls, and we launch into the unexplored ocean of song before us. What breadth in the harmonies! What stateliness in the progression of the parts!—and what a depth of feeling under the incrustation of these crabbed old modulations!

And now for a madrigal. Will it be "Lady, thine eye," or "Cynthia, thy song," or "Sweet honey-sucking bees?"—No: as we live, it is "Die not, fond man!"—the noblest of them all.

And now, another motett; and now—but stay! here is something unusual. The vice looks to the chair—the chair looks to the vice. The vice, like the sun over a mountain, shows his head above the wall of books before him, and prepares to make a speech. "Gentlemen, I beg to call your attention—" But we have forgotten the form, so we'll give the substance of his observations, which go to prove that he has received a madrigal, according to the rules of the society,—that is, anonymously,—which he has looked over, and deems worthy of a trial. The parts, which are of course not in the book, are distributed, and much good-natured speculation is afloat; for the madrigalians, though conservatives, are not exclusives. We begin:—there is a stoppage at the onset,—something was wrong in the parts,—it is corrected, and we start once more;—the precipice is passed in safety. Still it does not "go." There is no good reason why it should not; and so it is tried again; is better understood, and "goes" accordingly. A sealed paper is delivered to the chairman, who opens it with much solemnity, and announces the name of the composer, casting a most significant glance on an individual at one corner of the table, who, for the last quarter of an hour, has been engaged in the most unpleasing of all sedentary pursuits,—sitting upon thorns. We drink his health; the individual rises, and for upwards of a minute and some seconds, is supposed to occupy himself in making some observations germane to the present subject, but which, from his state of nervous trepidation, are quite inaudible.

The books are again in requisition. We draw on firms of centuries'  standing, and our checks are duly honoured. The stately motett, the graceful madrigal, and the sprightly ballet alternate in rapid succession. What a contrast does this enthusiastic coterie present to the listless audience of the concert-room or opera! No mob of apathetical time-killers is here; but true and constant lovers of the divine art, joining "with heart and voice" in strains to them as fresh and beautiful as they were two hundred years ago!

Oh! how we might gossip about and speculate upon the old fellows who treasured up for us this legacy of fine things. Talk of love for their art!—!—think of Luca Marenjio, who wrote a thousand madrigals; and Dr. Tye, who set to music the whole of "The Acts of the Apostles!"

The human voice is the noblest of all instruments. In the madrigal it finds an exercise worthy of its powers. Music, as developed through the medium of the voice, assumes a far more elevated and poetical form than it ever presents through instrumental performance even of the very highest character. Music is less essentially music, coming through throats of flesh and blood than throats of wood or metal; but it is something infinitely finer,—the unchecked emanation of the human heart,—the current fresh from the well-springs of all that is good and beautiful in man's nature.

The changeableness of fashion, the perishability of all instrumental music, is of itself sufficient evidence of this. Five-and-twenty years ago, the works of Pleyel were the delight of every musical coterie in Europe; now, there is not one amateur in fifty who ever heard a bar of his music. And as for the cart-loads of sonatas, gigues, pasacailles, serenatas, follias, fugues, concertantes, and "jewells" of Dr. Bull, Paradies, Scarlatti, Geminiani,—yes, even Handel and Mozart themselves!—they are regarded in about the same light as an Egyptian papyrus, or a loaf of bread from Herculaneum.

It is difficult indeed to conceive "The Jupiter Symphony," or the "Sonate Pathétique," food for the virtuoso; but assuredly "Dove sono," "The Hallelujah Chorus," and "St. Patrick's Day," are as imperishable as expression, grandeur, and sunshine themselves.

Sounds are the body of music, to which the voice gives immortality and a soul. To put the voice on the same level as an instrument, is to pit matter against mind,—"man against cat-gut."

There is a sense of personal enjoyment connected, too, with pure vocal music performed in this manner, which it is quite impossible to find in the theatre or concert-room. Our thoughts there, are perpetually brought back to some technical matter, and our imagination curbed by the audience, some individual association with the singers, or the "mise de théâtre;" but here, sitting at our ease around the table, with our "part" before us, joining in the harmony or not, as we please,—our only care that the madrigal shall go well, our only interruption a glance now and then at the enthusiastic faces around us,—we feel truly "the power of sound," and that our pleasure is without alloy.

Hold! there is a slight drawback on our pleasure,—perfection is not to be found even in the Madrigal Society. Where are the ladies? Oh, Madrigalians! with what countenance can ye, month after month, and year after year, continue singing Fair Oriana's praise, and bewailing the cruelty of your Phillises, and Cynthias, and "Nymph of  Diana," when you thus close up the fountain of all your inspirations? Is your by-law, forbidding all speechifying, a tacit confession of fear lest some gallant visitor, fired with your own sweet songs, should spring on his legs and propose "The Ladies"? Is this the reason why ye only drink "The King," "The Queen," and—your noble selves? Shame on ye!—where are the ladies?

The truth must be spoken at all times. Old as the world is, it is not yet quite steady enough to "chaperon" the fair sex to meetings like those of the Madrigal Society. True; we have pretty well got rid of the six-bottle men, and gentlemen have ceased to return home in wheel-barrows: still something more must be done ere the most courteous of chairmen can with propriety propose a new member with a soprano voice, or the most zealous of secretaries second him.

To do our friends justice, they have made a step in this matter. At the annual festival, where the madrigals put on all their splendour, the ladies are admitted; but, alas! they are perched up in a gallery "all by themselves." And even this bird's-eye view of gentlemen eating and drinking, comes, like "the grotto," only once a-year.

But these knotty points should be agitated before dinner. Let us turn to our books once again,—sing "The Waits,"—"One fa la more,"—and then "Good-night!"