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
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
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!"