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Melancholia - Madrigals and motets around 1600
Les Cris de Paris/Geoffroy Jourdain
rec. 2017, Abbey of Sylvanès, France
Texts and translations included.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902298 [67:11]

If a disc comes with the title Melancholia, you know you can’t expect too much fun. Melancholia in music is mostly associated with the English renaissance, and in particular the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. And from that time one figure stands out as a composer whose music represents the mood of the time: John Dowland. However, he is the most notable absentee in a programme of pretty sad music from the decades around 1600.

“The second half of the sixteenth century saw the birth at several of Europe’s princely courts, of a musical avant-garde that was among the most influential in Wester history. It resulted from trends that our era has difficulty in finding complementary: on the one hand, erudition and refinement taken to an extreme; on the other, an immoderate taste for acerbated emotion”. Those are the words with which Geoffroy Jourdain opens his liner-notes to the programme which he recorded with his ensemble Les Cris de Paris.

He goes on to point out the “harmonic daring and the expressive use of chromaticism and dissonance” as the main characteristics of the repertoire which is the subject of this recording. However, it needs to be said that this is only a part of what was produced at the time. Moreover, although the texts of the English pieces included in the programme share their sorrowful content with those which Italian contemporaries set to music, the way they deal with them is not the same, as English composers did not delve into harmonic experiments the way Italian composers did.

It seems also questionable to rank all the pieces under the headline ‘melancholia’. This was a fashionable state of mind, which in England was cherished and which was expressed in music, but for which music was also considered one of the main cures. One could even question, whether the emotions expressed in the madrigals by the likes of Gibbons, Wilbye or Weelkes have to be taken really seriously. It is interesting to note that the traditional phrase "fa la la" appears in two of them, Weelkes’ ‘O care, thou wilt despatch me’ and Tomkins’ ‘Too much I once lamented’.

In comparison the pieces by composers such as Luzzaschi, Marenzio and Gesualdo are far more serious. The latter is obviously a special case. In general it is not correct to connect the mood of a composition with that of the composer, let alone his character. The very fact that Dowland wrote quite a number of melancholic pieces does not indicate that he himself was a melancholic character. There can be little doubt, though, that the extreme dissonances in Gesualdo’s music are an expression of his character and also can be connected to his biography.

As far as other Italian composers are concerned – and Marenzio, Luzzaschi and Nenna are just three examples out of many – it needs to be said that their experiments were probably not a reflection of the state of mind dominating at the time, but rather specimens of attempts to connect text and music as closely as possible. In that respect they were forerunners of the seconda pratica which was born around 1600 and founds its expression in the music of composers such as Giulio Caccini and Claudio Monteverdi.

Jourdain rightly states that the sentiments which are expressed in the pieces which were selected for this recording are of all times. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga observed that “at the close of the Middle Ages, a sombre melancholy weighs on people’s souls”. And Jourdain quotes the 1771 edition of the Dictionnaire universel françois et latin or Dictionnaire de Trévoux, which defines melancholy as “pleasure in the very meditation of what causes one’s pain”. One could summarize melancholy as the ‘joy of suffering’. And that is exactly the reason why Gesualdo’s music can hardly be counted among melancholic music. Especially his late madrigals, which are expressions of something more serious than melancholia. Severe depression, on the brink of something which could make people conmit suicide, is more like it.

It is equally questionable whether the sacred pieces included here have anything to do with melancholia. The texts were common and part of the liturgy. Byrd certainly composed his motet Tristitia et anxietas for the Catholic liturgy. That does not exclude – as has been suggested – the possibility that such pieces also reflect the troubles of the Catholics in England under the rule of the firmly Protestant Elizabeth I. Something comparable may be the case with Gesualdo’s sacred works. They are settings of texts which are traditionally part of the responsories for Holy Week, and as such they have nothing to do with the state of mind of the composer. However, it seems possible that Gesualdo, especially because of his character and his state of depression, in particular during the last years of his life, when he composed his sacred music, may have felt strongly attracted to them.

From all this, one may conclude that I am sceptical about the concept of this programme as an expression of melancholia. That does not affect my appreciation of this recording as such. “To make this recording of Melancholia, the musicians of Les Cris de Paris immersed themselves in the most adventurous repertory of this episode in history. Every night for a week, in a famous Cistercian abbey in the south of France, they explored a vast corpus of Italian and English works, sacred and secular, and gradually extracted from it the pieces on this album”. Most pieces in the programme are little-known; the main exception, obviously, is the items by Gesualdo. The large repertoire of Italian madrigals has not been fully explored, and it seems that the situation is even worse as far as the English madrigal repertoire is concerned. In the early days of historical performance practice the Deller Consort and later the Consort of Musicke played a major role in the exploration of this repertoire. However, it is hardly part of the standard repertoire of madrigal ensembles, certainly not on the international stage. From that angle the English pieces are particularly welcome, as they show that composers like Tomkins, Wilbye and Weelkes have much to offer and that their madrigals deserve serious attention.

The performances deserve nothing but praise. The ensemble consists of excellent voices which blend perfectly. Obviously a good intonation is especially important in pieces in which composers use harmony for expressive purposes. Another feature of these performances is a well-balanced use of dynamic contrasts, again in the interest of an expression of the texts and their affetti. The engaging way of singing and the intensity with which the texts are treated, result in a compelling programme which will give every lover of early vocal music much to enjoy.

Johan van Veen

John WILBYE (1574-1638)
Draw on, sweet night [4:38]
William BYRD (1543-1623)
Tristitia et anxietas (1. pars) [5:55]
Cesare TUDINO (c1530-after 1591)
Altro che lagrimar (instr) [2:15]
Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566-1613)
O vos omnes [3:25]
Pomponio NENNA (1556-1608)
La mia doglia s'avanza [2:29]
O wretched man [2:41]
William BYRD
Come to me grief forever (exc; instr) [1:11]
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
What is our life? [4:12]
Luca MARENZIO (1553/54-1599)
Crudele acerba inesorabil' morte [2:38]
William BYRD
Lullaby, my sweet little baby (exc; instr) [1:03]
Luzzasco LUZZASCHI (1545-1607)
Quivi sospiri [2:15]
Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa
Mercè grido piangendo [3:18]
William BYRD
Lullaby, my sweet little baby (exc; instr) [1:03]
Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa
O vos omnes [2:50]
Solo e pensoso [4:58]
Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa
Tristis est anima mea [4:58]
William BYRD
Lullaby, my sweet little baby (exc; instr) [1:48]
Thomas WEELKES (c1576-1623)
O Care, thou wilt despatch me [3:41]
William BYRD
Lullaby, my sweet little baby (exc; instr) [1:26]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
Too much I once lamented [5:39]
William BYRD
Come to me grief forever (exc; instr) / [hidden track] [4:39]



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