Early music fans — no, scratch that — all music fans have a great chance to hear some beautiful ballads this weekend in New Westminster. Nancy Rahn, music director of the Lyric Singers, invites those with adventurous ears to join her all-female chamber choir for Madrigalia, a night of Italian, French and English ballads in the intimate confines of the Royal City’s Holy Trinity Church. Besides the accomplished vocals of the Lyric Singers, listeners will be treated to some rare musical accompaniment.
“We’ve got a recorder consort playing replicas of Renaissance recorders,” says Rahn, whose enthusiasm for the “These are made of wood, and have wonderful, rich sound – it’s not loud, but it’s incredibly rich. They are of varying sizes, the longest is 8 feet long. And the musicians joining us are extremely talented. It’s quite inspiring to hear them play, especially on these period instruments.”
Doubling the unique program are the sounds produced by female voices singing madrigals. “They weren’t written for women, really,” admits Rahn. “We’ve got some wonderful arrangements, and listening to the pieces develop, I’m thinking, wow, we’ve got something special here.”
So what is a madrigal? I’m glad you asked. Madrigal is a form of romantic balladry that saw increasing popularity in Europe through the middle ages. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, England experienced greater freedoms for the average person, allowing for populist entertainment to emerge. Prior to this, nearly all music performed by choirs was sacred in nature – madrigals explored themes of everyday work, play, love and life. Most commonly, they mined the excitement and depth of young love.
In fact, the earliest madrigals (usually agreed to have appeared in Italy in the 1300s) were love poems composed by young lovers as they wooed the ladies of the land. (Hey, it’s Italy – what else would they be singing, right?) The evolution of the form intertwined harmonies and independent melodies over several movements to complicate the storylines and heighten aural appeal.
Enter the French, who transformed these chaptered pieces into shorter pieces called chansons, what we would translate as songs. In other words, madrigals were the hit radio of the 17th century. If Lady Gaga had lived in 1682, she might have written a madrigal about Romeo and Juliet. (Or, more likely, about one of the supporting characters, Benvolio or Mercutio – but I digress, and you get the idea.)
“It’s fun to do music from this period,” says Rahn, who insists the themes of heartache and loss are not as heavy as you might think. “The melodies are lovely, and the composers had a lot of fun writing these. We’re talking about young love here, much like some of the music we hear on popular radio today. It’s a joyful concert to be a part of.”