Sunday, May 01, 2011

Now Is the Month

Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing! Fa la la la la!
Each with his bonny lass, a-dancing on the grass, fa la la la la!

The Spring, clad all in gladness, doth laugh at Winter's sadness! Fa la la la la!
And to the bagpipes’ sound, the nymphs tread out the ground! Fa la la la la!

Fie! Then why sit we musing, youth’s sweet delight refusing? Fa la la la la!
Say, dainty nymphs and speak! Shall we play barley break? Fa la la la la!

Thomas Morley was an English composer who was born in either 1557 or 1558 and died in the first decade of the 17th century. I studied and played much of his music when I was in college. One of my best musical experiences was when Roger Harmon, a lutenist from the Peabody Institute, came to our school with a passel of instruments including an Orpharion (basically a small Bandora,) and a Cittern.

The Orpharion looked something like this:

One of the graduate students in our little guitar department was selected to play that. I was handed a Cittern and my tablature parts to learn, over the weekend, for a performance of several of pieces from Morley's Consort Lessons, first published in 1599.

The Cittern looked something like this one:

It didn't exactly have frets; instead, the fingerboard was scalloped at each fret position. Probably because Citterns were wire-strung, not strung with gut with gut frets tied around the neck as on a lute of that period.

A few more students who had some interest in early music were also drafted into this mixed Consort: we had a couple Viol players and a flautist who worked on the recorder a lot. Morley wrote for a "broken consort" which contained a variety of different instruments. Other consorts were made up of instruments from one family: a consort of viols, recorders, sackbutts, krumhorns, or whatever. The flautist got to play a wooden transverse flute; basically a stick with holes in it. I got selected to be a part of this thing because I could read tablature, the notation employed by Renaissance composers for plucked string instruments. Here's an example from the Cherbury Lute Book:

Lord Herbert of Cherbury liked lute music and his collection contains the above as well as a lot of other music, mostly French like that intabulation of the chanson En me Revenant. A guitar-music version in modern musical notation looks like this. (I couldn't load the pdf file to post it here.)

It looks daunting but it's actually easier to read tablature than it is to read "music."

We had a great time rehearsing and performing.

But here it is, May 1st 2011, and I am a nurse. I haven't had a Cittern in my hands in years.

"Now Is the Month of Maying" is probably Morley's most famous madrigal, though technically speaking it's a ballett, which is basically a madrigal with "fa-la-la's" in it.

The English went for madrigals like crazy after Musica Transalpina was published there in 1588. Developed in Italy, madrigals were taken up by English composers and these became staples of household entertainment.

Transalpina has Italian music in it with the words changed to English. To English ears the "fa-la-la's" made these part-songs sound Italian.


Morley was a teacher, too. I have a copy of "A Plaine and Easie Introdvction to Practicall Musicke."

It's sitting on a shelf somewhere. It's handy to have it around, just in case.

Here's "Now Is the Month of Maying" in modern notation:

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