These things seem wondrous: Weelkes and the giddiness in late 16th century England

Last week when I was interviewing Suzi Digby for my podcast episode on her Los Angeles based project The Golden Bridge, which pairs choral music of the English Renaissance with that of contemporary composers, she mentioned a madrigal by Thomas Weelkes called The Andalusian Merchant.  Since I live in Andalusia, I looked it up immediately, and have been fascinated by it as an example of the crazy new world in which the people of Elizabethan England were finding themselves inhabiting.  The explorers were bringing back strange and fascinating foods, jewels, and household products like China from foreign places seemingly every day, along with maps of entirely new continents waiting to be colonized and opened for trade.  I think it must have been a similarly exhilarating feeling as the early days of the internet, the giddy realization that any kind of information you wanted would be available to you in an instant.  The Weelkes madrigal oh-so-accurately reflects this same giddiness.

Thule, the period of cosmographie,
Doth vaunt of Hecla whose sulphureous fire
Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky;
Trinacrian Etna’s flames ascend not higher.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

The Andalusian merchant, that returns

Laden with cochineal and china dishes
Reports in Spain how strangely Fogo burns
Amidst an ocean full of flying fishes.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

Thomas Weelkes was a composer who was active in the southern part of England where there were many ports, and traders would have been constantly coming and going.  Born in 1576, he came of age in places like Winchester and Chichester where he had access to the stories of sailors, and the chance to see the new products they were bringing back.

It’s a madrigal with two halves, the first called Thule: The Period of Cosmographie.  No one is quite sure who wrote the lyrics, and it was published in 1600, as Elizabethan England, a decade after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, was really beginning to become a serious world power in voyages of discovery, as well as culture and the arts.

Thule represents Iceland, which was being actively explored during this time as the Muscovy Company was backing the idea that you could reach Asia by going North, over Russia.  There had been several voyages exploring this northeastern passage, the first wound up leading the English into a successful trading relationship with Ivan the Terrible (who proposed marriage to Elizabeth I – she declined).  Hekla is a volcano in Iceland, which had erupted for over 6 months in 1597.  Surely the news of this sulfurous fire would have reached Weelkes, and educated people at court.

Andalusia was the home of the Spanish trading empire – it was from the port in Seville that Columbus first set sail, and it was through Cadiz that many of the greatest treasures of the New World flowed back into Spain.  Francis Drake raided Cadiz in 1587, and the Spanish Armada in 1588 was the response.  Cochineal was one of those riches – it revolutionized the dyeing process in Europe for both clothing and cosmetics, and it became Mexico’s second most valuable export, only after silver.  The color comes from an insect parasite on cactus, a secret that the Spanish were able to keep for centuries.  It became so valuable that its price was quoted on the London and Amsterdam commodity exchanges.

Fogo is most likely the volcano Mount Fogo in the Cape Verde Islands off Senegal which was in continual eruption from 1500 onwards.  How strangely it must have seemed to have been burning, indeed.

Just imagine the wonder with which people would have devoured these stories –  fire coming from mountains bursting into the sky, melting the ice of the frozen lands to the north, and flowing off into the warmer waters of the south.  Ships every week bringing back stories of these kinds of wonders, as well as amazing new products that were inconceivable a few decades before.

This is also the age when the idea of a sun-centered solar system really started to take off.  Kepler published his Mysterium Cosmographicum (Cosmic Mystery) in 1596, which supported Copernicus in the heliocentric idea.  He was also working on his ideas on which he would elaborate later where he imagined what certain astronomical events, like shooting stars, would look like to someone watching from the moon.

Ideas that had been sacred for centuries were turning upside down in the space of just a few decades.  Between the Protestant Reformation, and the ideas of the astronomers a few generations later, at the same time all these voyages of discovery were happening – it must have been mind boggling to someone watching and trying to figure it all out, much the same way the internet is mind boggling to some people my grandparents’ age, who grew up before television was common.

The excitement and wordplay in the Weelkes madrigals echo the energy that would have been around the ports as the Andalusian traders stepped off the ships to show their wares and tell their stories.  And it’s that same excitement that the Hilliard Ensemble captures in the recording above, and why listening to it even now is such a joy.  Excitement like that, no matter what century you’re in, is contagious.  

The Weelkes madrigal, as well as lots of other exciting tunes, are on The Hilliard Ensemble’s 1999 album, Madrigals available to stream on Spotify.

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