Early Music Saturday: Madrigals of Madness from the Calmus Ensemble

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again – I find the best music via the Millennium of Music show, which is on both Sirius and NPR.  I have a membership and can listen to old episodes (it’s the best $2.99/month I spend) and I was perusing episodes from a year ago, and came across this gem.  Madrigals of Madness fro the Calmus Ensemble.  Let’s pause and listen for a minute, before we continue, shall we?

There, that’s much better.

The CD is one of a series they are doing focusing on the different emotions in madrigals.  This one, “…takes as its theme, as the title indicates, the subject of madness, as it is encountered in love, war or loneliness – this is a complex theme which Calmus expresses masterfully and convincingly with high emotionality.”

It has music from Josquin, Gesualdo (who was a murderer – of his wife), and Thomas Tompkins, among others.

The Tomkins contribution is “Too Much I once Lamented” an incredibly moving piece that has always been a favorite of mine.  Tompkins lived a long life – he was born during Elizabeth’s reign, studied under William Byrd, and lived to see the Civil War break out, and another king, Charles I, beheaded.  The later years of his life were filled with sadness and worry – he was broke and had to live with his son and daughter-in-law, his wife died, he saw war break out in his country… it wasn’t a good time for him.

I love Too Much in part because of the dichotomy of the music, and I particularly love the Calmus Ensemble’s interpretation, which really brings out the almost-bipolar shifting from misery to happiness.  The lyrics are incredibly simple:

“Too much I once lamented,
while love my heart tormented,
fa la la la.
Alas, and ay me,
sat I wringing,
now chanting go, and singing,
fa la la la.”

But my Goodness, what lies beneath that.  The entire piece is a 6 minute ping-pong shift from misery to happiness to resignation to misery again, to a sort of reconciliation.  It’s really stunning.  I love the way Calmus brings out the lightness in the fa-la-la bits, increasing the tempo and really bringing in a sense of joy there.  Other ensembles I’ve heard keep it heavy and bleak in that part, perhaps looking for the irony of singing fa-la-la in the midst of misery, and wanting to play off that.  But I think it’s much more powerful to really express the happiness – it reflects the true madness and depression in the whole piece.  Going back and forth, joyful and miserable.

I suspect that this madrigal will speak to anyone who has ever battled depression.  You might find some solace in knowing that Tomkins lived to a very old age and was apparently quite happy living with his son, writing music for him as gratitude and an expression of his love for his family.  He was able to express these emotions on paper and in music, and deal with them that way.  In an age before Xanax, I can imagine what a relief it must have been for him to be able to get the sadness out.  It’s one more reason I love music – we get to experience these emotions anew each time we hear a different interpretation of a piece.  It’s like sharing a piece of Tomkins’ head with him.  What a privilege.

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