Contact Email: martin@italianmadrigal.com

I became interested in classical music in college. I attended a number of music history classes, proceeding more or less in reverse chronological order - working backwards from the 20th century to Perotinus, Leoninus and Gregorian Chant. I was initially most attracted to the period of the late 15th and early 16th century, especially Josquin and his contemporaries. Eventually I discovered the Italian madrigal, or, more accurately, such examples of the Italian madrigal as were then accessible in modern editions or recordings. The composers best represented in this way were Monteverdi and Gesualdo - in hindsight, I realize that the resultant perspective on the Italian madrigal was rather distorted. After all, Monteverdi appeared on the scene toward the end of a long, rich and varied tradition, and indeed it is only a slight exaggeration to say that he "pushed the envelope" of the madrigal idiom to the point of its self-destruction - while producing some gorgeous specimens in the process - and Gesualdo was an eccentric ("weirdo" is perhaps not too harsh), remote from the musical mainstream, who (mis)used the madrigal mainly as a vehicle for harmonic and chromatic experimentation, and in any case had no lasting influence.

As my interest in the madrigal deepened, I began to explore the scholarly literature on the subject. Alfred Einstein's three-volume The Italian Madrigal, published in English translation in 1949, was a treasure-trove of information, and indeed is still the best single reference source I know of. The bibliography known as Il Nuovo Vogel (Bibliografia della Musica Italiana Vocale Profana Pubblicata dal 1500 al 1700, Pomezia 1977) revealed the astonishing size of the repertoire - I've never tried to make a count, but the number of Italian secular vocal pieces published under the title "madrigali" in the century between 1530 and 1630 must be in excess of 15,000 (by comparison, the total English madrigal repertoire numbers in the several hundreds).

I might add that Il Nuovo Vogel, essentially a catalog of tables of contents of original printed music editions, together with an indication of the libraries or archives in which the prints can now be found, sometimes makes for sobering reading. Like all music of that time, madrigals were printed in partbooks, not scores, and only a tiny fraction of the original printings have survived. It may happen that, say, of the five partbooks making up a particular print, the Canto is preserved in a single copy in, for example, Bologna, while the Alto, Tenore and Quinto may be found in Gdansk - and a copy of the Basso, perhaps incomplete, survives somewhere else. Sometimes a composer is known to posterity only from a single partial set of partbooks, or even a single partbook, rather like a Greek statue that has come down to us without head or arms, or as just a fragment. And there are also many instances where a composer is known to have published, say, a Secondo Libro di Madrigali, but no trace remains of a presumed earlier Primo Libro.i

Eventually - circa 1980 - I came to the realization that, if I wanted to pursue a serious interest in the Italian madrigal, I needed to repeat more or less what Alfred Einstein had done in his day, namely go to the original sources. Fortunately, at the time I was able to organize my life in such a way that I could travel abroad. Initially I spent several months in Bologna, an ideal choice since the library of the Bologna Conservatory unquestionably has the richest collection of 16th-century music prints in existence, and Bologna provides a convenient base for trips to other important libraries such as those in Modena and Ferrara. The Bologna library was open mornings, Mondays through Saturdays, and once I had established myself as a "regular," I was able to order up pretty much anything I wished to see. Mostly I sat and stared at sets of madrigal partbooks, until I felt that I had some idea of what the particular piece and/or the composer was doing. Also, because the Bologna collection was so extensive, it was often the case that I could simultaneously examine multiple publications by the same composer, or different settings of the same text by different composers. Another resource in Bologna was the superb library of the Archiginnasio, with its extensive holdings of 16th-century printed works, especially volumes of poetry, to aid in placing the madrigal in its contemporary literary and social context.

Subsequent trips over the years have taken me back to Bologna, although for less extended stays, as well as to Rome, Milan, Florence, Lucca, Pistoia, Brescia, London, Brussels, Munich, Vienna, Gdansk, Wroclaw, St. Petersburg - and, of course, Venice.

Absorbing all this music made me curious about the lives of the people who wrote and performed it. Consulting Groves Dictionary and other standard references often proved unsatisfactory in this respect. Because several of the composers in whom I was interested - Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Giovanni Croce - lived and worked in Venice, I decided to see what I could turn up in Venetian archival sources, particularly the Archivio di Stato di Venezia. The Venetian state archives are amazing - the holdings occupy 70 linear kilometers of shelf space - and there's no handy card catalog where you can look under "M" for "Musicians." Nonetheless, I was fortunate enough to stumble across a set of documents concerning Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, with the result that the biographies of both composers, but especially the former, have been revised and expanded.ii Several years later, following some intriguing suggestions from colleagues in the field, I spent over a month in Gdansk, researching an Italian madrigal collection preserved at what is now the Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences, about which little was known at the time.iii The portrait that emerged of the original collector, one Georg Knoff, is one that I feel much affinity with - non-professional musician (like myself) with a passion for the madrigal, who spent many years laying his hands on every madrigal publication he could buy, beg or borrow; and, it seems, singing avidly through the repertoire with a group of like-minded friends and family.

For a number of years, until Michael Procter's untimely death in 2012, I was involved with the International Academy of Sacred Music, of which he was the director. The Academy had the unique privilege of singing High Mass in St. Mark's in Venice once a year, generally in May or early June.  The Mass settings that were featured were invariably those of composers historically affiliated with St. Mark's, e.g., Andrea Gabrieli, Croce and Monteverdi. Michael was an inspired and inspiring director, and the experience of singing in St. Mark's was extraordinarily powerful. Sadly, the Academy has not been able to continue without Michael. He continues to be sorely missed by many former participants and colleagues.

Also in collaboration with Michael Procter and Prof. Richard Charteris of the University of Sydney, I assisted with the production of an edition of the complete sacred music of Croce, although my role as music editor was confined to the relatively modest number of Italian-texted "sacred madrigals." I also wrote the preface to the first volume, dealing with Croce's life and work.iv

Finally, it is with great pride and affection that I mention my Italian madrigal vocal group, Amici Musicali, which has been meeting on a semi-regular basis for some 25 years. Some time ago we more or less ceased giving public performances, and now sing mainly for our own enjoyment, with only an occasional "eavesdropper" in attendance - probably a reasonable approximation to the way in which Italian madrigals were actually sung in the late 16th century, before the era of paid public performances, reserved seats, printed programs, polite applause, disparaging reviews, etc. etc. All the members of Amici Musicali share a keen enthusiasm for the repertoire, a love of the conviviality of the musical experience - sometimes likened to a string quartet, with the added kinesthetic dimension of using one's own voice - and the sense of discovery and satisfaction which comes from exploring unfamiliar music, often being brought to light for the first time in 400 years. And, given the size of the madrigal repertoire, it will be at least another 25 years before we begin to run short of new material.

iLest I give an impression of being overly sentimental about "gems of lost music," I might add that there are many little-known madrigals, and madrigal composers, that justly deserve, in my opinion, to remain obscure. At the same time, I am constantly surprised by how often the lesser-known Italian madrigalists do indeed come up with real gems, although not as consistently as the real virtuosi of the genre such as Giaches de Wert (probably my all-time favorite), Orazio Vecchi, or Monteverdi.

iiSee Martin Morell, "New evidence for the biographies of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli," Early Music History 3 (1983), pp. 101-122 (partial version available through Google Books); also "La biografia di Andrea Gabrieli: nuove acquisizioni e problemi aperti," Atti del Convegno 'Andrea Gabrieli e il suo tempo' (Firenze, 1983); and David Bryant and Martin Morell, "Andrea Gabrieli: Le testimonianze biografiche," Edizione nazionale delle opere di Andrea Gabrieli, 1 (Milano, 1988), pp. 49-75.

iiiSee Martin Morell, "Georg Knoff: bibliophile and devotee of Italian music in late sixteenth-century Danzig," Music in the German Renaissance (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 103-126 (partial version available through Google Books).

iv"Giovanni Croce: Life and work," Quatercentenary Edition of the Sacred Music of Giovanni Croce, Vol. I: Messe a 5 e 6 voci (1596/1599) (Edition Michael Procter, Weingarten, 2008).


Copyright © 2014 - Martin Morell