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Hogarth judge

February 2018



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Hogarth judge

Madrigals in English and Italian

Why is it that English madrigals make you seem rather embarrassed for the composer, because of the silly dippiness of the words they are setting, while Italian madrigals do not make you cringe? Is it entirely the effect of the decent obscurity that a foreign language brings?

I don't think so. The Italian madrigals frequently have a sadomasochistic sexiness to them that their English counterparts almost entirely lack. Gesualdo takes a great deal of the credit --- he had issues --- but he surely wasn't the only one. Monteverdi also sets a poem called Ardita zanzareta, in which the poet wishes to be a mosquito so he could be crushed against his beloved's breast. Similar conceits were used in Arcadelt's Il bianco e dolce cigno and Gibbons's The silver swan, but where Arcadelt is about sex and death, Gibbons moralizes.

This doesn't happen in the English versions. Some use similar conceits --- Sweet honey sucking bee comes close --- but the mix of sex and death that makes the Italian ones so sweet just ain't there. Worse, the English seem to have been overfond of the pastoral idiom, with nymphs and swains and so forth. This seems to have been a genre of sexual fantasy that used to be popular --- kind of like the tales of tortured virgin martyrs --- but has gone almost entirely out of fashion. Combine the nymphs and swains with fa la la choruses and you realize that dippy lyrics didn't begin with Yummy yummy yummy, I got love in my tummy.


*cackling evilly*

Oh how I love the spring,
Where nymphs and shepherds dance in a ring,
The birdies sing so sweet,
Tweet tweet, tweet tweet tweet, tweet tweet.

And on the verdant ground,
The fairies play around,
And sing their roundelays...
O what could be so gay!

Anna Russell

Re: *cackling evilly*

Ha ha ha --- exactly! With lyrics like:

Each with his bonnie lass
Upon the greeny grass. . .

Fa la la la la &c.

there isn't much parody there. (Been a long time since I have heard any Anna Russell. . . .)