Madrigal Master Cipriano de Rore Celebrated On CD

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Cipriano de Rore: I madrigali a cinque voce. Blue Heron (Margot Rood, soprano, Martin Near, countertenor, Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, Sumner Thompson, tenors, Paul Guttry, bass, Alessandro Quarta, reader, Scott Metcalfe, director), 2-Audio CDs, set BHCD 1009

DIGITAL REVIEW – The book containing these 20 madrigals in five parts by Cipriano de Rore, here recorded for the first time by  Blue Heron, was published by Girolamo Scotto (“apud Hieronymum Scotum” in Latin on its title page, reproduced in the accompanying booklet) in Venice in 1542, without a patron’s privilege, so perhaps at the composer’s expense. It was republished over a dozen times by four different printers-publishers during the 16th century, some with rearrangement of the order or exclusion of some of the songs.

A 16th-century edition of Cipriano’s 5-voice madrigals. (Library of Congress)

This suggests the madrigals were relatively popular, yet there seem to be no records of any contemporary performances of them. Indeed, the first known ones are by Blue Heron in this century; I heard both, in 2017, and this past spring, the latter in the venue where the recording was subsequently made. Some of the details about the work can be found in my review of it and will not be repeated here.

The presentation of these CDs is very different from the standard issue product in a jewel case, and rightly so, because understanding the songs and mastering them for performance was not an easy or rapid task. The project has been in the works since the group and musicologist Jessie Ann Owens, emerita of the University of California – Davis, who worked with Blue Heron, received the Noah Greenberg Award from the American Musicological Society in 2015.

Blue Heron’s CD is fortified with notes by Renaissance scholars.

The CDs come in a cardboard folder with a glossy reproduction of an Italian work of landscape art with airborne mythological personages on its cover and pockets inside for each CD. The texts are presented first, after the reproduction of the original title page, track listing, and personnel with recording details, in the attached 56-page booklet, with side-by-side Italian poems (each of which is recited prior to its performance) and their English translations edited by Blue Heron music director Scott Metcalfe, with references to their originals.

They are followed by Owens’ essay: “Uncovering the Secrets of the 1542 I madrigali a cinque voci,” followed by references and illustration credits and acknowledgements. These works, 16 sonnets (14 line-poems in 4 stanzas, 2 of 4 and 2 of 3 lines each), Nos. 2-16, and 4 ballatas, Nos 1 and 17-20, were written in close collaboration with the poet, whom Owens identifies as Giovanni Brevio (c. 1480-c. 1560), who wrote two, the first and last, and arranged the order of all others to tell the story of a love lost and the lover’s resignation to it. No. 9, Tu piangi, which ends CD 1, marks the pivotal emotional change.

The music is composed using modes rather than keys, with the mode of each reflecting the tenor of its text. Owens closes, “With this print, De Rore established the madrigal as a genre that celebrates the fusion of music and poetry. The tight connection between text and music at every level – from the musical depiction of salient features in the poetry to the musical expression of the overall affect of each poem, and even to the large-scale narrative represented through the colors of the modal system – make this collaboration between composer and poet a remarkable achievement with far-reaching implications for the ensuing generations.”

Metcalfe’s essay, “Performing I madrigali a cinque voci,” takes over from there, subdivided, after its introduction, into four parts: “Voice types & scoring: Polissena or Perissone?,” “Performing pitch,” “Clefs & transposition,” and “Performance style.” It explains how singers can perform what Owens says “demands uncommon virtuosity and meticulous attention to every aspect of the text […]” All of this is very scholarly and technical, but also meticulous, quoting contemporary sources, all with their original Italian side-by-side with its English translations, some earlier by others, again carefully edited by Metcalfe.

You will learn why, when it’s one voice per part, six singers are needed to execute these works for five voice parts: the top voice (cantus or superius; the others are: (contratenor) altus, tenor, quintus, and bassus), is occasionally sung by a soprano (as Polissena was) instead of a countertenor (like Perissone), and was back then, too. One does not need to read everything to appreciate the music, of course, but it certainly helps the listener understand the challenges of producing the performances’ fluid, gorgeous, and mellifluous polyphonic results coming from your listening device.

As with most Medieval and Renaissance polyphony, it is pretty much impossible to follow the texts word by word, as one can with later choral works, or canzone, lieder, mélodies recitals, because each voice is singing the same text at a different rhythm/tempo from the other four. While one can pick out many individual words, it’s difficult to follow the complete flow. The earlier listeners likely didn’t follow any better, even though it was their language; that was not the point: The sublime beauty of the sound of the harmonies was.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December 2009.