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Renaissance Madrigals to Celebrate May

Hee that is in a towne in May loseth his spring. ~George Herbert


It’s May, and that means it’s a perfect time to queue up some wonderful English madrigals. I’ve put together a special Spotify playlist where you can listen to all of these recommendations, too. So go outside and dig in some dirt, smell some roses, and open the doors. I’ve got the perfect English Renaissance soundtrack for you. Oh, but be forewarned… most madrigals are bawdy. It’s part of their appeal, I suppose. It always makes me giggle, though, when I see high school chamber choirs (like the one I was in almost 30 years ago now) singing in their satin dresses and tuxedos, and looking so very prim and proper, singing songs about rolling in the hay.

So if you are a bit sensitive to lyrics that would make an 8th grade boy snicker, you should probably skip this one.

First off, Now is the Month of Maying by Thomas MorleyI mean, does it get any more obvious than that?
“Now is the month of Maying, when merry lads are playing. Each with his bonnie lass, upon the greeny grass.”
One of the lyrics mentions a game – “shall we play barley break?” What exactly is barley break, anyway?  Well, plug your ears if you’re not ready for grown-up talk, because it’s a game that was filled with sexual innuendo.

You got into three pairs, each pair with a man and a woman. The pairs were each stationed in three bases, next to each other. The couple in the middle base, which was called either hell or prison, tried to catch the other two, who can break, to avoid being caught. Once caught, they were the ones in hell. Often plays from the period use the phrase, “the last couple in hell,” which comes from this.

Where the grown-up talk comes in is how it was seen in literature. In The Changeling, written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, a man who has slept with another man’s wife, tells the husband, “I coupled with your mate at barley-break. Now we are left in hell.” It generally means something to the idea of “roll in the hay.”

Next off, Come Again, from John Dowland.
Another one with obvious innuendo – seeing a pattern here? – Come Again was published in 1597. It sounds a bit melancholy and not particularly springtime-y, but when you listen to the lyrics it’s all about love, which is a common theme in the spring.
“Come again!
Sweet love doth now invite
Thy graces that refrain
To do me due delight,
To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die,
With thee again in sweetest sympathy.”

Third, Hey Trolly, Lolly Lo (Anonymous)
Another fun song where a boy meets up with a girl who is on her way to the meadow to milk her cow. He gets the idea that they should meet up in the meadow for some good “esporting” (that’s another euphemism) where they won’t be seen. And she says no, she’s not going to go esport with him in the meadow because her mother might see. And then where would she be, her virtue all compromised and such?

“Now in this meadow fair and green
We may esport and not be seen
And if ye will, I shall consent
How say ye, maid? be ye content?
Nay, in good faith, I will not mell with you!
I pray you, sir, let me go milk my cow!
Nay, God forbid, that may not be, that may not  be!
Iwis my mother then shall I see”

He finally lets up, but warns her that he might not be so, you know, cool about it in the future. This was clearly pre #MeToo.

“Then for this once I shall you espare,
But the next time ye must beware,
How in the meadow ye milk your cow (your cow)
Adieu, farewell, and kiss me now!
Nay, in good faith, I will not mell with you!
I pray you, sir, let me go milk my cow!
Nay, God forbid, that may not be, that may not be!
Iwis my mother then shall I see”

Next up, Fair Phyllis I saw Sitting All Alone by John Farmer.
This madrigal has some of the best example of polyphony and word painting of any madrigals – notice how the notes change with the “up and down” bits. Published in 1599 it tells the story of a young shepherdess who was feeding her sheep near a mountain. She had gone missing from the other shepherds, and her lover, Amyntas, hurries through the hills wandering up and down looking for her. Then he finds her, they fall down kissing in the grass, and he does a bit more wandering up and down. As it were. Ahem.

Fifth, Who Made Thee, Hob, by William Byrd
Generally I talk about Byrd as the recusant Catholic writing illegal masses, right? But here he is, around 1589, putting on his pop-music hat, and writing about a lowly shepherd, Hob, who is in love with a woman who is much higher in rank than he is. Oops. Oh Hob, I fear, she looks too high. Yet love I must, or else I die!

It’s a fun song, filled with wordplay and polyphony, and Byrd’s clever personality shines through.

Next, Sweet Honey-Sucking Bees by John Wilbye
In this madrigal, the composer is telling the bees that really, they shouldn’t just be hanging around on flowers, when Melisuavia’s lips have far nicer nectar in them, keeping their springtide graces all year long. But you need to be careful, because a flaming dart might come from her eye, and never was there a dart so sharp – you’ll definitely die from it.

John Farmer’s A Pretty Little Bonny Lass is up next.
It tells the story of yet another springtime love (or lust, at least) gone unrequited.

“A little pretty bonny lass was walking
In the midst of May before the sun ‘gan rise.
I took her by the hand and fell to talking
Of this and that, as best I could devise.
I swore I would, yet still she said I should not
Do what I would, and yet for all I could not.”

Listen to how much fun he has with the “this and that” lyrics.

This Sweet and Merry Month of May by Byrd is another favorite. Byrd shows off why he was able to stay in favor, despite being a Catholic, by bringing in some patriotism to the song:
“This sweet and merry month of May, While nature wantons in her prime, And birds do sing, and beasts do play For pleasure of the joyful time, I choose the first for holiday, And greet Eliza with a rhyme: O beauteous Queen of second Troy, Take well in worth a simple toy.”

If I were Elizabeth I’d be happy with that one, too.

Did you like this feature? Let me know in the comments, and if you have your own favorite springtime madrigal, let me know that, too!