Sunday musicology: renaissance and modern choral music

April 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

I listened to the English madrigal April is in my mistress’ face about 40 times today.  I remember hearing it for the first time in one of my high school music classes, and its melody was lodged in my head forever.

I like the madrigal form – each line was given its own melody, and the melody was intended to be very expressive of the text in that line.  Often each line is meditated on before moving onto the next.  I think this is why April is in my mistress’ face was so memorable for me.  Each line has its own musical personality.  Also, it’s a simple and pretty piece of renaissance music.

I’ve actually recently been listening to a modern piece of choral music that contains many of these same musical characteristics: Leonardo dreams of his flying machine, by Eric Whitacre.  When I noticed the similarities in this piece to renaissance music I read Eric Whitacre’s story about the composition of this piece.  Unsurprisingly, the references to renaissance music are deliberate.

The concept of Leonardo was a musical description of what Leonardo da Vinci would feel as he dreamt about making flight possible.  Thus, the melodies paint a vivid image of flying, and each line is given a new musical motif fitting its text.  The piece starts with the description of longing for flight: passages that lift and soar, but kept getting interrupted. Frequent unexpected chord changes convey a feeling of restlessness, and by the time of the meditation on “one by one” the music describes serious thought and the process of invention.  Switches between feverish, speedy passages and slow, ascending ones further suggest different stages in the invention process before finally culminating in taking off for a first flight.

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