Gentlemen at Large

By Altschuler, Eric Lewin; Jansen, William | Musical Times, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Gentlemen at Large


Altschuler, Eric Lewin, Jansen, William, Musical Times


Musica Transalpina and Marenzio's interpolator

ERIC LEWIN ALTSCHULER & WILLIAM]ANSEN trace the relationship between two important latesixteenth-century madrigal sources

MORE THAN THREE QUARTERS of a century ago the noted scholar and chronicler of English Renaissance music Edmund Horace Fellowes (1870-1957) pointed out that:

Nothing is more astonishing in the whole history of music than the story of the English school of madrigal composers. The long delay of its appearance, lagging behind the Italian school by no less than half a century: the suddenness of its development: the extent of its output: the variety and originality as well as the fine quality of the work: the brevity of its endurance, and the completeness with which it finally collapsed: all these features combine to distinguish the madrigal school as the strangest phenomenon in the history of English music.1

Indeed, late-sixteenth-century English madrigals by composers such as Thomas Weelkes (715761623) and John Wilbye (1564-1638) are among the finest pieces of that or any era.2 Yet, leaving aside the mystery of the rapid ascension and disappearance of the English madrigal, it has never been completely understood3 why the most remarkable madrigals occur first in England but only later in Italy (Monteverdi's Sixth Book (1614), for example), even though a significant infrastructure of institutional support - in particular, music theorists and composers - had been built up in Italy but not in England. To this end, it is thought that Musica Transalpina, a 1588 collection of translations of madrigal texts by Nicholas Yonge (d.1619),4 played a crucial role in spurring the development of the English madrigal and of music in England in general.

Here we emphasise that since Yonge explicitly states that he did not translate the madrigals himself and that, rather, an unnamed Gentleman gave him the translations, then one of the most important figures in the English Renaissance is therefore at large. We also investigate the role that a 1594 collection of madrigals by Euca Marenzio (1553/4-99) with handwritten interpolated English translations of the texts may play in understanding the connection between Italian and English madrigals and music in general.

Who was Yonge's Gentleman?

Yonge's Musica Transalpine! is a collection of fiftyseven madrigals by at least eighteen different composers, mostly Italian.5 (Four of the translations are from French texts.) As indicated on its frontis page, Musica Transalpina 1588 also includes, in addition to the works by various Italian composers, the two-part madrigal La Vergindla by William Byrd (c. 1540-1623), set to an English translation of a text from Lodovico Ariosto's Orlando. The first part of La Vergindla (with the text in Italian) is also in Byrd's Songs, Sonets, & Psalmes of 1588. Yonge drew heavily (nineteen of the fiftyseven madrigals) on three anthologies of madrigals - Musica Divina (1583), Harmonia Celeste (1583), and Symphonia Angelica (1585) - published by Pierre Phalese at Antwerp. The composer of madrigal no.15, Ogni lugo (In every place), is unattributed in Musica Transalpina and also in Musica Divina. However, in the anthology Il seconde libra delle Muse a cinque voci composta da diversi eccellentissimi musici published in Venice in 1559 the composition is attributed to Palestrina (1524/5-94). Madrigal no.50, Ecco ch'io lasso (Lo here my heart), is also unattributed to a composer in Musica Transalpina and Musica Divina, and the composer remains unknown to this day.

In the frontis material to Musica Transalpina, entitled The Epistle dedicatorie', Yonge states:

For whose cause chiefly I endeavoured to get into my hands all such English Songs as were praise worthie, and amongst others, 1 had the hap to find in the hands of some of my good friends, certaine Italian Madrigales translated most of them five yeers agoe by a Gentleman for his private delight. …

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