Madrigal: Il bianco e dolce cigno
Jacob Arcadelt (ca. 1505-ca. 1568)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 51-52
Attentive listeners of Mr. Arcadelt’s madrigal will die a thousand deaths in forty-six bars. Incidentally, most of these deaths will occur in the last twelve bars. Madrigals like this one are carefully constructed around the text, using all of the meanings the poet implies to guide the music. And thus, every sonority, imitation, and rest potentially points to the meaning of a word.
What Gregorian Chant did for musical line, we find the sixteenth century motet does for musical symbolism. It is a delicate symbolism, almost more for the performers than the listeners. Without knowing the poem a listener will only hear pretty music. This madrigal is easy to overlook. But when we hear it a second time, after considering the text, we realize that the understated character of the piece allows the text to carry more than one meaning. And the impact of those meanings is greater since they have been presented so artfully.
What I like about this piece is the way the voices gradually become less homophonic. Because the voices are so blended initially, when they start to take small solos we are able to appreciate the sensuousness of those moments. When the voices reach the last twelve bars, well….