Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Silver Swanne

I miss our madrigal group. I do. There's something awfully satisfying about making music with other people. Even if our instruments are not in tune, and ours weren't, it's fun. Nobody pays much attention to anybody but the first soprano, and with Dorothy nailing down that spot, we probably didn't sound too bad, from a distance. Madrigals are particularly fun because they're written with tight, interesting harmonies. Even the alto gets the occasional star turn instead of the usual mid-range mayonnaise that's only in there to keep the tenors from bumping into the sopranos. You do not want to bump into a soprano. We altos sacrifice our bodies to keep the peace and keep down the chafing.

I didn't used to be an alto. I sang soprano in the church choirs, and while anything above high F was painful to me and anyone else around, I could hit it in a pinch. I'd be in the front of the group on account of being small but never sang the really high parts. Guess you could call me a minute second soprano.

That's the worst thing about quitting church, if you don't seek out other choral groups. You quit singing, and in no time your range compresses down to a wafer. Since the alto parts rarely ask much of the singer, it works out. You get to doodle around with your allotted five or six notes but you do make a contribution. You're not the steering wheel or the engine but everyone likes cup-holders.

The madrigal group met periodically. Oh, we cut loose with our merry lads and bonny lasses, but we couldn't quit until we'd wallowed in The Silver Swan. The Silver Swan, in case you don't know, is a long drawn-out murder of a very depressing bird, and almost impossible to sing without clutching your chest and keeling over and making gack noises. The poor silver swan, living, had no note. Didn't sing a lick until she was at death's door, and then sang her first and last and sang no more. Farewell all joys! Oh Death, come close my eyes!

This madrigal should most properly be sung in a bathtub with razor blades.

Once we'd slain the swan, we were free to go, but we usually had to knock back a tankard of ale first just to regain our desire to live. Orlando Gibbons wrote The Silver Swanne in the early seventeenth century and it's his best-known effort, but he did bang out quite the oeuvre, hitting many of the same themes (musically, this is known as a "rut"). For instance, there was his Daintie Bird. Yet another bird, this one encaged, and so like the composer! Both imprisoned, both singing to please a woman, but unlike the daintie bird who sings to live, he sings and drops dead.

Or "Farewell, all Joyes," in which he begs to "let me die lamenting."

It's the dang swanne all over again.

Orlando Gibbons died at age 41, which is said to have surprised his peers, but jeezy peezy, they should've seen this coming. He hadn't written himself any alternatives. They called it apoplexy at the time, one of those antique general-purpose deaths, like consumption, that could refer to any number of things but got the job done. Three hundred years down the road, genius pianist Glenn Gould declared Gibbons his favorite composer, but Glenn Gould would fold up and fall apart if the air temperature wasn't just so, and groaned all the way through his pieces, and basically died of hypochondria. An apoplexy, actually. Cue the swanne.


23 comments:

  1. Many of us speak monotonal English which is pretty droney stuff. We have less than a half octave range which is why so few of us can sing opera. Even if we wanted to. I will sometimes sing publicly as long as the public is less than five people. I am a very self conscious person who just can't seem to get over public embarrassment.

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    1. Sometime I should tell you about the time I had a funny and profane poem to read on stage at a funeral, right after the deceased's daughter broke down sobbing before she could finish her tribute.

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  2. "Swans sing before they die.
    T'were no bad thing
    Should certain persons die
    Before they sing."
    I'd love to take the credit, but it's older than I am.

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  3. I also was once a soprano singing in glee clubs and occasionally when I found myself in a church situation - only one year in a "choir" whilst at college because the glee club was the choir at chapel every week. But anyway - now I'm probably an alto, but in my car I still sing soprano along with the music collection on my phone. I don't recall ever encountering the Silver Swanne during my glee club years - but there were certainly madrigals on occasion.

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    1. If you're singing in the car you probably still have a range. I have no explanation for why I quit singing but the results are horrendous.

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  4. Silver Swan is one of my favorites, for sure. I have been in madrigal groups, but I was in with Miriam, not Dorothy, I think. I haven't been able to post a comment for the last few weeks, and the reason was obscure to me, but it seems this is working now. More geese than swans now live, more fools, than wise.

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    1. Nope, you were in with both MIriam and Dorothy! The only reason I won't say I'm 100% positive is your brain works a lot better than mine, but I could swear....

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  5. In the choir (8th grade) I sang descant. Now I sing alone-in-the-car and Grama-reading-singing-parts-in-little-kid-books-at-bedtime.

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    1. Now that I think about it, I have sung in the shower a few times. Everything works better in the shower.

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  6. Singing is strangely empowering. I loved it in college, enjoyed it as a member of a community chorus, and even tried out once for a professional chorale. As far as I know, I'm still on their waiting list.It's been about 28 years.

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  7. I sang alto in my high school choir. We had much more fun than those silly sopranos.

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    1. I think soprano is a lot more fun but it sure hurts. BTW I really like this rendition (above) of the SS because the soprano isn't all vibrato-y.

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  8. I went to a parochial school where choir was required. In 4th grade all that was changed because I can't carry a note in a bucket. They made me quit then others that didn't want to sing anyway were allowed to quit. Ha... Now I enjoy squawking from time to time, never in public.

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    1. Third Form (US 8th grade?) I (probably alto)was sent to sing with the boys, some of whose voices were breaking.Badly.So my being off-key was probably never noticed...

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  9. Hmmm... Was it the dying swan or the poet who had to get in one last jab at the foolish geese? Guess we can't be gracious to other flocks even in our dying breath.

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    1. Oddly enough I do address that Point Of View change in my next post!

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  10. Cup holder, and proud of it! (Although in barbershop, my part/range is called Baritone.) I'm wondering now: did the church choirs call you "hour minute second soprano"?

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  11. The community music center on SE Francis does this type of singing in a class on Wednesday evenings, starting tomorrow. Although I am a recorder player I hear their singing at our joint recitals and I admire their teacher Gayle Neumann .Please seek them out! Noone should have Madrigal Deficit Disorder!

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