When lads go a-maying

Posted on: 3 May 2020, by :

Being probably the best-known English madrigal of all, Thomas Morley’s Now is the month of maying is often performed but rarely performed well (singing it with the neatness it deserves is a considerable challenge). It may seem emblematic or even a caricature of the whole madrigal genre, which in modern times has had an image problem. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the winks and smirks in this and many other madrigals about pleasures, and the impressions of silliness from ‘fa la la la la’ refrains sung at breakneck speed, must be in the grand tradition of English alternative comedy, as if the Cambridge Footlights club had been in full swing by the 1580s. Those who did so well to champion the madrigal in the 1970s and 80s will indeed seem, when now we look back a generation, like cousins of the Monty Python crew (try The King’s Singers in a BBC documentary from 1984 here). There’s even a song called ‘No, no, no, no, Nigella’, and one about loving a female sparrow named Philip … you couldn’t make it up.

Then you read a little history and realize that the English didn’t make it up — the Italians did (or at least started it all). The earliest English madrigals, in their subject-matter as well as their music, were based closely on Italian models that had become fashionable from printed collections circulating in London, a craze that coincided with the general influence of Italian poetry on the Elizabethan poets. Numerous Italian madrigals were published in the late 1580s with their music intact but retexted with English lyrics. Others were paraphrased, considerably transformed with new music as well as new poetry.

Now is the month of maying, published in 1595, is one of those cases: Morley had based it on So ben mi ch’ha bon tempo by Orazio Vecchi. It is a balletto (‘ballett’ in English), a species of Italian madrigal that emulates animated dancing. That Morley’s song sounds quite unlike the Vecchi model is testament to his ingenuity: the resemblance lies primarily in the duple metre, rhythm and phrasing, scarcely at all in melody or harmony.

This is the first in a series of posts about songs of love. Today: anticipated desire.

Now is the month of Maying
When merry lads are playing, Fa la la.
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass. Fa la la.

The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, Fa la la.
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground, Fa la la.

Fie then! Why sit we musing
Youth’s sweet delight refusing? Fa la la.
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak:
Shall we play Barley-break? Fa la la.

Now is the month of maying: Ensemble Plus Ultra, at the Stockholm Early Music Festival, 2018. A version with music notation is here.

Another fine ballett, this time in the triple-metre manner of a galliard, is Morley’s Sing we and chant it, a paraphrase of A lieta vita by Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi (see the final videos below). In all four songs, the ‘fa la la’ passages make sense when we understand them to be vocalized rhythms of the kind that instruments play: the singers represent a band as well as themselves.

Gastoldi’s song extols our acceptance of desire and the other powers of Amor (Cupid), a lord to be trusted and even worshipped. Lacking that sort of courtly framing and its pretences, the two English songs are down-to-earth about love as desire, seen in the male gaze: they are direct about taking up the pleasures of flirtatious encounters. This was traditionally a strong theme for the May Day holiday when the custom was to gather spring flowers, meet friends, and enjoy dancing with partners (activities that the Puritans in England sought to ban). ‘Barley-break’ is not the roll in the hay that it has sometimes been assumed to be. Even so, as a chasing game between three couples, it works as a poetic euphemism for some anticipated hanky-panky.

Below: Vecchi, So ben mi ch’ha bon tempo, with an English translation of all the lyrics (performances tend to omit several portions).

I know very well who’s having a good time
- that’s all I can say.
I know very well who is the favorite
- too bad I can’t say who it is!

Oh, if I could only say
who goes, who stays, and who comes!
If I hit you with it,
you would despair.

Greetings and hand-kissing
- they’re all faithful in vain.
It’s not good to give yourself to jesters,
going up and down.

You might as well hang yourself
as do nothing.
Take a walk if you want
- it’s a waste of time.

Speak, laugh, or cry
- you'll find no mercy.
Like the old saying goes:
Do what’s good for yourself!

Translation adapted from stcpress.org

CD recording (2005) by The Toronto Consort.

So ben mi ch’ha bon tempo, fa la la la
Al soma bastamo. Fa la la la
So ben ch’e favorito, fa la la la
Ahime! no’l posso dir. Fa la la la

O s’io potessi dire, fa la la la
Chi va, chi sta, chi vien. Fa la la la
La ti dara martello, fa la la la
Per farti disperar. Fa la la la

... etc.

Sung by The King’s Singers (recording, 1982).

To a happy life Amor invites us. Whoever takes joy in desire, if he loves from his heart, will give that heart to such a lord.

Today is the time of happiness; trouble is cast out. Whatever is left of our lives, we will live in mirth and do honour to such a lord.

Whoever does not believe in him lacks faith. Therefore he will deserve the opposite of openness: the ire and the fury of such a lord.

It is useless to flee from him who finds everyone: he has fast wings and fire and arrows. Therefore worship such a lord.

Translation adapted from stcpress.org

Sung by Early Music New York (CD recording, 2010).