A madrigal is a form of secular vocal chamber music that originated in Italy during the 14th century. The name “madrigal” probably comes from the Latin “matricale”, meaning in the mother tongue, i.e. Italian, not Latin. (Music for $500.) As it developed, the madrigal became a musical setting for the finest poetry of the day. By the 16th century, composers from Northern Europe working in Italy added polyphony to the mix, using complex interwoven melodies to transport the text. According to Ray Mase, by the late 16th century, “The madrigal was the most progressive form of musical composition, and the Italians were the leading madrigalists.”
So, who is Ray Mase? In music circles, Ray is the legendary principal trumpet of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, as well as the chair of the brass department at Julliard since 1991, and a much sought-after teacher. Ray has performed and recorded with many New York-based ensembles including the New York Philharmonic, and he has been an artist faculty member at the Aspen Musical Festival and School since 1973. Most importantly for present purposes, he was a mainstay of the venerable American Brass Quintet between 1973 to 2013, an ensemble hailed by Newsweek as “the high priests of brass”. In that capacity, he was always on the lookout for interesting works for brass instruments. Noting that many of the madrigal publications indicated that they could be played on instruments as well as sung, he decided to try his editing hand at these four standout examples of the genre because he found them to be “harmonically interesting”. The result is dazzling. I’ll let Ray tell the rest of the story.
“Claudio Monteverdi, best known for his pioneering efforts on behalf of early opera, composed madrigals of remarkable harmonic invention and expressive range. ‘Si ch’io vorrei morire’ (I wish to die). ‘Non piu guerra, pietate’ (No more war, pity), ‘Ah, dolente partita’ (Ah, painful parting), and ‘Quel augellin che canta’ (That little bird that sings), are beautiful examples of the musical sophistication and daring that characterize the late Italian madrigal. These madrigals were published in 1603. … Monteverdi dominated the Italian musical scene during these crucial, early years of the Baroque….”
“Strictly speaking, the madrigal is a work of vocal chamber music. We know that instrumental doubling and substitution was common in the late 1500’s, and the inclusion of Italian madrigals in 17th century consort-music collections supports the idea of purely instrumental performance of the madrigals of the period. With clarity, homogeneity of sound, and a vocal flexibility not often associated with brass playing, the American Brass Quintet hopes to realize these madrigals as what they truly are – some of the most beautiful and expressive music ever written.”
So, old is new again, thanks to Ray.