Music and Art

Oxford’s annual celebration of the beginning of summer is almost upon us. The traditions surrounding May Day go well beyond the confines of this city, of course, although surely nowhere else have ancient English customs been so enthusiastically melded with all-night clubbing and a pervasive miasma of marijuana. Music, whether electronic or homophonic, plays a big part in the festivities, but the eccentricities of part song and folk dancing tend to elude our attention; so I decided to have a look at the background of the music we’ll hear, and some of it might come as a surprise.

At dawn, look to the East

There is one eternal question for the more committed revellers: do you sleep before or after the May Day madrigals from Magdalen Tower? Taking place at 6am, this is the single most recognisable and best-attended event of the festivities, and certainly the longest-running in Oxford, having taken place every year since the mid-17th century. The High Street will be packed with students and town residents jostling for space; in fact, the organisers have taken to setting up speakers to project the sound through the crowd. It’s unlikely that such popularity could have been foreseen by Benjamin Rogers, a fellow of Magdalen College who in 1685 composed the Hymnus Eucharisticus, which the choir now sings every year. The tradition of May Day singing dates back even further, perhaps to masses in memory of the death in 1509 of King Henry VII, a patron of the college. A hymn to the Holy Trinity, the Hymnus makes no reference to the arrival of the warmer months, and belongs specifically to Magdalen’s heritage. Maybe the choirmasters of centuries gone by thought it necessary to balance the madrigals with something more pious – for madrigals are far from the sacred music tradition.

Madrigal mystery tour

When a college choir sings olde worlde choral music from the top of a bell tower at dawn, it’s easy to hear it all as much the same. It’s all part of that vaguely defined and somehow entertaining group of rituals that have managed to survive this long but no longer have much presence in our lives. A warning, then: underestimate madrigals at your peril. They may be in the unaccompanied Renaissance style, but, as secular works which became hugely popular, some of them are settings of pretty raunchy texts. Take the ballette ‘Now is the month of maying’, composed by Thomas Morley in 1595. It’s overtly a sweet little number about dancing in the spring, but euphemisms abound: “merry lads are playing […] Each with his bonny lass/A-dancing on the grass” would no doubt have raised an eyebrow or two, and more cryptically “Shall we play barley-break?” refers to a country game of the time that was a common metaphor for sex in Renaissance literature. No wonder it died out. Another important feature is the common refrain of ‘fa la la’; this left the listener to imagine the continuation of whatever scene was occurring, and given the abundant innuendos that scene was not infrequently…frivolous.

Musically too, madrigals are interesting specimens. Despite being pretty much the closest historical equivalent to chart-toppers, they attracted the attention of some serious and now revered composers, from William Byrd to Orlando Gibbons. As a result, madrigals can follow very formulaic and repetitive (strophic) structures – usually with plenty of fa-la-las thrown in – or be largely free of repetition (through-composed). They are written for small ensembles, usually of three to eight voices, and can feature some quite complex harmony and interaction between the different lines. They can be as exuberant as ‘My bonny lass she smileth’ (also by Thomas Morley), which gaily trips through various time signatures and textures, or slow and lamenting. Their absence of religious purpose also allowed composers a lot of freedom; it’s no surprise that madrigal form remained popular in England for so long, and it took the advent of the operatic aria to emulate its success.

So, a challenge for Sunday: figure out what Magdalen (and later Hertford) choir are really singing about when they act out this charming English custom.

Morris music

No discussion of English springtime rituals would be complete without a mention of Morris dancers. Their distinctive attire makes them hard to miss, as does their tendency to wave around sticks, or handkerchiefs when none can be found. Naturally, there is a very long history to the practice, which also goes for the accompanying music. Morris dancing would often have been accompanied by the pipe and tabor, a one-player combination of a three-holed whistle with a range of up to two octaves, achieved by ‘overblowing’ or (rather less technically) blowing harder, and some form of drum. We can hear a wider range of instruments and larger bands nowadays, but the pipe and tabor still appear from time to time; this weekend could be the perfect chance to spot them.