Seasonal Romance

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By Clover Carroll

April is in my mistress’ face,
And July in her eyes hath place;
Within her bosom is September,
But in her heart a cold December.

This lilting English madrigal, written by Thomas Morley in 1594 based on an Italian text, deftly uses a weather metaphor to convey the vicissitudes of the poet’s relationship with a woman. The “mistress” in this case is not an intimate friend, but rather a woman he is courting, who therefore holds power over him as a master would over a servant. As we look around us now at Crozet and Albemarle County bedecked in blooming fruit trees, dogwoods, redbuds, daffodils, lilacs, and wisteria against a backdrop of new green, we understand through this comparison how delightful, fresh, and glowing the subject’s face appears to the poet, who thus pays her this highest of compliments. Her eyes, too, are as warm and welcoming as summertime when she smiles at her suitors. However, the next line ushers in a note of chill: her bosom, on which he longs to lay his head, does not harbor warm feelings, but rather is likened to autumn —a cooler season by far, when flowers are dying and leaves withering on the trees. To his even greater chagrin, he finds that her heart, seat of her true feelings, is as cold to him as the ice and snow of deepest winter.

A page from an Elizabethan part-book that shows the bass voice of Morley’s “April is in my mistress’ face.”

When sung as written in four-part polyphonic harmony, many of the lines and parts of lines are repeated. For a real treat, I hope you will take a moment to listen to “April is in My Mistress’ Face” on YouTube, Spotify, or iTunes. Morley’s musical setting reflects the movement of the poet’s state of mind from gaiety and hope to a more wistful, subdued acceptance of reality, drawing out the word “September” like a howling wind, and ending “December” with a jarring, mood-changing chord. “Polyphonic” means that several voice parts sing different musical lines, each with its own shape and rhythm; madrigals are usually written for from two to seven voice parts and are sung a cappella (without accompaniment). The madrigal form originated in Italy during the 14th century, spread throughout Europe, and blossomed in England during the Renaissance, reaching its height of popularity in the 16th century. The word “madrigal” is believed to derive from the Latin “matricale,” meaning Mother Tongue, because they were written in Italian vernacular, the language of the people (as opposed to Latin, the language of the church). In contrast to the dominance of religious texts in the music of that time, madrigals were secular in nature, celebrating life, love, and earthly delights—replete with fa la la’s and te whit, te whoo’s. Luca Morenzio, Orlando di Lasso, William Byrd, and Thomas Weelkes were some of the best-known madrigal composers. It is hard for us to imagine that these complex polyphonic creations were the rock songs of their day!

Thomas Morley (1558-1602) was the first great English madrigalist, and one of the best. A student of Byrd, Morley both reworked Italian madrigals into English, and set English sonnets and other poems to music he composed himself. His compositions are known for their elegance and balance, the keys to which are set forth in his textbook, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597). “The astonishing flowering of the English madrigal during the next thirty years was very largely due to the skill, taste, enterprise, and discernment of this one remarkable musician,” said Thurston Dart in his Foreword to Invitation to Madrigals 2.

The madrigal form is alive and well today, performed widely by groups such as the King’s Singers, sometimes by our own Zephyrus, and various college chamber choirs (including Mary Baldwin’s). Contact me if you are interested in joining our fledgling madrigal group forming right here in Crozet!

1 COMMENT

  1. I quite disagree with this interpretation of the poem. While I agree that the subject in question holds power over the narrator as a master holds power over his slave, I would like to offer an alternative perspective that the narrator takes on the woman. The seasons are symbolic of different dimensions of the woman, by whom the narrator is perplexed and intrigued. The face is youthful, young, blooming as the spring. It appears innocent and open to the distant world, thus drawing the men in and creating a misguided sense of joy that men receive from women. The eyes, hot and blazing like the month of July, all full of purpose and ambition. This line of the poem suggests that the woman in question is impelled by something, be it her inferiority to men or her low rank. Her bosom, mature and forlorn as autumn, implies that she is wise. Autumn, in terms of literature, is symbolic of adulthood and the pool of experiences and discernment that accompanies it. The woman is familiar with the ways of the men, with her community as a whole. She understands the despicable element of human nature, and is thereby wiser, more mature, and perhaps somewhat manipulative (as the spring-like face suggests). The winter in her heart is unmistakably a remark on her compassion, or lack thereof. Her deceitful face, her irrepressible ambition, and her profound knowledge and wisdom of the world all reflect the absence of compassion and warmth in her spirit. I hold that this characterization of a woman is not confined to one woman, but women universally. Women, according to Morley, are blissful and bright on the front end but are truly ambitious, wise, and full of distaste and scorn.

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