Madrigal dinners have become popular holiday fundraisers for university music programs. I attended a few editions of the UW-Milwaukee madrigal dinner several years ago, and submit these pictures as a photographic record of their very successful holiday feature.
A madrigal is a form of secular choral music that was popular from Renaissance times into the Baroque. It used something called word painting or tone painting to express the meaning of the words, a technique that is stilled used in many pop songs of today. The note goes up on words like mountain or hill, and down on words like valley or low. These madrigalisms, as they were dubbed, included the riso (smile) or a series of quick notes like laughter, and the sospiro (sigh), a note falling to the note below. Madrigals were born in Italy and spread to Germany and England. France tended to stick to its own native form, the chanson.
A defining characteristic is that there is no set stanza form, as such, although many musical and verbal phrases repeat. The choralists do not sing in unison, but in counterpoint, like in a round. The overall impression is very sweet and soothing.
The Madrigal Dinner combines the performance of madrigals with a holiday feast. The singers are dressed in period costumes and may impersonate the lords and ladies of the manor (something that the real lords and ladies are pretty ticked off about, believe you me).
At the UW-Milwaukee madrigal dinner, the lords and ladies enter a dining hall adorned with "tapestries" of heraldic lions and shield. The guests are served spiced cider and wine, and the king gets up to make a toast. He welcomes everyone to the great hall, and declares that even though the bitter north winds blow outside, these strong walls are proof against the cold. So drink to the spirit of Christmas cheer -- Wassail, Wassail! (Everybody has to chime in with the Lord on that part.)
The servers bring in the ceremonial boar's head on a huge platter, and it is placed at the head table where the lords and ladies are seated. A roast beef dinner is served, typically accompanied by dishes like barley soup, wylde ryse blend, honey-glazed carrots and parsnips, and medieval sallat. Some other madrigal dinners serve a stuffed Cornish hen or a beef and leek pie instead.
Dessert is the star attraction here. A chef comes out with an assistant to flambe' the pudding in front of the guests. Everyone gets a sample of this traditional English "plomme poddyng" with rum sauce as well as a buche noel to close out the dinner.
The orchestra has been playing throughout the meal. The jugglers, a goofy team called The Heads Up Juggling Review -- Doctor Head and his brother M.T. Head -- put on a spectacular and funny show with flaming batons and more. They heckle a willing victim from the audience, and split up to entertain at the tables of the guests.
And you will not believe this, but the lords and ladies get up from their tables and actually proceed to entertain us, the mere vassals who have come to their splendid manor for feasting and revelry. Those lords and ladies knock us dead as they sing a program of enchanting madrigals.
They close with the hit number "Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John" by P.D.Q. Bach, which I suspect is not an authentic Renaissance tune but who's checking? (see partial lyrics below)
All in all, it was one of the most memorable performances or holiday events of any kind that I have ever witnessed. If this does not get you blissed out, something is terribly wrong. Kudos to the tremendous music and cooking students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and to the faculty and staff also.
Fair Phyllis I Saw by John Farmer, performed by the Cambridge Singers at http://showcase.pjf.org.uk/2007/11/john-farmer-fair-phyllis-i-saw.html. (we just see sheet music as we hear the audio)
Heads Up Juggling Review, listing at CitySearch (Milwaukee),
Plum Pudding recipe, RecipeLink.com at
http://www.recipelink.com/cookbooks/1999/0767903994_3.html. Best made at least three days ahead of time.
Texas Tech University 2006 Madrigal Dinner on video at
Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John by P.D.Q. Bach aka Peter Schickele, lyrics page at http://www.schickele.com/composition/consortchristmas.htm. Partial lyric:
Ten o'clock on Christmas morn and all the guests are coming to the door;
Ten o'clock on Christmas morn and Uncle John's already on the floor.
Though the weather's bitter cold there's not a frown to mar the festive mood;
Wait 'til they discover that old Uncle John has eaten all the food.
Hear the hall clock strike, Uncle John. Hear the hall clock strike, Uncle John.
We Beheld Once Again the Stars performed by the Philippine Madrigal Singers on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epT2dc2z0nc. (aka eight minutes of bliss; 58K viewers can't all be wrong)