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Madrigal dinners: How did madrigal dinners get associated with Christmas?

Date: Wed, 9 Nov 1994 16:45:38 -0700
From: Nina Gilbert
Subject: Answers to Madrigal Question

Two days ago I posted a question from a reporter:

How did madrigals (and madrigal feasts) get associated with Christmas?

I got a few replies from Choralist and EARLYM-L, plus several requests
for a summary, so here's the summary. Forgive the long summary! The
replies seemed so neatly thought out and coordinated that I didn't want
to insult people by over-editing them. This is a pretty close clone of
what I faxed to the reporter.

I. From John and Susie Howell (John.Howell(a), currently at
Virginia Tech, who directed the Madrigal Dinners at Indiana University
in the early 1970s:

>We suspect that it's a modern phenomenon, tied purely to the modern
>secular aspects of the season. (I.e., they're at Christmas because that's
>when the audiences want them!) Historically, the very holy feast days
>were not as likely to be marked by feast and celebration as weddings,
>coronations, saints' days, civic and national days, etc.

>Indiana University claims to have started their madrigal dinners in
>1947, one of the first to establish the tradition. In 1971 they expanded
>from one to two full weeks in early December, and we two were very
>much involved in establishing a new format modeled on a Renaissance
>entertainment rather than the sort of black-tie Victorian approach that
>had been used before.

>One problem for universities that schedule them at Christmas is a nasty
>tendency to run right into final exams, as we did at Indiana. And for
>churches, there's just too much hassle and activity to add yet one more
>activity at Christmas. For the last few years we've been doing a "12th
>Night Feast" at church, and it's been fun and very popular away from
>the frenetic musical activity of Christmas.

II. From Alice Brin Renken (ARenken(a), who plays and
teaches viola da gamba at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota:

>At the U of Illinois, Urbana, we were doing them in the late 1960s. Paul
>Brandvik, who has since made a yearly tradition of Madrigal Dinners at
>Bemidji State U was a grad student at Illinois at the time. The reasons
>behind them were: The increased availability of a larger body of
>appealing early Advent/Christmas/Epiphany music, the increased
>availability of reproductions of early instruments, the desire on the part
>of choral directors for a new sort of winter concert to rival the fall
>musical, the possibilities for inter-departmental co-operation of a
>comfortable sort - i.e., drama for costumes, history and home ec for the
>food, music, art, architecture, dance, etc. The typical menu involved
>rather hearty food, which most of us would prefer not to consume in
>warm weather, but seemed quite all right in the chill of earlywinter -
>roast beef, potatoes mashed with turnips, plum pudding, fruit juice
>based "wassail" (this was a public university with a "no alcohol in
>university buildings" policy). It was a festive way to wind up first
>semester, a great send-off for Christmas vacation. As I recall, the
>University did not have a functioning collegium during my time there,
>but a group of enthusiastic amateurs, myself among them, played our
>entire repertory of Praetorius dances on recorders, krumhorns, and viol.
>It was a great success, and I believe I was involved for two or three
>years before another sort of entertainment took its place.

III. From the abovementioned Paul Brandvik
(PBRANDVIK(a)VAX1.BEMIDJI.MSUS.EDU), who has published some
well-known books of madrigal dinner scripts:

>We have been doing Madrigal Dinners here for twenty-six years. They
>began in England during the early Renaissance to celebrate the twelve
>days of Christmas. There were great feasts in the baronial halls all over
>England. And obviously for their own entertainment people sang what
>was available, probably first Italian madrigals and later English
>madrigals. There is also an association with the Boar's head tradition
>and with the wassailing tradition. Christmas has always been a festive
>occasion. There are now many hundred schools and churches doing
>"Madrigal Dinners" around the Christmas season. It is a tradition that is
>almost guaranteed to be successful.

IV. From Paul Sinasohn (sinasohn(a), of Oakland, California,
founding director of the BankAmerica Singers, and currently manager of
"Richter Scale, the No-Fault A cappella group":

>There is a book on madrigal feasts, and some of the music scores give a
>little history. Realistically, Christmas was the number one feast of the
>entire year. Remember, we're talking mid-winter, with the castle-bound
>societies in question, there weasn't much to do but create skits and
>plays for the occasion (also served the purpose of religious instruction).
>So if the kids are making up this play/skit, might as well let them
>perform it. Also, as there wasn't much in the way of entertainment, they
>made up their own songs, or sometimes adapted folksongs to Xmas.
>Presumably the madrigals were sung during dinner because that's when
>most entertainment took place....jesters, troubadors, etc. moving around
>the tables, or performing for the high table. The children would sing for
>each course to show off what they had done, and to provide a scripture
>reading. This had the desired side effect of letting the previous course
>settle in your stomach so there was more room for food. As time went
>by, the trappings changed, but the occasion stayed the same.
>(Remember, we're talking moving from the 1400's into the 1600's here)
>For fun, watch any Prince and the Pauper production or even Danny
>Kaye's "The Court Jester" for some amusing feast scenes. Or read some
>sword-and-sorcery books. Lots in those.

V. From Harriet Engle, (Engle.3(a), Chief Announcer for WSND in
South Bend, Indiana:

>My theory is that this whole thing got started in the confusion of
>Victorian England with "Merrie Olde Englande". Dickens described
>carolling and wassails, right? Well, we have carols and wassail songs
>from the Elizabethan age, and some romantic soul came up with the idea
>of re-creating what they thought was the inspiration or root of the
>Victorian celebration. Musically, some of the most beautiful songs
>known to the average Christmas caroller are the oldest. For example; the
>Coventry Carol and other lullaby songs. On the other hand, the Boar's
>Head Carol is a lot of fun, as is the Wassail song. When madrigal dinners
>were starting to get popular, there seemed to be a lot of romanticizing of
>the era, and the idea of all the people sharing the holiday with food and
>music is very appealing to the emotions. Funny though, despite the fact
>that many of the old carols are very religious in nature, madrigal
>dinners seem to be a secular thing that people of all sorts of traditions
>can get involved with and enjoy together.
>I really liked doing the madrigal dinners in college, and I still hang out
>in the medieval time-frame as much as I can. Maybe it's just nice to
>escape the 20th century for a little while.

Thanks to the respondents, and to those who expressed interest. The
reporter has promised me a copy of the article (e-mail me if you'd like a
copy), but first he's planning to investigate the background of
Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker."

Cheers (wassail!),

Nina Gilbert

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Nina Gilbert, Wabash College, Crawfordsville IN 47933 (USA)
phone/FAX 317-364-4299
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