Of Minuets and Motets: A Look at Baroque and Renaissance Music: “April is in My Mistress’ Face”

In your history classes, you have probably learned about the Renaissance period and its shift in thinking towards the arts and literature. Knowing this, it makes sense that music thrived throughout the Renaissance and into the following period of music: Baroque. In this column, I take a look at the musical gems of the Baroque and Renaissance periods and learn about their musical functions in context. Throughout my ten-year musical experience, I have been involved with Baroque and Renaissance music. Whether it was performing in intimate Baroque chamber ensembles at the New England Conservatory or participating in masterclasses with leading Baroque/Renaissance musicians of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, I have absolutely enjoyed my experience with this genre of music. So, I wish to share this with you, and I hope you will read on! I assure you, what’s below will bring music to your ears!

“April is in My Mistress’ Face” is a madrigal written by Thomas Morley in 1594. For reference, madrigals are secular vocal pieces composed during the Renaissance. They are polyphonic, which means that each vocal part—such as soprano or tenor—has its own rhythm and shape. Madrigals are also sung without accompaniment. “April is in My Mistress’ Face” is set to an Italian text that resembles a poem, in which a woman is described with seasonal references. The text reads as follows:

“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”

Pairing the metaphorical descriptions of this mistress, or love interest, with the musical phenomenons that are present, this madrigal comes to life. The piece opens in a minor key, and the first line of the text is sung in every voice part until the voice parts meet on a long tone chord. After this, the parts repeat the same line of text, this time staggering their entrances and varying the duration of the words. Although the madrigal is set in a minor key, the mood at the opening of the madrigal is quite energetic and spirited. In this way, the music matches the first line of the text with its description of the mistress’s face as pleasing and refreshing, like April. The madrigal maintains this soaring mood throughout the second line of text. In fact, the soprano line reaches a mini-climax as it flies through a string of high notes. In this way, the passion and warmth of July that is described in the mistress’ eyes are reflected in the music. As the seasons in the poem shift to colder, calloused months, so does the tone of the music. Throughout the portion of the madrigal that pertains to the third line of the text, there are many long, held notes. This slows down the momentum of the madrigal. As a result, listening to this section of the madrigal makes you feel like you are taking a step back and looking at a larger picture. This correlates to the text because the narrator seems to be realizing that his mistress is bleak and unfeeling within her bosom, which should be a source of nurturing and care. Finally, the madrigal moves on to the last piece of text. In this closing portion of the madrigal, the vocal parts resolve to a major chord after each repetition of this line of text. Yet, as soon as the melodies go on to repeat this final line of text, they switch back to the original minor key. This back-and-forth action heightens the minor vibe of this ending section, which in turn emphasizes the bitterness of the text and the resolution that the mistress is harsh to the core.

I recommend that all of you listen to this madrigal! It can be found on most major streaming platforms and is truly a rewarding listening experience.