The Silver Swan – Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
The silver swan, who living had no note, When death approached, unlocked her silent throat; Leaning her breast against the reedy shore, Thus sung her first and last and sung no more: Farewell all joys; O death, come close mine eyes; More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.
This was probably the first madrigal we ever sang with Robin Pemantle, Rosine Turner, Polly Kuelbs, two or three math graduate students, and María Clara. We had just arrived to Madison, and there was a sign posted in the corridors of Van Vleck Building, saying something “Like to sing? Renaissance to contemporary? Call this number…”. I called and we were ushered into a four-year fantastic experience.
During our four years in Madison we were part of the singing group led (mostly) by then young probabilist Robin Pemantle. It consisted of a few graduate students or postdocs – some would be there for just a few sessions, some like MC and me, would last our whole time in Madison singing there. And two sopranos – the wives of two math professors: piano teacher Polly Kuelbs and our dear friend, Italian Medievalist Rosine Turner.
The group went, as such groups do, through many phases. American contemporary composers (which we really had trouble following, being as they were full of cultural references to pop culture that had immediate appeal to the other members of the group, and were arcane to MC and I), jazz of course (The Three-Way Canon Blues, or You ain’t bee’n blue). I pushed a lot of Italian and Flemish Renaissance – some Josquin, some Jannequin. And of course Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd, and beloved Monteverdi.
Christmas would come – the first time for us, in 1992, the experience was strange and odd. Interrupting the usual repertoire of harder madrigals or chansons or syncopated polyphonic blueish canons, the group decided to go for a night of caroling. Fine, we though with MC. There we arrived, and all the group was singing very fast those four-voiced carols they knew by heart and we were hearing for the first time: In the bleak mid-winter by Holst, or some Praetorius or more basic ones. We had enormous trouble following them at that speed – before setting out, they rushed through ten or twelve of them, decided they “had been rehearsed” and off we went into the wintry Wisconsin night, dashing through snow, threading our way to homes where we would sing (outside) and then would be ushered in to drink a welcome hot tea or chocolate, or some eggnog.
Three hours of walking and singing in the snow, alternated with the warmth of those homes and the tea and chocolate, sometimes with some needed alcohol, was our way into the caroling world. By the end of those three hours our heads were full of those four-voiced carols – some medieval, some renaissance, some 19th century, some commercial ones even. The richness of that world made us feel sad by the contrast for our poor Spanish villancicos – songs that have lost all the emotional depth they could have had (and surely had at some point in history) but were monotonous and monophonic and commercialized beyond belief. Spain and Latin America seem to have lost everything, with our stupid Christmas songs – the English speaking world had instead rich polyphonic carols harking from the middle ages, always lively, always interesting. Was it the alcohol, the cold night, the four voices? I loved, and still love, English carols, in a way that to me is inextricably woven with Arnie Miller’s Descriptive Set Theory, the Hard Way, Alejandro Adem’s Algebraic Topology I, H. Jerome Keisler’s Stability Theory, David Crook’s Renaissance Music, long and hard homework I was always running to turn in, and our first encounters with the English language outside of the math world.
Here is another version of The Silver Swan, with voices. I love singing it – but with a lot of Renaissance music something weird happens: it is meant to be sung by yourself not to be listened to by an audience. The voices blend (and the verb here evokes the best blends one could think of when evoking Scotch Whisky – smoothly amalgamated, slowly pushing one flavor into another). This blend is something you can only perceive when singing.