Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Oxford and Music: Madrigals

Nothing is more astonishing in the whole history of music than the story of the English school of madrigal composers. The long delay of its appearance, lagging behind the Italian school by no less than half a century: the suddenness of its development: the extent of the output: the variety and the originality as well as the fine quality of the work: the brevity of its endurance, and the completeness with which it finally collapsed: all these features combine to distinguish the madrigal school as the strangest phenomenon in the history of English music. (Fellowes, qtd. in Kerman 255)

“Fa la la” comes from the English madrigal, as in these lyrical examples.

Thomas Morley, “My Bonny Lass She Smileth.” The First Booke of Balletts to Five Voyces, 1595. My bonny lass she smileth
When she my heart beguileth. Fa la.
Smile less, dear love, therefore,
And you shall love me more. Fa la.

When she her sweet eye turneth,
O how my heart it burneth! Fa la.
Dear love, call in their light,
Or else you burn me quite! Fa la.

This following idea perhaps derives from Guillaume de Machaut’s “Hareu! hareu! le feu — Helas! ou sera pris confors.”

Thomas Morley, “Fyer, Fyer!” The First Booke of Balletts to Five Voyces, 1595.Fyer, fyer! my heart! Fa la.
O help! Alas! Ay me! I sit and cry me
And call for help, alas, but none comes nigh me!
Fa la.

Here’s a staple among madrigals. “Spring” is Ver; “Winter’s sadness” would be triste d’hiver (?). Two Gentlemen personified; sides of One Vere.

Thomas Morley, “Now is the Month of Maying” The First Booke of Balletts to Five Voyces, 1595.Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing, fa la,
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass. Fa la.

The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, fa la.
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground. Fa la.

Fie then! why sit we musing
Youth’s sweet delight refusing? Fa la.
Say, dainty nymphs and speak,
Shall we play barley-break? Fa la.

The English madrigal phenomenon resembles perhaps only, coincidentally, the Shake-speare phenomenon, as has been noted by Drs. Eric Altschuler and William Jansen. (Katharine Eggar was on this trail in the 1930s.)

In the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy, the leading candidate as an alternative to the traditionally identified illiterate grain-merchant from Stratford, the untenable Will Shakspere, is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, praised in the 1589 Arte of English Poesie “for Comedy and Enterlude”; by William Webbe in his 1586 A Discourse of English Poetry — “the right honourable Earl of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent among the rest” — and in 1598 by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia: “The best for comedy among us be Edward Earl of Oxford [et al.].” Where are these celebrated works? We think we have them, published under the pseudonym Shake-speare.

Similarly, composer John Farmer dedicates The First Set of English Madrigals in 1599 to Oxford:

I have presumed to tender these Madrigales onlie as a remembrance of my service and witness of your Lordships liberall hand, by which I have so long lived, and from your Honorable minde that so much have loved all liberall Sciences: in this I shall be most encouraged, if your Lordship vouch safe the protection of my first fruites, for that both for your greatness you best can, and for your judgement in Musicke best may: for without flattrie be it spoken, those that know your Lordship know that, that using this science [music] as a recreation, your Lordship have overgone most of them that make it a profession.

Additionally, “The accounts of the City Chamberlains record payments to travelling companies from 1584/85, when 6s. 8d. was paid to ‘the Erle of Oxfordes musytians'” (Boas 19; cf. Hanson 95). What music were they supplied with?

John Soowthern likewise praised Oxford as “one expert in . . . music” (May 70). So how and where was this musical talent manifested? Did Oxford publish under pseudonyms other than “Shake-speare”?

The madrigal “burst into fashion at the English Court and with cultivated musical circles — for, as a sophisticated art, its vogue was essentially aristocratic” (Whent par. 2).

Oxfordians, in particular Drs. Altschuler and Jansen, think it bears looking into the shadowy Thomas Weelkes — “the most original madrigalist” (Whent par. 9), strongly influenced by Marenzio and known for chromatic melodic lines, experimental harmonies, dramatic expressiveness, a subtle and refined style (Gleason & Becker). “Weelkes had the most restless, exploring musical imagination of any, achieving greater extremes of expression within the compass of one madrigal, as well as width of human experience” (Whent par. 9) — all assertions repeatedly made about Shakespeare. Altschuler and Jansen also suspect that Thomas Watson “may have been the primary pseudonym immediately preceding the use of ‘Shake-speare'” (“Was Thomas Watson” 13); check out the acrostic in Shake-speare Sonnet 76, as pointed out by “everyone’s favorite Marlovian,” John Baker, at the 2004 Edward de Vere Studies Conference (“Was Thomas Watson” 16). And Altschuler and Jansen suspect the Shakespearean hand behind others too.

English madrigals were heavily influenced by Italian madrigals in the same way, some decades earlier, that sonnets developed from the Italian (“Englished” by Wyatt and Surrey, the latter an uncle of Oxford) to the “Shakespearean.” The party line holds that “Unfortunately there was no Shakespeare among the purveyors of words for the Elizabethan madrigal; yet in their poems there lives something, all the same, of that unfettered relationship to Italian models which we admire in Shakespeare’s comedy” (Einstein 77). The key madrigal publications in England were Musica Transalpina (1588) and Italian Madrigalls Englished (1590).

Nicholas Yonge, the publisher of Musica Transalpina mentions in his introduction that the works themselves were not translated by him but by an unidentified “gentleman who had kept these works for his own pleasure: a very honorable personage and now a Councillor of state” (qtd. in Whent par.3); and “the book represented the taste of English music-lovers for the serious-minded, the earlier style of Marenzio, not the later, more extreme” (Whent par 3). Marenzio is the main influence behind the 1590 publication of First Set of Italian Madrigals Englished.

The translator or adapter of Italian Madrigalls Englished was Thomas Watson, whose name is connected with Hekatompathia: or Passionate Century of Love, the 1582 sonnet collection to which de Vere is also inextricably tied. There is no evidence that Watson traveled to Italy. De Vere was known, even ridiculed, for his zeal over all things Italian after his travels there in the mid-1570s. Most works in the Englished collection were composed by Luca Marenzio (1553-1599), who seems to have stayed with his teacher, Giovanni Contino, with the Gonzaga family in Mantua from 1568 to 1574. [This significant link was brought to my attention by a former WSU Shakespeare student and music major, Christopher Wang.] De Vere, during his Italian travels, seems to have stayed there too with the Gonzagas when he was in Mantua (visiting the tomb of Giulio Romano and the stomping grounds of Baldassare Castiglione) since the description of the Trojan paintings in Lucrece originates with murals in a room in the Gonzagas’ ducal palace. Either de Vere and Marenzio met, or Marenzio’s musical presence (and music itself) was still saturating Mantua. Presumably, Oxford brought Marenzio’s works back to England, “transalpina.”

Another person of interest, maybe the musician of most interest, is Thomas Weelkes. Despite the general insistence that madrigalists did not set Shakespeare to music, Weelkes is credited with a piece titled “Kiss Me, Kate.” And a 1597 collection of his madrigals includes as lyrics an uncredited poem, #17, from The Passionate Pilgrim about which some say there is no reason to doubt a Shakespearean authorship (Chiljan 94). The most lavish praise for Weelkes centers on

the most astonishing of madrigals, ‘Thule, the period of cosmography’, and ‘The Andalusian merchant’. These last, with their fantastic descriptiveness, the musical leaps from Hecla’s fire to ‘frozen climes’, the references to cochineal and china dishes and ‘how strangely Fogo burns’, throw the mind back to the world of the Madre de Dios with its cargo of cochineal, the Chinese Ming porcelain that came into Burlegh’s possession and, tricked out in Elizabethan silver garnishing, is to be seen now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is not fanciful to see the physical expansion of their world reflected in the explorations and discoveries of their minds. (Whent par. 9)


Thule, the period of cosmography,
Doth vaunt of Hecla, whose sulphureous fire
Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky;
Trinacrian Etna’s flames ascend not higher:
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

The Andalusian merchant, that returns
Laden with cochineal and china dishes,
Reports in Spain how strangely Fogo burns
Amidst an ocean full of flying fishes:
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

The final phrases concerning freezing and frying also echo a bit in The Taming of the Shrew (II.i.338). Thule comes from the Second Set of 1600, which “virtually closed Weelkes’ marvelous madrigal output” (Whent par. 12). So, as with the traditional view of Shakespeare and almost nowhere else in cultural history, we have here another artist who at the height of his accomplishments and powers simply “retires” and leaves his artistry behind. “His life went into decline; whether alcoholism was the cause or consequence is not known” (Bartlett 378). His rapid decline coincided with the end of the Earl of Oxford.


Altschuler, Eric Lewin, and William Jansen. “Gentlemen at Large: Musica Transalpina and Marenzio’s Interpolator.” Musical Times 144 (Winter 2003): 20-27.

– – -. “Men of Letters: Thomas Weelkes’s Text Authors.” Musical Times 143 (Summer 2002): 17-24.

– – -. “Thomas Weelkes and Salamone Rossi: Some Interconnections.” Musical Times 145 (Autumn 2004): 87-94.

– – -. “Was Thomas Watson Shake-speare’s Precursor?” The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 40.4 (Fall 2004): 1, 13-16, 24.

– – -. “Wondrous Weelkes: Further Aspects of Thule.” Musical Times 144 (Spring 2003): 40-43.

Bartlett, Clifford, ed. Madrigals and Partsongs. NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Beck, Sydney. “The Case of ‘O Mistress mine.'” Renaissance News 6.2 (Summer 1953): 19-23.

Boas, F.S. Shakespeare and the Universities. Folcroft, PA: The Folcroft Press, 1903. Rpt. 1969.

Brett, Philip. “The Two Musical Personalities of Thomas Weelkes.” Music and Letters 53.4 (October 1972): 369-376.

Brown, David. Thomas Weelkes: A Biographical and Critical Study. NY: Frederick A. Praeger, Pub., 1969.

Chatterley, A. “Thomas Watson: Works, contemporary references and reprints.” Notes and Queries n.s. 48 (September 2001): 239-249.

Chiljan, Katherine. Shakespeare Suppressed: The Uncensored Truth about Shakespeare and his Works. San Francisco: Faire Editions, 2011.

“Does the early work of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, reveal that he wrote songs as well as verses?” Edward de Vere Newsletter #18. drk.sd23.bc.ca/DeVere/Oxford_Poems_and_Songs-18.pdf.

Duffin, Ross W. Shakespeare’s Songbook. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2004.

Eggar, Katharine. “The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford as Musician, Poet and Controller of the Queen’s Revels.” Proceedings of the Musical Association 61 (1934-35): 39-59.

Einstein, Alfred. “The Elizabethan Madrigal and ‘Musica Transalpina.'” Music and Letters 25.2 (1944): 66-77.

Fellowes, Edmund H. The English Madrigal. London: Oxford University Press, 1925.

– – -. The English Madrigal Composers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921.

Gleason, Harold, and Warren Becker. Music in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. 3rd Edition. Frangipani Press, 1981.

Hanson, L.W. “The Shakespeare Collection in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.” Shakespeare Survey 4 (1951): 78-96.

Kerman, Joseph. The Elizabethan Madrigal. NY: American Musicological Society, 1962.

May, Steven W. “The Poems of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford and of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex.” Studies in Philology 77 (Winter 1980): 1-132.

Philipps, G.A. “Patronage in the Career of Thomas Weelkes.” Musical Quarterly 62 (1976): 46-57.

Price, David C. Patrons and Musicians of the English Renaissance. Cambridge Studies in Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Rutter, John. CD Notes. Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers: English Madrigals. Cambridge Singers. London: Collegium Records, 1987. COLCD 105.

Ward, John M. “Music for A Handefull of Plesant Delites.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 10.3 (1957): 151-180.

Watson, Thomas. The Complete Works of Thomas Watson. Ed. Dana F. Sutton. Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.

Weelkes: Madrigals & Anthems. The Consort of Musicke, dir. Anthony Rooley. London: Gaudeamus, 1999. CD GAU 195.

Whent, Chris. “The English Madrigal.” Here of a Sunday Morning. http:www.hoasm.org/IVM/EnglMadrigals.

Yonge, Nicholas. Musica Transalpina: madrigales translated for foure, fiue and sixe parts, chosen out of diuers excellent authors, vvith the first and second part of La Verginella, made by Maister Byrd, vpon two stanzas of Ariosto and brought to speake English with the rest / published by N. Yonge, in fauour of such as take pleasure in musick of voices. London: Thomas East, 1588.