for 6 solo voices SMzCtTTB (2017/20)


to EXAUDI on its 15th anniversary

Libro di fiammelle e ombre (‘Book of Little Flames and Shadows’) is a set of 12 short madrigals exploring the ‘poetry of sound in the sound of poetry’: using texts from Arcadelt’s Primo Libro de’ Madrigali (1539) I reimagine the musico-literary aesthetics of Pietro Bembo’s Petrarchism (an important inspiration for the early development of the madrigal genre) for the present age. The text itself, and its many transformations within the music, is of primary importance: one of the features of the piece is the use of speech and singing together, the one blending with, shading or colouring the other in various different ways. Rather than set each text completely, however, I treat it as a found object, distilling the emotional and semantic content of the poetry into a succession of single sound-images (or sound-conceits). Thus, for instance, ‘Il bianco e dolce cigno‘ becomes bianco, alluding to the oblivion of death (in both of the poem’s senses) through a focus on vowel colour (in particular the whiteness of the open ‘a’ vowel in ‘bianco’) and the relationship of solo soprano to the trio of lower voices. In alloro (‘laurel’), the poem’s pervasive piacevolezza is reflected in a flowing canonic continuum, spreading symmetrically out from its central note like the branches of a well-shaped shrub. In velo the female voices’ whispered murmuring evokes the rustling fabric of the lady’s veil whilst literally veiling the lower voices’ interjections…and so on.

Libro di fiammelle e ombre can be performed either with or without madrigals by Arcadelt: a suggested sequence, in which the piece emerges gradually out of Arcadelt’s music, is given in the score.

f.p. (excerpts): EXAUDI/James Weeks, Abbaye de Royaumont, 4 September 2016
f.p. (complete work): EXAUDI/James Weeks, Wigmore Hall, 1 April 2017

Excerpt from Royaumont performance

Libro di fiammelle e ombre was the winner of the Chamber category of the 2018 British Composer Awards.

The original version was substantially revised in 2020.