Dr. Matthew Fritz, associate professor of music, gave a presentation titled “Secular Music of the Renaissance” at Elizabethtown College on Thursday, Nov. 13, which explored the character of Phyllis in English madrigals.
Fritz’s presentation focused on the English madrigal, which is choral music that is in some circumstances performed with accompaniment.
Madrigals were a highly popular type of music during the Renaissance. Fritz said that from 1590 to 1620, 740 volumes of English madrigals were published. The large number of volumes would have indicated the popularity because making music during that time was expensive; madrigals would only have been worth producing if they had great popularity. Their popularity was due, in part, to the relatable themes they used and the then- novel idea of matching notes and lyrics. Fritz explained that during the Renaissance there were two types of madrigals: the Italian and the English. The Italian madrigal focused more on the culture of the time, whereas the English madrigal included themes such as pastoralism, love and the heart.
The madrigal first appeared during the Renaissance when people began to explore humanism through creative expressions of literature and music. The concept of the “self” also fueled the invention of madrigals. Composers of madrigals explored human nature through the concepts of love and the self. Additionally, as the madrigals developed further, the composers began matching the musical composition to the lyrics. For instance, composers would pair the rise in action in the lyrics with a crescendo in the music. Fritz explained that the theme of unrequited love, which exists in many of the madrigals, was relatable to him when he began singing them during ninth grade. From that age onward, Fritz was fascinated with the madrigals, their different themes and the character of Phyllis. He referred to her as a character that shows up throughout various madrigals. She becomes an additionally interesting figure because she appears in madrigals of multiple composers.
Fritz explained that “The Oxford Book of English Madrigals” is currently the best book available on the subject. Madrigals contained a multitude of characters, both within a single madrigal and throughout the scope of all the madrigals written. However, Phyllis became a repeating character throughout many. “Phyllis seems to be the one who shows up at least five times, if not more, in this one book,” Fritz said, adding that many scholars agree that she is an important figure throughout the genre.
Composers often portrayed Phyllis as the ideal woman. One composer described Amaryllis, another character in a madrigal, as being more beautiful than fair Phyllis. Fritz said that this was a daring statement for a composer to make because Phyllis was set as a form of benchmark for the beauty of women.
To better understand Phyllis, Fritz studied all the authors and composers who had written about her. He said finding all the poems Phyllis appears in was difficult because composers rarely credited the poets because they preferred to attribute the poem to themselves. “Few composers really admitted to their failure as poets,” Fritz said. Furthermore, many editors would change the texts quite drastically so that they became difficult to recognize in their original poetic form; however, one clear string of writers he found was Ovid, Virgil, Petrarch, Gower, Chaucer and Spenser. All were famous poets, indicating that Phyllis was very much an over arching character throughout poetry.
Fritz asserted that Phyllis may have played an integral part of the growing independence of women. “In essence, who is Phyllis? Perhaps she is the ideal Renaissance woman, or maybe she is the evolution of woman,” Fritz said. “She is womankind in its many manifestations.” He said that she evolved from a helpless victim to an independent woman, reflecting and aiding the shift of women’s roles in society. Even scholars use Phyllis as evidence of how society’s view of women began to change. Fritz also suggested that Phyllis may have become more popular as a figure for independent women during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England because she was the first queen to rule England without marrying. Thus, Phyllis would have provided a popular figure which supported Elizabeth’s desire to rule alone. Phyllis asserted the roles of women’s slowly rising power in society.