Listening Log- [Pt. I- Proj.1]- John Wilbye’s ‘Sweet honey-sucking bees’ from ‘The Second Set of Madrigals for 3-6 voices, no.17’ published 1598)

Listening LogResearch Point: 1.0 John Wilbye’s ‘Sweet honey-sucking bees’ from ‘The Second Set of Madrigals for 3-6 voices, no.17’ published 1598)

Research Point: 1.0

Compared to many other composers there is not a huge amount of biographical information available on the popular ‘Italianate’ English madrigal composer John Wilbye (1574- 1638). His father was a tanner, but perhaps also a musician since he left John a lute. Wilbye was employed as a musician and composer in Sussex and was given some land. He kept this position for the remainder of his life but was also somewhat involved with the London music scene which is where he published his two madrigal books.

Regardless of Wilbye’s relatively small output he has become one of the most respected and best loved English madrigalist whose work is on par with the best Italian composers of the genre and he is sometimes compared to Marenzio and Ferrabosco because of the texturally and rhythmically varied, very clearly structured, but always flowing contrapuntal style. Wilbey’s use of rhythm was quite ingenious and he was adept at using his counterpoint to accentuate verbal accents, crafting his vocal lines to perfectly suit the text, even using solo voices within the madrigals. Perhaps this quality was due to the fact that he also wrote poetry. His texts generally dealt with topics of love or were pastoral poems. Although he himself preferred his serious madrigals it is his light-hearted ones which have achieved claim. Musically, he made use major/minor combinations/comparisons occasionally borrowing a chromatic note from the parallel note. He also used refrains, thematic developments and sequencing, frequently dividing up the voices and seldom using them all at ones. This meant that his works are performable by very small chamber sections.  

 ‘Sweet honey-sucking bees’ (‘The Second Set of Madrigals for 3-6 voices, no.17’ from 1598) is one of those anonymous pastoral poems (see text below). Although written for 5 a Cappella voices, SSATB, like in many of his other madrigals the voices rarely all sing homophonically.  The parts are divided up into couple pairs with two voices in direct imitation whilst another two are an octave or a third apart. The ‘voice-couples’ then swap with each other taking turns with the parts and sequences, see figure 1 below. The opening bars nearly form a round, and the impression of the madrigal is in fact very ‘canonical’.

Fig.1. Opening bars (2019)

The madrigal is in two parts, in Common time. The first part is approximately 2 min in length and 68 bars long and the second part is slightly longer at approximately 3 min and 93 bars but constructed very similarly to the first part. The parts are subdivided into sections, the first one being 13 bars long and repeated twice. The statement is constructed from a theme with two short rhythmical motifs, the first one using a ‘crochets and semi breve’ pattern -‘sweet honey-sucking bees’ sung by two imitating contrapuntal voices and the homorythmic ‘quaver, quaver, quaver, semibreve pattern’ – when two of the voices sing ‘Why do you still’ a third apart. Even though the rhythms are not identical they do give the sense of having a relationship to each other and give the overall unified impression of a fast, fast, slow rhythm. On the second repetition the voices enter sequentially, and the theme is carried by a new pairing, for example the Soprano I and Alto sing in thirds, rather than the two soprano voices.

The bass does not enter until bar 20 when a new theme starts, marked by quaver runs in both the Soprano I (rising) and Tenor (falling, then rising) and Bass (rising, starting halfway through bar). These rising quaver scales figures occur during the word ‘flight’ and are probably intended to illustrate the word, i.e. word paint.

Fig.2. Word painting (2019)

The quick paced section finally gives way to a slow, semibreve dominated section at bar 45-68 for the ‘Keeping their springtide graces all year’ the text cadencing on the D Major chord. The f is raised to an f# to provide a leading note. The occasional use of an f# is pretty much one of the only instances of chromaticism. The final cadence in the second part ‘Yet, Sweet, take heed’ finishes on the G Maj chord (with b flat raised to the b natural). Given these facts and that the piece opens with a g and the mode has one flat (b flat), I think the madrigal could be in the G Dorian Mode.

Fig.3. Keeping their springtide graces (2019)

Final cadence;

Fig.4. Final cadence (2019)

Sweet honey-sucking bees (anonymous text)

Sweet honey-sucking bees, why do you still 
surfeit on roses, pinks and violets, 
as if the choicest nectar lay in them 
wherewith you store your curious cabinets? 
Ah, make your flight to Melisuavia’s lips. 
There may you revel in ambrosian cheer, 
where smiling roses and sweet lilies sit, 
Keeping their springtide graces all the year. 

[Part 2: 
Yet, sweet, take heed, all sweets are hard to get: 
Sting not her soft lips, O, beware of that, 
for if one flaming dart come from her eye, 
was never dart so sharp, ah, then you die.]

Out of all the more light hearted madrigals I’ve heard ‘Sweet honey-sucking bees’ is one of my absolute favourites. I think the construction and division of the vocal parts is not only clever but also creates a very rich tapestry of sound. Although it feels complex and multifaceted it retains a nimble sophisticated elegance. An elegance which tends to accompany a good design. It renders the madrigal very memorable and ‘singable’ without ever trivialising or over simplifying it. This in turn prevents it from easily becoming boring after a few listens. Like I said, this is one of my favourites in this particular genre.


Figure 1. Sunny, L. (2019) Opening bars [Illustration] In: possession of: The author: London.

Figure 2. Sunny, L. (2019) Word painting [Illustration] In: possession of: The author: London.

Figure 3. Sunny, L. (2019) Keeping their springtide graces [Illustration] In: possession of: The author: London.

Figure 4. Sunny, L. (2019) Final cadence [Illustration] In: possession of: The author: London.


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