Planning and Putting on a Madrigal Dinner

You have a wonderful choral program this coming year. Sure, you can do the concerts and music festivals and same old same old, but isn’t it time to do something a little different? Enjoyable? New cultural experience for the community? AND, maybe a way to bring some moolah into your program? Why not try a madrigal dinner production for the holidays?

A Madrigal Dinner is a twentieth century re-creation of the Renaissance feasts held in the great baronial halls throughout England during the twelve days of Christmas. If you remember your history, the lines between the secular and sacred were pretty thin, and entertainment was slightly, well, naughty. The feasts included invited guests, wonderful pagentry and pomp, the court jester’s somewhat bawdy humor, endless food, and fantastic music.One minute, the entertainment would be pushing the “decency” line, and the next, you would be treated to gorgeous religious works.

In the re-creations, all actors are in character, right down to the knaves and wenches. As a matter of fact, the performers waiting on the tables are supposed to totally stay in character, including using Olde English dialect. Most start with a processional of the king and his court and go through all the proper eating etiquette and serving order of the times. Also, a “masque” or play fitting the theme is presented.

You don’t have to start from scratch to plan the whole program, either. Companies such as Knight-Shtick Press and Madrigal Traditions plot out everything you’ll need and provide dialogue, entertainment suggestions, and costume and prop suggestions.

In planning, you need to figure on the following:

  • Menu
  • Costumes
  • Props and Set (decorations)
  • Entertainment and literature

Since most of these script companies provide the ideas, you just need to come up with the resources and help necessary to bring everything together. To save yourself some headaches, you might consider getting the cooperation of the art department, home ec department, and the foods department, and agree to possibly split the proceeds.

A typical menu might consist of the following:

  • Barley soup
  • Wassail
  • Wild rice
  • game fowl
  • Fruit compote
  • Figgy or bread pudding

The head of food services will need to make sure that there are at least a couple of chefs, plus food staff to help the “wenches and knaves” have everything ready for each course. This should be timed to go with the script, because during each course, there is either a skit or musical presentation. Get the timing off, and you run the risk of having “dead air” with nothing said,and people done with one course, waiting for the next one!

For costumes, pattern resources can be found through this links page. Costumes can also be rented. This Google search page on historical costumes can give you a good start in finding what you need.

Clothing often defined the social class a person was in. During the time periods in which most madrigals are set, it was easy to tell a noble person from a peasant. The color of the fabric and the type of fabric could easily give away a person’s class. Certain colors of dye were more difficult to produce. Purple became a color of nobility because it’s made by crushing thousands of sea snails. Other dyes were expensive because they were imported and were taxed. Cotton, before the cotton gin, was very difficult to prepare, so the wealthy people would be seen wearing great amounts of cotton. Fabrics that were processed or weaved were also worn be nobility, like velvet, corduroy, and satins. The common people wore flax and wool. These fabrics were inexpensive because they could be spun at home.

The common dress for men was boots, pants (called breeches), a shirt, a vest (also know as a jerkin), and a hat. Women would often wear shoes, an over and under skirt, a bodice, a shirt, and a hat, scarf, or snood. Women wore their hair long and would wear it braided. Children over three would dress in the same fashion as adults. Children under three were dressed as infants in bonnets and shifts.

For your entertainment, you will need students good at the following: instrumental (in particular, woodwind or someone who can handle recorder, plus violinist or guitarist-better yet, an authentic lute!), vocalists (a capella, choral, and soloists), actors (for the king, jester-someone fairly comedic and acrobatic, queen, plus actors for the skits). The whole madrigal dinner is done with Olde English dialect, so the better the students are with that, the more entertaining the evening will be.

Promoting your event is very similar to any event or play that your school produces, with flyers. However, it would be a very good PR idea to tour the elementary schools in your district, presenting just a few of the skits that your show has. Not only would it benefit the younger students in history, but if they like it, they’ll beg their parents to go! Also, what better way to promote your program and show them that choral music isn’t all singing in a choir and doing concerts!

Another idea is to have some of your students present their skits or segments for civic groups. In this age of budget cutbacks and worries about the music programs in schools, presentations like this will show your town leaders the benefits of the music program, and what the community as a whole will be missing out on if cuts are allowed. If possible, make sure your local paper at least has an short article. And, why not perform a segment for the local radio station?

The Madrigals traditionally are held during the Christmas season, but there are plenty of non-seasonal scripts around. If your school schedule is just way too hectic to ensure a good crowd during Advent, make it a winter festival performance during the “boring” months of January or February!

Sound scary? Go for it! With the help of food services and your art department, plus the link resources included here, you will have a memorable event that your students will love, and will leave your community wanting more every year!

Additional resources:
ThinkQuest- this section includes quite a few link resources
Early Music Frequently Asked Questions

Elizabethan Dance Directions
A Guide to Medieval and Renaissance Instruments
Sites related to food and drink