Nowadays, many might associate university acapella with Pitch Perfect-esque covers of pop songs, but for the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers, acapella is all about Bach, opera, and of course, madrigals.

Madrigals are a type of secular acapella singing that originates in the Renaissance and Baroque period. They began in Italy in the 16th century as the result of converting poetry into music.

The Madrigal Singers is an auditioned acapella choir that has been on campus since 1974. Participating in the choir also counts as a three-credit full-year course.  It’s currently composed of 35 students and is directed by Leonard Ratzlaff. Ratzlaff has directed the choir for 35 years and has been awarded the Order of Canada and was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence.

To Elise Noyes, the president of the Madrigal Singers Executive, the stereotypes surrounding this genre hold uin some ways. But however it may look on the surface, the madrigal genre is a complex form of popular music that gave people license to discuss issues that were taboo in sacred music.
“It’s like that fa la la type of stuff,” the fourth-year opera student said. “The first thing you see when you Google madrigals are people in funny renaissance garb, fa la la la-ing.”

Despite its name, the choir sings only a couple of madrigals each year. The rest of their time is spent exploring different genres of music such as operas and even gospels.

Auditions are open to students from all faculties and run during the first week of school. They consist of singing a chosen piece and sight reading. A quartet singing exam is also required each semester. It’s not necessary to enroll in the course but students outside of the Faculty of Arts can use it as an arts option.

Rehearsals are scheduled in the Beartracks timetable and the choir meets three times a week. They average three to four concerts per semester, however this semester they have six. They also collaborate with other musical ensembles on campus.

The choir’s upcoming performance is on December 3 at the Winspear Theatre where they will be performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This concert is partnered with the university symphony orchestra and concert choir.

The Madrigal Singers can also be found participating in local music conferences, caroling at Christmas events, or travelling to international competitions. Just two years ago the choir toured Greece and in previous years the group competed in Ireland. According to Noyes, they hope to travel to London or Barcelona in the coming years.

Travelling may seem like a perk, but for Noyes it’s the friendships and connections with fellow singers that makes the Madrigal Singers special.

“Taking Madrigal Singers gives you an opportunity to meet people from a wide range of faculties that share an important common interest,” she said. “Yes it does count for a course and there are exams, but it’s more about the comradery.”

Noyes also appreciates the level of respect the choir has achieved and she credits it to their conductor.

“I think Madrigal Singers has a long history of being well respected in the Edmonton music community and I think that it’s because Len is an important figure in Canadian music,” she said. “He is somebody who is really invested emotionally and financially which I really respect.”

Images courtesy of Kathy Milanowski and Rosty Soroka
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