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A key musical component of the Renaissance period was the madrigal. In this lesson, learn how the complex church vocal music from the end of the Medieval Era was transformed into singable melodies made for the secular courts and the educated public.

Singing in the Renaissance

Current pop culture has spawned an infatuation with singing, particularly for boy bands that make young girls swoon. Strangely, this infatuation with singing is not unlike the Renaissance Era, roughly 1450-1600, when singing was valued by the church, the elite and the common people alike. Learning to sing was actually considered as important to learn as reading, which is no small statement, considering the printing press had just been invented.With the rise of wealthy aristocrats, music patronage started shifting away from church and into royal courts.

And because singing and reading were both highly valued, they made a perfect combination in the madrigal. A madrigal is a secular multi-voice song sung without accompaniment that has poetry-based lyric.

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Characteristics of the Madrigal

The great interest in poetry at this time led composers to take poems and enhance them with a musical setting. They were often about love and were sometimes humorous or satirical.

There were typically 4 to 6 voices in any given song, and all voices played an equal role, meaning no one part was more important than another. This is partially because the madrigals were sung a cappella, or without instrumental accompaniment.The first madrigals started with four vocal parts: the soprano, the alto, the tenor and the bass. The two higher parts, the soprano and the alto, are typically sung by women, while the two lower parts, the tenor and bass, are typically sung by men. These voices were sometimes combined where the singers sang the same rhythm with different pitches and other times with different rhythms and different pitches.

Early Madrigals

The first madrigals were written in Italy around the year 1520. As mentioned earlier, the lyrics of the madrigals were taken from popular poetry. The music was added to enhance the emotion of the text.

The first madrigals were primarily serious or sad in nature, so the music used to enhance the poetry reflected this. While the emotion is somewhat subdued, this was considered a significant shift in musical style and expression for the time.In an example from Jacques Arcadelt, one of the premier madrigal composers of the time, we can hear the four voices singing in rhythm together with light emotion.

Mid-Century Madrigals

As the 16th century progressed, madrigals incorporated more emotion and greater care was taken to reflect the text within the music. Composers also added a fifth vocal part, and sometimes a sixth part was added, as well. The style was evolving to have more diversity of rhythm as compared to earlier madrigals.Listen to this example by Cipriano de Rore.

As compared to the early period example, there are more independent rhythms being sung and the expression of the text is richer. Based on a love poem, the composer is expressing the idea that while parting is such sweet sorrow, reuniting with one’s beloved brings great joy.

Late Italian Madrigals

All of the madrigal development in the early and mid-16th century set the stage for the pinnacle of the madrigal in late 16th century. Composers used new techniques to weave the music and poetry into something greater than just the sum of its parts.One technique called word painting is where the pitches of music literally reflect the meaning of the text. For example, if the text says ‘running down,’ the notes will sound descending.

Similarly, some composers, like Luca Marenzio used music to express contrast and visual details. In his madrigal, Solo e pensoso, Marenzio uses the words of the poem to dictate the pace or rhythm of the notes, such as quick-moving notes for the words ‘flee’ and ‘escape’, or slowly ascending pitches to depict the poet walking alone, as heard here.Another new technique that was used was chromaticism. This involved using pitches to create tension in an expression of pain or grief.

So instead of a typically pleasant sound like this, or even a sad sound like this, chromaticism draws in unexpected pitches for a somewhat shocking sound. This technique is still used today, especially in horror films.One famous madrigal composer known for using chromaticism was Carlo Gesualdo.

He is well known for his highly emotional madrigals, such as Moro, lasso. One other Italian great was Claudio Monteverdi. He wrote many madrigals, which later influenced him to write some of the first operas.

English Madrigals

Across the pond from Italy, English madrigals were all the rage. They had a bit of a late start, since they had religious and political wars going on, but once the English madrigal started in the late 1500s, it was there to stay. At the time, England seemed to have a bit of an infatuation with Italy; Shakespeare based his stories there, English artists were influenced by the Italian humanists. And so the Italian madrigal proved to be just another link in the chain.The English madrigals tended to be less serious and lighter in topic, and as such, the music reflected accordingly. The simpler texts and humor led English composers to add nonsense words like ‘fa-la-la,’ as in the Christmas carol Deck the Halls.

The English composer Thomas Weelkes wrote one of the most famous English madrigals called As Vesta Was From Latmos Hill Descending. In this composition, Weelkes used a great deal of word painting, such as the words ‘ascending’ and ‘descending,’ where the pitches rise and fall, or the words ‘two by two’ and ‘three by three,’ which were musically represented by two singers and then three singers, respectively. He also wrote much of his own poetry with the intention of musical setting, so he was able to choose words specifically for word painting and visual depiction.

Lesson Summary

In all, the madrigal may be the most important secular genre of the 16th century. Because both singing and poetry were considered important, madrigals were used throughout Europe and across many social classes.Composers enhanced the meaning of text through techniques such as word painting and chromaticism. The musical experimentation of late century Italian composers Carlo Gesualdo, Luca Marenzio and Claudio Monteverdi brought musical poetry to new heights and set the ball rolling for new dramatic styles to be created in the 17th century.

English composers, such as Thomas Weelkes, brought humor and lightness to the genre, with substantial word painting and original poetry geared toward musical application.

Learning Outcomes

After finishing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Recognize the importance of madrigal music in the 16th century
  • Recall the main influential composers of this music
  • Remember the characteristics of the English madrigal

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