By: Elaine Schneider
Learn about the Italian and English madrigals. As poetry set to twelve lines, the madrigal was a popular Renaissance music form that was emotional, yet refined.
Early madrigal music dates back to 14th century Italy as a developed two- or three-line verse supported by identical music. The form evolved over the years and by the 16th century came under the influence of the Italian poet Petrarch. His work became the inspiration for Italian madrigal texts.
The Italian madrigal of the 16th century consisted of a refined four to six parts, offering twelve lines of lyric verse with love, desire, humor, satire, politics, or pastoral scenes as the theme. Madrigals were Renaissance in thought and feeling, a secular expression of an aristocratic age.
In some instances, the top part was sung while contrasting parts were played on instruments. Other performances gave all the lines to singers. Italian madrigal form was partial to overlapping cadences and one-time through performances with no repeats.
Early Italian madrigal composers of note include Phillippe Verdelot, Cipriano de Rore, and Costaneo Festa. In 1542, Cipriano de Rore published the first book of five-voice madrigals. Initially, madrigals were composed for the performers' enjoyment. Notes and cadences were emphasized in the music, but audiences were kept unaware of the intricacies of the scores. As the madrigal grew in popularity, composers changed in their intent, more conscious of virtuoso performance and the audience's pleasure.
In the 1560's, madrigal composers experimented with chromatics, building harmonies based on all twelve semitones of the octave (utilizing whole and half steps of the scale). Nicola Vincentino, Luca Marenzio, Carlo Gesualdo, and Clauio Monteverdi introduced madrigals rich in these chromatic harmonies.
Madrigals of the late Renaissance period were dramatic with emotional overtones displayed both through the music and the lyrics. Italian madrigals were recognized as the beginning of "word painting," the combining of text and music to create a feeling.
English composers adopted the Italian madrigal and developed it into a style that was reflective of the Elizabethan age. The English preferred simplistic lyrics and translated Italian madrigals to less complicated text versions, but the English wholly incorporated the word painting techniques created by the Italian composers.
English madrigal composers include Thomas Morley, John Wilbye, John Farmer, Thomas Weelkes, and Orlando Gibbons. Original madrigals from these English composers were more upbeat than the Italian madrigals, festive and often humorous. The English madrigal introduced nonsensical syllables such as "fa la la." English madrigals repeated sections, changed from homophonic to polyphonic texture, and typically set the last line to chords.
In both the Italian and the English madrigal, word painting became an art form, utilizing style and technique. For instance, in John Farmer's "Fair Phyllis," the opening line is "Fair Phyllis I saw sitting alone." It is sung by a single female voice, emphasizing the lonely state of the heroine.
When a line in the text indicates that Phyllis's love "wanders up and down," the movement of the notes is downward on the scale, repeating the phrase at different pitch levels. Both of these examples demonstrate the compelling pairing of lyrics with musical dynamics to illustrate or magnify an emotion, action, or setting.
Composers of Italian and English madrigals published works that provide music historians with explanations of the transitions of the time as well as examples of the music. In 1597, English composer Thomas Morley published "A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practical Musicke," a summation of Renaissance music. Adrian Willaert, founder of the Venetian School and a strong proponent of madrigals using instruments, published "Musica Nova," a collection definitive of the form.
Both the Italian and English madrigals fostered new techniques in combining poetic texts and harmonic melody. These elements of style paved the way to the Baroque Period of music, during which time the polychoral opera took word painting, emotion, and drama through music to even greater heights.