A Brief History of the Madrigal
by Brian Peter Russell

The madrigal began in Modena, Italy as an outgrowth of a 14th/15th century Italian form called the frottola. When the cathedrals and nobility in Tuscany and Lomdardy began hiring Burgundian (also known as Flemish) choir-masters like Jacob Arcadelt, Josquin des Prez and Philip Verdelot, the music began to change. The Flemish composers brought their experiments in polyphony with them. What had started as a native Italian style (mostly block-harmonized songs about love and loss), began to use more and more polyphony and "madrigalism" (or "word-painting") to be more expressive of the text.

One of the techniques used by the Flemish (and their Italian students) was imitation. This "imitation" was rarely full canon (like a round), but instead could take a different pitch from the first part as the starting point for the new part. Also unlike rounds, each part might start at a different time interval from the beginning of the piece. Each individual part-beginning was called a "point", and voice-parts coming in later are said to be "taking up the point", or providing "counterpoint" (even though they might actually be exactly the same music as the point).

The reputation of the Flemish and their new Italian friends spread thoughout Europe, and their music quickly followed. The French continued the use of the native term chanson (meaning song,which is used for all French art-songs, regardles of the actual underlying form, even to this day). In Spain, the native form  was the villancico, which often used a musical structure that repeated choral sections in an ABABA pattern.  Upon reaching Germany, and then England (in the 1580's), the Italian name was retained, but the music became even more expressive of the text, resulting in fully-polyphonic "through-composed" (i.e., having no verse structure) settings.

Even the Roman, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, was known to have written a number of madrigals, some of which are presented here. But, (like the much later Carl Orff, who disassociated himself from almost all of his prior works after Carmina Burana) he asked his publisher to withdraw these earlier compositions when he applied for a position in the choir of the Sistine Chapel, calling them frivolous, even though at least one pope, the Medici Clement VII, is known to have composed madrigals while a cardinal.

There were other rather closely-related forms, namely:

The Canzonet: short, multi-verse compositions, which may involve extensive polyphony, and frequently involve either an AABB or ABA structure,

The Ballet (usually pronounced like ballot): These are originally dances and are similar to the lighter madrigals of Luca Marenzio (who inspired the Englishman Thomas Morley), and which use nonsense syllables (most often fa-la-la) in order to fill out the music.

The English madrigal, which didn't really exist until 1585 (when English composers were finally able to turn some attention away from providing music in English for the Church), and following the continental style, died out by 1625. It is considered by many to be the height of choral compositional skill. In England, Thomas Morley (who was the publisher of most of the English composers) thought them ideal to be sung by the diners after supper, by the hosts and guests in the emerging English middle-class, and not as the concert performance music it has since become.

At least two of the master composers of the genre (Morley and John Dowland) wrote singing manuals. Morley's 1597 book, "A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke", is by today's standards, neither plain and easy, nor the music practical. It talks about vocal technique, and makes the point that such singing was quite normal in middle-class homes (at least when entertaining), and that the lack of such an ability was considered uncommon, and the product of poor education.

But Morley was no disinterested author. He was the sole publisher of music in England, having obtained a patent from Elizabeth I in 1596 for the importation, printing, and publishing of music and music paper. Thus, if you wanted to print music or music paper, or bring it into England from anywhere else, you had to pay a license fee to Morley.

One might think this quite an easy way to make money, but enforcement was left to the patent-holder making civil suit in the courts, and the previous patent-holders (the composers and members of the Chapel Royal, ThomasTallis and William Byrd) had been forced to seek relief from their patent from the Queen, who considered not issuing one again.

If you are viewing a simple page rather than a framed website, please click HOME to see the full website.