What Is a Madrigal?
A madrigal is a song for several voices, unaccompanied by any musical instrument. The madrigal originated in Italy in the 14th Century as a short poem about love or the countryside, set to vocal music. It became very popular in the 16th Century when some Italian composers took the light-hearted, but often bawdy, songs sung in the streets and turned them into suitable entertainment for their rich patrons.
They wrote songs which could be sung by ladies and gentlemen at home. These part songs were usually for five voices. At the beginning of the 17th Century several books of madrigals by the composer Claudio Monteverdi were reprinted. This indicated their great success, for music printing had been invented only 20 years earlier.
The fashion for madrigals spread to England where they were sung at the court of King Henry VIII. The Puritan Revolution of the 1640s put an end to this type of singing, but madrigals again became popular in the early 18th Century. It became customary for people to entertain themselves at home by gathering round a table and singing madrigals. A Madrigal Society, formed at that time, still exists.
Madrigals influenced secular music in many other parts of Europe, and in some areas composers wrote actual madrigals, either in Italian or in their own languages. The amount of influence was roughly inversely proportional to the strength of the local secular musical tradition: for example France, which had the robust and sophisticated form of the chanson during the 16th century, never adopted the madrigal – they did not need it.
However some French composers, especially those who had been to Italy, used madrigalian techniques in their writing. These composers included cosmopolitan figures such as Orlande de Lassus, who wrote in at least four languages, as well as Frenchmen such as Claude Le Jeune.
The Netherlands was a major center of music publishing, and since Italian madrigals were easily available from publishing houses, some native composers wrote works either in influence or imitation. Cornelis Verdonck, Hubert Waelrant, and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck all composed madrigals in Italian.
Germany was the home of several prolific composers of madrigals, including Lassus (in Munich) and Philippe de Monte (Vienna), the most prolific madrigal composer of all. Many Germans had gone south to study in Italy, particularly with the Venetians; Hans Leo Hassler studied with Andrea Gabrieli, and Heinrich Schütz with Monteverdi. Each brought back to Germany what they learned, and wrote madrigals or madrigalian pieces both in Italian and German.
Musicians from the courts of Denmark and Poland also studied the Italian style either in their home countries or in Italy; Marenzio himself had worked in Poland near the end of his life. Caspar Ziegler from the University of Wittenberg, who collaborated with Schütz, wrote a treatise Von den Madrigalen, published in 1653.
In early 18th century England, singing of madrigals was revived by catch and glee clubs, and later by the formation of institutions such as the Madrigal Society in London formed in 1741. As a result of the printing and singing of madrigals, particularly English ones, the madrigal became the best-known form of Renaissance secular music in England in the 19th century, even before the rediscovery of works by composers such as Palestrina.
Choral groups continue to sing madrigals to the present day. The Philippine Madrigal Singers, which specializes in this genre, is an internationally awarded choir. The King’s Singers is an award-winning all-male madrigal group performing internationally. It specializes both in traditional madrigal pieces as well as contemporary music.
The Elizabethan Madrigal Singers, a madrigal choir based in Aberystwyth, Wales, is the university chamber choir for Aberystwyth University, as well as being the oldest society at the university. In the United States madrigal choirs are particularly popular with high school and college groups, and often sing in the context of a madrigal dinner. This may also include a play, Renaissance costumes, and instrumental chamber music. The focus is generally on the repertoire of the English Madrigal School. The first composer trying to revive the art of madrigal singing in the 20th century was Paul Hindemith. He wrote 12 pieces for 5 voices on poems by Josef Weinheber.