The Italian Madrigal of the Renaissance


As a literary type, the madrigal of the 16th century is a free imitation of the 14th century madrigal.  This literary movement was a great stimulus to musical activity. The musicians of the early 16th century , at first Netherlands composers working in Italy, cooperated with the poets in order to achieve a new style of artistic refinement and expression.  Naturally, they did not take their cue from 14th century music, which was entirely forgotten.  In fact, it was only the literary bond that justified the use of the old name for the new compositions.  As a musical composition the madrigal of the 16th century is an outgrowth of the frottole, more specifically, the canzona.

The "trecento" (14th century) madrigal was a strophic song with a refrain (ritornello).  The early 16th century madrigal as a rule made no use of a refrain and was generally a through-composed setting of a short poem, constructed as a series of (usually) overlapping sections, some contrapuntal and some homophonic, each based on a single phrase of the the text.

Most of the works composed in the first period of madrigal production, from about 1520-1550, were set for four voices; after the middle of the century five voices became the rule, although six-part settings were not infrequent.

The madrigal was a piece of vocal chamber music intended for performance with one singer to a part, however, instrumental doubling or substitution was possible and doubtless common.  Similar in form to the motet, the madrigal was usually more varied and vivid and was not subject to the restrictions of style that prevailed in church music.  Madrigal composers developed pictorial and expressive writing to an extraordinary degree, and particularly experimented with harmonic boldness.  Most madrigal texts were sentimental or erotic in subject matter, with scenes and allusions borrowed from pastoral poetry by such poets as Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso.  Madrigals were sung in all sorts of courtly social gatherings.  In Italy they were sung especially at meetings of the academies, societies organized in the 15th century for the study and discussion of science and the arts.


The leading early (1520-1550) madrigal composers were Philippe Verdelot, a Franco-Fleming who worked at Florence and Rome; Costanzo Festa of Rome, one of the few Italians in the Papal chapel in the early 16th century and one of the first Italian composers to offer serious competition to the Netherlanders; and Jacob Arcadelt, a northerner who for a time was head of the Pope's chapel and later become a member of the Royal chapel at Paris. Another innovative composer could be included included here:  Adrian Willaert, a Belgian and director of music at St. Mark's in Venice from 1527.

Of the middle period, Cipriano de Rore, a Netherlander, worked in Italy chiefly at Ferrara and Parma and also, for a short time, held the post of music director at St. Mark's as successor to his master, Willaert.  An important composer of this period was Orlando di Lasso, a significant composer of church music was also gifted as a composer of madrigals, chanson, and lied.  Philippe de Monte, like Lasso, was prodigiously productive in both the sacred and secular fields.  He published 32 collections of secular madrigals in addition to three or four books of "madrigali spirituali."  Giaches de Wert, though Netherlandish by birth, spent nearly his entire life in Italy.  He further developed the style of madrigal composition begun by Rore and exercised an important influence on Monteverdi. Wert is often considered to be a "virtuoso madrigalist" and categorized with the following three composers.

The leading madrigalists toward the end of the century were Italians. Luca Marenzio ("The Schubert of the madrigal") was a composer of remarkable artistry and technique, in whose works contrasting feelings and visual details were depicted with utmost virtuosity.  He was a genius of the lyrical and pastoral manners.  The height of chromaticism in the Italian madrigal was reached in the works of Carlo Gesualdo.  In some of his later madrigals Gesualdo carries chromatic harmony to a point that suggests Wagner.  Sometimes with Gesualdo the chromaticism is mere mannerism, style for style's sake, but at its best is a sincerely felt and deeply moving response to the text.  The musician who served as a transition figure from the Renaissance to the Baroque was Claudio Monteverdi.  His madrigals demonstrated his mastery of the madrigal technique of the late 16th century, with its smooth combination of homophonic and contrapuntal part-writing, its faithful reflection of the text, and its freedom in the use of expressive harmonies and dissonances.

Musical Style

Rhythm and Meter
From about 1540 onward, madrigalists began using smaller note-values with the common time-signature () replacing the more usual alla breve ().  These madrigals were called "madrigali a note nere" and appeared both in separate collections and in anthologies together with "normal" madrigals with alla-breve time signatures.  Rhythm, meter and tempo were often manipulated to more effectively depict the text.

Although melodic construction was individualized, some specifics can be documented.  Generally, melodies were written in modal vocabulary with leanings toward the modern tonal system.  Willaert, at the beginning of the madrigal practice, composed restrained melodic lines.  Arcadelt tended toward lyrical, attractive melodies.  Marenzio, and to a lesser extent Wert and Gesualdo, often worked with short, well-defined motives rather than building up long arches of melody.  These three composers gave to some of their voices the sorts of highly decorated runs and trills that had become a part of the improvisational arsenal of virtuoso singers.  Monteverdi also worked with brief, well-defined motives which incorporated written-out ornaments.  Some of his melodic construction is very declamatory, which leads to the recitative style of writing.

In most madrigals, the harmony is a fascinating blend of modern major tonality and ancient modality.  Beginning in the middle period, the composers' desire to vividly depict the emotions of the text, was seen in their adventurous use of harmonic progressions and chromaticism.  Chromatic passages were generally written in homophonic style so that emphasis was given to the striking character of the chord successions.  Later in the century, in the works of Gesualdo, chromaticism reached a height not seen again until Wagner.

Texture included a mixture of imitative polyphony, contrapuntally decorative homophony, and a strict homophonic, chordal style.  The early madrigals were mostly set homophonically with symmetrical phrasing and the occasional repetition which followed the text.  With Arcadelt, the style becomes more contrapuntal and the texture more refined.  The early Italian madrigal was generally set for four voices.  Beginning with Rore, the normal setting was for five voices, the fifth voice being usually paired with one of the other four as a second tenor or second soprano.  The voice parts are more nearly equal in melodic interest, and the music does not follow the text quite so rigidly -- more freedom is seen in the use of text.  In the later madrigalists' music we see various textures combined in an effort to musically depict the text (word-painting).  Monteverdi introduced the practice of "basso continuo," which allowed for solo singing with strictly instrumental harmonic support, and ushered in the Baroque style.

In contrast to the regularity of the frottola and early madrigal in which each line of text was set to its own line of music, the text of the later 16th-century madrigal was handled freely, almost capriciously, the music now moving ahead, now lingering over a particular phrase or word to give it a special intensity.  Depiction of the text was a concern for Italian madrigalists -- more and more so as the century progressed.  Word-painting by the "virtuoso madrigalists" reached a very high level of priority.

Musical Works/Examples

Festa's madrigal "Quando ritrova" is set homophonically, with symmetrical phrasing, occasional repetitions following the text, and still closely resembling the French chanson and Italian frottola.

Willaert's "Musica nova" of 1559 contains twenty-five madrigals of which all but one are settings of sonnets by Petrarch.

Rore also composed a cycle of eleven madrigals based on Petrarch's writing: "Vergini."  These fall into a small category referred to as "madrigali spirituali."  Rore's "Da le belle contrade" is a fine example of word painting.

One of the most celebrated madrigals of Marenzio is "Solo e pensoso," which is a prime example of expressive, chromatic tone-painting, with sensitive musical imagery, harmonic refinement, and skillful contrapuntal writing.

A work that represents the culmination of the 16th-century's madrigal development is "Ohime, se tanto amate" by Monteverdi.  It is an example of his flexible, animated, and vivid style, rich in musical invention, humorous and sensitive, audacious yet perfectly logical in harmony.