Timeline: The Influence Of The 16th Century Madrigal

Jul 17, 2017

This week, we will explore the influence of the 16th century madrigal and discuss its place in the music leading up to the Baroque.

In the aria "Every Valley Shall be Exalted" from Handel’s Messiah, the music imitates the text as it’s sung. “Every valley” creates a melodic rise and fall as if it is painting the mountains themselves. In another excerpt, the word “crooked” is painted with a moving line while the word “plain” is sung on one simple, sustained note.

This type of text painting or word painting is referred to as a “madrigalism.” We use this term to describe any moment when music changes texture, tone, range, volume, or any number of aspects as an illustrative device to depict what the text is saying. A “madrigalism” is a way that a composer can break rules and expectations in order to serve the dramatic needs of a piece of music.

The term itself refers to the madrigal; a style of part-song that flourished during the renaissance. In the madrigals, the text was "King" and the music served the lyrics, not the other way around. They were usually set to short love poems written for four to six voices, sometimes sung with accompaniment, but in our modern performances they are almost always a cappella. We see these madrigals first appear in Italy in the 1530s.  A good example of an Italian madrigal is entitled Il dolce e bianco cigno, or The White and Gentle Swan by the composer Jacques Arcadelt,

Madrigals were usually set to short love poems written for four to six voices, sometimes sung with accompaniment, but in our modern performances they are almost always a cappella.

This vocal style spread across the western world during the 16th century, becoming particularly popular in England thanks in large part to the work of Thomas Morley. In the 1590s his compositions brought the Italian madrigal style into vogue in England. As good example is Morley's April is in My Mistress’ Face, one of the best known English madrigals.

The madrigal offered composers a means to break the strict rules of counterpoint and harmony in order to serve a dramatic end; an important concept in the work of Monteverdi and the century that was to come.