Unusual Madrigals

Written by Anne E. Johnson

“Madrigal” is one of those words that showed up in European music under vague circumstances, then stuck around long enough to change its meaning a few times. Most of us think of a madrigal as an a cappella vocal work in Italian or English from the late 16th or early 17th century. Here are a few recordings that show what else it can be.

Take, for example, the Madrigali et symfonie, Op. 2, by Biagio Marini (1594-1663), an accomplished Italian composer who worked in the musical capitals of Italy and was a colleague of the great Monteverdi. He’s hardly a household name, but in his own day the courtiers with money thought he was one of the best. To Marini, “madrigali et symfonie” would have basically meant “vocal and instrumental works.”

A 2017 recording of this 1618 collection, on the Tactus label, is by the Italian baroque ensemble Musicali Affetti and the vocal group RossoPorpora. By Marini’s time, the Renaissance was waning, thanks largely to Monteverdi’s innovative strides in making voices and instruments interact and letting textual meaning guide his writing for voice. Marini was clearly good at his job: he kept abreast of the latest trends and used them in his own compositions.

“Perché fuggi tra’ salci” has just one person singing, soprano Alicia Amo (showing off some deft baroque ornaments!), accompanied by harpsichord and viola da gamba. But why is this a madrigal? Because Marini says it is. By the early 17th century, a madrigal was pretty much whatever you wanted it to be. A new genre, opera, had been around for almost 30 years, so both composers and audiences were getting used to dramatic solo singing with accompaniment.

Yet, thanks to the persistent success of madrigals in the previous few generations, the term still garnered respect; publishers in particular were determined to milk the madrigal cash cow until it was dry. “Madrigals” like this one (not to mention Monteverdi’s spectacularly theatrical Eighth Book of Madrigals: Songs of Love and War) show that the word was losing its specific meaning and being swallowed up by the concept of aria:


The Renaissance madrigal tradition did not evaporate in a day, however. Or even in a decade. In “Se nel sereno viso,” Marini employs techniques that had been common since Franco-Flemish composers working in Italy had invented what most of us think of as “madrigals”: Five-voice polyphony with rhythmically free phrasing, and (more recent, and thanks to Monteverdi) the generous application of dissonance to express the meaning of the text:


Some people believe the term “madrigale” is an Italian coinage combining “matrix” (womb) and “canto” (song) to refer to a simple song. Some believe it’s from “mater” (mother) and “lingua” (language), meaning a song in the mother tongue as opposed to Latin. Everyone agrees that the word showed up by the early 14th century, which is why these late medieval pieces that originally used this label are now known as trecento madrigals. They’re quite different from the well-known Renaissance genre.

So, let’s plunge back in time – not just back in history for the type of music, but also back two decades for the recording — and have a listen to music from the Rossi Codex, one of the best surviving sources for 14th-century secular songs. Ensemble Micrologus, an Italian group that has been digging up and revivifying little-known early music since 1984, made the Opus 111 album D’Amor cantando: ballate e madrigali veneti (Singing of love: Venetian ballads and madrigals) in 1995.

The compositional style is called Italian Ars nova, with its focus on a) secular vocal music in the vernacular language and b) putting the melody in the highest voice. The tunes called “madrigali” usually had two vocal lines with instrumental counterpoint. The stanzas would be followed by a contrasting chorus or “ritornello” (yes, the same word that became popular among Baroque composers three centuries later to describe a recurring refrain in instrumental music).

“Su la rivera” starts with two shawms, predecessors to the oboe. When the one singer comes in, he performs the upper written line, while the shawms read and improvise around the written lower counterpoint. In this period, using an instrument to stand in for a vocal line was far more common than writing pieces specifically for instruments to play.


On the other hand, Micrologus recorded “Lavàndose la mane” with no instruments, but two women singers. The vocalists’ perfect intonation focuses the open fifths and unisons, making the two voices seem more like one. Typical of the Italian Ars nova, the upper voice strikes the ear as the melody; that seems normal to us today, but back then the standard approach was to let a middle voice (called a “tenor” – from Latin “to hold” — because it held the melody) sing the main musical material, and then counterpoint would be built above and below it.


Much as I love hanging out in the Middle Ages, let’s pilot this time machine forward a few hundred years to find out how our own era defines the genre in question. Consider the recording Madrigals (Tzadik Records, 2016), which features works so labeled by American composer John Zorn (b. 1953). They’re scored for six female voices, unaccompanied, so you’d expect them to be Neo-Renaissance. In fact, they seem more like a deconstruction of the very concept of madrigal.

From Book I comes the “Epipsychideon.” The title translates to “About a little soul,” and perhaps refers to the famed Percy Shelley poem. In Renaissance madrigals, a revered poem would provide the text for a madrigal. Zorn has taken the title but not the text, leaving the piece itself almost wordless. And the most obvious historical allusion reaches way back to the time of the trecento madrigals in the 14th century: The distinctive technique called hocket was named after the Latin word for “hiccup” because different voices toss single notes of a musical line back and forth to each other. Zorn exacerbates this acoustical strangeness by also having the line make big leaps in pitch as it gets passed around:


Zorn is certainly not the only modern composer to write new works in tribute to this old genre. Here are the King’s Singers performing one of the Nonsense Madrigals by György Ligeti (Sony Classical). These witty, bizarre bonbons, composed in the late 1980s through early ʼ90s, conjure up the spirit of the English madrigal of the late 16th and early 17th centuries (Thomas Morley and Thomas Weelkes, for example).


It looks like the term “madrigal” is here to stay and will never stop inspiring composers to use it however they see fit.

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