Songs of the Renaissance: Madrigals and Vocal Parts

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  • 1:05 Characteristics of the…
  • 2:22 Early Madrigals
  • 3:17 Mid-Century Madrigals
  • 4:16 Late Italian Madrigals
  • 6:33 English Madrigals
  • 8:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

A key musical component of the Renaissance period was the madrigal. In this lesson, learn how the complex church vocal music from the end of the Medieval Era was transformed into singable melodies made for the secular courts and the educated public.

Singing in the Renaissance

Current pop culture has spawned an infatuation with singing, particularly for boy bands that make young girls swoon. Strangely, this infatuation with singing is not unlike the Renaissance Era, roughly 1450-1600, when singing was valued by the church, the elite and the common people alike. Learning to sing was actually considered as important to learn as reading, which is no small statement, considering the printing press had just been invented.

With the rise of wealthy aristocrats, music patronage started shifting away from church and into royal courts. And because singing and reading were both highly valued, they made a perfect combination in the madrigal. A madrigal is a secular multi-voice song sung without accompaniment that has poetry-based lyric.

Characteristics of the Madrigal

The great interest in poetry at this time led composers to take poems and enhance them with a musical setting. They were often about love and were sometimes humorous or satirical. There were typically 4 to 6 voices in any given song, and all voices played an equal role, meaning no one part was more important than another. This is partially because the madrigals were sung a cappella, or without instrumental accompaniment.

The first madrigals started with four vocal parts: the soprano, the alto, the tenor and the bass. The two higher parts, the soprano and the alto, are typically sung by women, while the two lower parts, the tenor and bass, are typically sung by men. These voices were sometimes combined where the singers sang the same rhythm with different pitches and other times with different rhythms and different pitches.

Early Madrigals

The first madrigals were written in Italy around the year 1520. As mentioned earlier, the lyrics of the madrigals were taken from popular poetry. The music was added to enhance the emotion of the text. The first madrigals were primarily serious or sad in nature, so the music used to enhance the poetry reflected this. While the emotion is somewhat subdued, this was considered a significant shift in musical style and expression for the time.

In an example from Jacques Arcadelt, one of the premier madrigal composers of the time, we can hear the four voices singing in rhythm together with light emotion.

Mid-Century Madrigals

As the 16th century progressed, madrigals incorporated more emotion and greater care was taken to reflect the text within the music. Composers also added a fifth vocal part, and sometimes a sixth part was added, as well. The style was evolving to have more diversity of rhythm as compared to earlier madrigals.

Listen to this example by Cipriano de Rore. As compared to the early period example, there are more independent rhythms being sung and the expression of the text is richer. Based on a love poem, the composer is expressing the idea that while parting is such sweet sorrow, reuniting with one's beloved brings great joy.

Late Italian Madrigals

All of the madrigal development in the early and mid-16th century set the stage for the pinnacle of the madrigal in late 16th century. Composers used new techniques to weave the music and poetry into something greater than just the sum of its parts.

One technique called word painting is where the pitches of music literally reflect the meaning of the text. For example, if the text says 'running down,' the notes will sound descending. Similarly, some composers, like Luca Marenzio used music to express contrast and visual details. In his madrigal, Solo e pensoso, Marenzio uses the words of the poem to dictate the pace or rhythm of the notes, such as quick-moving notes for the words 'flee' and 'escape', or slowly ascending pitches to depict the poet walking alone, as heard here.

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