History of the Madrigal

Music of Yesterday

The derivation of the word has so hopelessly perplexed all who have attempted to trace it to its source that, until some new light shall be thrown upon the subject, further discussion would seem to be useless. We must, therefore, leave our readers to form their own judgment upon the four theories which have been most generally accepted; namely, (1) that the word is derived from the Italian, madre (mother), and signifies a poem addressed as is said to have been the case with the first madrigals to Our Lady; (2) that it comes from the Greek word, (Lat. and Ital. mandra, a sheepfold), and was suggested by the generally pastoral character of the composition; (3) that it is a corruption of the Spanish word, madrugada (the dawn), and is used in Italian as the equivalent of Mattinata (a Morning Song); (4) that it owes its origin to the name of a town situated in Old Castile. On one point, however, all authorities are agreed: viz. that the name was first given to a certain kind of poem, and afterwards transferred to the music to which it was sung–which music was always, during the best periods of art, written for three or more voices, in the ancient Ecclesiastical Modes, and without instrumental accompaniment.

Our actual knowledge of the condition of the Madrigal before the invention of printing is sadly imperfect; but, in the absence of positive evidence, analogy leaves us little cause to doubt that its earlier phases must have corresponded, as closely as we know its later ones to have done, with those of the Motet–for the application of Discant to secular melody must have suggested the one no less surely than its association with Plain song gave birth to the other. The originators of this process were, in all probability, the Troubadours and Minnesingers, who so strongly influenced the progress of popular music in the Middle Ages; and there is reason to believe that the rarity of early MS. records is due to the fact that they were accustomed to sing their Discant extempore–or, as it was formerly called, alla mente. But long before this first glimmering of science resulted in the invention of Counterpoint the age of chivalry had passed away, and the minstrels, as a corporate body, had ceased to exist. Hence, the farther development of the Madrigal devolved upon the ecclesiastical musicians, who cherished it tenderly and brought all the resources of their art to bear upon it; treating it, technically, exactly as they treated their compositions for the Church, though, in the aesthetic character of the two styles–founded on an instinctive perception of the contrast between sacred and profane poetry–they observed a marked difference. This we may readily understand from the description left us by Thomas Morley, who, writing in 1597, tells us, that, ‘As for the music, it is next unto the Motet, the most artificial and to men of understanding the most delightful. If therefore you will compose in this kind you must possess your self with an amorous humor (for in no composition shall you proue admirable except you put on, and possess your self wholly with that vaine wherein you compose) so that you must in your music be wavering like the wind, sometime wanton, sometime drooping, sometime grave and staid, other while effeminate, you may maintain points and revert them, use triplaes, and shew the uttermost of your variety, and the more variety you show the better shall you please.’ In the 16th century these directions were observed to the letter–so closely, that it would be difficult to give a more graphic sketch of polyphonic music in its secular dress than that comveyed by Morely’s quaint expressions.

The most ancient specimen of secular polyphonic music now known to exist is the famous canon ‘Sumer is icumen in,’ preserved, among the Harleian MSS., in the British Museum. Its extreme antiquity is, indeed, indisputable; but it can scarcely be called a Madrigal, notwithstanding the rustic character of its words. The true Madrigal is unquestionably the offspring of the great Flemish school. We hear of it, in the Low Countries, as early at least as the middle of the 15th century, when it was already well known to the Netherlanders in the form of a polyphonic song, often of very elaborate construction, and always written in strict conformity with the laws of the old Church Modes. These characteristics–which it retained to the last in all countries and through all scholastic changes–are unmistakable signs of its close relationship to the Motet, of which we have also ample proof, in the certainty that it originated in counterpoint on a Canto fermo. As a general rule, this Canto fermo was naturally supplied by the melody of some popular Chanson; but, just as we sometimes find a popular melody intruding itself into the Mass, so in these early Madrigals we are occasionally startled by the apparition of some well known fragment of severe Ecclesiastical Plain song; as in Agricola’s Belle sur toutes, in which the lighter theme is almost profanely contrasted with that of Tota pulchra es, Maria–a combination which Ambros naively compares to the song of a pair of lovers, who quietly carry on their discourse in the two upper parts, while a holy monk lectures them in the bass.

For the earliest published copies of these interesting works we are indebted to Ottaviano dei Petrucci–the inventor of the process by which music was first printed from movable types–whose three collections, entitled Harmonice musices Odhecaton. A. (Venice 1501), Canti B. numero Cinquanta B. (ib. 1501), and Canti C. n cento cinquanta C. (ib 1503), were long supposed to be lost, and now only exist in the form of unique copies of the first and second preserved in the Library of the Liceo Filarmonico at Bologna, and a splendidly bound exemplar of the third in the Hofbibliothek at Vienna. In these precious volumes we find a copious selection from the secular works of Busnois, Okeghem, Johannes Tinctor, Hobrecht, Regis, Caron, Josquin des Pres, Alexander Agricola, Brumel, Pierre de la Rue, and twenty nine other writers, whose Chansons illustrate the first period in the history of the Flemish Madrigal–a period no less interesting than instructive to the critical student, for it is here that we first find science and popular melody working together for a common end.

The second period, though its printed records date only thirty five years later, shows an immense advance in art. Its leading spirits, Jacques Arcadelt, Philipp Verdelot, Giaches de Wert, Huberto Waelrant, and some other writers of their school, were not only accomplished contrapuntists, but had all learned the difficult art of restraining their ingenuity within due bounds, when simplicity of treatment was demanded by the character of the words they selected for their theme. Hence, they have left us works, which for purity of style and graceful flow of melody can scarcely be exceeded. Arcadelt, though a true Fleming by taste and education as well as by birth, spent much of his time in Italy, and published his First Book of Madrigals at Venice in 1538, with such success, that within eighty years it ran through no less than sixteen editions. Five other books followed containing, besides his own works, a number by other celebrated writers, among whom, however, he stands his ground nobly. From a copy of the fourth edition of the First Book, preserved in the British Museum, we transcribe a few bars of one of the loveliest Madrigals he ever wrote–Il bianco e dolce cigno–which, we should imagine, needs only publication in an attainable form in order to become a favorite with every Madrigal Society in England.

The few concluding bars of this contain some imitations, the smoothness of which is perfectly delicious:

Though a far less prolific writer than Arcadelt, Waelrant was a true genius and a true disciple of the good old Flemish school. His Symphonia Angelica printed at Antwerp in 1594 contains compositions by some of the best of his contemporaries; but none more beautiful than his own Vorrei morire–well known in England and frequently sung, as ‘Hard by a fountain,’ though the English words make no attempt to convey the meaning of the original Italian. Of Verdelot’s numerous works, very few, unhappily, have been handed down to us with all the parts complete; we possess, however, quite enough of his writings to prove that, like his great contemporary, Giaches de Wert, he was deeply imbued with the national style; which, from first to last, was clear in its construction, smooth in its flow of melody, euphonious in its harmonic combinations, and, though less rich in contrapuntal embroidery than the later Italian schools, never wanting either in interest or in animation. The last great composer by whom this peculiar style was cultivated, in northern Europe, was Orlando de Lasso, who, though his fame rests chiefly upon his ecclesiastical music, has left us many books of splendid madrigals, which may almost be said to form, of themselves, a third period. With him, the school of the Netherlands came to an end. But long before his death the Madrigal had been transplanted to other countries; and in Italy especially, it took firm root, and bore abundant fruit.

The first really great Italian Madrigal writer was Costanzo Festa, whose delicious Quando ritrovo la mia pastorella, printed in Areadelt’s Third Book, has enjoyed a greater degree of popularity, in England, under its familiar title, ‘Down in a flowery vale,’ than any other work of the kind that ever was imported hither. This find composition bears evident traces of the Flemish manner; as do, more or less, all the works belonging to what may be called the first Roman period. In the second period this foreign influence was entirely destroyed, and the true Roman style inaugurated by the appearance of Palestrina’s ‘Primo libro di Madrigali a quattro voci,’ in 1555, followed by a ‘Libro secondo,’ in 1586, and two books of ‘Madrigali spirituali,’ in 1581, and 1594–the year of the great composer’s death. It may be well said, that in these four volumes Palestrina has shown his command over all styles. The character of the ‘Madrigali spirituali’–more serious than that of the Chanson, but less so than that of the motet–shows a deep appreciation of the difference which should always subsist between ordinary sacred music and music intended to be actually used in the services of the church. The spirit of the secular madrigals changes every moment with the sense of the words. The second volume (that of 1586) contains a more than usually beautiful example–Alla riva del Tebro–in which the grief of a despairing lover is described in discords as harsh as any that we are accustomed to hear in the works of the most modern composers. Yet every one of these discords is prepared and resolved, in accordance with the strictest laws of counterpoint; and these very laws are used as vehicles for the expression of all that music can ever be made to express. For instance, the lovely cadence at the word morte, when sung with the necessary ritarando, tells, more plainly than any verbal explanation could possibly have done, how all such woes as those alluded to are healed for ever by death:

Such works as these naturally excited the emulation of contemporary composers, and led each one to do his best for the advancement of a style so new and captivating. Palestrina’s example was worthily imitated by his successor in office, Felice Anerio, whose three volumes of ‘Madrigali spirituali,’ printed at Rome in 1585, were succeeded by two books of secular madrigals of exquisite beauty, and a charming set of Canzonette for three and four voices issued in 1603. Francesco Anerio, and the brothers, Giovanni Maria and Bernardino Nanini, contributed a large store of volumes of equal merit. Ruggiero Giovanelli turned his genius to good account; and the Roman school, now in its highest state of perfection, boasted many other madrigalists of superlative excellence. Foremost among these stood Luca Marenzio, who devoted his best energies to the advancement of secular art, producing nine books of madrigals for five voices between the years 1580 and 1589, six, for six voices, within a very few years afterwards, and many later ones, all of which were so well appreciated that, even during his lifetime, he was honored with the well earned title of Il piu dolce Cigno d’ Italia. The style of this ‘Sweetest Swan’ was, by nature, a little less grave than that of Palestrina; but, like that great master, he possessed the happy faculty of accommodating it to all possible circumstances, and did so with such unvarying success, that he may be justly regarded as the most satisfactory representative of the third Roman period. His little madrigal, Vezzosi augelli, scored by P. Martini, in the second volume of his Saggio de Contrappunto, is a miracle of prettiness, and contrasts strangely enough with the deep sadness displayed in the opening bars of his Ahi! dispietate morte!

But is was not in Rome alone that the Madrigal was cultivated with success. It found an equally congenial home in Venice, where it was first introduced by Adrian Willaert, who, though by birth and education a Fleming, did so much for the city of his adoption that he is universally represented as the founder of the great Venetian school. His influence, and that of his countryman and faithful disciple, Ciprian de Rore, may be traced throughout its entire course, from beginning to end. Even in the works of Giovanni Croce it is clearly perceptible, notwithstanding the marked individuality which places the stamp of independent genius on everything he wrote. Andrea Gabrielli, and his nephew, Giovanni, Fra Costanzo Porta, and Orazio Vecchi, were all deeply imbued with the same spirit; Hans Leo Hasler carried it to Nuremberg, where it wrought a good and lasting work; and Gastoldi–believed by Morley to have been the inventor of the ‘Fa la’–was really no more than the exponent of an idea which had already been freely used by Willaert, and more than one of his immediate followers. It may, in truth, be said that Flemish art failed to attain its full maturity, until it was transplanted from the Netherlands to Venice. All honor to the great republic for developing its rich resources. It was a glorious trust committed to her; and she fulfilled it nobly.

In Florence the Madrigal attained a high degree of popularity–at first in the form of the Frottola, which, Cerone tells us, is to be distinguished from the true madrigal by the poverty of its contrapuntal artifices–afterwards, in the more fully developed productions of Francesco Corteccia, Matteo Rampollini, Pietro Masacconi, and Baccio Moschini. But its course here was brought to an untimely close by a growing passion for instrumental accompaniment which entirely destroyed the old Florentine love for pure vocal music. In Naples it flourished brilliantly; though rather in the shape of the Villanella–the Neapolitan equivalent of Gastoldi’s Fa la–than in a more serious guise. In France it was but slightly prized, notwithstanding the number of Chansons adapted, by the early Netherlanders, to well known specimens of French popular poetry; and in Germany it failed to supplant the national taste for the Volkslied, with which it had very little in common, and which, before the middle of the 16th century, was itself pressed into the service of the all absorbing Chorale. But in England it took root as firmly as ever it had done, either in Rome or in Venice, and gave rise to a national school which is well able to hold its own against any rival. The old canon, ‘Sumer is icumen in,’ has been cited as a proof that polyphonic music originated in England. This position cannot be maintained. The beginnings of Counterpoint have, hitherto, eluded all inquiry. But we have already shown that the Madrigal was invented in the Netherlands; and that the first published fruits of its discovery were issued at Venice in 1501. The first polyphonic songs that appeared in England were printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1530, in a volume of the existence of which neither Burney nor Hawkins seems to have been aware, though it contains a highly interesting collection of works, both sacred and secular, by Taverner and other English composers. No second collection appeared till 1571, when a volume of much inferior merit was printed for Thomas Whythorne by John Daye. In 1588, William Byrd issued his first book of ‘Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs of sadnes and pietie': and , in the same year, Nicholas Yonge–a singer at St. Paul’s, who secured many madrigals from his Italian correspondents–published, under the title of ‘Music Transalpina,’ a volume containing more than fifty pieces, selected from the works of Noe Faigneant, Rinaldo del Mel, Giaches de Wert, Cornelius Verdonck, Palestrina, Luca Marenzio, and several more of the best Flemish and Italian composers of the day. In the preface to this volume the word Madrigal is used (to the best of our belief) for the first time in England. The compositions selected by the worthy merchant are all adapted to English verses, in which, though the diction is sometimes sufficiently uncouth, the rhythm and sense of the original Italian are often carefully imitated; and to the zeal of their enthusiastic collector, who had them constantly sung at his house, we are mainly indebted for the favor with which, from that time forth, the Madrigal was universally received in this country. Nine years later Yonge ventured upon a second collection. Meanwhile, Byrd had already published another volume of original compositions, under the title of ‘Songs of sundrie natures,’ in 1589; in 1590, Thomas Watson and edited a ‘Sett of Italian Madrigalls Englished, bot to the sense of the originall dittie, but after the affection of the Noate;’ and between 1593 and 1595 Thomas Morley had produced two books of Canzonets, one of ‘Madrigals to foure Voyces,’ and one of Ballets. The number of publications therefore, was increasing rapidly.

By this time the Madrigal had fairly established itself as a national institution; and English composers did all that in them lay to bring it to perfection. The most noted among them seemed never tired of producing new works. Simultaneously with Yonge’s second collection–that is, in 1597–appeared two original sets of great importance, one by Thomas Weelkes, the other by George Kirbye. In the same year Morely issued a third and fourth volume of Canzonets; and John Dowland delighted all Europe with his ‘First Booke of Songes or Ayres of foure parts.’ Wilbye’s first book appeared in 1598, and Bennet’s in 1599. In 1601 Morley edited a famous volume entitled ‘The Triumphes of Oriana,’ containing Madrigals for five and six voices, by Michael Este, Weelkes, Bennet, Hilton, Wilbye, and sixteen other composers besides himself. Michael Este published a volume of his own in 1604, another in 1606, and a third in 1610. Bateson’s two books were issued in 1604 and 1618. Dowland’s second book appeared in 1600, his third in 1603, and his ‘Pilgrimes Solace’ in 1612. Thomas Ford printed two boks of ‘Musicke of sundrie Kindes’ in 1607, and Wilbye his second book in 1609; Orlando Gibbons produced his first (and only) volume of ‘Madrigals and Motets’ in 1612; and even as late as 1630–exactly a century after the publication of Wynkyn de Worde’s curious volume–a book of ‘Mottects’ (all really Madrigals, though with instrumental accompaniments ad libitum) was given to the world by Martin Pierson.

Rich collections of these rare old editions–including many volumes which we have not space to particularize–are preserved in the Libraries of the British Museum, the Royal College of Music, and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; and many of the most popular madrigals have been reprinted in a modern form over and over again. It is difficult to decide upon the comparative merits of particular works, where the general standard of excellence is so high, and the number so great. An endless variety of styles is observable, even to the most superficial inquirer; but careful analysis proves this to be rather the result of individual feeling, than an index to the prevailing taste at any given epoch. This history of the school, therefore, must be comprised, like our notice of the Venetian Madrigal, within the limits of a single period; and we shall best illustrate it by selecting a few typical works for separate criticism.

Byrd’s madrigals are sometimes constructed upon a very elaborate plan, and abound in points of ingenious and delightful imitation, as do those of Weelkes, Cobbold, and Wilbye, and their contemporaries, Kirbye and Bateson–witness the following beautiful passage from the last named composer’s contribution to ‘The Triumphes of Oriana’

Morley, HIlton, and Michael Este preferred a lighter vein, and produced some of the most delicious Fa las which remain to us. Among those who affected ‘Ayres’ and Canzonets, John Dowland incontestably holds the first place. His ‘Awake, sweet Love’ and ‘Now, oh! now, I needs must part,’ are gems of art–perfect in their simplicity, yet no less masterly in design than tender in expression. Orlando Gibbons and a charming composer of earlier date–Richard Edwards–wrote like born Netherlanders. A more interesting comparison than that between the two following examples, and the extracts already given from Areadelt’s Biano e dolce Cigno can scarcely be imagined.

After the second decade of the 17th century, no work of any lasting reputation was produced, and the style soon fell into neglect. Under the Stuart dynasty polyphonic song lost much of its popularity, and the civil war crushed out all artistic feeling; but art lived on, and in due time the Madrigal, forgotten in Flanders, and replaced in Italy by a new kind of chamber music with instrumental accompaniment, merged gradually in England into the Glee–a kind of composition cultivated in no other country, and of far higher aesthetic value than its German representative, the Part song. The writer who–no doubt unconsciously–helped, more than any other, to prepare the way for this great change was Thomas Ford, whose lovely canzonets, ‘Since first I saw your face,’ and ‘There is a Ladie sweete and kind,’ hold a position as nearly as possible midway between the Madrigal and the Glee, breathing all the spirit of the one, while introducing progressions only permissible in the other. It is, however, worthy of remark–though the fact seems, hitherto, to have escaped notice–that intervals, forbidden by the strict laws of counterpoint, were tolerated in England at an earlier period than on the continent. Wilbye used the diminished triad with a boldness which would have made Anerio’s hair stand on end. Such licenses as these once permitted, the substitution of modern tonalities for the Ecclesiastical Modes followed as a matter of course–and this accomplished, the change from the Madrigal to the Glee was complete. [The art of madrigal writing, in abeyance since the death of Pearsall, has revived in modern times; the collection printed in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, under the title of ‘Choral Songs in Honour of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’ (1899), contains thirteen examples by various English composers, many of which are excellent specimens of the form.]

Having traced the history of the Madrigal thus far, it remains only to say a few words as to the manner of its performance.

It is absolutely indispensable that it should be sung without any instrumental accompaniment whatever; and, unlike the Glee (which is always performed by solo voices), it is most effective when entrusted to a moderately full, but not too numerous chorus. Changes of tone, embracing every shade of difference between ff and ppp, and introduced, sometimes by the most delicate possible gradations, and sometimes in strongly marked contrast, will be continually demanded, both by the character of the music and the sense of the words; and remembering how earnestly Morley insists upon ‘varietie,’ the student will be prepared to learn that ritardandi and accelerandi will be scarcely less frequently brought into requisition. Nevertheless, strict mechanical precision must be secured at any cost. The slightest uncertainty, either of intonation or of rhythm, will suffice to ruin everything; and to draw the line fairly between intensity of expression and technical perfection is not always an easy matter. There is, indeed, only one way of overcoming the difficulty. To imagine Damon regulating his love lorn ditty by the tick of a metronome would be adsurd. The place of teh metronome, therefore, must be supplied by a conductor capable of fully sympathising either with Damon’s woes or Daphne’s fond delights, but wholly incapable of showing the least indulgence to his singers, who must learn to obey the rise and fall of his baton, though it move but a hair’s breadth in either direction.