The scintillating court life of the late Italian Renaissance, as portrayed by Baldassare Castiglione and Niccolò Machiavelli, provides the cultural backdrop for the madrigal. Even as the dukes and princes sought to outdo one another in assembling a retinue replete with the most fashionable poets and painters, musicians across the continent were sought to add luster to the Italian courts. In chapels, professional singers lifted praise to God in the esteemed name of Il Principe, and composers dedicated their published musical volumes to their most excellent patron. And, it seems, professionals and amateurs alike (even among the burgeoning middle class) considered singing in groups a proper accomplishment and a delightful -- even flirtatious -- social activity.
The origins of the madrigal genre lie in the 14th century, as early as the Rossi Codex in the 1320s, with frequent musical settings of Arcadian texts in the vernacular. The form of these pieces generally consisted of two or three stanzas, containing two or three lines of either seven or eleven syllables. The form, though popular among native Italian composers, disappeared by the beginning of the 15th century, only to be reborn around 1530. It is the later repertory (c.1530-c.1640) which is more commonly understood under the rather loose rubric "madrigal," and which produced such a florid and beautiful history.
The texts of the 16h century madrigal quite openly point to the poetry of Francesco Petrarch (right). His work, which helped to standardize the vernacular Italian tongue itself, proved most useful to madrigal composers of all generations, and his thoughts, imagery, and even vocabulary may be discerned throughout the genre. Later in the century, more contemporary poets such as Torquato Tasso become equally fashionable. Many poetic forms were set as madrigals, including sonnets, sestine, ottava rime (including excerpts from poetic epics), and looser forms again consisting of seven and eleven syllable lines (versi rotti and versi interi). The most common subject is the various manifestations of romantic love, but a brief glance at the output of any composer shows that topical variety was possible: romance and despair, patriotism and death, lust and piety, all may be found in these passionate texts.
Among the musical antecedents of the later Italian madrigal may be found two other loose generic terms, the lauda and the frottola. Both monophonic and polyphonic laudae grew up in the context of the often wildly emotional religious climate of the Italian peninsula. The music set both texts in Latin and in Italian, and was apparently sung by folk for private devotions, for civic processions, and for public para-liturgical worship (partially equivalent to the "praise songs" of the church in our own times). The frottola repertory as codified in the hands of Bartolomeo Tromboncino features closed refrain form, simple musical style, and lighthearted texts.
In the 1520s and 1530s, the term madrigal was applied to a new type of music, which gradually achieved a synthesis between the piacevolezza (charm) of Italian secular music and the gravita seen as more appropriate to serious and melancholy love-texts. Many of the first generation to work on this synthesis were the Oltremontani, expatriate northerners whose early musical training was in more serious polyphony. A Frenchman living in Florence and then Rome, Phillipe Verdelot initiated this synthesis, publishing his first volume of madrigals in 1530. The Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt (left), also working in Florence and then for the papal establishment, published nearly 200 madrigals of classical proportions between about 1538 and 1544.
Later in the century, northerners such as Orlande de Lassus and Giaches de Wert continued the composition of madrigals side by side with Italian natives such as Luca Marenzio, Nicola Vicentino, and Carlo Gesualdo. Newer styles of composition may have followed the whims of ducal fashion (especially in the selection of more contemporary texts), but also often served particular performing forces (such as the celebrated "Three Ladies of Ferrara"). By the last third of the century, distinct styles included a series of lighter forms such as the villanella and more serious works which even utilized the most advanced experimental forms of chromaticism. The severity and passion of Counter-Reformation piety helped to spawn the sub-genre of the "spiritual madrigal," which applied the techniques of closely evocative text-setting to vernacular religious texts (and even sometimes appropriated the secular songs whole, substituting the name of the Virgin for the object of erotic affection).
Shortly after the turn of the 17th century, the added instrumental resources of violins and basso continuo were merged with the madrigal's principally solo vocal texture, and the "concerted madrigal" lived in competition with the new genre of opera for a time. The madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi (right) spanned several of these developments and demonstrated his consummate mastery at each stage; his Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi ("Madrigals of Love and War") of 1638 purports to contain the invention of new musical techniques for the portrayal of warlike passions. The most extended work in this volume, the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, which sets a series of stanzas from Tasso's crusader epic Gerusalemme Liberata, uses the generic term madrigal to describe a complete dramatic scene -- perhaps a sign of the encroaching hegemony of the operatic genre to come.
Transplanted to England, the madrigal flourished, following the appearance of Nicholas Yonge's Musica Transalpina, a 1588 collection translated from Italian. Given new vitality, thanks to the talents of Thomas Campion, Giles Farnaby, Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes, and John Wilbye, among many others, unaccompanied English madrigals were still being composed long after they had disappeared from other countries. The formation of glee clubs and other vocal societies established the madrigal as the preeminent form of secular Renaissance music in England, and it remains popular today, thanks to such acclaimed groups as the Deller Consort, the King's Singers, the Tallis Scholars, and the Hilliard Ensemble, as well as many amateur vocal ensembles.
For his 1956 madrigal fable, The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore, Gian Carlo Menotti drew on the form of Orazio Vecchi's madrigal comedy L'Amfiparnaso (1597), a forerunner of opera in which madrigals were linked together to form a dramatic narrative. Madrigal comedies were traditionally a cappella, but Menotti augmented his forces with a small orchestra to provide interludes between the madrigals and occasionally accompany them, and ten dancers who enact the story being told. The result is unique, a kind of madrigal-opera-ballet that demonstrates the continuing appeal and versatility of the madrigal.
In 1980, American composer Philip Glass premiered A Madrigal Opera at the Holland Festival, his first opera written after the ground-breaking Einstein on the Beach. An experimental work that eschewed conventional dramatic narrative and relied on meaningless syllables sung by six vocalists, it was certainly quite far removed from the norms of either the historic madrigal or modern opera. Yet it brought the two genres together in a way that neither Claudio Monteverdi nor any of the early madrigalists could have imagined.