In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Madrigal

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works

Music Madrigal
Edmond Strainchamps
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0243


Madrigal is the name of a musical genre for voices that set mostly secular poetry in two epochs: the first occurred during the 14th century; the second in the 16th and early 17th centuries. There is no connection between the two; it is only happenstance that the same word labeled very different genres in two different periods. The latter, termed the Renaissance madrigal—see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Music “Renaissance”—became not only the dominant kind of secular music in Italy, but during the course of the 16th century it was a progressive and experimental genre that affected both secular and sacred music throughout Europe. Its rise is linked to humanism and the new interest in vernacular language in Italy. Indeed, the Renaissance madrigal is perhaps best understood as a poetic/musical genre, one that was driven throughout its evolution by the changing fashion and taste in poetry that concomitantly brought about continuous alterations in musical rhetoric and style from c. 1520 into the first decades of the 17th century. Most Renaissance madrigals, which usually set a single stanza of poetry, were written for a cappella ensembles with one voice to a part and with the voices of equal importance. They were for as few as three voices or as many as six or more, but most frequently for four or five. Although intended for singers, historical evidence makes clear that instruments sometimes joined in, either substituting for voices or doubling them. The music, which set poetry generally of higher literary quality, was composed with great care to fit the words to each voice in a variety of ways, from straightforward syllabic declamation to extended melismas, with individual lines, singing together, producing a flow of harmonies in textures that spanned the gamut from chordal to contrapuntal. (See the separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Music “Counterpoint”). The aesthetic that always underlay the genre was grounded in the universal recognition that music intensified emotional and intellectual meanings in the poetry it set, and madrigal composers were ever original in seeking expressive ways to match music to text. Some madrigals were for ceremonial events, such as banquets, weddings, or civic occasions; some were inserted into plays or other entertainments; some were composed for professional singers at the Italian princely courts; but most were intended for the delectation of amateur performers themselves, not for a listening audience. The Renaissance madrigal spread from Italy to several other centers in Europe—German-speaking lands, the Low Countries, Poland, and Scandinavia among them. Its greatest success beyond Italy, however, occurred in England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. Ultimately, it was so successfully transplanted in England as to be composed by English composers to English poetry. Subsequently, historians have labeled it the Elizabethan madrigal, a genre distinct in many ways from its Italian parent.

General Overviews

A principal source for study of the Italian madrigal is Einstein 1949, a magisterial three-volume history of the genre that includes an anthology of ninety-seven madrigals. It covers the madrigal in Italy with great thoroughness but has little information about the madrigal elsewhere in Europe. More wide-ranging coverage, although much abridged, is found in “Madrigal” 2004, “Madrigal” 1996, and in “Madrigale” 1966, in English, German, and Italian, respectively. All three have extensive bibliographies. Haar 1986 is a scholarly and detailed study with an appendix of complete madrigals, and Roche 1990, while informed by scholarship, is a history addressed to the general reader that contains analyses of excerpted passages within each chapter from a variety of madrigals. Kerman 1962 is restricted to a study of the Elizabethan madrigal. There are as well chapters or parts of books on broader topics that have very good accounts of the madrigal; these include Carter 1992, Dent 1968, and Haar 2006.

  • Carter, Tim. Music in Late Renaissance and Early Baroque Italy. Portland, OR: Amadeus, 1992.

    Despite its delimiting title, the entire history of the Renaissance madrigal is covered in chapters 6, 8, and 14. The book presents up-to-date scholarly opinion on details as well as on the broader context of the evolution in the madrigal’s style during the 16th and early 17th centuries. The book is clearly written and is highly readable by both scholars and nonspecialists.

  • Dent, Edward J. “The Sixteenth-Century Madrigal.” In The Age of Humanism, 1540–1630. Edited by Gerald Abraham, 33–95. Vol. 4 of The New Oxford History of Music. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

    This overview of the Renaissance madrigal and its associated genres is addressed primarily to the general reader. It examines the madrigal in Italy from its beginnings in the 16th century to late examples of it that date from the 17th. It also contains substantial remarks on the madrigal in England and in other lands beyond Italy. Musical examples in the text help to clarify the points about style.

  • Einstein, Alfred. The Italian Madrigal. 3 vols. Translated by Alexander H. Krappe, Roger H. Sessions, and Oliver Strunk. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949.

    The first two volumes present a study in depth of the madrigal and related genres within the broad context of Italian cultural history, including a good deal of information on madrigal poetry. Volume 3 contains the complete scores of ninety-seven madrigals. Scholarship since Einstein’s day has negated some of his assertions, but the volumes are still essential for any investigation of the genre.

  • Haar, James. Essays on Italian Poetry and Music in the Renaissance, 1350–1600. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

    A collection of the six Ernest Bloch lectures that Haar presented at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983. It is a scholarly book of admirable precision that is accessible to the informed general reader, perhaps as a result in part of its origin in public lectures. Its appendix of madrigals from the 14th century and the Renaissance adds much to its value.

  • Haar, James. “Madrigal.” In European Music, 1520–1640. Edited by James Haar, 225–245. Woodbridge, UK, and Rochester, NY: Boydell, 2006.

    Haar’s essay, the thirteenth among the twenty-six essays by various scholars the book contains, covers in a relatively few pages the history of the genre from its origin in a musical culture dominated by the French chanson to its close with Monteverdi in early-17th-century Italy. It includes as well a brief survey of the Elizabethan madrigal.

  • Kerman, Joseph. The Elizabethan Madrigal: A Comparative Study. New York: American Musicological Society, 1962.

    This book is an enduring and definitive source for information on the madrigal in England, a model of lucid and readable information for both the general reader and the specialist. It is the place to start for any study of the Elizabethan madrigal and is very highly recommended.

  • “Madrigal.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Sachteil 5. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, cols. 1541–1569. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1996.

    This large entry in German covers the madrigal of the 14th century as well as that of the Renaissance in Italy and in Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and England. Coverage of the 14th-century madrigal is by Dorothea Baumann; that of the Renaissance madrigal is by James Haar, both noted scholars in the field. It contains an extensive bibliography of writings on the madrigal in all languages. Available online by subscription.

  • “Madrigal.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. Oxford Music Online. 2004.

    Seven scholars have written portions of the entry, most of which are very good. It includes the madrigal of the 14th, 16th, and 17th centuries with subsections on the madrigal in society, madrigal poetry, and the madrigal beyond Italy and England. The bibliography is current, and it has the advantage of allowing sources to be called up from within the article itself. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • “Madrigale.” In La Musica. Vol. 3. Edited by Alberto Basso, 227–238. Turin, Italy: Unione tipografico-editrice torinese, 1966.

    This encyclopedia article on the history of the madrigal, in Italian, is by the celebrated American musicologist Howard Mayer Brown. The article is excellent, although its bibliography is now dated.

  • Roche, James. The Madrigal. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

    A fine, not overlarge history of the madrigal in Italy that also covers the lighter, attendant genres, the madrigal north of Italy, the Elizabethan madrigal, and the 17th-century madrigal in its decline. Each chapter has close readings of musical excerpts that exemplify Roche’s remarks on the evolving style of the madrigal through the course of its history.

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