What is a… Madrigal?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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A madrigal is secular choral work characterised by intricate counterpoint and imitative figuration.

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‘Of course, this sort of music’s not intended for an audience, you see’.

With these encouraging words, Kinglsey Amis’s Professor Welch prepares Jim Dixon for an evening of mirthless middle-class jollity in Lucky Jim. Amen to that, might be the response of anyone who’s been forced to spend the better part of an evening listening to amateurs or schoolchildren fa-la-la-ing and folderol-ing. 

And, of course, Professor Welch is right.

Madrigals, at least in the form that originated in 16th-century Italy and spread all over Europe, were intended largely for domestic use – Nicholas Yonge’s influential anthology Musica transalpina (1588), which includes madrigals by Palestrina, Ferrabosco, Byrd and others, recommends itself to ‘Gentlemen and Merchants of good accompte’.

Purists argue as to what constitutes a ‘true’ madrigal, yet if this is to be regarded as a ‘form’, it is surely one in which the spirit prevails over the letter of the law. In fact it was the imaginative freedom of the finest composers in response to the various verse types they set that gave the madrigal its vitality and longevity.  

While madirgali spirituali did exist, madrigals tended to be secular: often amorous, but also satirical, allegorical or vividly illustrative. They presumed good amateurs – there may be intricate counterpoint, or dramatic changes in mood and character; the harmonies could be complex and intensely expressive.

In fact, madrigals often contain what we would call the most ‘advanced’ musical thinking of their times, though whether their performers thought in such terms is another matter. 

But whatever the intentions of composers and publishers, there are madrigals which transcend purely private use.

Even a half-decent performance of Gibbons’s gorgeous The Silver Swan (1612) would be a good enough riposte to Professor Welch, while Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa, from his Eighth Book of Madrigals (1638), contains as its centrepiece a moving passacaglia that rivals Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’ from Dido and Aeneas in subtle craft and emotional power.

By the time Purcell penned that masterpiece in the 1680s, the madrigal had virtually died out, but as ‘When I am laid’ shows, its legacy endured.

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This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine