This site has both an immediate and a longer-term objective. The immediate objective is to make generally available a large number of modern transcriptions of Italian madrigals that I have produced over the last several years. The longer-term objective is to serve as a resource center and focal point for like-minded people who may be seeking, for example, additional information about the repertoire, assistance with texts and translations, or help in locating singers to form or supplement madrigal groups. In future, the site may expand to accommodate, e.g., contributions of transcriptions and texts/translations from other sources, or collaborative efforts to reconstruct the many madrigals that have come down to us with missing parts (see the page "Madrigals Minus 1").

Why the Italian Madrigal?

Simply put, if you like early music and a cappella singing, and are not averse to tackling new or unfamiliar works, chances are you'll love Italian madrigals, especially madrigals from the period 1580-1605, which are those mainly represented here. Chances are you will have a huge amount of fun exploring this vast, varied and little-known repertoire, which can be as profound and sophisticated as the chamber music of any age, and yet is accessible (with a little assistance) even to moderately accomplished amateur singers. And, especially if you are in a congenial and supportive group, the shared experience can be intense.

What's the Catch?

Actually, there are several catches. In the first place, you need a group to sing with. Assembling a good Italian madrigal group is only slightly less complicated than putting together a decent baseball team. First and foremost, you need to "cover the bases" in terms of the number of participants and their vocal ranges. Probably the most flexible combination consists of two sopranos, an alto (either a contralto with a solid low f, or a high tenor who is comfortable up to bb' or c"), two tenors (one of whom might be a baritone) and a bass, or SSATTB for short. This combination is suitable for a good proportion of the repertoire for six voices, as well as most of the five-voice repertoire, whose disposition is generally SSATB or SATTB. However, SSATB and SATTB combinations are also quite viable. At the same time, today's SATB "standard" choir combination is rather limiting in the context of the Italian madrigal; compositions for five or six voices were very much the norm in the period under consideration.

A question that frequently arises is, "Does the group need to be one-to-a-part?" My personal answer would be, "No, but some madrigals definitely sound better when sung one-to-a-part, and in general singers who are comfortable singing one-to-a-part prefer to do so." Of course, the more you sing madrigals, the better a sight-reader you become, so a group that initially includes more singers than vocal parts may evolve into a one-to-a-part ensemble.

Next, you need a certain common level of musical proficiency. I would say that sight-singing ability is more important than vocal quality per se; since the music is often likely to be unfamiliar to some or all of the singers, the group needs to be collectively able to read through pieces without constantly bogging down - although that can happen to the best of us - or without creating too much friction between the better and the less gifted sight-readers. Additionally, the singers obviously need to blend well. Achieving a "good blend" can be a rather tricky and elusive matter. For example, in my group, Amici Musicali, at times when we have employed a single "stand-in" of seemingly equal ability to replace an absent member, the resultant group blend is often greatly altered, in our judgment sometimes for better, often seemingly for worse. In other words, there seems to be no accounting for blend, and what constitutes a good blend is rather subjective. Another factor, of course, is that some singers, especially those trained as soloists, simply don't blend very well in any vocal group, no matter what their musical credentials.

One of the most important extra-musical aspects of a good madrigal group is the "conviviality factor," or a kind of collective agreement that the primary purpose of madrigal singing is mutual enjoyment in good company. In the sixteenth century, while certain courts and noble establishments did maintain "stables" of virtuoso musicians, madrigals were generally performed as "house music," after dinner, by candlelight, perhaps with a bit of wine to wet the whistle. (And perhaps to loosen social inhibitions - it is well worth remembering that madrigals, along with dancing, were among the very few leisure activities in which the two sexes could participate on an equal basis.) There was no audience in the modern sense, although there might be listeners present who were "eavesdropping," or simply other singers taking a break. This mode of self-entertainment is less common in the 21st century, alas, and although we all experience a sense of conviviality somewhere in our own lives, it can be difficult to re-create in the context of a madrigal group. For example, some members may want to emphasize preparing for public performance while others may not; or some may prefer to explore new music while others wish to sing "old chestnuts." Or there might be tensions between those who want to keep the focus on the business of singing, while others prefer a modicum of hanging out and chit-chat. (Just keep the talk away from politics, please!) Every madrigal group needs to work through these issues internally and strike some kind of balance.

We're Ready to Sing - Now What?

But let's assume that all these obstacles have been overcome, and your Italian madrigal group is duly assembled. What music editions do they sing from? And what do those unfamiliar words mean? Ah, there's the rub. The lack of truly user-friendly editions is probably the main reason that there aren't a lot more Italian madrigal groups out there - and this is one of the main issues that this Web site is seeking to address.

In fact, of the vast numbers of Italian madrigals produced in the century between 1530 and 1630, only a small fraction are available in useable, practical modern "singing editions," by which I mean editions in manageable format (not huge oversize folios or, alternatively, tiny prints best viewed through a magnifying glass), in modern clefs, with clearly legible notes and words, and accompanied by suitable texts/translations, commentary and helpful background information. Many of the earlier "musicological" editions are more or less useless in this respect - they retain the old clefs (or employ the perverse practice of avoiding modern "treble-down-an-octave" clef, with the resultant proliferation of ledger lines), and, invariably, present the music at the original pitch, notwithstanding a considerable body of evidence suggesting that downward transposition of the so-called high clef combination (chiavette) was routine. Nor do such editions typically include translations, despite the fact that few non-Italian singers are proficient in the language, let alone conversant with the finer points of 16th-century poetic discourse. Granted, the situation is changing with the increasing availability of good desktop music publishing software (like Sibelius, which I use), but often the existence of an older "modern" edition acts as a disincentive to producing something better. Also, notwithstanding the emergence of alternative sources such as the free-download Choral Public Domain Library, good editions of the type described remain hard to come by.

A final obstacle, already alluded to, is the difficulty, for English speakers, of dealing with an unfamiliar language and even less familiar literary tradition. It is not uncommon to hear, at an early music concert, a performer (or printed program) say something like, "The next piece is about the pangs of love," or "It's about a man who loves a woman, but she doesn't care for him," in a manner that seems to apologize in advance for the banality of the sentiments expressed by the text. While it's true that the 16th century had its poesia per musica - that is, poetry intended only for setting to music, of little intrinsic poetic worth - such versifying is much more characteristic of the 17th, which in many ways, from a literary perspective, was the antithesis of the preceding century. Basically, the 16th century cared deeply about text, and about the relationship between words and music. Furthermore, 16th-century people were both passionate and expressive of their passions; the only difference between them and us is that they expressed themselves somewhat differently. (Those who seek to "really" understand Shakespeare often must deal with the same issue.) A further problem is that the larger literary context of the Italian madrigal is generally known only to Italians, and even then to those fairly well versed in their own literature. To illustrate, in the late 16th century a piece beginning with the line "O primavera, gioventù dell'anno" (O spring, youth-time of the year) - about 20 such pieces are known to exist - would be instantly recognized as being a setting of the opening lines of Act III Scene iii of Battista Guarini's Il Pastor Fido, spoken by the protagonist Mirtillo as he awaits what will prove to be a disastrous and heart-rending encounter with his beloved but already spoken-for Amarilli. In other words, although the piece itself might be a musical miniature less than three minutes in length, through the text it opens out onto a vast literary space rich in associations extending far beyond the immediate textual confines. While it is obviously a hopeless task for us to try to replicate the 16th-century context and its effects on the hearers, nonetheless an awareness of the literary dimensions can greatly deepen and enrich singers' understanding of the music they are making.

So What Is the Italian Madrigal, Anyway?

Glad you asked. What follows is just a whirlwind tour. For more details, check out Wikipedia (article "Madrigal (music)"); Groves Dictionary of Music; or, for a more general survey that includes the madrigal outside of Italy, Jerome Roche's highly readable The Madrigal. For a weightier read, consult Alfred Einstein's three-volume classic The Italian Madrigal (in English translation from the original German).

The 16th-century Italian madrigal (unrelated to a 14th-century musical genre of the same name) emerged circa 1530. In very general terms, the madrigal was a polyphonic vocal work that was not strophic in nature (i.e., without multiple verses set to the same music), with a secular Italian text that either had literary merit or, at a minimum, literary pretensions. Initially it was popularized by northerners transplanted to Italy, such as Verdelot and Arcadelt. (Arcadelt's Il bianco e dolce cigno, written ca. 1540, is an elegant example of the early madrigal; it is interesting to compare it, in terms of the evolution of the musical language, with Vecchi's setting of the same text published 50 years later.) The ensuing decades were a period of intense experimentation, during which various exponents of the genre sought to forge a sophisticated idiom in which music and poetry - preferably good music and good poetry - were intimately linked and mutually reinforcing. Often, madrigalists turned to Petrarch, one of the "fathers of Italian poetry," and particularly to Petrarch's large corpus of sonnets, as a source of ready-made high-quality texts. (Petrarch lived some 200 years earlier, and the grafting of 16th-century musical language onto Petrarch's 14th-century sensibilities itself creates some interesting problems of 21st-century interpretation.)

By the 1580s the madrigal had evolved into an astonishingly varied and versatile genre. There were humorous madrigals, serious madrigals, erotic madrigals (beware, however - not every instance of "morire" (to die) or "morte" (death) has sexual connotations), dramatic madrigals, madrigals that plumbed emotional depths, madrigals about nature or the pleasures of rustic existence, light-hearted madrigals, silly madrigals, bawdy madrigals, occasional madrigals for weddings, celebrations and official festivities ... there were even so-called "madrigal comedies" like Orazio Vecchi's l'Amfiparnaso, in which madrigals were strung together around a common plot or theme. All of Italy, it seems, was awash in the stuff, and the music-printers of Venice were evidently hard put to keep up with demand. Indeed, inability to sing at sight from a partbook must have been a serious social liability for the well-bred gentleman or lady, much as Thomas Morley's imaginary protagonist was to discover in similar circumstances in contemporary London:

... supper being ended, and the musick bookes, according to the custome being brought to the table: the mistresse of the house presented mee with a part, earnestly requesting mee to sing. But when, after many excuses, I protested unfeighnedly that I could not: everie one began to wonder. Yea some whispered to the others, demanding how I was brought up. (Plain and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, 1597)

Although these different types of madrigals co-existed right up to the madrigal's eventual demise in the 17th century, beginning in the 1580s the serious, high-art-form madrigal shows a tendency toward greater innovation, more daring experimentation, and heightened expression. While not altogether abandoning Petrarch and other traditional sources of texts, madrigalists turn increasingly to contemporary literature, in particular to Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) and, especially, Battista Guarini's Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd - see my "Madrigals on Texts from Pastor Fido" page). Madrigalists mined these extensive works for their choicest, most dramatic, most fraught-with-fraughtness emotion-laden scenes, and set these to music. The results can be breathtaking, particularly when the composer fashions a sequence of connected texts into a longer madrigal cycle, or madrigal in multiple sections. A madrigal group can live for months at a time, so to speak, in one of these cycles, constantly discovering fresh ideas and new perspectives and tweaking the interpretation accordingly.

To me, the 25-year period 1580-1605 is the true "golden age" of the Italian madrigal. Some of the outstanding composers of the period were the following:

  • Giaches de Wert - to all intents and purposes an Italian, despite his Flemish name - who published 11 books of five-voice madrigals between 1561 and 1595. (If I was shipwrecked on a desert island with four other members of a madrigal group, and we each had managed to salvage only one volume of madrigal music, I would want those five volumes to be Wert's Books Seven through Eleven.)
  • Claudio Monteverdi, who published five books of five-voice a cappella madrigals between 1587 and 1605, besides many other works.
  • Luca Marenzio, who published nine books of five-voice madrigals, and six books of six-voice madrigals, between 1580 and 1599.
  • Giangiacomo Gastoldi, best known for his light-hearted fa-la-la balletti, but also a serious madrigal composer of note, who produced four books of five-voice madrigals, as well as a book of six-voice madrigals - none of which have heretofore been published - between 1588 and 1602; his virtually unknown fourth book of five-voice madrigals (Quarto libro di madrigali a cinque voci, 1602) consists almost exclusively of settings of Pastor Fido texts, and awaits discovery by the intrepid madrigal group.
  • Tiburzio Massaino, hardly a household word today, and also conspicuously absent in modern edition. He published four books of five-voice madrigals and two of six-voice madrigals between 1571 and 1604.

The listed output of the above five composers collectively amounts to over 800 madrigals, give or take, and these guys are only the tip of the iceberg. Many other madrigalists were as prolific as they, and many other composers of the time produced fine specimens of the madrigal art.

In a sense, the dramatically conceived, emotionally charged madrigal that emerged during this golden age carried the seeds of its own destruction. Take a madrigal cycle like Monteverdi's "Ecco, Silvio, colei ch'in odio hai tanto," from his Fifth Book of 1605, essentially a dialogue between the characters Dorinda and Silvio at a particularly poignant moment in Act IV Scene ix of Pastor Fido. If you sing through the piece, you can almost imagine the action unfolding on stage, but it is an imaginary stage, a theater of the mind. It was no great leap for Monteverdi - and others, for he was scarcely alone - to take the next logical step and shed the cumbersome machinery of trying to represent characters through the medium of a five-voice ensemble. Voilà, what ensues is L'Orfeo, Favola in Musica, first presented in Mantua in 1607 - a good performance can still bring tears to the eyes today. That Monteverdi got so much of it right the first time is a testament not only to his genius, but also to the fact that that next step wasn't the abrupt break with the past it is sometimes portrayed to be. The sensibility, if not the form, of the madrigal lived on in early 17th-century opera, at least for a while. Like all things, though, musical tastes change with time, and that sensibility too was destined to disappear, not to become a matter of interest again until the recent emphasis on historically informed performance.

What Other Resources Are Out There, Especially for Singers Who Don't Speak Italian?

As I indicated, they're not extensive, but here are some you should be aware of:

  • Jerome Roche, ed., The Flower of the Italian Madrigal, 2 vols (New York: Galaxy Music Corporation, 1988). Very useable anthology of 5- and 6-voice madrigals, with English translations and commentary. Roche also edited Introduction to the Italian Madrigal for Four Voices (New York: Galaxy Music Corporation, 1989) and The Penguin Book of Italian Madrigals for Four Voices (Harmondsworth and Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974).
  • Alec Harman, ed., The Oxford Book of Italian Madrigals (London: Oxford University Press, 1983). Good representative collection, mostly for five and six voices. English translations are included, and there is a useful, though brief, introduction; however, no commentary is provided for the individual pieces, and text sources are identified only by the poet's name.
  • Alec Harman, ed., Popular Italian Madrigals of the Sixteenth Century (London: Oxford University Press, 1976). Harman measures popularity by the number of times a piece appeared in print; I don't necessarily agree that the results equate to the "top hits" of the day. Still, the book includes a number of madrigals not readily available elsewhere. Commentary provided for some pieces, as are underlaid "singing translations," which may or may not be found helpful.
  • Denis Stevens, ed., Monteverdi: Ten Madrigals (London: Oxford University Press, 1978). Good introduction to Monteverdi's madrigals, with English translations and commentary; however, the minuscule format is a drawback to practical use.

If someone in your madrigal group has access to a good music research library, then the scope of available resources becomes much wider. It would be impossible to give even a reasonably comprehensive list, and, for reasons mentioned above, some publications may be of limited usefulness. Be prepared to do a substantial amount of browsing, particularly in series such as Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance (Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 140+ volumes to date). However, Wert, Marenzio and Monteverdi are reasonably well represented, to wit:

  • Wert: Carol McClintock, ed., Collected Works (Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae, 24) (American Institute of Musicology, 17 vols, 1961-1977).
  • Marenzio: Various complete editions undertaken, some of which remain incomplete. However, there is an online project (www.Marenzio.org) which aims to make available the complete secular music. His six-voice madrigals may be found in Opera Omnia (Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae, 72) (American Institute of Musicology, 7 vols to date, 1978-2000). Also, several volumes of the series Luca Marenzio: The Secular Works, edited by Steven Ledbetter and Patricia Myers, were published in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, Marenzio's Quinto libro di madrigali a cinque voci (1585) and Sesto libro di madrigali a cinque voci (1594) are available in a French edition (George Durosoir, ed., Paris: Editions Publimuses, 1991).
  • Monteverdi: Monteverdi attracted scholarly attention early on, and an edition of his complete works was among the first such endeavors devoted to a major madrigal composer - see G. Francesco Malipiero, ed., Monteverdi: Tutte le Opere (Universal Edition, 16 vols, 1926-1942). The Malipiero edition has since been reprinted, with supplements. A new complete edition was undertaken more recently by the Fondazione "Claudio Monteverdi" of Cremona: Monteverdi: Opera Omnia (Cremona: Athenaeum Cremonense, 19 vols, 1970-1983).

Finally, there are some on-line resources. First of all there is the Choral Public Domain Library, something of a catch-all for music of all periods, but certainly the largest body of editions of vocal music that can be downloaded free of charge. There's lots of Gesualdo, for those who want it, and five separate versions of Monteverdi's stunning Ecco mormorar l'onde, including one in g-flat major (!), but otherwise the Italian madrigal is not well represented. Still, some diligent searching will turn up a few worthwhile pieces.

Another online resource is the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library www.imslp.org, owned and operated by Project Petrucci LLC. Although likewise devoted to music of all periods, it includes many original sources as well as modern transcriptions. In particular, check out the madrigal transcriptions posted by Allen Garvin.

I would be grateful for any further suggestions about available printed or on-line resources.


Copyright © 2014 - Martin Morell