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The madrigal is a vocal piece, usually for four or five voices, which flourished in 16th century Italy and England. The text for the madrigal was usually a poem concerning love or unsatisfied desire, although other mundane topics were also covered.

Despite the fact that the madrigal is usually thought of as an a capella form, it was not unusual for one or more parts below the treble to be played by an instrument.

The Italian Madrigal

The Italian madrigal appeared in the early 16th century and soon replaced the less decorous and sentimental frottola as the most popular form of song.

The poems of luminaries such as Petrarch and Ariosto were used for texts. Shorter poems were initially used, but more adventurous madrigalists began to use the longer canzone form.

Early madrigals (1525-1550)

The Italian madrigal was developed mainly by Dutch composers living in Italy, using Italian poems as their text. The two most notable exceptions to this are Constanza Festa (a native Italian) and Philippe Verdelot, from the south of France. By 1540 madrigals had begun to appear in 5-parts rather than 4, and this soon became the preferred form.

It was Verdelot who was responsible for the first printed book of madrigals, Il Primo Libro di Madigali, in 1533. The popularity of this book and subsequent ones assured the success of the style.

Middle madrigals (1550-1580)

The madrigal began to take on more artistic pretentions, and made a stronger link between the music and the text. Rhythm and syncopation began to be used as a menas of expression. By playing a note one beat before it was expected, a sense of emotional excitement was created.

Late madrigals (1580-1620)

The third phase, characterised by Monteverdi, saw the madrigal become a far more virtuosic art form.

The English madrigal

The first collection of madrigals published in England was Musica Transalpina, printed in 1588. It consisted of Italian madrigals translated into English. Despite their relatively late exposure to the madrigal, the English soon transformed it into a style of their own. Thomas Morley, and later John Wilbye and Thomas Weelkes all composed important madrigals.

Unilke the Italians the English madrigalists tended towards less high brow material for their texts.