1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Madrigal

MADRIGAL (Ital. madrigale), the name of a form of verse, the exact nature of which has never been decided in English, and of a form of vocal music.

(1) In Verse.—The definition given in the New English Dictionary, “a short lyrical poem of amatory character,” offers no distinctive formula; some madrigals are long, and many have nothing whatever to do with love. The most important English collection of madrigals, not set to music, was published by William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585–1649) in his Poems of 1616. Perhaps the best way of ascertaining what was looked upon in the 17th century as a madrigal is to quote one of Drummond’s:—

The beauty and the life
Of life’s and beauty’s fairest paragon,
O tears! O grief! hung at a feeble thread,
To which pale Atropos had set her knife;
The soul with many a groan
Had left each outward part,
And now did take his last leave of the heart;
Nought else did want, save death, even to be dead;
When the afflicted band about her bed,
Seeing so fair him come in lips, cheeks, eyes,
Cried ah! and can death enter Paradise?

This may be taken as a type of Drummond’s madrigals, of which he has left us about eighty. They are serious, brief, irregular lyrics, in which neither the amatory nor the complimentary tone is by any means obligatory. Some of these pieces contain as few as six lines, one as many as fourteen, but they average from nine to eleven. In the majority of examples the little poem opens with a line of six syllables, and no line extends beyond ten syllables. The madrigal appears to be a short canzone of the Tuscan type, but less rigidly constructed. In French the madrigal has not this Italian character. It is simply a short piece of verse, ingenious in its turn and of a gallant tendency. The idea of compliment is essential. J. F. Guichard (1730–1811) writes:—

Orgon, poète marital,
À Venus compare sa femme ;
C’est pour la belle un madrigal,
C’est pour Venus une épigramme.

This quatrain emphasizes the fact that in French a madrigal is a trifling piece of erotic compliment, neatly turned but not seriously meant. The credit of inventing the old French verse-form of madrigal belongs to Clément Marot, and one of his may be quoted in contrast to that of Drummond:—

Un doux nenni avec un doux sourire
Est tant honneste, il le vous faut apprendre ;
Quant est de oui, si veniez à le dire,
D’avoir trop dit je voudrois vous reprendre ;
Non que je sois ennuyé d’entreprendre
D’avoir le fruit dont le désir me point ;
Mais je voudrois qu’en ne le laissant prendre,
Vous me disiez : vous ne l’aurez point.

In English, when the word first occurred—it has not been traced farther back than 1588 (in the preface to Nicholas Yonge’s Musica transalpina)—it was identified with the chief form of secular vocal music in the 16th century. In 1741 John Immyns (d. 1764) founded the Madrigal Society, which met in an ale-house in Bride Lane, Fleet Street; this association still exists, and is the oldest musical society in Europe.

The word “madrigal” is frequently also used to designate a sentimental or trifling expression in a half-contemptuous sense.  (E. G.) 

(2) In Music.—As a definite musical art-form, the madrigal was known in the Netherlands by the middle of the 15th century; like the motet, it obviously originated in the treatment of counterpoint on a canto fermo, some early examples even combining an ecclesiastical canto fermo in the tenor with secular counterpoint in the other parts. Thus Josquin’s Déploration de Jehan Okenheim (see Music) might equally well be called a madrigal or motet, if the word “madrigal” were used for compositions to French texts at all. But by the middle of the 16th century the Italian supremacy in music had developed the madrigal into the greatest of secular musical forms, and made it independent of the form of the words; and thus when Lasso sets Marot’s madrigals to appropriately witty and tuneful music he calls the result a “chanson”; while when Palestrina composes Petrarca’s Sonnets to the Virgin in memory of Laura, the result appears as a volume of Madrigali spirituali. Elegiac madrigals, whether spiritual or secular, were thus as common as any other kind; so that when the Musica transalpina brought the word “madrigal” to England it brought a precedent for the poet Drummond’s melancholy type of madrigal poetry.

Italian madrigals, however, are by no means always elegiac; but the term always means a highly organized and flowing polyphonic piece, often as developed as the motet, though, in the mature classical period, distinct in style. Yet masses were often founded on the themes of madrigals, just as they were on the themes of motets (see Mass; Motet); and it is interesting, in such beautiful cases as Palestrina’s Missa gia fu chi m’ebbe cara, to detect the slight strain the mildly scandalous origin of the themes puts upon the ecclesiastical style.

The breaking strain was put on the madrigal style at the end of the 16th century, in one way by the new discords of Monteverde and (with more musical invention) Schütz; and in another way by the brilliant musical character-drawing of Vecchi, whose Amfiparnasso is a veritable comic opera in the form of a set of fourteen madrigals, all riotously witty in the purest and most masterly polyphonic style. It was probably meant, or at least made use of, to laugh down the earliest pioneers of opera (q.v.); but it is the beginning of the end for the madrigal as a living art. Long afterwards we occasionally meet with the word again, when a 17th or 18th century composer sets to some kind of accompanied singing a poem of madrigalesque character. But this does not indicate any continuation of the true musical history of the madrigal. The strict meaning of the word in its musical sense is, then, a musical setting of an Italian or English non-ecclesiastical poem (typically a canzone) for unaccompanied chorus, in a 16th-century style less ecclesiastical than the motet, but as like it in organization as the form and sentiment of the words admit. The greatest classics in the madrigal style are those of Italy; and but little, if at all, below them come the English. The form, though not the name, of course, exists in the 16th-century music of other languages whenever the poetry is not too light for it.

It is important but easy to distinguish the madrigal from the lighter 16th-century forms, such as the Italian villanella and the English ballet, these being very homophonic and distinguished by the strong lilt of their rhythm.

The madrigal has been very successfully revived in modern English music with a more or less strict adherence to the 16th century principles; the compositions of De Pearsall being of high artistic merit, while the Madrigale spirituale in Stanford’s oratorio Eden is a movement of rare beauty.  (D. F. T.)