The madrigal was a very popular form of secular music in the 16th century.
While it dates back to the 14th century, its popular form spread from its
original base in Florence in the decades between 1520 and 1540, conquering
Europe, developing indigenous variations in many countries. This recording
gives a panorama of madrigals from composers of various countries: Italy,
Germany, France, England and Spain.
Some of the period's greatest composers are included in this recording:
Monteverdi, Palestrina and Lasso, who were three of the leading madrigal
composers; Schütz and Janequin, who each adopted the madrigal in their
own countries, respectively Germany and France; and the English composers
Morley, Gibbons and Farmer.
Madrigals are vocal works, featuring only a cappella singing with
no instrumental accompaniment. Their development came at a time when music
was going beyond its purely sacred role, and dealing with more pedestrian
themes. The titles of some of these works show just what their subjects were:
It was a lover and his lass; Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all
alone; or Good day, my sweet.
All of these works feature threads of polyphony woven into the fabric of
songs that soar with grace and delight. Some of the Italian works, such as
the Monteverdi songs are more solemn and introspective, almost sounding as
if they should be heard in a church. The Schütz song celebrates the
arrival of spring, with a pastoral sound interlaced with arabesques of joyous
melodies. The brief song by Clément Janequin, Le Cocu (The Cuckold),
has a humorous sound - one can imagine listeners singing along in delight.
The English adopted the madrigal and developed it in a different manner than
many of the other composers. This form of music, which is very much a popular
form, would later develop into the still popular carolling tradition. Most
of the English works on this recording are happy and rhythmic; they, like
the Janequin song, give listeners the desire to tap their feet and sing along.
The performances on this recording are good, but suffer from an ensemble
that is a bit too large. No specific information is given, but a photo shows
about a dozen singers. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this,
smaller groups can help bring out the unique polyphonic texture of these
works. A fine example of this is the Hilliard Ensemble's recording of English
and Italian Renaissance Madrigals, on Virgin Veritas. The more limited number
of singers, only six, gives the songs a different feel. La Bella Ninfa sounds
like a small choir, while the Hilliard recording has a more restrained, more
It is a shame that the texts of these songs are not included in the liner
notes. Since the subject matter of the songs is essential, listeners are
deprived of fully appreciating these works.
A valuable recording for the variety of works included. Unfortunately, it
is somewhat marred by a group of singers that is slightly too large.
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