A Potted History of Madrigals

...and why they're nothing to be afraid of.

What comes to mind when you think about madrigals? Well, perhaps nothing at all, but if it's something then the mention of madrigals might well conjure scenes involving after-dinner make-shift choirs or a wide-eyed choral society singing fa-la-las (depicted below by Niccolo Frangipane).

And you wouldn't be wrong! Madrigals do have a lot to do with fa-la-la-ing, but there's also more to it than that.


A madrigal is a type of song with a history stretching back to Italy in the 1500s. Most importantly, they are secular; they do not set texts from the bible and they weren't written to be sung in churches. Generally madrigals were written in multiple parts, with several lines of melody intended to be sung by four or five singers at once. Madrigals found their way to England by way of transalpine tourism and the recruitment of the finest Southern European musicians to England's royal courts, and it's in England that the fa-la-la-ing kicked off.

William Holman Hunt- may-morning-on-magdalen-college-tower-oxford

Like songs today, madrigals were mostly written about love and all the things that come with it. Within these parameters, poets and composers could explore kinds of musical and lyrical expression that weren't possible in sacred music.  While secular music from the 1500s and 1600s is less-performed today than its sacred counterpart - because of the predominance of church-affiliated choral singing - madrigals nevertheless represent a varied, fascinating and powerful repertoire.

In their concert on Monday 22 May concert, the Dunedin Consort will perform madrigals from Monteverdi's books 2 through to 7.  Monteverdi wrote his madrigals in the 1600s and he was a revolutionary for his time.  Most famous as an innovator of Opera, Monteverdi's cast new light on music's expressive potential and shaped how people would write and hear music in the years to come.

A modern staging of Monteverdi's Orpheus

Monteverdi's motivation was to bring music, text and story to life. In his own words, 'The end of all good music is to affect the soul', and he stayed true to this across his output in operas and secular songs by writing music which appeals directly to a listener's musical and emotive sensibility. In the textures of his choral and instrumental writing, Monteverdi paints the murmur of waves, the heat of the sun, the excitement of new love and the pain of loss. In 'Zefiro Torna' you can hear how these singers' quick runs evoke wind as it blows across a plain and the soaring peaks of mountains above a repeating 'ciaconna' bass-line.

Ariadne by Angelica Kauffmann (1774)

Perhaps most importantly of all, Monteverdi stripped back the complexities of vocal music to reveal the meaning of words. He did this by introducing 'monody' to music written for singers. This refers to a kind of musical texture where a single voice performs a text in a clear, declamatory style, with harmonic accompaniment provided by instruments such as viols, lutes and harpsichords. With only one person singing at a time, it's easier to understand what's being said and there's room for a performer to express themselves as if they were having a conversation or telling a story - which is just how some of the most compelling singer-storytellers do it today. In Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa, a chorus of three male voices frame the story of a nymph who sings in isolation, lamenting her abandonment by a lover.

The Dunedin Consort in concert

If you'd like to see these ideas in practice, we invite you to come along to Love's Fire; Love's Ashes with the Dunedin Consort directed by Nicholas Mulroy on Monday 22 May. This concert at Wiltshire Music Centre is part of the Bath Festival.