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Madrigal Singing

The Flowers that Bloom

What better musical genre to welcome in the Spring than one famous for its celebration of pastoral life and love? 

Madrigals have gone in and out of fashion for over six hundred years.  Several distinct strains developed since a principally poetic form was first recorded in Northern Italy during the 1300s. Italian-style madrigals eventually flourished as far away as Denmark and the Netherlands. 

The verse of the 14
th century Italian poet Petrarch predominated at first, later to be eclipsed by pastoral themes. In the 16th century Florentine composers and their stylistic followers perfected unaccompanied vocal settings for this poetry.

The settings were
polyphonic, that is, consisting of multiple independent but harmonic melodic lines for anywhere from two or three voices, to as many as six or eight.  Composer Jacques Arcadelt’s collection, Primo libro (published in 1538/39) contains what are considered to be classic examples of the period.

The madrigal was often a vehicle for musical experimentation. Through successive decades composers such as Palestrina, Lassus, and Andrea Gabrieli put their unique stamp on the form. The madrigal evolved to incorporate greater density, a higher level of ornamentation, and to reflect greater individuality.  The eight books published by Monteverdi from 1587 to 1638 represent the culmination of the madrigal in Italy.

A new school

Today some of the best-known madrigals are those associated with the sophisticated poetry of Elizabethan England. The English style evolved from the
Musica Transalpina, in which Nicholas Yonge provided English translations of Italian madrigals.  The work appeared around 1588, the historic year in which King Philip II of Spain sent his Armada to attack the British fleet.  While England repelled the much greater Spanish force, it fell without a fight to the Italian art form. Elizabethans John Wilbye, Thomas Weelkes, Thomas Morley and their peers composed prolifically in the genre.

Western Wind is a New York-based ensemble dedicated to “the special beauty and variety of
a cappella music.”  Founded in 1969, at the height of a modern madrigal revival, the group consists of five full-time members.  CS asked countertenor William Zukof to share some thoughts about performing English madrigals. 
“Professionals who sing this music,” says Zukof, “spend most of their rehearsal time on tuning.”  The principal requirements:

  • Acuity of pitch and rhythm
  • A “straight” sound (without vibrato)
  • Harmonic awareness

Sleights and feints

Madrigals, Zukof continues, are “much closer to folk singing than to classical, or opera.  They are text-driven, with set forms for each line of poetry.  The pieces can be very tricky; then (as now) the English were well-trained in rhetoric and language … and they were fond of rhythmic games with counterpoint.”

Today madrigals are often sung by amateur groups - entirely fitting, since that is how it was in the early 16
th century.  Much of the poetry written for madrigals at that time was commissioned by amateur enthusiasts.

The singing of madrigals was a “high-level social game,” Zukof explains. “It was one of the few unchaperoned activities in which young people could safely engage. Eye contact with the other singers – which relates to the intimacy – is a key factor.”

Although English madrigals were not intended to be performed before an audience, when they
are performed this way, “the singers have to open up the circle to include the listeners.  To sing these effectively you have to think constantly about where to direct your thoughts.”


Madrigal singing calls for “a real chamber music style. Leadership works best when the leader is singing one of the parts.”  In addition to being “incisive and rhythmic,” the singers have to have a good sense of pitch, and the courage of their own part. 

Western Wind conducts several weekend and week-long sessions in July and August at Smith College (Northampton, Mass.) Each session draws a group of about 50-70 professionals and amateurs. The singers are then divided into groups of 7-8 to 12-13 for workshops that are highly interactive and intense.  The repertoire they cover might include Baroque, Early American, folk, jazz and, of course, Renaissance madrigals – the pop songs of their day! 

To find out more about the Western Wind workshops, visit