Chapter Five, describe themselves as a Madrigal group for a modern age. Many of the pieces in their varied programme include music from the Golden Age of Madrigals as well as other more recent items.
But what exactly IS a Madrigal?
Back in Italy in the 1520s the Renaissance was in full flow: Fresh innovative ideas, an appetite for learning and discovery, and a dynamic humanist movement gave a new direction to society at that time.
As part of this there was a reawakening of interest in the Italian Language as a poetic means of expression. Contemporary poets were encouraged to imitate the structure and form of the great C14 poet Petrarch, with an irregular number of lines of usually 7 or 11 syllables.
The Renaissance also brought together a many superbly-trained composers who were adept at writing Polyphony – vocal music with many distinct vocal parts. What is more, Italy had perfected the printing press – so for the first time printed secular music was becoming widely accessible.
All these came together in Florence to create the Madrigal – a secular vocal composition uniting poetry and music for two to eight voices. By the second half of the 16th century English and German composers started to catch on with the idea and the madrigal quickly spread all over Europe.
Because they are secular, the themes can be very wide ranging from love and morality to longing and death. But the genre became increasingly light with the use of Madrigalisms such as word-painting where the music assigned to a particular word closely expresses its meaning.
However, some composers were not amused. The English composer Thomas Campion said of it:
“… where the nature of everie word is precisely expresst in the Note … such childish observing of words is altogether ridiculous.”
After the 1630s the popularity of the Madrigal began to decline with the rise of Opera. Composers were writing music which was harder to sing so could only be performed by virtuoso professional singers rather than enthusiastic amateurs. However, the unaccompanied madrigal hung on in England long after it had gone out of fashion on the Continent.
In C18 England they were revived by catch and glee clubs, and in 1741 the London Madrigal Society. By the C20 the rediscovery of works by composers such as Palestrina and the popularity of groups such as the King’s Singers and The Swingle Singers have ensured that the tradition lives on.
Hear Chapter Five take us on a whirlwind musical journey which includes items from the Golden Age of Madrigals on 24 September.