In Renaissance and Baroque eras, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. There were of course, no tvs. Not a high prevalance of sporting events, nor was there much else to do unless you were wealthy and educated. Fortunately, people could sing, and play music which encouraged the genre known as Madrigal.
While you may not realise it, Madrigal songs have permeated our culture and impacted on our pop music in sneaky ways.
Madrigal songs are always secular. Secular means that there is no religious content throughout the song – this is due to the fact that secular music was a lot easier to understand for plebians who were not educated in religious history, or were not of a particular religion. Madrigal was prevalent throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, withstanding many musical changes.
From Renassiance to Baroque the style of music changed from a more simplistic era of music, based on consonance and simple intervals, to being overtly dramatic and fanciful style of music. Baroque focussed on impacting drama as well as more embellishments on each note and score, adding dissonance and more voices to each part. It is truly amazing that Madrigal music managed to last throughout these two very different music eras, as it seemingly falls in the middle of both categories.
Madrigal songs are typically comprised of several different voices. Bass, Tenor, Alto and Soprano are the four main voices, but this can be extended and given slightly different parts for the same voicing. The effect of these four ranges of voice gives the music depth and a new tonality that was previously never heard.
Coming from the Gregorian Chant era, it’s easy to hear that while there may be several people singing throughout the piece, it was all in one voice that was undistinguishable from the other. Moving to a four part harmony gives a tonality and timbre that makes the piece a lot more enjoyable and satisfying to listen to.
From this point, each of the four voices will learn their parts. While the topic of the songs are secular, they’re also heavy in sexual innuendo.
During that time period, when there really wasn’t much else to do, sing alongs and sex were high on the ‘to-do’ list (no pun intended). Most Madrigal songs will contain sexual innuendo, or flat out description of the intimate act.
The innuendo might not be a cleverly worded phrase – rather it could be a musical vocal ostinato. For example, the most famous of these is the inclusion of ‘Fa La La La La’ in a song. Typically, in this type of song, the lyrics will include up to the sexual act, and rather than being descriptive, the aforementioned ostinato will be included.
So yes, that does technically mean that Christmas favourite ‘Deck the Halls’ is possibly referring to something completely different all together.
Through the combination of saucy lyrics, as well as four different harmonic parts, the Madrigal really pulls together. Through the combination of different voices, the pieces can range from quirky and melodic, to soaring and harmonic with interesting embellishments here and there.
Madrigals have since moved through their conception in the 15th century, up to today with many common Madrigal songs being performed in music circles. Check your local community board, you may be surprised to see there is a music appreciation club within your community. In my local area, my music extension teacher had a regular meet up for madrigal appreciation, where each weekend we’d learn a new Madrigal and perform it. Not only is it great fun to sing, it’s hilarious to talk about the sexual innuendo afterward. Gaining this new musical appreciation, you’ll slowly come to realise that the classic stylings of music are anything but dull. In some cases, these songs can be more descriptive than a softcore novel.
If you’re interested in harmonising, a good sing-a-long, and a bit of a giggle, definitely take the time to check out some Madrigal classics and indulge your senses in the classics!