The Elizabethans

About Madrigals

Madrigal was the name used for popular music during Elizabethan times.  A madrigal is a pastoral song written for small groups that features two or more separate melodies to a simple text. Madrigals are more analogous to folk singing than to classical music such as opera. Madrigals can, however, be quite musically sophisticated, requiring great concentration to maintain melody, pitch, rhythm and tone. In madrigal singing, all voice parts are equal in importance. 

The weaving together of many voice parts is called polyphonic sound. Each vocal part is independent of the others and has its own melodic and rhythmic interest.


Madrigals began in Italy in the 14th century, spread across Europe and reached their peak in England during Elizabeth’s reign in the 16th century. Many of the best known madrigals were composed using the sophisticated poetry of Elizabethan England. Famous madrigal composers include William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes and John Wilbye. Madrigals are still being used to create choral music in the 21st century.




 Madrigal singing was a popular form of entertainment during the Christmas season in Elizabethan times. St. Valentine’s Day and the return of spring prompted madrigals about love and nature.  Singing madrigals was an integral part of social life in upper-class England. At a dinner party, for example, the host would distribute printed music after dinner and the guests would sight-read the latest madrigals.

Madrigals are often secular songs, but there are a number of sacred madrigal compositions as well. Madrigal subjects are typically fables, tales of love, sorrow and life. Secular madrigal songs often feature elves, fairies and sprites. Most madrigals are sung a cappella, that is, without musical accompaniment, although some songs may be accompanied by one or two instruments such as a flute, recorder or violin. Dances often accompanied the singing of madrigals.

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