madrigals and word painting

it’s quite past midnight where i am right now, but for some reason my brain is in education mode and wants me to share some of my knowledge on madrigals and word painting, or as they call it, madrigalism.

firstly, what even is a madrigal?

simply speaking, it is a secular part song (usually 4-6 voices, typically unaccompanied) from the renaissance era, in which the music is set to poetry. it originated in italy, and was one of the most important musical genres of the time, so popular that they eventually spread to england. madrigalism is the use of musical gestures/devices (like dynamics and rhythm) to evoke text depiction, or various emotional states – another more general term for it is word-painting. with this increased sensitivity and focus on the content and delivery of the text, madrigalism creates a relationship between the text and the music.

last year when i took a course in music history, one of our assignments was to discuss the use of madrigalism in madrigals, both italian and english. the pieces i examined were the following (by the way, the indented text is what i wrote in my assignment, so yeah… mine):

As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending (thomas weelkes)

Here, the word “ascending” is depicted through an ascending scale, both sharing the same upwards direction/motion. this occurs in all singing voices in canon starting on different notes, therefore giving this section a very prominent ascending feel.

This section of “long live fair Oriana” goes on for quite a few measures – she definitely lives long in the music. With the bass line sustaining the C for “long” through a few measures, the idea of Oriana’s long reign is made very clear to listeners.

Itene o miei sospiri (carlo gesualdo)

“Itene, o miei sospiri” translates to “Go forth, my sighs.” The sighs are depicted by the long, held notes on “sospiri”, as well as the rests in between “miei” and “so”, and “so” and “spi”. Also adding to the “sighing” motive, there is a reduction in volume heard in the choir (from the recording I listened to via the MU270 Alexander Street playlist).

“Precipitate’l volo” translates to “Hasten your flight.” “Volo” (flight) is sung with running sixteenths in the top voice (on a high F, suggesting the height of the flight) in mm. 7, as well as running eighth notes in all voices. The scalar pattern is not simply ascending, but switches between ascending and descending notes, depicting the lightness and the rhythmic patterns also depicting the lightness as well as quickness of flight. Flight is not just straight up, but is slightly unsteady, as the music shows here.

so yeah, there you have it. hope you gained a little more musical knowledge… and maybe some appreciation for “old” music, if you didn’t have it already? i have to admit i actually quite enjoy learning about the history of music, whether it be from gregorian chant times (aka SUPER long time ago), or even from the late 20th century. basically, i enjoy analyzing songs, even if it can be hella tedious with the classical and experimental stuff. it kind of lets you inside the composer’s head – like, what was beethoven thinking about when he wrote his famous fifth symphony?

anyways, that’s all for now.

featured image: the musicians, by caravaggio (c. 1595)

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