Top 10 Madrigal Composers of the Renaissance Era

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A Brief History

On June 16, 2012, Forgotten Books published The English Madrigal Composers.  The book concerns a style of music popularized during The Renaissance Era in Europe, a new age for invention and discovery. It was an age of rebirth and re-education in the arts, and science.  It was also important to know that the Renaissance Era was also the age of re-education of Ancient European history for example, Greek philosophy and Roman teaching and characteristic to the general public. The alpha of the printing press by German painter, Johannes Gutenberg was an encouragement of knowledge as well as literacy.

Religion would also become segmented from the solemn Roman Catholic Church, by the teachings and theology of Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation.  Therefore the outlook on life and divine intervention would become re-imagined by perspectives of the human eye. The spirit or God’s image would be portrayed by artists with paintings and molded sculptures of stature. Authors or poets, for example William Shakespeare would write plays to express the senses such as Ancient Greek comedies and tragedies. All of these elements ordained in the Renaissance Era  would be made into sonnets and poetry transformed into music and sung by close harmony groups called “madrigals”. Madrigal is originated in Italian “madrigale”, which means simple song, from “matricallus”, Latin meaning maternal or primitive. Madrigal songs are half songs for four voicing parts:Bass, Baritone, Soprano and Alto. The songs were arranged in elaborate counterpoint, without instrumental accompaniment. Most of the madrigal song lyrics were predominantly Italian and Latin, and were later written in the vernacular to recite poems or sonnets by popularly Shakespeare or other Renaissance poets. The texts of these madrigal songs dealt with unrequited love, and were often lyrically melancholy, but pleasant to the ears. Say if you were once a student in a madrigal choir in high school, you would have had the pleasure to have sang one of the songs by these great Renaissance composers.

Also say that  you were once a young choirboy in a Episcopal Church (hint! hint!), you would have sang one of these composer’s songs during a church service.  Most of the Christmas carols we hear or sing today, were written by these composers mentioned.This list is based on madrigal composers were  introduced to the musical public on the level of achievements and historical influences, which they are credited for, not for the number of songs which they composed in their profession. This style in which the list is detailed is ranking not by level of popularity either.  So sit back, relax, and jump in this literal time machine to hear about these historical madrigal greats.

Digging Deeper

10.  Jacob Arcadelt

The first of the ten to mention on the list is present day Belgian born, Jacques or Jacob Arcadelt (1504-1568). Monsieur Arcadelt was known for his madrigal style becoming mentioned for his style of sonorous homophony and combined his lyrical arrangement with great Renaissance poets, such as Michelangelo (no relation to the Ninja Turtle). He was also known to help establish transform the mundane oriented music form to a serious art form. His reputation lays more on his earlier than later works. He favored the four voiced homophonous texture along with his secular music which is most to mention, due to the fact that his music was set in a Italian treble style called “frottola”. And lastly Arkadelt’s secular simple structure influenced another composer further on the list, Giovanni de la Palestrina.

9.  Josquin Desprez

The ninth composer on the list is French born Josquin Desprez or Despres(1450-1521). The purpose why Desprez is on the list is for his title of recognition by Martin Luther as being acclaimed “the master of the notes”. Desprez’s music is also known as an embellishment, worthy of the world class court to music . Publishers would claim Desprez’s works as sales that would be assured. Other composers claimed his apprenticeship in return to improve their own works. Josquin’s music is noticed as one of the great treasures of Western culture. Desprez is on this list, because one of his essential achievements was that he was “court singer” of King René D’Anjou, who was the uncle of King Louis XI of France. This achievement would give Desprez the opportunity to Louis XI’s premier chapelain, Johannes Ockegham to become a personal servant and singer to Ascanio Sforza, brother of Duke of Milan. This affiliation gave Desprez the opportunity to serve for the courts of Quattrocento Italy, where he would become the choirmaster of the papal choir of Rome.

8.  Thomas Weelkes

Eighth on the list is Thomas Weelkes (Baptized 1576-1623). Weelkes was known to be one of the the greatest composers of madrigals. Weelkes, English organist and composer, received his Bachelor of Music , like Dowland at the University of Oxford. Weelkes is on the top of the list, for the fact that he was nicknamed the “Gentleman of the Chapel Royal” , but to decode that, he was a drunkard and blasphemer according to the Chichester Cathedral. So in that opinion, Weelkes would be the rebel or anti-hero of the Renaissance, pur say.  So in that case, Weelkes was known more for his choral music and works, than his reputation. Because of his comparison of non secular and non, he is on the list. One song that should be checked out is “Since Robin Hood”, also known as the “Kemps Dance”.

7.  John Dowland

The Seventh on the list is London born, John Dowland (1562-1626). Dowland was not only known for composing. He was also an educated singer, as well as a lute player extraordinaire, and was considered one of the best musicians of his time. Dowland is also on ranked on this list, because of his travels and achievements as a musician. In 1580, Dowland was a “servant” to Sir Henry Cobham, the ambassador of the French court. Eight years later, he received a bachelor of music degree from the University of Oxford. After he converted to Roman Catholicism, he was denounced as the royal court lutenist and decided to travel around Europe. Through his travels to Nürnberg, Genoa, Florence, and Venice, there was a notice to his talent. Dowland is also to be mention, since he was a court lutist for Christian IV of Denmark for short term,  and then gained the title “musicians for the lutes” by James I. To sum this up on why Dowland is a top 10 is his multi-talents that were broadcasted across the continent and his influences of song ideas by his travels. One song that would describe his poetic  work is “Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite”.

6.  Thomas Morley

Sixth on the list, “a better Thomas to add” is Thomas Morley (1557-1602) . Morley pursued his life and demise in the same place Norwich, England. I spent three weeks and sung in Norwich Cathedral. The town is one to visit, and the cathedral is a must to visit. Morley is not one to add on the list, because in most of the choirs I was in, I sang. But for the fact that Morley is historically titled the “first of the great madrigalists”. Morley has held a helm of musical achievements. He earned his Bachelor of Music is you guessed it, University of Oxford. Next he was the head choirmaster of Norwich Cathedral, and organist at St. Giles Cripplegate to St. Paul’s Cathedral where he opposite of Thomas Weelkes, had a the title “Gentleman of the Chapel Royal”.  Also he was an entrepreneur as well as a  businessman aside from being a composer. Another important reason why Morley is on the list is that he was under the influence of another madrigal composer that is on the top, William Byrd. Morley is also known to have adopted the quintessential Italian music form to Elizabethan England. One of his works, which is worth to mention is a present day used madrigal song, Sing We and Chant It.

5.  Giovanni de la Palestrina

Fifth is Giovanni de la Palestrina or Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) . Italian-born Palestrina is top on this list, for his struggles and determination through his life and career. It can be difficult to myth from reality when it comes to telling the life of Palestrina. Even though Palestrina is considered one of the highly acclaimed musicians of the sixteenth century, he was not named “The Saviour of Church Music’. Although through his life, he had wrote a great number of musical works. He was documented to be a hard-headed, family devoted, business man. After the bubonic plague took his wife and two sons, he did not surrender his work. He is also up on this list, because of the rejections he had received from the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Julius III, but he did not lose his title as a great composer since Pope Gregory XIII  had commissioned him choirmaster of the Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Palestrina is near the top of the list because of his development in music in Roman Catholic music, for well-balanced voicing parts, and smooth polyphonic sound.

4.  William Byrd

Fourth is William Byrd (1539-1623) . Byrd demands great attention to madrigals. Byrd was historically known to the Anglican church of England, especially titled the “father of music”. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I granted him joint monopoly for the importation, printing, and publishing of his works. Byrd was also known for being versatile in his works.  For not just this favor by her majesty, Byrd deserves to be on the top five of the list for his beautifully composed works composed for Anglican/ Roman Catholic church music today. The purpose why he is on this list, is for the versatility he would influence into madrigal music, as well as his instrumental works.  One song that should be mentioned is Ave Verum Corpus.

3.  Thomas Tallis

Third on the list is Thomas Tallis (1510-1585) . Tallis is mentioned on this list, because of his sacred music mentorship for other composers mentions, for example William Byrd and Thomas Morley. Also Tallis’s compositions would surround the Reformation music and the great continental schools of polyphony. Also Tallis was a great influence to introducing new styles to English church music. As he would be the teacher of  Byrd, he also had the grant of Queen Elizabeth for publication and print. The purpose of why Tallis is near the top of the list, is for his legacy to experience the Counter Reformation, and therefore his works would be influenced by that great historical impact. Tallis was also known to be a humble man, along with his work being commonly used in today madrigal choirs.  The last two lines of his epitaph – “As he did live, so also did he die, in mild and quiet sort . . .O happy man! ; To God full oft for mercy did he cry, wherefore he lives, let death do what it can.” – allude to a quiet, pious man, but little else.

2.  Claudio Monteverdi

Second on the list is Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Monteverdi is on this list, for the fact that he was alive between not just the Renaissance period, but the Baroque as well. Monteverdi’s influence altered the polyphonic music voicing to instrumental, unlike the evolutionary style from the 1570s . Whereas he played violin and wrote madrigal song by an honorable mention, Luca Marenzio of the pre Italian madrigal structure. He also was first to develop the first stages of a story with a musical setting, which would dominate the next music are, called opera. The first opera called Orfeo established hi9m as a musical genius, than a contemporary composer. Which is why he fits on the rank of second place, for his revolutionary style in his works.

1.  Anonymous

And last and number one on the list is  . . . . Anonymous! Why anonymous? Anonymous would be the any on the works by composers that would never be established as the writer. The mystery of this identity is an enigma in itself, but. It also opens the question to “who could have wrote this song?” enter our minds. It is certain to say some of the most beautiful songs of the madrigal Renaissance era were by the Anonymous composers. Knowing the fact that women were not known to any profession in the Renaissance era, could be one assumption. For example Queen Elizabeth? Queen Elizabeth was a philanthropist for the purpose of the printing of William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis’s music, and could they have all composed it together? Another theory of who this Anonymous composer was is any female could have been a possibility. Women’s roles in society during the Renaissance Era was controlling over patriarchy. This reality meant that women’s title to social standards would be that there would be limitations. Women would primarily be active in homemaking, household working, and childbearing. Niccolo Machiavelli in his literary works, Mandragola, and The Devil Takes a Wife , explains that society and the upheld of the roles of women existed inequality in the society then, where in the control of the patriarchy. Therefore women could not participate in the government and public spheres, and mostly education. Which in conclusion, if women would be limited to education, then the  arts and music education would be limited. Although women were not allowed titles, they were still allowed to attend church, are be choir member, and thus madrigals, but composers?  So that is why Anonymous is at the top.

So in a nutshell there is the chosen top ten madrigal composers of the Renaissance. Notice that most of these composers stood by a sacred oath to religion and to royalty, while some of the secular ones used art descriptions, and poetry, as well as theatrical arts in their music. The joyous sounding melodies, and the visual poetry of woe, and love would be used today in Renaissance fairs, Christmas time, and church masses. Nevertheless, we are in awe to these musical geniuses and also how they caused a great change in the next eras to come.

Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite composer from the Renaissance?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Calcagno, Mauro.  From Madrigal to Opera: Monteverdi’s Staging of the Self.  University of California Press, 2012.

Fellowes, Edmund Horace.   The English Madrigal Composers (Classic Reprint).  Forgotten Books, 2012.


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