Few terms in music have proved so difficult to define as Madrigal. Half a dozen etymologies have been suggestedsome far afield, others open to more reasonable discussion, the best that of Dr. Fellowes, who speaks on this point with authority, that it means a composition the words of which are " in the mother tongue," as distinct from the greater dignity and refinement of Latin. The time in which it appeared was that in which Italian was first coming into literary use and was still regarded as somewhat rustic and uncivilised : one of the reasons why Dante called his poem by the humbler name of " Corn-media " was because it was " written in the speech of the common people."
The word seems to be traceable to the twelfth century, then it fluctuated in use, and finally was reintroduced into music about 1580 by the Flemish composers in Rome. The first known volume of compositions in which it is formally employed was published in 1533. Even so it is hard to find a real definition which will explain its nature, for the simple reason that it grew out of other song-forms and was often confused or associated with them. Strictly speaking it means a song in two divisions : the first being set to several stanzas, like the recurrence of a ballad, the second, called the Ritornello, closing the whole in a different style and measure :
but as the practice of madrigal-writing proceeded the exceptions became so numerous and the bounds so widely extended that the rule is not capable of any general application. All we can say is that it was a song for three or more voices, set to secular words and so composed that each voice should have the fullest possible amount of melodic interest and beauty. The account of its chief vogue must be deferred until we come to the latter half of the sixteenth century. In its earlier days it spread widely through Provence and Italy and when once established became rapidly vigorous and mature. Some of Festa's madrigals, e.g. the famous " Quando ritrova la mia pastorella," still hold their place as masterpieces.
But it was in Church music that the composers of this period found their most fruitful field. The pageantry of the service, its universal appeal, its security of office and position were overwhelmingly attractive to the Maestro di Capella, who had at his disposal a fine building, a permanent choir, and a remarkably free hand. It was from the last of them that his most pressing danger arose.
We have all heard a choral society giving its Christmas performance of the Messiah, and have noted the keen personal delight with which the singers follow and intertwine their rolling melodic phrases. It is not difficult to imagine the still greater delight with which the composer wrote them, and so to follow the thread back to the remote days when polyphony was a new art, when men were first constructing and first employing the looms at which these intricate textures were to be woven. We need not therefore be surprised that the early polyphonic composers should have lost their balance over this new device, should have treated it as an end in itself and rejoiced in it as an opportunity for the exercise of pure draughtsmanship. The meaning of the liturgical text was of little account to them : they were not particularly religious or very scholarly-minded; it was written in Latin which the congregation could not understand, and which offered the most tempting vowels on which long decorative melodies could be warbled. In a short space of time the claims of the liturgical text fell into disregard, the same music would serve for Kyrie or Gloria, for Credo or Agnus Dei, and the principal object of the composer was to use the words as a scaffolding for the beauty of his architectural designs.
At these proceedings the Church naturally took alarm. As early as 1322 Pope John XXII issued from Avignon a decree peremptorily forbidding these new-fangled and irreverent licences: the old way, he complains, has been forgotten and the music of the divine office is now " performed with semibreves and minims and pestered with notes of small value . . . the voices are continually running to and fro, intoxicating the ear, not soothing it … and in this way devotion, the true end of worship, is little thought of, and wantonness which ought to be eschewed, is on the increase." This was bad enough, but there was a worse scandal of which the decree makes special mention : the practice of using secular tunes as the staple of the composition, so that one part would be singing the melody of a popular love-song while the others were intertwining it with descants and counterpoints which adorned without in the least obscuring it. There is still a controversy whether the secular words were used as well as the tune, but whichever way that be settled the practice did not tend to edification. Most celebrated of these songs, on the Continent, was " L'homme arme " which was used for the Mass by over twenty composers, including Dufay, Josquin, Morales and Palestrina : in England we have the beautiful and passionate melody of " Western Wynde " similarly used by Taverner, by Shepherd, by Tye and perhaps by others. In Taverner's Mass the entire stanza is continuously repeated through the different voices (usually treble or tenor) from beginning to end of the composition.
These examples will show that the decree of John XXII was never seriously put into operation. On the contrary, each generation seems to have been more adventurous than its predecessor, and Erasmus, writing in 1516, caustically declares that the Church music of his timeespecially in Englandis a direct contravention of St. Paul's maxim against " speaking in an unknown tongue." It is easy to find excuses for the musiciansthe conventional acceptance of the text, the carelessness and irreverence into which many of the Church services had fallen, the gravity and dignity of many secular tunes, above all the growing delight in sheer craftsmanship which has filled these Masses with their astonishing beauty of sound. But the Church had some right to regard this musical ideal as an intrusion and to look with grave misgiving on the divided allegiance of its services. We can understand, though we cannot accept, the view that Titian was, among all artists, the one who " contributed most to the decay of religious painting." At any rate, in the middle of the sixteenth century another reform was instituted. The Council of Trent resolved on the purification of Church music, and in 1564 Pope Pius IV appointed a commission of enquiry. It held a careful investigation, with the result that it recommended, as supreme model, the Mass which a few years previously Palestrina had composed at the instance of Pope Marcellus, and this, after a solemn performance in the Sistine Chapel, was accepted as the norm or standard of Latin liturgical music. There could not have been a better choice. Its reverence, its inspiration, its flawless workmanship make it a fit representative of all religious music; despite the magnificence of its composer's later works it remains of its kind unsurpassed.
Meanwhile a similar change was taking place in our own country, accentuated by the transference of the Protestant liturgical text from Latin to English. In 1544 the English Litany was published and Cranmer took the opportunity of writing to Henry VIII a letter upon its musical setting. This was, he urged, to be plain, not florid, not " full of notes " but " as near as may be for every syllable a note so that it may be sung distinctly and devoutly." This principle was re-established, and recommended for all Church music, in the early visitations of Edward VI, and produced results as varied as Tallis's " Dorian Service," Merbecke's " Book of Common Prayer Noted," and, with considerable aid from Lutheran Germany and Calvinisfr Geneva, the English Psalm tune. The rule of one note to a syllable was not intended to be literally enforced, it set an ideal rather than enjoined a practice; and its earliest example may be found in the well-known anthem, " Lord, for Thy tender mercies' sake," composed about this time, in which the close-fitting harmonies relax at one point into free imitation, and the Amen, usually omitted in modern editions, rounds off the work with a delightful flowing cadence.
There was one great Flemish composer, the best of whose work was done during the latter half of the sixteenth century. This was Roland Delattre, or Orlandus Lassus as he is commonly called, born at Mons about 1520, appointed about 1556 to the Bavarian Court, where he resided for nearly forty years, as Court composer and director of the Hofkapelle at Munich. He had a most prolific genius;
no less than 2800 works are ascribed to him, and they reach an astonishingly high level of skill and inspiration. His early compositions were mostly madrigals and other secular pieces (some of them oddly named " motets").
After his appointment at Munich he devoted himself to writing for the chapel-service and produced the long succession of liturgical pieces on which his reputation is chiefly founded. His setting of the Seven Penitential Psalms, written before 1565, but not published until nineteen years later, is ranked by Ambros with the Missa Papas Marcelli, and after it come many volumes of Sacra Cantiones, Selectissimce Cantiones, and the like, ranging from long and elaborate motets to four-part versions of songs and psalm tunes. As Court composer he had also the direction of the Duke's orchestra, and it is in his work, perhaps, for the first time that we find the practice of transposing vocal compositions to the use of strings. " Buone da cantare e suonare " is not an uncommon superscription on Italian Madrigals, as the corresponding " Apt for viols and voices " is on the English.
Apart from Lassus the primacy of music, during the height of the polyphonic period, was shared between Italy and England. In Italy the outstanding master was Palestrina, the contemporary of Lassus almost to a year, who was born at Praeneste about 1525 and died at Rome in 1594. The annals of his uneventful life are no more than a record of his successive appointments as organist and his successive achievements as composer. He held office at the Lateran, at Santa Maria Maggiore, at the Vatican: he served under nine Popes; he never travelled and refused all invitations which would take him from Rome; the two focal points of his life were his Church and his study, and beyond them he had no desires and no ambitions. There has been no greater composer in the history of music. Like Lassus he was abundantly prolificwe have from his hand 93 Masses, over 170 Motets (fifty of which are for eight or more voices), an abundance of other liturgical pieceshymns, offertories, lamentations, litanies, Magnificatsand two books of madrigals which show that he could write with the same clarity and distinction for secular texts as for sacred.