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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 17 Commercial and Literary Music
Richard Taruskin
The Literary Revolution and the Return of the Madrigal

ex. 17-13b Orlando di Lasso, Prophetiae Sibyllarum, Sibylla cimmeria, mm. 35-46

The extremity of style represented by Lasso’s sibyls, while eerily astonishing as befits the subject, is not unintelligible in musical terms, relying as it does on harmonies and progressions that, taken singly, were part of ordinary musical language. (The progressions are not even “chromatic” to any huge extent, as the sixteenth century defined the term, since even where accidentals are involved, the voices usually move by half step from one scale degree to another—the definition of diatonic motion—rather than by inflecting single scale degrees.) It is in the aggregate that they overwhelm. Still, although musically intelligible, such a style is not easily explained on purely musical grounds: that is, it would be hard to account for Lasso’s musical decisions or their motivation without taking the text into consideration. Are the motivations then “extra-musical”? Is the result “literary”? Do such motivations or such results make the product artistically impure? And is artistic impurity an artistic vice?

These questions have been debated for centuries, and no matter what we may resolve or agree upon among ourselves, they will go on being debated for centuries, for the question behind all the other questions is a fundamental question of values. The best we can do is to try to understand the various positions that have been taken (including our own, whatever they may be) in their historical context.

In the sixteenth century the contention was between the proponents of the ars perfecta, a wholly or autonomously musical style founded on a specific musical history and valued for its universality (which meant its relative indifference to words), and the proponents of stylistic mixture in the name of expression, which implicitly denied universal or autonomous musical values. Many composers, Lasso emphatically included, saw no need to choose between the two principles, but adapted their style according to functional and textual requirements. Partisan positions were more apt to be espoused by theorists and patrons.

Still, even within the relativist camp distinctions and nuances can be observed. Even Lasso’s sibylline style was addressed more to the overall character of the text—its supernatural origin, its quality as mysterious utterance—than to the specifics of its semantic content. Indeed, when it came to the mechanics of the word–music relationship, Lasso came down in this case on the side of phonology and rhetorical declamation, just like the chanson composers. If “literary” music means music that embodies or is responsive to semantic meaning, Lasso’s sibylline motets do not qualify.

But a great deal of sixteenth-century music did qualify, and it is to that style, and to the movement that supported it, that we now turn. It was a revolutionary movement, and it transformed music fundamentally and irrevocably.

Its first fruits did not look very revolutionary, and the origins of the movement remain unclear. The trend toward literary music, which first involved settings of Italian verse, was long viewed as a slow evolutionary outgrowth of the frottola. More recently, however, it has been proposed that the trend was the product of two other currents—or rather, that it was the product of their confluence, which took place not in the main centers of frottola activity (Mantua for composition, Venice for publication), but in Florence, during the 1520s, when the frottola craze had already begun to subside.10

These two currents were (1) the “Petrarchan movement,” a literary revival of archaic (fourteenth-century) poetic genres, and (2) the application to settings of Italian texts of styles and techniques previously associated with “northern” polyphony, both sacred (Latin motets) and secular (“Franco-Flemish” chansons).

The influence of the Petrarchan revival is already suggested by the revival of the word madrigal to identify the new style of Italian verse setting. There is no musical connection at all between the sixteenth-century madrigal and its trecento forebear. The latter had quite died out and been forgotten. It was initially brought back to sixteenth-century consciousness not as a musical genre but as a literary one, a species of pastoral verse discussed with examples in a fourteenth-century manuscript treatise on poetry, the Summa artis rithimici vulgaris dictaminis (“Survey of the art of vernacular poetry”) by Antonio da Tempo, published as a printed book in 1507.

The influence of “northern” musical idioms on the new genre is betokened by the simple fact that the first sixteenth-century “madrigalists” of note were not Italians but oltremontani who like so many of their musical contemporaries had found gainful employment in Italy. It is to the confluence of high old literary ideals with sophisticated imported musical techniques that we owe, in the words of James Haar, the madrigal’s leading “revisionist” historian, “the beginnings of a musical vocabulary adequate to meeting the intellectual and emotional demands of the verse.”11

The protagonists of the literary revolution in its earliest phases were the humanist scholar (and later cardinal) Pietro Bembo (1470–1547), the chief instigator of the Petrarchan revival, and the composers Philippe Verdelot (ca. 1480–ca. 1530), a Frenchman, and Jacques Arcadelt (d. 1568), a Walloon or French-speaking Fleming. Verdelot’s first book of madrigals was published in 1533, though he was mainly active in the 1520s and wrote five times as many madrigals as he published. Between 1539 and 1544, Arcadelt published five books of madrigals for four voices and one for three. By the mid-1540s, the madrigal had been established as the dominant musical genre for Italian poetry and retained its supremacy for over a century, albeit with many modifications along the way to accommodate changing styles and social functions. By the end of the sixteenth century, moreover, madrigals were an international craze, both in the sense that Italian madrigals were eagerly imported and performed abroad, and in the sense that they inspired emulations in other countries and other languages, particularly English.


(10) For the main revisionist account see James Haar and Iain Fenlon, The Italian Madrigal in the Early Sixteenth Century: Sources and Interpretation (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

(11) Haar, Essays on Italian Poetry and Music, p. 74.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 2 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 2 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 2 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017007.xml