Rise of the English Madrigal

The influence of the Italian madrigal in England reached its height in the 1590’, largely because of the compositions and publications of Thomas Morley, who composed some of the most famous and enduring English madrigals.

Summary of Event

From the 1560’s until the end of the sixteenth century, Italian musical forms enjoyed an ever-increasing level of popularity and influence in Elizabethan England. In particular, examples of the Italian madrigal—and of its related forms, the ballett and canzonet—were more frequently translated and performed in England in the late 1580’s and 1590’s than ever before, and this fascination with Italian music led to a flowering of the English madrigal throughout the 1590’. Thomas Morley, who was extremely active both as a composer and as a publisher of music during this period, was a driving force behind the development and popularity of English madrigalism. Music;England
Publishing, music
Madrigal, English
Morley, Thomas
Weelkes, Thomas
Wilbye, John
Kirbye, George
Morley, Thomas
Gabrieli, Andrea
Lasso, Orlando di
Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da
Marenzio, Luca
Monteverdi, Claudio
Ferrabosco, Alfonso, the Elder
Yonge, Nicholas
Watson, Thomas
Kirbye, George
Weelkes, Thomas
Wilbye, John

The Italian madrigal is a specific genre of vocal music, popular during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, typically written for four to six parts, usually (especially in its sixteenth century versions) polyphonic—that is, consisting of more than one musical line, in which each line, or part, is relatively independent. Madrigals are typically elaborate compositions that employ a number of musical devices, such as chromaticism and word painting, and because of the complexity of the vocal line, madrigal singing tends to be virtuosic. The leading exponents of the madrigal in sixteenth century Italy were Andrea Gabrieli, Orlando di Lasso, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Luca Marenzio, Don Carlo Gesualdo, and Claudio Monteverdi.

The royal court of Elizabeth had been familiar with the Italian madrigal as early as the 1560’, when the Italian composer Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder was in residence there (although there is evidence that madrigals made their way into the court as early as the 1520’). In 1588, the English musician Nicholas Yonge published Musica Transalpina
Musica Transalpina (Yonge) , a collection of Italian madrigals translated into English, effectively introducing madrigals to a wider audience and making them available to an English-speaking public. The collection was well received, and only two years later, Thomas Watson published First Sett of Italian Madrigalls Englished
First Sett of Italian Madrigalls Englished (Watson) (1590), another collection of madrigals devoted to the works of the well-known Italian composer Luca Marenzio.

By far the most prolific disseminator of madrigal collections in the 1590’s was the composer Thomas Morley, who published no fewer than five collections of madrigal music within a period of five years, including Canzonets to Three Voyces
Canzonets to Three Voyces (Morley) (1593), Madrigalls to Foure Voyces
Madrigalls to Foure Voyces (Morley) (1594), Canzonets to Two Voices
Canzonets to Two Voices (Morley) (1595), First Book of Ballets to Five Voices
First Book of Ballets to Five Voices (Morley) (1595), and Canzonets to Five and Sixe Voices
Canzonets to Five and Sixe Voices (Morley) (1597). Canzonets and balletts are also Italian-derived forms of music that are closely related to the madrigal, and it has even been suggested that Morley (like other Elizabethans) did not make a rigid distinction between the three forms in his work. At any rate, Morley’s canzonet and ballett collections included pieces easily recognizable as conventional madrigals. Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke
Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, A (Morley) (1597), by far the most popular English treatise on musical performance and composition throughout the seventeenth century, also contained several original madrigal compositions by Morley. It is in this work, moreover, that Morley offers a comprehensive definition of the madrigal, especially in relation to other contemporary musical forms, such as the motet and the canzonet.

Morley’s contribution to the madrigal tradition in England was significantly aided by the fact that, in addition to being a prolific composer in the Italian genres, he was extremely active as a music publisher during a period in which publication was strictly restricted by the royal court. In 1598, Morley was granted a patent to publish printed music, after the monopoly originally belonging to William Byrd expired in 1596. In addition to allowing him to publish standard English books of metrical psalms and ruled paper, Morley’s patent allowed him to publish a large number of part books (that is, ensemble or polyphonic music, such as madrigals, in which each part appears in a separate book), including works of his own composition as well as works by contemporary English musicians. For example, The Triumphes of Oriana, published by Morley in 1601, contained twenty-nine madrigals, each written by a different composer (including one by Morley himself).

Although some of Morley’s adaptations of Italian musical forms betray the influence of an older, English tradition of polyphonic church music (which he undoubtedly learned, at least in large part, from the English composer William Byrd), most of Morley’s English madrigals tend to have a lighter musical texture and do not place as much importance on the poetic vocal text. This tendency has occasionally prompted scholars to term Morley’s work the “light” approach to the madrigal. Other contemporary English composers, dubbed as exemplars of the “serious” approach to the madrigal, preferred a weightier musical texture, in which the poetic text was chiefly important in determining the shape or features of the musical line. The best examples of this approach include George Kirbye’s First Set of English Madrigals to Four, Five, and Six Voices
First Set of English Madrigals to Four, Five, and Six Voices (Kirbye) (1597), Thomas Weelkes’s Madrigals to Three, Four, Five, and Six Voices
Madrigals to Three, Four, Five, and Six Voices (Weelkes) (1597) and Ballets and Madrigals to Five Voices
Ballets and Madrigals to Five Voices (Weelkes) (1598), and John Wilbye’s First Set of Madrigals to Three, Four, Five, and Six Parts
First Set of Madrigals to Three, Four, Five, and Six Parts (Wilbye) (1598). Both of these approaches to the madrigal were well received in Elizabethan England, although the madrigal as a whole had already started to wane by the beginning of the seventeenth century, replaced in terms of popularity by the lute song.


Although little credence is now given to the traditional idea that English music in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries did not have much of a history outside Italian influences, the fact remains that the introduction of the Italian madrigal to England spurred one of the most creative and richest periods of English music composition in the Renaissance. The astonishing output of collections of madrigals and related forms in the 1590’, best represented by the compositional and publishing efforts of Thomas Morley, gave impetus to the business of music publishing in England and consolidated a commercial market for printed music. In addition, the development and popularity of the madrigal in England—as a musical form that combines poetic text with complex, polyphonic harmony—helped to shape contemporary debates over the relationship between music and language. It is probably no coincidence that the great dramatist William Shakespeare, for example, included a song by Morley in one of his many works that deal with the relationship of music to poetry.

Further Reading

  • Jacobson, David Christopher. “Thomas Morley and the Italian Madrigal Tradition: A New Perspective.” Journal of Musicology 14 (1996): 80-91. Discusses Morley’s understanding of the different genres of the Italian music he was adapting, paying special attention to the discussion of music in Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke. The article addresses modern scholarly debates over the Renaissance classification of madrigals, balletts, and canzonets.
  • Kerman, Joseph. The Elizabethan Madrigal. New York: American Musicological Society, 1962. The classic book-length study of the madrigal tradition in Renaissance England, focusing on the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and treating at length the influence of the Italian sources. Morley’s contributions to the genre are discussed at length. Illustrations, several musical examples.
  • Perkins, Leeman L. Music in the Age of the Renaissance. New York: Norton, 1999. Includes a section on the Italian madrigal tradition in England and English madrigals, most of which is centered on a discussion of Morley’s composition and publication of madrigals and canzonets. Bibliography, illustrations, musical examples (including a lengthy excerpt from Morley’s “April Is in My Mistress’ Face”).

1567: Palestrina Publishes the Pope Marcellus Mass

1575: Tallis and Byrd Publish Cantiones Sacrae

1590’s: Birth of Opera