Two of the most popular forms of music from the late Medieval period through to the High Renaissance were the motet and the madrigal. Both of these kinds of music were primarily composed of unaccompanied vocal groups of modest sizes but variations on this ensemble naturally occur.
Madrigal Vs Motet
The distinction between a madrigal and a motet is most easily highlighted through the idea of sacred and secular music. Sacred music, as the title suggests, uses text from religious sources, often in Latin, whereas secular music could be the setting of a poem or a specially written text for a song. Both the madrigal and the motet are polyphonic forms of music meaning they both often contain complex textures created by each voice singing separate melodies at the same time. Polyphony as a musical style if you like, flourished during the Renaissance and Baroque musical periods, and these vocal forms, in particular, appealed to many composers of the day.
The madrigal was not a vocal form of music for the faint-hearted or the untrained. Composers wrote these pieces with the highest of standards in mind, and if you have ever tried singing a madrigal you will know how challenging it can be. When we talk about the madrigal we are discussing the ‘Italian’ madrigal. An earlier form of vocal composition that predates the madrigal is the attractively named ‘frottola’. This vocal form was popular amongst composers and vocalists in the late 15th-Century until the mid-16th Century. Unlike the madrigal, the frottola was an accompanied song without the characteristic polyphony of the madrigal. Parallel song types can be found in the Spanish ‘villancico’ and the French ‘chanson’.
Madrigals were commonly set for four voices, only later were versions extending to six voices heard. One singer per part was how early madrigals were intended to be performed, but this developed as the decades passed giving way to ever more extravagant vocal forces. The subject matter for many madrigals was either sweet sentimentality or unashamed eroticism. This delineated the madrigal from the motet. The occasions at which madrigals were commonly performed were extremely varied, from meetings of Societies through to informal social gatherings. The adaptability and popularity of the madrigal were unquestionable.
What increasingly became of importance to Renaissance composers was the blending of both contrapuntal and homophonic styles of composition in the madrigal. This created textural interest as well as a compositional challenge to combine two musically different devices. Equally essential was the approach to setting the words of the poet to ensure the most deeply expressive composition. This was exhibited in many ways in a madrigal and included exotic word-painting, increasingly chromatic intricacies between the voices and complex modulations. Perhaps one of the finest examples to come out of this musical period is the Italian madrigalist Luca Marenzio. His astonishing ability is in his sensitivity to the words he sets and his facility for creating changes of mood to capture poetic intent.
Monteverdi, pupil to the great madrigalist Giaches de Wert, composed and published nine books of madrigals. Interestingly, as they developed, Monteverdi decided to include accompaniment from book six onwards, thus redefining the concept of the madrigal again. Monteverdi did not make this decision without reason, and if you listen to the dramatic effect of the solo voices rising out of the background you can hear why he made this choice. The accompaniment was frequently what became the standard in the Baroque, of violins and continuo. Many consider his composition titled, ‘Altri canti di Marte’ to be one of the finest examples of his work. The textural intricacies and voice writing is exemplary.
Like the madrigal, the motet has developed as a vocal form of music over the centuries. Its origins stem back to the 13th Century that emerged from ‘organum’. These early versions of motets could be unaccompanied voices or not. By the 14th Century the form we more readily recognize as the motet was fully established. Both sacred and secular motets existed in tandem, composed for different occasions. One compositional technique employed by many composers was that of ‘isorhythm’. This involves quite a complex rhythmic pattern being repeated throughout a composition. In this way, isorhythm can be used both as a textural device and a structural one. For examples of the isorhythmic motet listen to the works of Guillaume Dufay.
Later composers of the second half of the 15th Century, reverted back to earlier Medieval practices and used a ‘cantus firmus’ in their motets. The cantus firmus was derived from plainchant or directly borrowed from these early vocal works and woven into the texture of the new motets. This gave the composition sacred credibility amongst those dissenting voices who carefully kept watch over the composers of the day to ensure the reason they composed should not be forgotten, nor music becomes more important than the sacred text. The cantus firmus was ‘augmented’ to a point where the note values were taken to extreme lengths: the original plainchant all but obscured. Over and around these composers like Palestrina, Tallis, and Byrd, composed incredibly detailed and beautiful polyphony.
It was not uncommon for a motet to be sung at a Mass on a particular holy day. The texts on which both were based combined appropriately especially with the inclusion of the cantus firmus that frequently was assigned to the tenor vocal line. As we enter the 17th Century the motet remained largely sacred however increasingly, the instrumentation became elaborate including multiple choirs with instrumental accompaniment. Mozart, Brahms, and later Poulenc and Richard Strauss all composed motets with perhaps the most recent examples coming from the pen of Arvo Pärt.
Both the madrigal and the motet offer a rich and varied selection of musical compositions over the centuries. Some are modest in form, others designed on a far grander scale that can still render an audience speechless. From the bawdy and lewd Renaissance madrigals to the elegiac, poised, and even austere motets they chart a unique musical course through the story of Western Classical Music.