Performance | Madrigal Singing | Renaissance | Classical

In his Dialogo della musica (‘Musical Dialogue’), published in 1544, Antonfrancesco Doni describes two performances, one in an all-male academy, the other at a more informal gathering including a woman. The singing of madrigals by contemporary composers is interspersed with conversation. Is this a realistic picture of a social gathering in mid-sixteenth century Italy? Diverse clues suggest that it is.

Madrigals were published in partbooks: each singer held a book containing only his or her line of music. Many surviving collections bear the handwritten inscription ‘property of so-and-so and his friends’, suggesting that groups of friends purchased collections together. Further evidence of Doni’s realism comes from the music itself which, until the later 1540s, was rarely of great technical difficulty, suggesting that it was composed for amateurs. Finally, although many works are beautiful to listen to, much of their appeal is most evident to the singers. Notational features like eye music, in which the musical notation is itself a pun on the text (for example, the sudden appearance of black notes for the word ‘night’), can only be seen. Even text-expressive devices that are audible are much more noticeable to the singer than the listener. So perhaps, following Doni, we can imagine men and women gathering for a social evening and, when the conversation lags, they take out their partbooks to sing.

Performance | Singer-Virtuosos | Renaissance | Classical


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