Posted in Project 1: Gesualdo and Madrigals

Research point 1.0: Renaissance madrigals

The first research point is about listening to five Renaissance madrigals from the course-book list and choosing two to compare and contrast; beginning by writing about the composers of the two chosen madrigals. The ones I’ve chosen are Matona, mia cara by Orlando di Lasso and Sweet honey-sucking bees by John Wilbye.

Flemish School; Orlando Lassus

Fig. 1. Orlando di Lasso

Orlando di Lasso (Fig. 1) is a late-Renaissance Franco-Flemish composer from the 16th century, known as one of the most distinguished and influential of his time. He was born in Bergen (known today as Mons in Belgium), being a choirboy in his childhood. Lasso’s first biographer mentioned that he was kidnapped three times because of the beauty of his voice, and although many sources claim this to be a legend, it was not an uncommon practice at the time (Wisse, 2004: 89). Whichever the case, he was quite a cosmopolitan musician, who during his lifetime travelled throughout Europe, including France, Italy and Germany, leaving more than 2,000 compositions in five languages. He was skilled in compositional techniques for both the sacred and secular genres, using both polyphonic and homophonic textures, with his style linked to musica reservata. Although there are many debates about this term, Lasso’s music related to it in the sense of “symbiosis between the text and the music to enhance expressivity,” (Saint-Dizier, 2014: 46) with his contemporaries noting his potency to “place the object [of the text] almost alive before the eyes.” (anon, cited in Bergquist, 2006: vii) Along the lines of expressive quality, Lasso would often employ chromaticism. Finally, there is a rich variety of character among his compositions, ranging from serious, religious and ceremonial, to amorous, playful and comic.


Fig. 2. John Wilbye

John Wilbye (Fig. 2) is a late-Renaissance English composer that lived from the second half of the 16th century until the middle of the 17th century. He is notable for his two sets of madrigals, even dubbed frequently as the most famous English madrigalist. This is due to the fact that, despite the key role Thomas Morley had in establishing the canzonet and the light English madrigal, there was a lack of serious secular compositions in the musical tradition of the country. (Kerman: 1962: 212) Wilbye was among those who challenged this state with pieces that contained a more melancholic tone, influenced by the Italian composer Alfonso Ferrabosco, although he did also compose madrigals whose nature was closer to Morley’s lighter style. Whichever of the two moods he used – Ferrabosco’s somber aura or Morley’s lightheartedness, the entire piece would retain its prevailing atmosphere, in order to ‘evoke a single affect’ (Buelow, 2004: 306). Wilbye’s madrigals are Italianate in the sense that they are set to the Italianized poems by Philip Sidney and Edmund Spencer, but also in regards to using the Italian musical approach in expressing the text. Although the English madrigals reached a new peak with Wilbye’s music, shortly after his time, the genre began declining.

The first major difference that can be noticed when comparing Lasso’s Matona, mia cara and Wilbye’s Sweet honey-sucking bees is the musical texture. Matona, mia cara is almost entirely homophonic, retaining the four voices throughout the piece, with the exception to the first ‘don don don’ section sang only by the tenor, and the ‘cazar’ and ‘utar’ sang with four voices divided as alternating two and two – but these are quite short in length. On the other hand, Sweet honey-sucking bees is rather polyphonic – both free and imitative polyphony can be found, and the voices constantly enter and exit, in this way continuously creating new voice groupings that enrich the texture – as if there are multiple ensembles. Second dissimilarity is the mood. Lasso’s piece belongs to the light tradition of villanella, more specifically its subcategory called todesca – German soldier’s song, and in Matona, mia cara, the German soldier is parodied for stumbling upon his words trying to speak Italian, with the goal to charm an Italian lady with his affections. While this playful state is reflected by the major mode Lasso employed, Wilbye’s madrigal expresses a more serious feeling through the predominant minor mode, where the character of the text yearns from afar for Melisuavia and questions why the bees surfeit on flowers, when the choicest nectar lies in her lips. Although both Lasso and Wilbye convey the amorous setting, their pieces provide contrasting musical illustrations of two disparate personalities that are in love – one active in his happy-go-lucky pursuit, and the other passive in his bitter-sweet longing.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed this research point and learning more about the composers and their pieces that I chose to compare. It was very interesting to read how they composed both serious and lighthearted pieces – definitely something I plan to do as a composer myself. The comparason itself was quite important in developing my skills as a musician to be able to find and critically engage with differences and similarities within compositions. Although I didn’t select them for this research, I really enjoyed the three other pieces from the list – I believe each contained something unique. Overall, this was a very enjoyable part of Project 1.

List of illustrations:

Figure 1. Orlando di Lassus. (16th Century, n.d.) At: (Accessed on 30th March 2018)

Figure 2. John Wilbye. (n.d.) At: (Accessed on 1st April 2018)


Bergquist, P. (ed.) (2006) Orlando di Lasso Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Buelow, G. J. (2004) A History of Baroque Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kerman, J. (1962) The Elizabethan Madrigal: A Comparative Study. New York: The American Musicological Society, Inc. 

Saint-Dizier, P. (2014) Musical Rhetoric: Foundations and Annotation Schemes. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Wisse, P. M. (2004) Orlando di Lasso. In: Perspectives on Job. At: (Accessed on March 21st 2018)

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