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Renaissance Poetry: Madrigals, Chansons, and Villancicos

A look at the poetry behind some of the most popular Renaissance vocal music. Plus, Nigel North performs in a featured release of music by Robert Johnson.

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Throughout the late-Renaissance, the villancico was a favorite of composers for the vihuela, the principal accompanying instrument for Spanish solo song.

Time capsule for this episode: 1669

The Italian Madrigal

During the 16th Century, the “madrigal” was a generic term that covered many Italian poetic forms, including sonnets, canzoni, and pastoral verse, just to name a few. It was a type of secular composition that was popular because of its expressive relationship between text and music.

One of the greatest madrigal composers was not an Italian, but a Frenchman named Philippe Verdelot, who spent most of his life in Italy. Not only was Verdelot unusually creative with the way he composed madrigals, but he was quite prolific.

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Chanson – A word that literally means “song

The 16th-century chanson was, in general, divided into two types of secular song. The first, known a Burgundian chanson, was a hold-over from the previous century and was based on poetry such as ballade or rondeau. The second took hold by the middle of the 16th century and was called Parisian chanson, which let go of the earlier fixed poetic forms in favor of a freer lyric.

Some of the most prominent masters of 16th-century chanson were Claude Lejeune, Claudin de Sermisy, and Guillaume Costeley.

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The Villancico

The villancico was invented some time in the middle of the 15th century as a poetic verse in Spanish specifically to be sung. Within a hundred years it took its rightful place as one of the principal song types unique to Spain. Throughout the late-Renaissance it was often a favorite of composers for the vihuela, the principal accompanying instrument for Spanish solo song, (much like the lute).

Simply put, the villancico referred to poetry that was constructed as a refrain with a set of verses.

The principal composers of solo Renaissance villancico were Luys Milán, Miguel de Fuenllana, Luys de Narváez, Diego Pisador, Alonso de Mudarra, and Enríquez de Valderrábano.

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Featured release: Lute music by Robert Johnson

Our featured release is a 2010 Naxos recording of lute music by Renaissance composer Robert Johnson. Nigel North performs the Prince’s Almain, Masque, and Coranto; the Fairie’s Dance; Dances from the King’s Masque; and the Satyre’s Dance.

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Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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