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  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - Vocal Music - Lieder & Madrigals

Continuing our alphabetical look at vocal music today we look at lieder and madrigals.


Lieder is the German word for "songs." It refers to a type of German art song that emerged in the 19th century during the Romantic period. Lieder are typically composed for solo voice and piano accompaniment. The genre gained prominence through the works of composers such as Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Hugo Wolf, among others.

  • Origins and Development: The tradition of Lieder can be traced back to the 18th century, but it reached its peak during the Romantic era in the 19th century. Composers of this period sought to express deep emotions and connect music with poetry, leading to the evolution of the Lied as a distinct art form. Franz Schubert is often regarded as one of the pioneers of the genre, composing over 600 Lieder during his short life.

  • Texts and Poets: Lieder are typically set to German poetry, and composers often chose texts written by renowned poets of the time. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Schiller, Eichendorff, and Rückert were some of the most popular poets whose works were frequently used for Lieder compositions. These poets' evocative verses provided a rich source of inspiration for composers to create expressive and heartfelt musical settings.

  • Compositional Style: Lieder are usually composed for a single voice and piano accompaniment. The piano part is not merely a supportive element but plays a crucial role in conveying the mood and emotion of the song. Composers carefully tailored the piano accompaniment to complement and enhance the emotional content of the text.

  • Themes and Emotions: Lieder often explore a wide range of themes, including love, longing, nature, beauty, death, and introspection. Each song captures a specific emotional state or moment, and the composer's task is to translate these emotions into music, creating a powerful connection between the singer, the pianist, and the audience.

  • Song Cycles: Many Lieder are grouped into song cycles, where a set of songs is connected by a common theme or narrative thread. One of the most famous examples is Schubert's "Winterreise," a cycle of 24 songs that tell the story of a desolate winter journey. Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe" is another well-known cycle that portrays the joys and sorrows of love.

  • Performance and Interpretation: Lieder require a highly skilled and expressive singer who can convey the subtleties of the text and the music. The singer must possess a deep understanding of the language and poetry to bring out the nuances of the song effectively. Likewise, the pianist plays a crucial role in creating the right atmosphere and supporting the singer's interpretation.


Madrigals are a form of secular vocal music that originated in Italy during the Renaissance. They reached their peak of popularity in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Madrigals are distinct from Lieder, which we discussed earlier, as they are typically written for multiple voices, rather than solo voice with piano accompaniment. The term "madrigal" originally referred to a type of pastoral song in the 14th century, but it evolved into a sophisticated vocal genre during the Renaissance.

Here are some key features of madrigals:

  • Polyphony: Madrigals are known for their polyphonic texture, meaning that multiple independent voice parts are sung simultaneously. Early madrigals were usually composed for four voices, but later in the Renaissance, they were written for five or six voices or even more.

  • Word Painting: Madrigals are characterised by word painting, a technique in which the music reflects or imitates the meaning of the text being sung. For example, if the lyrics describe birds singing, the music may include soaring melodic lines or trills to depict the sound of birds.

  • Secular Themes: Unlike sacred music of the time, such as motets or masses, madrigals were intended for secular performance. They often featured themes related to love, nature, mythology, and human emotions. The texts were typically in vernacular languages like Italian, English, or French, rather than Latin, making them more accessible to the general public.

  • Through-Composed Form: Madrigals are usually through-composed, meaning that the music changes continuously throughout the piece, adapting to the text's mood and meaning. This contrasts with strophic form, where the same music is repeated for each stanza of the text.

  • Composers and Schools: Italian composers were at the forefront of the madrigal's development, with early pioneers like Philippe Verdelot and Jacques Arcadelt. However, the madrigal genre quickly spread throughout Europe, and composers from other countries, such as Thomas Morley and John Wilbye in England, also made significant contributions.

  • Decline and Legacy: By the early 17th century, the popularity of the madrigal began to wane, and new musical forms like opera emerged. However, madrigals left a lasting impact on the development of Western music. They played a crucial role in advancing polyphonic writing, encouraged composers to explore expressive possibilities, and paved the way for the development of later vocal genres.

  • Modern Revivals: In modern times, madrigals have experienced a revival, with choral ensembles and vocal groups performing both Renaissance-era madrigals and contemporary works in a madrigal style. The charm and expressive power of this vocal form continue to captivate audiences and musicians alike.

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