Bromantic Singing: Madrigals and Authenticity

By: (Andrew Dell’Antonio, University of Texas at Austin) //

It’s been a common schtick among music history teachers to tell our students that sixteenth-century Italian and English madrigals are not the wholesome, jolly songs about shepherds, nymphs, and fa la la they learned to sing in high school. Ultimately, they’re about sex. Amused at having mildly shocked our charges, we are often satisfied to leave the matter at that and forge ahead to the “progress” of Baroque music. But if we’re willing to take the issue a bit deeper, there’s more for us to consider about gender dynamics and social singing—not just in the Renaissance, but up to the present day. Because madrigal singing was not just about sex: it was largely about bromance. 

The bromantic nature of the madrigal has been de-emphasized in modern times in part through arguments about authenticity and interpretation. Groups specializing in historically informed performance have reclaimed the madrigal from a long tradition of choral arrangements, correctly arguing that the repertory was originally designed for one-to-a-part singing and (correctly or not) maintaining that “authentic” performances should respect that texture. We might find one example in the below performance of arguably the most famous madrigal of the early 1500s, Jacques Arcadelt’s “Il bianco e dolce cigno,” which can also be found in multiple choral interpretations on YouTube, almost all of which feature mixed-gender ensembles like this one.

The global reach of the “authentic practice” movement is reflected by this one-to-a-part performance of “Il bianco” by Japanese vocal ensemble La Fonteverde.

Contrary to the mixed-gender performance above, one might argue that a performance such as the following one is much more representative of what “Il bianco” might have truly sounded like in the sixteenth century.

YouTube user “ebgineer” multitracked himself singing all four parts of “Il bianco.” The stunned reader might enjoy listening to another version, also one-male-voice-to-a-part with more highly trained singers.

This analogy isn’t quite fair, of course: the young men singing “Il bianco” in the sixteenth century wouldn’t have all looked the same, and their pronunciation of their native language would likely have been more precise, though it’s another matter entirely whether it would have sounded like modern Italian. But the mediocre level of vocal technique would probably have been comparable, and the likelihood of anyone paying to hear their singing would be equally slim.

But that’s the point: madrigals such as “Il bianco” weren’t meant to be heard in concert; they were meant to be sung socially. Descriptions of the time often refer to “tabletop” practice: a group of young men (and they were almost always men) would gather around a table, spread partbooks around (madrigals were usually printed with one voice-part per book, rather than in score, as we generally encounter them today), and gather around them to sing.


The title page to an Italian printed collection of music from 1535 features five men—two singers and three recorder players—gathering around partbooks on a table.

Women were not necessary to the madrigal singing tradition because men were accustomed to singing high parts. The top part of a Renaissance madrigal does not reach especially high, especially if one is willing to lower the bass and move all the parts down accordingly, a practice common to the 1500s. Musical instruction books of the time recommended that the person singing or playing the lowest part determine the lowest note on the page that they would have to produce, call that the lowest note they could physically produce on their voice or instrument, and adjust all the other parts accordingly.

To be sure, there were situations in which women became involved in madrigal singing.  In the first place, women—like men—could also sing all the parts of a madrigal with judicious transposition. For example, some nuns enjoyed singing cutting-edge and potentially sensuous madrigals in their nominally sacred-only, single-gendered spaces—the fact that they were repeatedly forbidden to do so is clear proof that they were doing it despite their male overseers’ mandate. Also, some powerful women—especially courtesans—used mixed-gender musicking as a strategy specifically because of its socially disruptive potential, as a way for women to infiltrate and destabilize male-only spaces in a way that men would have found non-threatening or even appealingly transgressive. But by default, when four people gathered to sing madrigals in the 1500s, they were men.

So what does it mean when four dudes get together to sing to each other about love, the most common textual focus of these madrigals? While certainly there has always been same-sex attraction in human cultures—and the Renaissance was no exception—most likely the assumption was that they were singing-talking to each other about their love for women—whether boasting about their conquests, commiserating about spurned affections, or planning a new sortie—as young heterosexual men so often do in homosocial gatherings of this sort.

We might look briefly at the text and musical interactions in “Il bianco” for evidence of bromance (a more thorough discussion, on which the following is partly based, is in the award-winning book Modal Subjectivities by Susan McClary). 

The madrigal begins with the top three voices introducing the classical image of the swan singing at the moment of his death, joined by the fourth voice at the words “And I,” grounding the (collective!) individual narrative in the lowest and arguably most “masculine” range as the text tells of the speaker’s crying-dying. (“Death” here would almost certainly have been understood to refer to orgasm.) As the poem offers contrasting comparison between the unhappily-dying swan and the blissfully-dying (and now we know why) protagonist, the voices declaim the text mostly together, occasionally moving out of sync. But at the end, when the poet declares to be happy if he could die a thousand times a day (!), the four voices scatter and compete in their repeated declarations of desire for love-death. This last line of the ten-line poem takes up almost a quarter of the entire madrigal—Arcadelt gives his singers plenty of time to dwell on the punch line.

The King’s Singers is an all-male ensemble that specializes in the Italian madrigal repertory. Their rendition of “Il bianco” is accompanied by visual images of a modern scoring for those who might want to sing along.

But bromance was not the only sonic possibility for the madrigal; on the gendered flip side, sometimes women sang madrigals—alone. Scholar-performers have recently been suggesting that the four- or five-vocal-part textures of sixteenth-century printed madrigals are deceptive, since performance of those works was often self-accompanied solo singing rather than social ensemble participation. A printed four-voice madrigal may have “begun life” as a song for voice and (something like) basso continuo. Eventually it may have been elaborated for four parts for marketing reasons, since partbooks were the preferred medium for printing and sale. Conversely, a work printed in parts could have been taken up by a professional singer and elaborated (even “on the fly”) for a solo accompanied voice. And many of the most successful of these professional singers were not dudes.

Returning to Arcadelt’s “il bianco,” we might imagine a solo-song version sounding something like the following.

Valeria Mignaco and Alfonso Marin interpret Arcadelt’s madrigal as an accompanied solo song.

The bromantic thousand-deaths-a-day boast takes on a different meaning when sung by a woman—potentially embodying a fantasy of female hypersexuality that was as tantalizing (and panic-inducing) to men the sixteenth century as it is today.

So while madrigals such as “Il bianco” were customarily sung socially by men, self-accompanying professional singers—of all genders—were always part of the picture of madrigal-musicking, and increasingly displaced the bromance of ensemble singing toward the end of the 1500s. This, I have argued elsewhere, helped lead to a new value being placed on listening as a facet of musicking—one that some elite men valued as more sophisticated than sound-creation itself. And this also led to the eclipsing of social part-singing of madrigals by the early decades of the 1600s (though social bromantic song would frequently re-emerge, whether through German singing clubs of the nineteenth century or in the American fascination with “barbershop” song in the twentieth). As in these two latter examples, bromantic madrigal-song helped to reaffirm the social cohesion of elite men, offering a homogenous soundscape barrier to the diversity of subordinate voices that might threaten their masculine vision of social brorder.

For Discussion

  1. What other traditions can you think of that allow or encourage multiple versions of individual songs for different musical ensembles? How are those differences applied to different groups or circumstances?
  2. What other kinds of social musicking are characterized by homogeneity—whether by gender (all-male or all-female), ethnicity, or otherwise? What social function does that homogenous participation serve, and what constitutes “participation” in that musicking?

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