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Madrigal tempi

Your responses were wonderful; truly a primer of performance practice
and advice for all younger (and older, uh hm) choral directors need to
take to heart.
The entire sequence of events in the preparation of the early pieces
started, of course, with the tempi which worked for me. I have always
trusted me instincts in this matter and certainly been willing and able to
adjust tempi to the available acoustic. Indeed, once I have divined the
correct tempi, I am hardpressed to alter that (those) tempi except for
expressive reasons). When I take something out of tempo for rehearsal, I
very quickly revert to "real tempo".
When I said to my group, "let's look at the suggested tempi" the singers
looked at me askance and tsked, "Stomps, that's not right. Why do the (the
editors) want it to go like this? Do it like you did it before." Hence, I
turned to you wisdom in case I had missed something while I was ignoring
these pieces and those which go fa, la, la.

Here are the responses:

>Trust your gut instinct. We can not reproduce the tradition, i.e. we have
>try to make sense of it all. If it makes sense to you in those tempi,
>do it (as Nike puts it).

Renaissance music,and ESPECIALLY madrigals, is all
about the TEXT. Studying w. the early music people at
Indiana U really brought this home to me, more than
any choral director ever did.

Forget pulse-based tactus (as you already have). Too
variable, and anybody else's metronome markings will
lead you and your singers astray.

I suggest:

1. Read the poem aloud. What words come to the fore
as important?
2. What is the content of those words phonetically?
Slow, liquid consonants ( full of these),
crisp, explosive consonants? vowel colors?
3. Make your phonetic/diction approach AT THE SERVICE
of semantic meaning (redundant?), as you decide which
words/sounds to emphasize.
4. Determine the tempo, attempting at all times to
maintain tactus flexibility to highlight important
words. NOTE: usually in modern editions, it is best
to keep/feel the larger value as beat, often the
half-note. The easy and clear declamation of text BY
YOUR SINGERS determines tempo, imo.

Tactus is not equivalent to mechanical pulse-keeping;
it's a way to set and maintain a basic pulse value.
Great early-music specialist singers will include a
lot of rhythmic/pulse flexibility. Not romantic-style
rallentando, accelerando, but rather the stretching of
an important phoneme, to bring out the expression of
the text.

NOTE: IF YE LOVE ME is NOT a madrigal. It is an
anthem (motet in English), thus tactus should be taken
more literally, in my opinion. The music is still
text-based, just not as "worldly," thus I would
emphasize individual word expression less.

Feel free to ask any thing else. I'm sort of
passionate about this topic : - }


I spent 13 years doing the production edits and proofreading madrigals for
the Renaissance Voices series. The right tempo is the one that works.
Obviously, this is an oversimplification, but the idea is for the tempo to
reflect the meaning of the text. Remember that these were written largely
for the entertainment of the singers, so that while some may be much more
difficult than others, they shouldn't sound as if they are. Don't get so
wrapped up in the intellectual exercise (I know, you are writing an
academic paper, so that may be difficult) that you worry about a few
metronome points one way or the other. (By the way, I don't take any
medication, and my pulse is around 86 after a brisk walk. I have no idea
what the pulse rate might be for a madrigal singer of the 1500s. I wonder
what their pulses might have been compared to ours. Slower or faster?)

Steven L. Schaffner

Tempi were NEVER indicated in original prints or mss. You were
supposed to know! Any metronome marking is the idea of a modern
editor or, in the case of the Kings, the tempo they found congenial.
Find the tempo that seems to you to serve the music best.

A number of madrigals, both Italian and English, are "traditionally"
sung 'way too fast. "Sing We and Chant It" is a galliard, plain and
simple, and belongs at a proper galliard tempo. "Matona" is often
sung much too fast as well. And "Fa una canzona" is about singing a
song to put you to sleep, not running a race! When I performed it
that's how I approached it, and it works beautifully when you fade it
out at the end. You have to know what the words mean, and not just
the singing translation, before you can decide on the proper affect.

Do what works for you!!


No ORIGINAL source material that I've seen of madrigals written 400 years
ago includes any indication of tempo -- all is speculation and the "work"
many generations of "editors."

I've taken, for example, "The Silver Swan" at dozens of tempi, depending on
dozens of variables. Why not throw away the score and just do what FEELS
right with the particular ensemble with which you are making music


-Douglas Frank

The If Ye Love Me (is it Tallis) needs to be in a gentle two, half note 60 or it really drags, IMHO. Check out some of the recordings by a few of
the great English cathedral choirs.


Stephen A. Stomps, Director of Choirs
Auburn High School Choirs
250 Lake Avenue Extension
Auburn New York 13021
PH: 315-255-8300 x2305
FAX: 315-255-5876
HOME: 315-591-5689
email: steve_stomps(a)
on May 28, 2005 10:00pm
I agree.... tempi, like pitch, back in those early days, was relative. IT was determined by whatever the singers/players could handle and which instruments/singers were available at the moment. "Text is the ruler...."