It's one of those "fa la la" things. The Oxford Concise dictionary gives madrigal as: "A 16th or 17th century part-song for several voices, usually arranged in elaborate counterpoint and without instrumental accompaniment." Pretty much sums it up. Madrigals are the art songs of the Renaissance - as opposed to simpler and more down-to-earth folk songs. The texts are often love poems, often with a pastoral setting. The harmonies are usually quite complex - and absolutely exquisite! The madrigal offered composers a chance to explore the possibilities of intricate harmonies and rhythms, combined with elegant and refined poetic texts - all conveyed through the purity and simplicity of the human voice.
There are too many madrigals on Alchemy to mention them all by name, but "Good Morrow Fair Ladies of the May" (track #1) is a lovely example, as is Thomas Morley's very popular "My Bonny Lass She Smileth" (track #2).
© The MadriGALS 2000