Music For Madrigal Dinners

SBO Staff • ChoralOctober 2013Repertoire Forum • October 24, 2013

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By John C. Hughes

Replicating a Renaissance-era feast, complete with costumes, dinner, a play, and, of course, music, can be a large undertaking. However, the educational benefits for such an effort are readily apparent: students gain a historical perspective, learn to sing unaccompanied in a small ensemble, and are exposed to different literature than in larger choirs. Besides the madrigal singers, other students, such as brass players or younger choir members acting as pages, can also participate in the dinner. This involvement helps to foster unity within the music department and keep students interested in the madrigal ensemble. There is no set method for putting on a madrigal dinner, so be creative and do whatever works for your specific situation. I’ve included historically accurate pieces, as well as some modern compositions that I’ve found to work well. Because many of these pieces have existed for a long time, not many previews are online. Many madrigals are, however, available for free on the Choral Public Domain Library (


FireFire“Fire, Fire”
Thomas Morley, arr. Russell Robinson
Alfred Music Publishing

“Fire, Fire” is among Thomas Morley’s best-known madrigals and was included in his 1595 collection Ballets for Five Voices, which also included his famous “Now is the Month of Maying” and “Sing We and Chant It.” Morley’s original work is for SSATB voices, but Russell Robinson has reduced the work to three voices without sacrificing the piece’s integrity. Robinson masterfully negotiates the developing male voice by limiting the lowest part’s range to F3–D4. This piece is a quintessential example of the English madrigal style with its polyphonic texture and dance rhythms. Robinson has also made an SSA arrangement of this piece. Score and audio previews available.

As-Fair-As-Morn“As Fair As Morn”
John Wilbye, arr. Russell Robinson
BriLee Music

Like “Fire, Fire,” Russell Robinson’s adaptation of Morley’s “As Fair As Morn” makes Renaissance music attainable for developing voices and ensembles. In this piece, various factors exist that will challenge less experienced choirs: the half note gets the beat, each line is independent, and there are some accidentals. However, these challenges are opportunities for growth and learning. “As Fair As Morn” would work nicely for both middle and high school ensembles and is an accessible introduction to Renaissance polyphony.

Audio preview:


“Canzonette a tre”
Claudio Monteverdi
Treble Clef Music Press

Edited by Joan Yakkey, this collection of four three-part pieces by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is unique because the works were specifically written for treble voices; in other words, this is not an adaptation. Yakkey’s edition has everything the discerning conductor would prefer: pronunciation guides, word-for-word and poetic translations, and a page describing her editorial practices. Yakkey retained the compositions’ original rhythmic values, so singers may have to adjust to reading the half-note as the beat. Each of these four pieces is very short and has a strophic structure, which will aid in the learning process. Consider excerpting one or two pieces and performing them with younger women not yet in the madrigal ensemble. Doubling the voices with recorders would add Renaissance flare to your performance. 


“Functional Music for Christmas Madrigal Dinners”
John V. Mochnick
Mark Foster Music Company

Part of the fun of madrigal dinners is the pageantry of the feast. In this octavo, John V. Mochnick has composed festive music for the processional, table blessing, recessional, and fanfares, as well as the entrances of the Yule log, Wassail, Boar’s head, and flaming pudding. All of these pieces are short and easy to learn. Simple percussion can be added to help students enter into character. While conductors may wish to omit some pieces or substitute others, Mochnick has provided a useful framework for the functional music needed for a dinner.

BanquetFugue“Banquet Fugue”
John Rutter
Hinshaw Music

John Rutter is certainly not from the Renaissance era, but his “Banquet Fugue” is a wonderful novelty piece for madrigal dinners. Not only do singers get to sing frivolous text, “Guzzle, guzzle, guzzle, munch, munch, gobble, gobble, chomp,” but they also learn to sing a fugue and see how it’s constructed. While Rutter has provided a piano accompaniment, it is not necessary and can easily be omitted for an unaccompanied performance.


DeckThe-Halls“Deck the Halls (in 7/8)”
Arr. James McKelvy
Mark Foster Music Company

Not every piece in a madrigal dinner needs to be an authentic madrigal from the Renaissance era. Programming a few novelty pieces lightens the mood and offers some variety. McKelvey’s famous “Deck the Halls (in 7/8)” is a fun twist on the traditional carol. Students may initially balk at the asymmetrical meter, but once the rhythms have been established, the tune is addictive. Enjoy this challenging, yet fun piece.

Michael Praetorius
Bourne Music

“Psallite” is a wonderful Christmas-themed Renaissance work by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621). The work has sections in Latin and in German, but Norman Greyson’s edition, available through Bourne, has an English translation as well. This is a tuneful piece that is quick to learn and is a good addition to any madrigal program. Adding dynamic contrast and accents to your performance will make it exciting.

ISawThreeShips“I Saw Three Ships”
Arr. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw
G. Schirmer

Alice Parker and Robert Shaw made many arrangements of Christmas carols. Like any of their arrangements, “I Saw Three Ships” works well for madrigal programs because it is unaccompanied, straightforward, and well constructed. While it might be ideal to only perform authentic madrigals from the Renaissance period, I’ve found that adding some Parker/Shaw arrangements to madrigal dinner programs eases the burden on choir members. Furthermore, audiences appreciate hearing some familiar tunes.

O-Occhi-Manza-Mia“O occhi, manza mia”
Orlando di Lasso
ECS Publishing

Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594) is among the best-known Renaissance composers and is also one of the most prolific. He wrote in many styles and languages. His Italian madrigal, “O occhi, manza mia (O Eyes of My Beloved),” is very straightforward with simple harmonies and rhythms. The last section is a repeat of the previous section, which makes the piece easy to learn. Because the music is fairly easy, I would recommend singing in Italian. Not only will this expose your students to the beautiful language, but it will also add authenticity and variety to your program. No previews available.


“The Bells at Speyer”
Ludwig Senfl, arr. L. Stanley Glarum
G. Schirmer

Not for the faint of heart, Ludwig Senfl’s “The Bells at Speyer” is an unaccompanied onomatopoetic piece portraying clanging cathedral bells. With an overlapping texture and nonsense syllables, this work is a challenging piece that demands independence. However, it is guaranteed to please audiences. I highly recommend using this piece at the beginning of a program to start the evening with the joyous sound of “bells.”

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