Whereas the music of the Middle Ages is predominantly sacred, there is a great flourishing of songs dedicated to secular topics, predominately love, in the 15th through the early 17th centuries. With the invention of music printing, the spread of literacy and improved travel musical and poetic ideas traveled rapidly around Europe, creating a distinctive set of ideas which elaborated themes inherited from the troubadours and their descendants. The notion of courtly love was now hardly taken seriously, but its imagery was still powerful.

Gilles Binchois: Dueil angoisseux (text by Christine de Pisan),

from The Castle of Fair Welcome, Hyperion CDA66194, track 6.

Christine de Pisan (or Pizan) was a 14th-century French writer who was wed at 15 and widowed at 25, and dedicated her output of love-lyrics to the memory of her late husband to whom she was utterly devoted. Despite the wish for death expressed in the envoi to this poem, she lived on to compose many other works, often defending women’s rights and praising their accomplishments. Not only is this an unusual work in expressing wifely devotion, but it is also highly original in the way it piles sorrow on sorrow in a torrent of anguished verse. Although Christine is counted as a “Medieval” poet her poem was set by Gilles Binchois, a “Renaissance” composer, reminding us that no sharp boundary separated these periods and that he could respond directly and immediately to her emotion with powerfully moving music.

Grief desespoir, plein de forsennement, grievous despair, full of madness,
Langour sansz fin et vie maleürée endless languor and cursed life,
Pleine de plour, d’angoisse et de tourment, filled with tears, anguish and torment,
Cuer doloreux qui vit obscurement, doleful heart which lives in darkness,
Tenebreux corps sur le point de partir ghostly body at the brink of death,
Ay, sanz cesser, continuellement; I have ceaselessly,continually;
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
Fierté, durté de joye separée, Disdain, harshness without joy,
Triste penser, parfont gemissement, sad thoughts, deep sighs,
Angoisse grant en las cuer enserrée, Great anguish locked in the weary heart.
Courroux amer porté couvertement Fierce bitterness borne secretly,
Morne maintien sanz resjoïssement, mournful expression or without joy,
Espoir dolent qui tous biens fait tarir, dread which silences all hope,
Si sont en moy , sanz partir nullement; are in me and never leave me;
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
Soussi, anuy qui tous jours a durée, Cares and concerns which have continued forever,
Aspre veillier, tressaillir en dorment, bitter waking, shuddering sleep,
Labour en vain, à chiere alangourée pointless labor , with languid expression,
En grief travail infortunéement, doomed to the torment of grief,
Et tout le mal, qu’on puet entierement and all the evils which one could ever
Dire et penser sanz espoir de garir, tell or think about, without hope of cure,
Me tourmentent desmesuréement; torment me immeasurably;
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
L’envoi: Envoi:
Princes, priez à Dieu qui bien briefment Princes, pray to God that very soon
Me doint la mort, s’autrement secourir he will give me death, if he does not wish
Ne veult le mal ou languis durement; by any other means to cure the suffering in which I so bitterly anguish
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
Translated by Paul Brians

Anonymous (English, 16th Century): Greensleeves,

from Faire, Sweet & Cruell (Bis CD 257): track 9

Of all English Renaissance tunes, this is the most familiar, partly because of its modern use for the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” However, it was a wildly popular tune in its own day, and was arranged in endless different ways. Here we hear it sung much as it must have sounded in the 16th century. Although the text speaks in the voice of a man spurned by his lady love, it is here sung by a woman, which would not have bothered a Renaissance audience one bit. They had little concern for the gender of the singer of a song so long as the voice was a pleasant one. The message was conveyed by the words and melody, and not by the person of the singer.

Alas my love, ye do me wrong
to cast me off discurteously:
And I have loved you so long,
Delighting in your companie.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight:
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my Ladie Greensleeves.

I have been readie at your hand,
to grant what ever you would crave
I have both waged life and land,
your love and good will for to have.

Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
But still thou hadst it readily,
Thy musicke still to play and sing,
And yet thou wuldst not love me.


Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Greensleeves now farewell adieu
God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true
Come once again and love me.


Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Marchetto Cara (Italian, 1465-1525): Hor Vendut’ho la Speranza (Barzelletta):

from Renaissance Music from the Courts of Mantua and Ferrara (Chandos CHAN 8333), track 18.

This song reflects the keen Renaissance interesting in banking and trade by treating hope (hope of being loved) as a commodity which has just suffered a fall in the market, for the poet’s lady has proven false to him. He concludes that hoping for her love is foolish; he would prefer to invest in a more constant lover.

Giulio Caccini: Amarilli mia bella (text by Giovanni Battista Guarini)

from Giulio Caccini: le Nuove Musiche, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77164-2-RG, track 10.

This popular madrigal from Italy has a simple text which uses a traditional Arcadian name: Amayrillis. To take the arrow out of the lover’s heart is to heal him of love’s wound, and that can only be done by lovemaking.

Rossino Mantovano: Lirum Bililirum

from The King’s Singers Madrigal History Tour, EMI Angel CDM 7 69837 2, track 2

Madrigal composers delighted in sound effects, especially those related to music. Here the composer imitates the sound of a muted lute in the refrain. The text is a routine lover’s complain based on long, unrequited “service.”

Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum, lirum. Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum, lirum.
Deh si soni la sordina. Ah, sound the muted instrument.
Tu m’intendi ben, Pedrina, You hear me well, Pedrina
Ma non già per il dovirum. –and not just out of duty.
Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum li Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum li
Deh, si soni la sordina, Ah, sound the muted instrument.
Deh, si soni la sordina, Ah, sound the muted instrument.
Le ses an che t’vo mi ben I have loved you for six years
E che t’son bon servidor, and been a good servant to you,
Ma t’aspet che l’so ben but I’ve been waiting for you so long
Ch’al fin sclopi per amor. that I shall end by bursting with love.
Deh, non da plu tat dolor, Ah, don’t give me more grief;
Tu sa ben che dig il virum. you know well that I speak the truth.
Trans. Paul Brians

Pierre Certon: La la, la, je ne l’ose dire

from The King’s Singers Madrigal History Tour, EMI Angel CDM 7 69837 2, track 16.

Renaissance writers delighted in joking about cuckolds. The supposition that most women were unfaithful to their husbands gave encouragement to lovers and of course was never applied by married men to their own cases. Here the composer cleverly imitates the sound of gossipy whispering in the refrain.

La, la, la, je ne l’ose, je ne l’ose dire La, la, la, I dare not say it, I dare not say it
(et) la, la, la, je le vous diray. (and) La, la, la I will tell it to you.
Il est ung homme en no ville There is a man in our town
Qui de sa femme est jaloux. who is jealous of his wife.
Il n’est pas jaloux sans cause He is not jealous without cause,
Mais il est cocu du tout but he is a cuckold by everybody.
(Et) la, la, la, etc. La, la , la, etc.
Il ne’est pas jaloux sans cause, He is not jealous without cause,
Mais il est cocu du tout. but is cuckolded by everybody.
Il apreste et si la maine He prepares to go out and if he takes her
Au marché s’en va atout. everything goes badly at the market.
Translated by Paul Brians

Thomas Morley: Now Is the Month of Maying

from Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers (Collegium COLCD 105), IMS CDM 489, track 11.

The Renaissance delighted in images of outdoor lovemaking even more than the Middle Ages. The song is apparently about dancing, but dancing is often a metaphor for lovemaking, and “barley-break” is what we would call “a roll in the hay.” Such punning sexual allusions and even more frankly bawdy verse are extremely common in madrigals.

Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing, fa la,
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass. Fa la.

The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, fa la,
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground. Fa la.
Fie then! why sit we musing,
Youth’s sweet delight refusing? Fa la.
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play at barley-break? Fa la.

William Byrd: This Sweet and Merry Month of May

from Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers (Collegium COLCD 105), track 13.

This is a madrigal in honor of Queen Elizabeth. She encouraged a cult which regarded her as the beloved of her people, though a perpetually virginal one. England is the “second Troy,” which may seem an odd epithet (since Troy was notoriously the loser of the famous Trojan War), but ancient legend said that just as Rome had been founded by Aeneas, a fugitive from Troy, so Britain had been founded by another such Trojan prince, named Brutain. Pure propaganda, of course, but highly effective in a time when every country wanted to emulate ancient Rome.

This sweet and merry month of May,
While Nature wantons in her prime,
And birds do sing, and beasts do play
For pleasure of the joyful time,
I choose the first for holiday,
And greet Eliza with a rhyme:
O beauteous Queen of second Troy,
Take well in worth a simple toy.

From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1990.

Petrarch : To Laura

Francesco Petrarca devoted dozens of sonnets to his love for Laura, who died in the black death of the 14th century without ever having returned his passion. These became some of the most influential and imitated love lyrics ever written, translated and set to music all over Europe. He did not invent the “Petrarchan sonnet” form, but he made it famous. This is one of several sonnets he wrote after her death. He imagines that her brief presence in the world was a miraculous angelic apparition. She becomes almost godlike in her powers, with the music of her speech transforming nature.

From Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women. New York: Fawcett, 1991.

Louise Labé: I Live, I Die, I Burn, I Drown

Louise Labé wrote some of the most passionate love sonnets in all of literature. Like Sappho, she was bitterly criticized for expressing her feelings too frankly for a woman. This is not one of her most famous poems, unfortunately; but it expresses vividly the intensity of the anguish she felt when her lover was unfaithful.

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

Created by Paul Brians

More about Renaissance music.