Jacques Arcadelt Biography


Born: 1507

Born In: Belgium

Jacques Arcadelt was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance best remembered as one of the most famous and influential composers of the classic or early phase of madrigal composition. Arcadelt had a long and productive career and composed both secular and sacred voice music, however was mainly known for his works in the secular genre. His melodious, simple in structure and singable madrigals, composed usually for four voices, played an instrumental role in popularizing and establishing the music form outside Italy. He remained active in both Italy and France and his music became immensely popular in both the countries for over a century. His first book of madrigals was reprinted 58 times by 1654 and his music style went on to influence the next generation of madrigalists. He also earned repute composing chansons on which he concentrated more while living in Paris. His rich body of work includes around 250 madrigals, 125 French chansons, 24 motets, 3 masses, as also settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the Magnificat. His music was influenced by among others the chanson and polyphonic style of his northern homeland and Italian popular secular music types like the frottola. Arcadelt served as choirmaster in the papal chapel in Rome under Pope Paul III and as choirmaster of the French royal chapel. He also entered the service of Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine and came under the latter’s patronage.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Jacob Arcadelt

Died At Age: 61

Born Country: Belgium

Composers French Men

Died on: October 14, 1568

place of death: Paris, France

Childhood & Early Life

There is hardly any information available on early life of Jacques Arcadelt, who was probably born in Liège in present-day Belgium in 1504 or 1505. Although his origins are uncertain, variations on the spelling of his name led many to suggest that he was of Flemish origin and had a French upbringing and possibly hailed from the vicinity of Liège or Namur.

Continue Reading Below

Arcadelt went to Italy at a young age and by the late 1520s, he was in Florence. It is most likely that in Florence Arcadelt had the chance to meet or work with French composer of the Renaissance, Philippe Verdelot, one of earliest and most prolific composers of madrigals. Verdelot is generally considered as the father of the Italian madrigal. Besides living in Florence, Arcadelt also possibly lived in Rome during the 1530s. The first known compositions of the virtuoso, a group of motets in Florentine style, were published in 1531 in Germany.

Arcadelt relocated to Rome either in late 1537 or sometime in 1538 and joined the papal choir at St. Peter's Basilica. He probably became a member of the Julian Chapel in January 1539. This was conjectured from the records of the Chapel where the name Jacobus flandrus, suggesting a Flemish origin is mentioned, however it is not known for sure whether the records refers to Arcadelt. The composer possibly served there for some months following which he was inducted as magister puerorum in the Sistine Chapel under Pope Paul III.

He composed hundreds of madrigals over a span of two decades. Most of his madrigals were for four voices while some were for three voices and a very few for five or six voices. He left around 250 madrigals, of which about fifty are of uncertain attribution. Possibly 250 more madrigals of the composer survive anonymously in manuscript sources. Music of his melodious, singable and simple in structure madrigals were many a times syllabic and built on a clear harmonic basis, usually constructed from a diatonic scale. The classic phase of development of madrigals is best represented by the works of this virtuoso. At least four books of his madrigals, printed by Venetian printers, were published in 1539, of which the first one Il primo libro di madrigal, became a huge success and went through 45 editions. By 1654, the book was reprinted 58 times.

Noted French-born Italian composer, music publisher and printer Antonio Gardano, who was based in Venice, became the main publisher for Arcadelt in Italy. One of the books of Gardano was opened by Arcadelt’s immensely popular composition Il bianco e dolce cignoI (The white and gentle swan), a four-voice madrigal set on the texts of Italian poet Giovanni Guidiccioni. It was one of the most single famous madrigals of the composer and counted among the most enduring compositions of the entire 16th century. The other large Venetian publishing house Scotto also published a madrigal book of Arcadelt.

With time, his madrigals, set from texts of poets like Petrarch, Jacopo Sannazzaro, Pietro Bembo, Filippo Strozzi, Benedetto Varchi, Florentines Lorenzino de'Medici and Michelangelo,  became extremely popular in Italy and France and remained so for over a century.. Arcadelt’s music featured in numerous intabulations for instruments like the guitar, the lute and viol and appeared in many paintings of musicians of that time. His madrigals enjoyed widespread popularity probably because of their catchy tunes, easy to sing quality and the way the virtuoso captured the Italian spirit and combined it with technical perfection of the Franco-Flemish harmonic and polyphonic style. Popularity of Arcadelt is also discernible from the several anonymous compositions that were attributed to him.

He served at the Sistine Chapel as a singer and composer till 1551 and during such tenure, he visited France only once in 1547. Arcadelt possibly met celebrated Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet Michelangelo in early 1542 and collaborated with the artist in setting two of the latter’s sonnets as madrigals. The compositions were however received with indifference by Michelangelo, palpable from the letter he wrote where he probably expressed his incapability in appreciating the work of the composer. Arcadelt received a piece of satin, suitable to make a doublet, from Michelangelo for the work.

In 1551, Arcadelt left Italy and went back to France for good. By that time, he composed more than 200 madrigals. After returning to France, he concentrated on writing chansons as much of the numerous pieces he wrote in this form date from this period. However he also wrote some of his chansons in Italy as these were published by Pierre Attaingnant and Jacques Moderne in Paris as early as 1540. The madrigals and chansons of Arcadelt shared some features of one another as the composer incorporated some features of madrigals while writing his chansons and vice-versa. His chansons were mostly syllabic and simple and some of them were contrafacta of his madrigals in which the music remained the same with new words printed in French rather than in Italian. Some of his noted chansons include Quatorsiesme livre de chansons (1561), Quatrième livre de chansons (1567), Neuvième livre de chansons (1569) and Sisième livre de chansons (1569).

Besides producing a rich body of work in the secular genre, Arcadelt also wrote sacred music in both Italy and France. These include 3 masses, 24 motets, some sacred chansons, settings of the Magnificat, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah. His masses like Missa tres were influenced by compositions of Franco-Flemish composers of the previous generation, most notably that of Josquin des Prez and Jean Mouton. Several individual compositions of his motets and sacred chansons were published in Latin and in French respectively between 1532 and 1555. Possibly Arcadelt wrote most of his music from the sacred genre, except the sacred chansons, while serving in the papal chapel in Rome. Documents found in the historical records of the Sistine Chapel suggest that his music was performed by the choir of the chapel while he served there. Although his music continued to be printed in Venice, during the 1550s and 1560s, while the composer was in France, his numerous chansons, masses and motets were published in the editions of the printing firm of Le Roy and Ballard in Paris.

Meanwhile, he entered the service of Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine as the latter’s maître de chapelle (choirmaster) sometime in the early 1550s. Arcadelt published a book of masses in 1557 and dedicated it to his new employer, the Cardinal. The book mentioned Arcadelt as a member of the royal chapel which means that he must have served King of France Henry II, who died in1559, as also Charles IX. 

Reputation, Death & Legacy

Arcadelt died on October 14, 1568, in Paris.

His Ave Maria, a much anthologized work, is not an original sacred composition of the virtuoso but a 19th-century arrangement by French composer and conductor Pierre-Louis Dietsch, who loosely arranged it from Nous voyons que les hommes, a three part madrigal of Arcadelt. Dietsch presented it in 1842 and attributed it to Arcadelt. Popularity of the work led Hungarian composer, pianist and teacher Franz Liszt to publish an arrangement for solo piano titled Chanson d'Arcadelt "Ave Maria" (S.183) in 1865.

French Renaissance writer, physician, Renaissance humanist, monk and Greek scholar François Rabelais commemorated Arcadelt in the introduction of The Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Good Pantagruel (1552), Book IV of his pentalogy of novels titled Gargantua and Pantagruel (The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel).

A complete modern edition of his works, xxxi, 1–10 (ten volumes), finds place in Corpus mensurabilis musicae (CMM) published by the American Institute of Musicology. Among the ten volumes, the first includes his masses, the second through nine includes his secular compositions, while the tenth volume contains his motets and other church music.

See the events in life of Jacques Arcadelt in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Jacques Arcadelt Biography
- Editors, TheFamousPeople.com
- TheFamousPeople.com

People Also Viewed

Nadia Boulanger Biography
Nadia Boulanger
Gabriel Fauré Biography
Gabriel Fauré
Paul Dukas Biography
Paul Dukas
Django Reinhardt Biography
Django Reinhardt
Maurice Ravel Biography
Maurice Ravel
Olivier Messiaen Biography
Olivier Messiaen