The term madrigal presents some confusion because it is shared by two distinct genres of vocal music. The first genre of madrigal emerged in Italy in the 14th century. It was an unaccompanied vocal composition for two or three voices in simple harmony, following a strict poetic form.

The second, far more important genre, emerged in 16th century Italy. It was a polyphonic part song, usually unaccompanied and with parts for four to six voices using a secular text. It was sometimes accompanied by strings that either doubled or replaced one or more of the vocal parts.

The term also applies to a poetic form. The 16th century madrigal as a poetic form was a one stanza poem using a free rhyme scheme and a fairly even mix of seven and eleven-syllable lines.

A Saturnalian Madrigal

Amid the merriment of Saturn's feast,
We Romans should remember
That though the time to toil for now has ceased,
It's midway through December.
The slave will have his day;
A crown he may assume.
The master, too, will play,
And then his role resume.

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