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English Music in the Renaissance (35 min)

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Church Music

In all the history of music, England has never held such an honored place as she did from the time of Henry VIII starting in 1509 to the end of the reign of Charles II in 1651. This was due to two widely different conditions.

English King Henry VIII

First, the Reformation of the Church under Henry VIII and Edward VI left the English church musicians to face problems which only they could solve. They could no longer merely imitate the composers of other countries, but they had to find their own musical way.

In secular music, their work was among the best of its time. They could meet the demands of elegance, tempered with the common sense and natural happiness of the English spirit.

Before the time of Henry VIII, musical learning had been the right of the monasteries. The mass in England, as elsewhere, had until this time been sung in Latin. Although Henry VIII wished to simplify the services, he had no wish to exclude music altogether. He was far too wise, and too good a musician himself to want that.

Instead, it was decreed that the Protestant services must be sung in English. The English composers, therefore, had to try to adapt the music of the Latin service to English words. This presented difficulties, for not only were the sounds and accents of the words different, but many tiny words such as ‘to,’ ‘a,’ ‘an,’ and others had to be considered.

Most of the famous musicians throughout this period received their training in the church, and held prominent posts in church music. Indeed, the choir of the Chapel Royal could almost be called the cradle of English church music. Most of these musicians, however, contributed a great deal to secular music, and so helped the fame of English music to spread abroad.

At this time, too, the skill of the singers of the Chapel Royal was preserved with great care. Choirmasters were ordered in the successive reigns of Henry VIII, Mary, and Elizabeth to take any children (boys) whose voices and musical ability they thought suitable for services in the Royal choirs. This was not as great a hardship as it might seem, for the boys were given a good education, probably sent to school at Eton, and then to a university.

Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis is the most distinguished of all the men who spent their lives in the service of the Chapel Royal. The large quantity of Tallis’ music shows that he was one of those great minds which gain more power the more one uses it.

Thomas Tallis in St. Alfege Church, Greenwich

It is possible to trace his growing strength through a long series of works from an early Magnificat and a Mass for four voices, in which he seems to be feeling his way as the earlier polyphonic composers did, to the beautiful series of Sacramental Motets of which ‘O sacrum Convivium’ is the most celebrated.

Listen to “O sacrum convivium” (O Sacred Banquet) by Thomas Tallis (4 min)

O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur;
recolitur memoria passionis ejus;
mens impletur gratia;
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.
O sacred banquet, wherein Christ is received;
the memorial of his passion is renewed;
the soul is filled with grace;
and a pledge of future glory is given to us.
Panem de caelo praestitisti eis
Omnem delectamentum in se habentem.
You gave them bread from heaven
Containing in itself all sweetness.

While Tallis was still young, the personal quarrels between Henry VIII and the Pope were fermenting, and none of them had gone far in their careers when it became clear that the quarrel was not to remain a personal one between King and Pope, but that it would produce drastic changes in the church in England, though no one could tell how drastic those changes would be.

The first which affected the musicians was the suppression of the greater monasteries (1539-40). This event deprived Tallis of his place as organist of Waltham Abbey and, besides merely individual losses of the kind, it did away at one stroke with nearly all the centers at which music had been most faithfully cultivated for generations. In fact, it amounted to the destruction of the principal musical colleges of the country.

Still the musicians were undaunted. The King was a friend to music; he was a performer and a composer himself; his chapel was maintained as fully as before, and Tallis soon found a place in it which he held through the three reigns which followed until his own death in 1585.

With Tallis, his own principles underwent no change. He went on writing as he had begun, only influenced to a limited extent by the outcry for simple music. He wrote an English service in D minor in which the voices all move together in plain chords instead of in separate lines of melody. This meant the words might be more distinctly heard than was possible in the old style.

Listen to “If Ye Love Me” by Thomas Tallis (3 min)

If ye love me
Keep my commandments
And I will pray the Father
And he shall give you another comforter
That he may ‘bide with you forever
E’en the spirit of truth

This shows us that the Protestant movement in England helped to establish the idea of harmony as consisting of series of chords as the operatic and instrumental movements in Italy did, though it worked with a very different object. Underlying both, however, was the same wish to make music conform more closely to the words.

Everything was to be sung in English, but there was no check upon the elaborateness of the music. Motets by Tallis were translated into English anthems, and anthems new and old written in the polyphonic manner were welcomed.

William Byrd

William Byrd

William Byrd (1543-1623) was only about sixteen years old when Elizabeth I came to the throne. He was not brought up like Tallis in the older tradition, but still clung to it devotedly. He wrote Masses for three, four, and five voices, although he can have had little or no chance of getting them performed. Many beautiful motets were published under the title of Cantiones Sacrae as well as the Gradualia, published in conjunction with Tallis.

These were written purely for love, but he also endowed the English service with some fine music. His Te Deum, for example, is much less restrained in style than Tallis’s, and it is one of the most beautiful examples of the Cathedral Service in use at the present day.

At the same time a passage from the English service and a corresponding one from the Latin Mass (five voices) will show at a glance how much more free in design the latter was.

Simplicity is the only advantage which the English version has; the expressive beauty of the long slurred notes on the word ‘sanctus’ could not be reached in any kind of music which required the voices to keep to the same movement.

Listen to “Sanctus” and “Benedictus” from Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices (3 min)

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, 
Dominus Deus Sabaoth. 
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua. 
Hosanna in excelsis. 
Benedictus qui venit
In nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Holy, Holy, Holy 
Lord God of Hosts. 
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.
Hosanna in the highest. 
Blessed is He Who comes
In the Name of the Lord. 
Hosanna in the highest

The Madrigal in England

The name of Byrd brings us to another instance of the way in which foreign music suggested a new outlet to our composers. In 1588, the year that the Spanish Armada was defeated, a certain Nicholas Yonge published a collection of Italian madrigals with the words translated into English. It was titled Musica Transalpine (Music from across the Alps).

Previously, madrigals had been known in England only through the manuscripts or printed copies brought privately from abroad, as well as a few attempts of native composers to write in the same style, such as the well-known part-song, ‘In going to my lonely bed,’ ascribed to Richard Edwards.

From this time forward, every composer of repute turned his attention to writing them. They were freely published and sung everywhere; so great was their popularity that the singing of madrigals became an accepted part of social intercourse, and a gentleman would take his part in a madrigal then as readily as he now takes a hand at card games, and to much better purpose.

Elizabeth I was crowned at 26

Consequently, we have a host of exquisite works in which all the skill which composers had gained in writing polyphonic church music was turned to illustrate secular poetry. No time was so rich in poetry as the reign of Elizabeth I. It was poured out in abundance by poets great and small, from geniuses such as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, from courtly versifiers such as Sir Philip Sidney, and from the lesser men whose verses might have been lost or forgotten if composers had not given them life by wedding them to beautiful music.

This poetry had a strong effect upon musicians wearied as they were by the endless quarrels and restrictions which had gathered round church art. It set them free again to follow their fancy, and to see how music could heighten the words of the poet and enforce his meaning. In doing so, they learned to use voices more lightly, to introduce greater varieties of rhythm, and put stronger character into their melodies.

Orlando Gibbons

One composer who wrote extremely beautiful madrigals was Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). He became organist of the Chapel Royal, and only two years before his death, was appointed organist of Westminster Abbey.

These two appointments may be taken as a sign of the increasing importance of instrumental music in churches, for in the case of the Chapel Royal, the position itself was a comparatively new one. Gibbons’s madrigals, ‘The silver swan,’ ‘O that the learned poets,’ and ‘Ah! Dere heart’ are still very popular. They have a thoughtful, plaintive character which is unique to Gibbon.

Listen to ‘The Silver Swan’ by Orlando Gibbons (2 min)

The silver Swan, who, living, had no Note
When Death approached, unlocked her silent throat
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore
Thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

Instrumental Music in England

Henry VIII was quite an accomplished musician. He enjoyed taking part in madrigals and playing on the lute. Some of his compositions are preserved in the King’s music collection. He wrote motets and anthems, as well as songs. Naturally if the king was interested in music, then his subjects followed suit, either with a real or a pretended interest.

Samuel Pepys

So began a period in which music played a bigger part in the life of the people than at any other. Every well-educated person thought it essential to be able to read a part in a madrigal, or play a lute, viol, or virginals.

Samuel Pepys, the diarist, even chose his servants for their ability to take part in a madrigal. The part books of madrigals were brought out for the evening’s entertainment, just as people now would settle down to play bridge.

These part books were rather like small-sized editions of orchestral parts in the present day. No singer saw the other parts, he had only his own. There was another form of song book in which the different parts faced the four edges of a page. That way four people gathered round a page each had a part facing him.

Madrigals were written as “apt for voices or viols,” which meant that they could be played on instruments instead of being sung. Composers had yet to learn that instruments could be treated in an entirely different way from voices. Every household had its “chest of viols.” There were two treble, two tenor, and two bass viols, each generally having six strings.

A lute in the court of Henry VIII

From the madrigals grew the ‘Fantasias’ or ‘Fancies’ originally written for the viols, some of the best of which were the work of Gibbons himself. His fantasias include passages which would be most inapt for voices, but which are perfect on the instruments, so that it is clear that in a quieter and less enterprising way Gibbons and other Englishmen were going through some of the same experiences which Montiverde and the Italians had had.

Listen to “Fantasia for three basses” by Orlando Gibbons (2 min)

Listen to the first two minutes (or all of it, if you prefer). The instruments played here are viola de gambas, original to Gibbons’ day.

John Dowland and the Lute

The lute players and composers were favourite musicians. The most famous of these was John Downlad. A popular instrument in every home, the lute was rather like a long-necked mandolin. The top of the finger-board was turned back to make it easier for the player to reach. The back of the instrument was rounded; it had a variable number of strings, sometimes as many as seventeen, but generally six.

The instrument was very difficult to keep in tune, and strings broke very easily, so that a present of lute strings was very acceptable—even to Queen Elizabeth. It was said that if a good lute player reached the age of sixty he had spent forty years in tuning his instrument.

One musical writer and lutenist, Thomas Mace, recommended that “A lute, when not in a case should be kept in a Bed that is constantly used, between the Rug and the Blanket—only to be excepted that no Person be so inconsiderate as to Tumble down upon the Bed whilst the Lute is There.”

Listen to ‘A Fancy’ for Lute by John Dowland (2 min)

Keyboard Instruments

All Henry VIII’s children were taught music. Queen Elizabeth was considered an excellent performer on the virginal, which was similar to a small kind of harpsichord. She was also described as “being able to sing and play on the lute prettily and sweetly.”

A famous book of pieces was called “Queen Elizabeth’s Virginal Book.” Later this was known as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. The pieces were written by Tallis, Byrd, and others.

The capabilities expected of the player must have been very great, for a hundred years later Dr. Charles Burney wrote that “some of these pieces are so difficult that it would hardly be possible to find a master in Europe who would undertake to play one of them at the end of a month’s practice.”

Listen to ‘Pavan’ by William Byrd played on a virginal (2 min)

Fantasias and preludes, pieces which were a mixture of the style of choral music with scales and turns such as were found to lie well under the fingers, were also popular. But perhaps the most important kind of piece was the ‘Air with Variations’.

John Bull

Sometimes a folk-song, sometimes a church tune, was taken as the air. The composer would then add ingenious figures and new harmonies. The practice of writing variations led to the discovery of what we now call ‘thematic development’, that is to say, the power of carrying on and increasing the interest of a tune by placing its figures and rhythms in a number of new relationships.

The cleverest of the English writers for the organ and virginal was John Bull. His present fame rests chiefly on the fact that he has been supposed to be the composer of ‘God save the King.’

He was considered a very brilliant performer both at the Court of Queen Elizabeth and in Europe, and his pieces show more of a genuinely instrumental style than most of the music of the time; scales, arpeggios, and broken chord passages, such as we often find in modern piano music, frequently appear in his variations. Sometimes he tried marvelous experiments in harmony, modulating through a number of keys.

Listen to ‘Duchess of Brunswick’s Toy’ by John Bull (2 min)