Creating Harmonious Subjects? Songs for Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day

Elizabeth_Great_Seal_IrelandQueen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) was the first monarch whose Accession Day  on 17 November (the day when Mary I died and she became Queen) became a yearly occasion for celebration. Although never at official holiday, at Whitehall, noblemen honoured Elizabeth’s Accession Day with a tournament open to paying spectators, followed by a private banquet and entertainments in the evening. Across the country there was bell-ringing along with prayers, sermons, bonfires, the giving of alms, and even pageants performed in the streets. Poetic tributes to the day frequently evoked images of singing, music-making and dancing. George Peele’s poem Anglorum feriae (1595), for example exhorted nymphs: ‘paeans singe and sweet melodious songs; / Along the chalky cliffs of Albion [England]’ and described how ‘court and country carol in her praise / And in her honour tune a thousand lays’.

This all-encompassing harmonious image was far from reality, however. The occasion was never uniformly celebrated. Some localities never honoured the day, while others did no more than ring their bells. Church services, when held, were not necessarily well attended, while few towns put on civic festivities and these were not held every year. Moreover both Puritans and Catholics complained that the celebrations were idolatrous in their worship of Elizabeth.

Nevertheless, this musical imagery was not merely political metaphor, but inspired by the social phenomenon of Accession Day singing around the kingdom that had been developing since the late 1570s. Many songs would have circulated orally and been learnt by copying the ballad-seller or through communal singing in church, home or alehouse. Some, however, can be traced in extant manuscripts, single-sheet broadside publications, prayer books and records of further, now-lost publications in the Stationers’ Register (a record book in which publishers could document their right to print a particular publication). Such genres spanned diverse social classes and contexts: from the educated to the illiterate, from street to church; from private household devotions to civic festivities. At times this singing was was officially encouraged by church and government, but it was also fuelled by the local enthusiasm of civic or parish authorities, individual households and commercial printers.

The first known Accession Day songs appeared in a series of official prayer books that provide the format for special church service to commemorate the day (A Form of Prayer, with Thanksgiving, to be used Every Year, the .17. of November). The 1576 edition merely appointed to psalms to be sung, but the following year the royal printer, Christopher Barker published A Prayer and Also a Thanksgiving unto God for His Great Mercy in Giving, and Preserving Our Noble Queen Elizabeth for Accession Day 1577 by by ‘I. Pit, minister’, which provided a specially created text designed to be sung to the tune coin churches for for Psalm 81.

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I. Pit’s A Prayer and Also a Thanksgiving (first stanza) as it could be sung to the tune of Psalm 81. The tune is taken from The Whole Book of Psalms (1562)

By the time of the 1578 edition of the Accession Day service book (the twentieth anniversary of Elizabeth’s Accession) it contained three more special songs, two to be fitted to psalms and one with the tune unspecified but suggestive of a carol tune with refrains. Congregational singing was a remarkable new tool for promoting a sense of communal harmony in the post-Reformation Church and now it was being applied politically to bring together the subjects of a kingdom in loyalty to their monarch (and Head of the Church) on Accession Day.

Commercial printers too capitalised on the anniversary by providing their own songs, including the printer Richard Jones with A Song for Each Subject that in England Bear Breath (1578, no longer extant). Other printers aimed at a more elite audience. For the 25th anniversary in 1583, Abel Jeffes printed William Patten’s Ann: Foelicissimi Regni Reginae Elizabeth: XXVI which included a Latin psalm alongside the English version adapted for the occasion and printed a tune for it to be sung to (a rare occurrence in single sheet songs!) Nor was this singing necessarily restricted to Protestant households. The manuscripts of Edward Paston – a Catholic who maintained a Mass centre at Appleton – contain three versions of William Byrd’s consort song ‘Rejoice unto the Lord’ which commemorated 28 years of Elizabeth’s reign and was probably originally composed for celebrations at court in 1586. Religion, it seems, did not prevent the Pastons from joining the festivities – despite their obvious Protestant tone.

From the late 1580’s Accession Day song publications were both more frequent and more widespread, with eight different printers issuing song sheets in the final 15 years of the reign. This market for songs seems to indicate the popularity of celebratory singing among the population, beyond the official songs of the Accession Day prayer book. Furthermore these commercially printed songs were now less overtly religious in tone than those from earlier in Elizabeth’s reign. Rather than being described as ‘psalms’, ‘prayers’, ‘godly ditties’ or ‘anthems’, they were now simply ‘ballads’, and rather than place their emphasis on praising or thanking God, these songs now declare that they will show ‘the happiness of England for her majesty’s blessed reign’ or tell of England’s ‘abundant blessings’. Similarly, psalm tunes were being replaced by ballad tunes. A Pleasant New Ballad of the Most Blessed and Prosperous Reign of Her Majesty for the Space of Two and Forty Years (1600), copied into the Shirburn ballad collection, was sung to the tune of ‘The Queen’s Hunt’s Up’. The lyrics evoke the bells and drums typical of civic festivities that might be held in celebration, which were also spreading as Elizabeth’s reign progressed. The following verses describe Elizabeth’s achievements as queen, including how she has defended England with naval forces, maintained castles and fortifications, and been called to help foreign kings.

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A Pleasant New Ballad of the Most Blessed and Prosperous Reign of Her Majesty for the Space of Two and Forty Years (1600), first stanza, as it could be sung to one of the many versions of the ‘The Hunt is Up’ tune.

Yet the paradox is that as Accession Day singing seems to have been increasing in popularity, England was becoming less and less harmonious society. The 1590s brought successive harvest failures, sharp rises in food prices, outbreaks of disease, heavy taxation, increasing crime and unemployment, intensifying factional rivalries at court and signs of civil unrest in the country with London riots and a failed uprising in Oxfordshire. Yet there was no obvious decline in civic celebrations or song publications, which continued until the very last year of her reign. Should we see this singing then as a genuine expression of an existing social harmony or as an attempt to create such unity in the face of mounting unrest? The expanding market for printed Accession Day songs was now commercial rather than governmental, responding to the popular mood rather than official direction. The growth in civic festivities, however, was led by local authorities. The increased potential for disorder may have caused civic leaders to see Accession Day as an important occasion on which to reinforce a sense of loyalty to the queen in the hope of maintaining order. Elizabeth’s popularity need not have been great for people to have welcomed an opportunity to liven up a cold, wet November. Nor was singing necessarily an unqualified expression of English harmony. The more insecure a community feels, the greater the need for people to assert their unity, even though this may be more hopeful than actual. As foreign threats and domestic difficulties increased, there was perhaps a growing need to believe in England as a harmonious kingdom unified by its queen. A subtle mixture of continued royal esteem but growing anxiety, of popular will and encouragement from local leaders, is the most likely explanation.

You can find out more about music-making for Elizabeth’s Accession Day in my article:  ‘Creating Harmonious Subjects? Ballads, Psalms and Godly Songs for Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 140 (2015), 273-312 (available here).

The Mythical Powers of Music in the Age of the ‘Scientific Revolution’

Writers about music in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries drew extensively on classical mythology to exemplify its powerful effects and importance to society. With little in the way of musical exemplars from classical antiquity to inspire Renaissance musicians as the literary and architectural remains of Antiquity might, the reputation of Greek music was founded was instead on its theoretical or philosophical texts, and myths of music’s wondrous powers. It was these myths were most accessible and evocative in shaping conceptions of music. Jacob_Hoefnagel_-_Orpheus_Charming_the_Animals_-_Google_Art_Project (1).jpgThe most famous figures were Orpheus, Amphion and Arion who were fabled to have tamed wild beasts and dolphins or caused trees and stones to move with their music. These stories provided themes for song and spectacle – for example the numerous Orpheus plots in early opera. Yet did early modern people really believe about these tales? Did they truly believe in an Orpheus whose music had literally tamed wild beasts and gained him entry to the underworld, or that Amphion’s music had built the walls of Thebes?

Writers often do appear to take these myths at face value. Matthew Gwinne’s inaugural speech as lecturer in music at Oxford University in 1582 is typical, if not entirely accurate in attributing the myths to the right musicians:

Such is [music’s] sweetness that it moved a fish, bestial by nature, dull of sensation and all but deaf, to bear a man riding on its back over the bounding main; that it could move rocks and trees when Orpheus sang, rivers and beasts when did Amphion.

Yet beyond such rhetorical usage, authors were generally aware that these stories were fables, the feigning of poets, which required special treatment.The question should perhaps not be did they believe, but what did they believe. Certainly they held such stories as benchmarks against which the efficacy of modern music was judged and often found wanting. Yet they also referred to them as the feigning of poets and could be uneasy of their pagan origins. What were the consequences of this belief (or lack of it) for perspectives on the powers of music? And how did such beliefs fare as the so-called scientific revolution took hold during the seventeenth century with its emphasis on generating understanding not from ancient wisdom but rather from observation, experience and experiment?

Interpreting the truths thought to lie behind myths was far from straightforward. Following classical approaches, authors might interpret the mythical figures as either historical—turning the stories into benchmarks against which the efficacy of modern music was judged—or as merely allegorical—providing moral and philosophical justifications for music. Indeed it was not uncommon to blend both approaches. Here’s John Playford’s interpretation in the 1664 edition of his Brief Introduction to the Skill of Music:

Great Disputes were among Ethnick Authors about the first Inventor, some for Orpheus, some Lynus, both famous Poets and Musicians; others for Amphion, whose Music drew Stones to the building of the Walls of Thebes; as Orpheus had by the harmonious touch of his Harp, moved the Wild Beasts and Trees to Dance:…the true meaning thereof is, that by virtue of their Music, and their wise and pleasing Musical Poems, the one brought the Savage and Beast-like Thracians to Humanity and Gentleness; the other persuaded the rude and careless Thebans to the fortifying of their City, and to a civil conversation

Here Playford treated Orpheus and Amphion as the historical inventors of music, but portrayed their musical exploits as allegories of their achievements as the founders of civilizations.

Moreover, in the seventeenth century the authority and status of classical mythology began to change, with consequences for the fabled powers of music. Whereas for medieval and Renaissance scholars referencing mythological stories or classical authorities was sufficient to prove one’s argument, within the new empirical philosophy authority for one’s arguments was to be drawn from observation or experiment. Ancient wisdom underwent a profound shift in status, no longer being regarded as infallible doctrine but rather as opinions and observations to be tested. Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia epidemica (1646) was symptomatic of this changing approach to knowledge. He argued that a ‘peremptory adhesion unto Authority’ was the ‘the mortalist enemy unto knowledge’ and saw the tendency to regarded the most ancient times as those nearest to the truth as a delusion. Turning to mythology specifically, he condemns the ‘mendacity of Greece’ which has been ‘poisoning the world ever after’. Pointing out that the Greeks themselves regarded a considerable part of Ancient times to be ‘made up or stuffed out with fables’, Browne cited the sixth-century (BC) Greek Palaephatus who had attempted to rationalise Orpheus’s supposed power over trees. Palaephatus interpreted a less miraculous event behind the story, in which Orpheus had calmed the rage of the Bacchides, who then came down from the mountain bearing branches, thus appearing from a distance like a walking wood. Music retains its power over human affections, but is stripped of its effects on inanimate things, thus making it more credible. For Browne this was the way in which all mythology needed to be re-evaluated.

Increasing attempts to provide rationalized interpretations for the astonishing mythical powers of music transformed them from wondrous marvels into everyday phenomena. Moreover Orpheus, who had been regarded as a musical founder of civilization, could now be likened to a common ballad seller or fiddler. In 1592 John Dennis published ‘The Story of Orpheus Burlesqu’d’ in which Orpheus is a mere ballad singer, who charms the mob to leave their work and spouses, and the rustic mob is likened in nature to beasts and stones from the myth. While Dennis’s aim is comic, the same imagery begins to appear in more serious genres too. Fellow of the Royal Society, John Wallis, for example, believed that the mythical stories of music’s power were ‘highly hyperbolical, and next door to fabulous’ and argued that in mythical times music was comparatively rare and that the ‘rustics’ on whom music was said to have its effects, would not have heard the like before. Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_Jig.jpgMoreover he draws comparison with fiddlers and bagpipers of his own era who could make the country people dance and skip. The tales of music moving beasts, stones and trees were surely nothing more than what was seen daily in country towns when boys, girls and country people run after bagpiper or fiddler? He regarded the myths as having gradually emerged from the exaggerated re-telling of such ordinary occurrences.

The result of this changing attitude to myth was that expectations regarding the powerful effects of music declined and both the ethical justifications for music and the long-held aim of moving the passions came into question. If moving the passions was what any common fiddler or bagpiper could do, then it was not such a worthy aim for those aiming at the height of musical art. Whereas Orpheus had represented the civilising power of the highest musical artifice, he was now was allied with the ill-trained, common minstrel satisfying the passions of ill-educated, rural crowds. For Wallis it was the modern, contrapuntal composer who assumed the role of master of musical harmony for the appreciation of sophisticated listeners with the ability to ‘discern and distinguish the just Proportions’. This ultimately allowed new ways of thinking about music to emerge, valuing it less for its utility and sensuality than for its intellectual pleasures—ideas that would come to underpin the development of notions of fine art and aesthetics in the eighteenth century.

You can read more about the changing attitudes towards mythical tales of music’s powers during the intellectual changes of the seventeenth century in my recently published article in Music and Letters.

Tudor Partbooks: How You Could Get Involved!

Are you into early music, Renaissance manuscripts or using Photoshop to improve digital images?  If any of theme applies to you, then you might enjoy getting involved with two of Tudor Partbooks’s most exciting projects to reconstruct Tudor music manuscripts.

1) A digital reconstruction of John Sadler’s music partbooks

The first of these opportunities concerns the reconstruction of the Sadler Partbooks, which I’ve blogged a little about previously. The Elizabethan music-lover John Sadler copied a set of partbooks using ink that was too acidic. Over the centuries this acidic ink has burned through the paper leaving his music books  difficult to read in many places (images of the Sadler partbooks are freely available on the DIAMM website) . Here’s a brief introduction:

We have c.600 images in need of restoration, which we estimate will take a couple of thousand hours to complete. So we’re looking to recruit a large team of volunteers who would like to learn the process of digital reconstruction and have a go at restoring some of these manuscript pages. No previous experience is necessary as I’ve created a series of videos to teach the few basic techniques that are needed. These also explain the aesthetics of the reconstruction process: how to we decide what to to remove or leave in, and how do we try to maintain the look of a 400-year-old manuscript?

This first video is an introduction to some basic Photoshop tools and the settings you’ll need to enable for digital reconstruction. (The videos currently show the process via Adobe Photoshop CS6, however, the same digital reconstruction techniques are possible with Adobe Photoshop Elements).

Now you’re ready to have a go at the technique of cloning:

So once you’ve mastered the cloning technique, the next step is to learn how to judge what to clone out and what to leave in:

Finally, we want to make sure that the end results of our restoration leave the manuscript looking like a 400-year-old manuscript, just one without the burn-through from the acidic ink. This final video explains how to achieve this effect:

Now you’re ready to have a go! Email Julia to request your first image, along with any questions you might still have.

2) A polyphonic reconstruction of John Baldwin’s lost tenor book

mus_979_34_crop_coloursJohn Baldwin’s partbooks are a vital source of Tudor polyphonic music both from the Elizabethan period when Baldwin was copying, and from earlier, pre-Reformation repertories.  Unfortunately the tenor book has been lost rendering all its music incomplete. We’re creating a facsimile of Baldwin’s partbooks using high quality images provided by Christ Church library, but if people are going to be able to perform from Baldwin’s notation again we’re going to need to reconstruct the missing tenor book. Sometimes we can find the tenor part from another manuscript, but in around 60 cases we’re going to have to use the surviving parts and our knowledge of the composers’ styles to reconstruct the missing tenor voice.‌


Before we can start each piece, we need have to transcribe the music from the remaining partbooks. These transcriptions are then used for making the reconstructed tenor parts. We’re experimenting with a collaborative process of reconstructing the missing voice that has included performers, students alongside academic specialists. As part of this we’ve held some reconstruction workshop weekends (you can see Storifys of previous workshops in Oxford and Cambridge, while the next is forthcoming in Newcastle in March).

So if you read sixteenth-century music notation and/or are good with Sibelius music software there are two ways that you could help in reconstructing Baldwin’s partbooks: firstly, by making transcriptions and, secondly, by participating in polyphonic reconstruction. If you’d like to volunteer, or would like guidelines on the Tudor Partbooks house style, just email Magnus.

We look forward to welcoming you into our team of volunteers and hope you might enjoy participating in these ground-breaking collaborative projects to reconstruction Tudor music manuscripts.

Tudor Partbooks: Sadler Restoration (I) – The Project

TudorPartbooksFacultyWebsite.qxp_Layout 4 copyFind out about the Tudor Partbooks project’s plan to restore the sixteenth-century musical partbooks of John Sadler and how you might get involved.

The Problem:

In c.1565-85 John Sadler, a clergyman and schoolmaster from Oundle, copied a beautiful set of five musical partbooks (GB-Ob: Mus.e.1-5) decorated with colourful inscriptions and pictures. Unfortunately his ink was too acidic, causing it to burn through the paper. This has left the music difficult to read and books so fragile that the Bodleian library is unable to let people look at them in person.

Our Aim:

We’re producing a digitally restored facsimile edition of the Sadler partbooks that will make their contents available to scholars, students and early music performers after many years of obscurity.

Above: original image provided by the Bodleian library (MS.Mus.e.1, fol.35v). Below: restored image created by the Tudor Partbooks team.

Above: original image provided by the Bodleian library (MS.Mus.e.1, fol.35v). Below: restored image created by the Tudor Partbooks team.

The Restoration Process:

We’re using the ‘Clone Stamp’ tool from Adobe Photoshop. Using this we paste clear areas of manuscript over the show-through or sharp note-heads over smudged ones. ‌This image above shows the original photograph provided by the Bodleian library above (Mus.e.1, fol.35v) with the restored image provided by the Tudor Partbooks team below.

Here’s a close up of how we work on a single section:

Sadlerextract11) The original image

Sadlerextract22) The layer with the cloned restoration

Sadlerextract33) Final result with the cloned part superimposed

It’s a time-consuming process with pages like this taking 6-8 hours (though thankfully not all are this bad!). Nevertheless we have 565 images to restore, estimated to take c.3000 hours!

As a result we’re looking for some volunteers. If you fancy having a go, email me. You’d need to be able to attend some intial training in Oxford, but after that you will be able to work remotely. Music reading ability is important but technical skills can be taught.

Look out for my next blog post on the Sadler restoration project, which will consider some of the ethical issues concerning restoration that are arising as we work.

Fins out more about the Tudor Partbooks project, its research aims and events on the website or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Exploring Henrician Musical Sources at the British Library

TudorPartbooksFacultyWebsite.qxp_Layout 4 copyOn 12 May a multidisciplinary group of scholars gather to explore and re-examine some the British Library‘s musical partbooks from the reign of Henry VIII as part of the Tudor Partbooks project. Experts introduced the sources and initiated discussion, while manuscripts were available for participants to have a look at.

TudorPartbooks Study Day at the British Library

David Skinner started the day with an introduction to Harley 1709, a single surviving partbook from a set containing 26 votive antiphons. Little is known about the origins of the book, which is normally dated to the mid-1520s, though the otherwise unknown composer Thomas Hyllary might provide a clue. Tudor Partbooks PhD student Daisy Gibbs has found records of a Thomas Hyllary from the West Country in the right period. Although the composers of the majority of the music – including Nicholas Ludford, Robert Fayrfax, Richard Davy and William Cornysh- and the manuscript’s strapwork initials suggest a date of c.1515-20, the inclusion of Thomas Tallis’s Salve intemerata presents something of a puzzle and suggests a slightly later dating for the manuscript. Tallis’s birthdate is usually estimated to be c.1505 and Salve intemerata is not his earliest known work (it is more mature than, for example, his Ave Dei patris).

Much discussion followed surrounding Tallis’s biography and career. A birthdate of 1505 would make him surprisingly young to have composed such an accomplished piece as Salve intemerata. Was he something of a child prodigy or does our estimated birthdate Gb-Lbl: Harley1709need revising (making him even older at his known death date in 1585)? Roger Bowers gave an extempore overview of the first known‌record of Tallis’s life in the Dover Priory Account books in 1530/1 suggesting that his role playing the organ and running a choir was a substantial one, not just a job for a talented teenager. This would support a birthdate of c.1500-1505. Further discussion centered around why the music was copied into partbooks (one voice per part) rather than a single large choirbook as was still common at this date, and the extent to which these copies were intended for performance use or were library copies for singers to learn or copy their own parts from.

‌After lunch John Harper turned our attention to Royal Appendix 45-48, a set of partbooks and an organ book from c.1525 containing Nicholas Ludford’s seven Lady Masses. He began with an overview of the liturgical music required to provide the Lady Mass throughout the year and about Ludford’s place of employment St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster (with valuable contributions from the St Stephen’s Chapel Project). However, the books’ leather bindings stamped with the arms of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and their appearance in an inventory of the royal library in 1542 (5 years before the dissolution of St Stephen’s Chapel in 1547) open up the  possibility that the manuscript may have been a gift to the royal family or else had a courtly function. Harper suggest potential uses in the Queen’s Chapel, perhaps curtailed by the rise of Anne Boleyn in 1533, explaining the unused appearance of the books and their storage in the royal library by 1542. Another alternative was the King’s closet where he held his private devotions, perhaps performed by Philip van Wilder and the Privy Chamber Singers. Yet more possibilities were that the books could have been used by a very small number of singers when the court went on progress, or even by a choir in the household of Princess Mary.

‌In the final session of the day John Milsom introduced us to the remains of the earliest English printed set of partbooks, known as the Twenty Songs (1530). The one surviving partbook contains a mixture of love songs, Marian devotional songs, textless pieces and DSCI0139_cropsome more surprising items including some lewd songs and others in the voice of prostitutes. Our insight into the printing method was heightened by Peter Blayney whose model of a Tudor printing press helped us to understand the process by which these books would have been made. Several mysteries surround these books. Firstly, they are printed in using the expensive double impression method (where the staves were printed first, and then the music printed over the top), even though the more efficient single impression methods had already been in use in England on single sheet music publication since the 1520s. Secondly, who was the printer and where did they get their music type from? The music type may have been of German origin as it contains natural symbols that were not typically used in English music notation. The highly accurate music type-setting suggest that it was set by a musician and probably an Englishman (due to the different continental and English conventions for the placement of dots after notes).‌The publisher was possibly John Heywood who had links to the Rastall family whose type was used for the text. Finally, how do we explain both the huge expense outlaid in casting a music fount which was used in only one extant book, and the long gap between this publication and the English printed polyphonic music books in the 1570s?  As only one in five printed books from this period survives complete, could this high attrition rate be masking the existence of both earlier and later printed polyphonic music books in early Tudor England?

It is difficult to capture to the range of discussion that took place throughout the day both formally during the session and informally as we circulated and viewed the various manuscripts and printed books. Inevitably these discussions raised as many questions as they answered, but the study day has opened up many new avenues for consideration and further research. The next Tudor Partbooks study day will be held at Christ Church, Oxford, on 19 November and will focus upon the interaction of manuscript and printed music as exemplified by the Baldwin partbooks, GB-Och: Mus. 979-983.

(with thanks to Daisy Gibbs for her comments and suggestions!)

Myth, Science and Music at the Early Royal Society

When it was founded in 1660, the  Royal Society was the first institution in England dedicated to the study of natural philosophy (what we’d today call ‘science’). In its early years, the society showed considerable interest in investigating the properties of sound and music. There were acoustical experiments, mathematical and theoretical discussion of the nature of consonance, and even occasional musical performances.


While the Royal Society was at the forefront of new trends in using observation and experiment to find out about the world, they had not yet left behind older traditions of knowledge. One of these traditions was the idea of the powers of music, founded on miraculous tales from classical mythology (e.g. Orpheus), the Bible (e.g. David driving out Saul’s demons), as well as contemporary wonders such as music’s supposed ability to cure tarantula bites (see my previous post on this subject). I’ve been interested in looking at what happens to these myths of music’s powerful effects in the context of the Royal Society’s promotion of new methods of experiment and observation.

Royal Society members did set out to try to test out the truth of some of these stories. One of these concerned music’s ability to break glass. While today we know this to be possible, to the Royal Society this tale would have been every bit as wondrous as stories of music’s ability to cure disease, move stones or tame wild beasts. They received a report from Daniel Morhof (Professor of History at the University of Kiel) who had come across a boy who claimed to be able break a glass by singing. Morhof first asked to witness the phenomenon, then to be taught how to do it. Finally he started to experiment with other ways of making glass vibrate and either shatter or produce sound.  On hearing the report the Royal Society commissioned Robert Hooke to begin experimenting, with mixed results. He had success in causing the glass to ring, though failed to make it break. Nevertheless the attempts inspired a whole series of experiments concerning sound and vibrational patterns.

Tarantella_(Athanasius_Kircher)The Royal Society was also fascinated with tales of music’s ability to cure the bite of tarantulas from the region of Apulia in Italy. At first they believed in the phenomenon without question: it was, after all, attested to by several intelligent and credible witnesses and authors. Then they received a report from Dr Thomas Cornelio. a physician and natural philosopher from Naples claiming that these musical effects were merely ‘the fancies of the credulous vulgar’. The Royal Society would have loved to get their hands on a live Apulian tarantula with which they could have conducted experiments and tested these claims, but despite Cornelio’s promises, none was received. This left the Society arguing over the accounts of competing authorities and wondering how, if even even these authorities could not agree on the truth of the matter, a natural philosopher’s report of observations was to be distinguished from mere anecdote and storytelling.

Perhaps most surprising was the Royal Society’s involvement in contemporary debates as to how modern music measured up the standard of the music of the ancient world, and the wondrous effects described in classical mythology. Experimental Robert Hooke 13_Portrait_of_Robert_Hookesuggested that ancient myths might point to truths about the natural world. He drew parallels between the myth of Amphion moving stones with music and vibrational phenomena in which  when two strings are tuned to the same pitch and one is struck, the second sounds too. In both cases music moves an otherwise inanimate object. Another fellow, John Wallis (Savilian Professor Geometry at Oxford)  explained the myths as hyperbolic stories rooted in the quite ordinary phenomena of rustic people flocking to pipers and fiddlers, and argued that modern music’s contrapuntal complexities made it superior to ancient music, which he believed had relied on a single voice or instrument.

In the early years of the Royal Society myth and science were not yet antagonistic opposites. Royal Society members had a surprisingly firm commitment to the traditional effects of music; if anything the properties of sound they discovered seemed to confirm the underlying truth of these tales. Indeed when contemporary stories came under threat from new evidence, the reluctance of many members to abandon them as false tales indicates an underlying belief in the power of music that was not entirely founded on experiment and reason. While classical myths were no longer the authoritative proof they had been in earlier times, this did not stop such stories forming the basis of lively discussion at the Royal Society or providing inspiration for experiment. Ultimately the Royal Society’s musical discussions would begin to produce new attitudes to music, valuing not for so much for its wondrous effects on the human body and the natural world (increasingly attributed to simpler musics and unskillful audiences), but for the intellectual pleasures sophisticate multi-part music could bring to sophisticated listeners.

If you want to find out more about the Royal Society’s discussions and investigations of tales of music’s powers, you can read my newly published article: Katherine Butler, ‘Myth, Science and the Power of Music in the Early Decades of the Royal Society’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 76 (2015), 47-68 (sadly no open-access version is permitted yet, but I will post one once the embargo period is over).

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