Motets and Monarchy: The Politics of Early English Music Printing

The politics behind Vautrollier’s Recueil du mellage d’Orlande de Lassus (1570), and Byrd and Tallis’s Cantionae Sacrae (1575)

In 1570 Thomas Vautrollier printed his Recueil du mellange d’Orlande de LassusOrlando_di_Lasso, a collection of Lassus’s chansons. It was only the second music publication to be printed in England (aside from psalm books) and it had been forty years since the last one (known as the ‘Twenty Songs’  and published 1530, though only the bass partbook and a few fragments survive).

Vautrollier was a Huguenot seeking refuge from religious persecution in France. He saw Elizabeth’s England as the fulfilment of the ideal of concordia discors (harmony of discords) in its religious tolerance, and even dedicated his print to the Earl of Arundel, a musical patron with Catholic sympathies. Praising the ‘admirable beauty of the harmony’ in states that temper the ‘unified diversity of their various parts’, Vautrollier compared Elizabeth’s England to a musical motet in which ‘thanks to the leading of one part, all others hold to a similar measure’, making no discord despite their differences. Elizabeth is the leading part that keeps all the estate and religious faction in harmony. To Vautrollier, Elizabeth’s kingdom was an example to other nations of how a diversity of peoples can be skilfully governed to produce a stable and secure society.

Images of musical-political concord were typical of Elizabeth’s royal image (see my article and previous blog post); however, there is a certain irony to Vautrollier’s praise. Only a year earlier Elizabeth had faced an uprising of several of her Northern noblemen, led by the Earls of Westmorland and Northumberland. They were Catholics who were unhappy with the new Protestant settlement and intended to depose Elizabeth in favour of Mary Queen of Scots. So much for the harmony of diverse peoples and religious views.

Title Page to Cantiones Sacrae (1575) by William Byrd and Thomas TallisVautrollier’s Lassus collection contained largely chansons rather than motets, but his second music publication – the Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae (1575) of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis was an anthology of Latin motets. Despite its sacred contents, this too was a highly political publication. It was the first fruit of the monopoly for printed music and lined music-paper Elizabeth had granted to the two composers (both Gentlemen of her Chapel Royal) and its dedication to her was full of praise for her musicality. They flattered her as ‘symbolis[ing] practical skill’ and commended ‘the refinement of [her] voice’ and ‘the nimbleness of [her] fingers’. Each composer contributed seventeen items (sometimes counting the two parts of a motet as separate pieces to achieve this) so that the collection commemorated the seventeenth year of Elizabeth’s reign and her Accession Day on 17 November. Finally an anonymous poem, ‘On the Music of the English’ indicates the publication’s aim to magnify the reputation of English music: fearing ‘neither the boundaries nor the reproach of any nation’ English music is ready to do battle, supported by Elizabeth’s patronage of her distinguished native composers.

William_ByrdAt least within England, music prints were rare enough that any musical connoisseur would surely be aware of both publications and be able to draw connections between Vautrollier’s preface and Byrd and Tallis’s collection. So were these motets in part intended to symbolise England’s harmony – musical and political – under Elizabeth? One can only speculate and it was certainly not strange for two Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal to create an anthology of sacred music. Furthermore, Latin motets were an obvious choice of genre for composers with international aspirations for their music in terms of the dignity of the genre, its adaptability to Catholic contexts abroad, and the comprehensibility of its language across Europe. Nonetheless, Vautrollier’s earlier preface adds an extra resonance to Byrd and Tallis’s claim in their dedication that music was ‘indispensable to the state.’


Byrd, William, Cantiones sacrae (1575), ed. Craig Monson, Byrd edition (London: Stainer and Bell, 1977) -– translations from the Cantiones Sacrae preface are Monson’s

Freedman, Richard, The Chansons of Orlando di Lasso and their Protestant Listeners: Music, Piety, and Print in Sixteenth-Century France (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2001) – translations from Vautrollier’s preface are Freedman’s

Lasso, Orlando di, Recueil du mellange d’Orlande de Lassus, contenant plusieurs chansons tant en uers Latins qu’en ryme francoyse, a quatre, & cinq parties (London, 1570).

With thanks to Stephen Rose for drawing my attention to Vautrollier’s preface.


2 thoughts on “Motets and Monarchy: The Politics of Early English Music Printing

  1. Pingback: Motets and Monarchy: The Politics of Early English Music Printing | Early Occidental Music |

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