Motets, Inscriptions and the Praise of Music in Robert Dow’s Tudor Partbooks

In 1580s Oxford debates concerning the relative merits or vices of music were intensifying. Ex-Oxford student Stephen Gosson had attacked music in his School of Abuse (1579) encouraging his readers to eschew practical music and look instead to the harmonious delights of heaven: ‘If you will be good scholers, and profit well in the Art of Music, shut your fiddles in their cases, and look up to heaven: the order of the Spheres, the unfallible motion of the Planets’. The newly appointed and (by his own admission) musically ignorant Lecturer in Music, Matthew Gwinne, responded in his inaugural lecture, ‘In laudem musices oratio’, (1582), exhorting his listeners to ‘show yourselves men of good will, expel music’s enemies, hold them in contempt; cherish its patrons’. Published defences soon followed with the anonymous The Praise of Music (1586) and Apologia musices (1588) by former Fellow of St John’s College, John Case.

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In the midst of this debate Robert Dow – a Fellow of Laws at All Souls College, Oxford and a teacher of penmanship – began copying a set of musical partbooks (where every voice part is copied into its own book) containing Latin motets, English anthems, consort songs and textless music. They survive today in Christ Church Library, Oxford (Mus. 979-83).

These music books (available to view online via DIAMM) were designed not merely to be functional in communicating musical notation to players, but also to be both witty and visually appealing. Each book begins with a Latin poem in praise of music by Walter Haddon, at one time President of Magdalen College, followed by Latin verse requesting that users treat his books with care and several quotations attesting to the value and joys of music. These Latin inscriptions continue throughout the motet section of the partbooks. Many of them praise particular composers, including Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Robert White, William Mundy and Robert Parsons. A few promote the quality of English music, while many others cite myths and commonplaces about the benefits or nature of music.

Dow’s combination of notation and inscription presents a rare and intriguing meeting point of musical thought and practice, offering insights into the motivations and philosophies of this amateur Elizabethan musician. Whether or not Dow had a specific meaning in mind for each juxtaposition, in a culture used to emblems, allegory, and witty conceits these inscriptions would have invited users to reflect on the connections between the musical debates evoked by the quotation and the musical practice represented by the notation and its performance.

Some of the connections between the motet and its accompanying inscription are clear. William Byrd’s motet Tribulatio proxima est (first line: ‘Tribulation is very near: for there is none to help me’) is paired with a line that translates as ‘Music is the medicine of the sad mind’. The inscription draws on the commonly held belief that music was a cure for melancholy and by pairing the motet and inscription Dow raises the suggestion that singing motets of lamentation like Byrd’s could have therapeutic properties.

Other juxtapositions are more oblique. William Byrd’s O Domine adiuva me is paired with a phrase that translates as ‘everything that lives is captivated by music if it follows nature’. It resonates with sentiments expressed in many defences of music including The Praise of Music (1586), which argues: ‘daily experience doth prove unto us, that not only men but all other living creatures, are delighted with the sweet harmony and consent of music’. Although the context in The Praise of Music is musicality in the natural world, reading the inscription alongside the motet gives the phrase ‘everything that lives’ a rather different resonance. O Domine adiuva me is a motet about salvation in which the protagonist pleas with the Lord to save them from eternal death because He has died that sinners might live. The life here is eternal and in this context the living who are captivated by music might be read as those who will have salvation

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Dow’s intention to praise and justify music is clear through these and the many other inscriptions he copied (discussed more fully in the article linked to below). He made no attempt to provide balanced statements on music’s virtues or vices, and chose numerous quotations explicitly condemning music’s detractors. The stories and arguments raised by his choice of quotations are wholly conventional and influenced by the rhetoric of other contemporary encomia. Yet his justification is founded primarily on the pleasurable, moral and religious advantages of musicality, inviting reflection on the roles music might play in Christian living, honest pleasures and ultimately salvation.

Where Dow’s partbooks are most distinctive is in prompting the users of his books to consider how singing these motets might bring specific benefits. With the inscriptions interspersed throughout the books, performers would stumble across them in the course of playing, potentially prompting communal discussions of music’s effects in relation to the motets just sung. In his Plain and Easy Introduction to Music, the composer Thomas Morley would describe the motet as a ‘grave and sober’ genre of the highest art that ‘causeth most strange effects in the hearer’, drawing them to devout contemplation of God. Dow’s juxtapositions similarly suggest that one might sing these motets to achieve the beneficial effects alluded to in the inscriptions. Moreover Morley argues that such effects would be most powerfully felt by the ‘skilful auditor’ – presumably musically educated men like Dow. Engaging communally with the multimedia contents of these partbooks Dow and his co-performers could cultivate both their performance abilities and those esteemed skills of musical knowledge, judgement and reasoning, seeking ultimately to reap the benefits of the powers of music.

To read the full article published by the Early Music journal visit: https://academic.oup.com/em/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/em/cax006  (open access).

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