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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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.

Call for Chapters: Music, Myth, and Story in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Deadline Extended)

Does your research touch on ideas of music in the medieval or early modern period as portrayed via myth or story (broadly defined)? Samantha Bassler and I are working on an edited collection of essay on this topic and would welcome your proposals (deadline 28 February).

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Throughout this period, stories about music found in classical mythology, ancient history, biblical episodes, bird-lore, and more contemporary anecdotes were all treated as foundations for musical knowledge (of moral or philosophical kind, if less frequently practical or theoretical). Whether treated allegorically or as traces of early history, they were cited to support arguments about the uses, functions, effects, morality, and preferred styles or techniques of music, and appeared in sources including theoretical treatises, defences or critiques of music, sermons, educational literature, and books of moral conduct. As well as these more philosophical or intellectual treatments of musical myths, there were also literary ones. Drama, poetry, and song not only took inspiration from mythological stories, but also created their own plots and narratives which communicated particular perspectives on music’s roles and values. The way in which authors interpreted and weaved together these traditional stories can reveal much about changing attitudes to music across the period.

Our aim in this collection to explore the importance of myth and story in shaping and communicating ideas about music in pre-Enlightenment Europe.  Proposals for chapters (of c.7000 words) are invited on any of the following potential topics:

  • change and continuity in the repertory and interpretation of myths/stories about music, including the consequences for concepts of Medieval and Renaissance musical cultures.
  • varying interpretation of musical myths story across continental Europe
  • the changing status of traditional myths/stories in the context of empiricism, rationalism, growing awareness of the New World, experimental natural philosophy, etc
  • the role of mythology in debates concerning ancient versus modern music
  • music, myth/story and religious experience
  • musical heroes in myth/story
  • representations of music in literature, drama and opera, and their effects on perceptions of music

Other suggestions related to the overall aims and themes of the collection will be considered and proposals are also encouraged from disciplines other than musicology.

Please send abstracts of 350-500 words by 15 April 2015 to katherine.butler@music.ox.ac.uk

Selected chapters will be requested by the end of September

Music in Elizabethan Court Politics

My book Music in Elizabethan Court Politics has just been published!IMGP2947

In the book I investigate the political roles of music (particularly secular music-making) within the court of Queen Elizabeth I. IT’s begins by considering the musical reputation of Elizabeth herself. Did being a musician, music-lover and patron assist Elizabeth in projecting an image of authority, or did it leave her open to accusations of frivolity or even lust (as it often could for musical women)? Whom did Elizabeth choose to perform for and why? How might her performances for ambassadors have influence the course of negotiations – particularly those surrounding her marriage? Also politically significant was Elizabeth’s patronage of musicians: she employed a large number of musicians in both her household and her chapel who performed during court ceremonies, or festivities such as plays, masques, and dancing. In addition visitors often noted the luxurious and unusual instruments that were displayed throughout her royal palaces.

Yet one of the key themes about the book is that music at the Elizabethan court was not solely under the Queen’s direct control. Courtiers, noblemen, even the performers themselves all had influence over the music performed and the politics messages they conveyed. Courtiers who were intimate with the Queen might write lyrics and have them set to music if they thought they were in danger of losing her favour. Others took their opportunity in the tiltyard. Taking on a personal knightly persona they dressed up in elaborately themed armour travelling on a pageant car with a train of followers to present they personal shield to Elizabeth, all to the accompaniment of music. This pageantry before the jousting and other military sports began often revealed much about the nobleman’s political interests, the image of noble masculinity he wished to create, and his relationship with Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s summer progress – tours through parts of her realm – opened up further opportunities for political music-making, both by courtiers and those usually more remote from the court. Elizabeth visited the estates of noblemen and made royal entries into towns. She not only visited loyal servants but also those whose activities were more suspected – Catholic gentlemen such as Lord Montague at Cowdray, or the Earl of Hertford who had earned royal displeasure by marrying a lady with royal blood without the Queen’s permission. These were vital occasions when the host (civic or noble) had the Queen’s attention and could make personal petitions or aim to influence her political policies. Music and song punctuated the elaborate entertainments that both towns and noblemen prepared for their Elizabeth, and these were always coloured by the politics of the occasion. Songs flattered the Queen, petitioned her for favour and rewards, made last-ditch attempts at wooing Elizabeth on behalf of suitors, and even criticised her policies and attitudes. All the while the musicians employed in these events had their eye on earning lucrative rewards or even a royal appointment.

I hope this has given you a flavour of some of the fascinating research behind this book. It paints a fascinating picture of how music served as a valuable means for both the tactful influencing of policies and patronage, and the construction of political identities and relationships. In the Elizabethan court, music was simultaneously a tool of authority for the monarch and an instrument of persuasion for the nobility.

If I’ve whetted your appetite, you can order online from Boydell and Brewer. Quote the reference 15800 to receive the offer price of £45 (ends 1/3/2015)

Crisis, Creativity and the Self, 1550-1700: A Review

Musicologists and literary historians came together to discuss changing concepts of creativity and the self in the turbulent political, economic, social, and intellectual times of the seventeenth century

Last Tuesday, 14 May, around 35 musicologists and literary scholars met at Senate House in London to explore seventeenth-century notions of creativity and the self in an event supported by the Humanities and Arts Research Centre at Royal Holloway (see previous post)

Convenor, Stephen Rose, opened the study day with an overview of how this period is regarded as both a time of crisis and the origin of many concepts considered central to modernity. Significant changes in climate, known as the ‘little ice age’, led to successive harvest failure, famine, disease and death. Political unrest spread through Europe – exemplified in the English Civil War – and was symptomatic of a wider crisis of authority that encompassed not only governance of the state, but the continued challenging of religious authority. As the centrality of Court and an all-encompassing Church dissolved, new ways of affirming the place of the individual in the wider world had to be found and many regard this as the time when a new, individualised subjectivity emerged. In addition, intellectual challenges saw the primacy of Classical Antiquity and acceptance of Ancient Wisdom undermined. Instead new philosophical methods relying on experiment and observation promised fresh insights into the natural world. With these new approaches to knowledge came debates about the relative natures of truth and falsehood, subjectivity and objectivity, invention and truth across the philosophical and literary spheres.

Matthew_Locke_by_James_CaldwallMany of these issues emerged as threads between the day’s various papers. Matthew Laube began with a paper illustrating the role of music performance in fashioning confessional identities in Heidelburg c.1600. Religious identity recurred as a theme when Alan Howard described the unlikely friendship between the Catholic, royalist composer, Matthew Locke, and the parliamentarian soldier and amateur musician, Silas Locke, a friendship that was fostered in music meetings and the exchange of pieces. Later Michael Lee’s paper touched on issues of national identity as he explored Dennis and Eccles’ processes of adaptation in Rinaldo and Armida (1698) as they sought to transform the earlier models of Tasso, Quinault and Lully into a means of projecting a new English, heroic identity and to improve the role of music in contemporary dramatick opera.

Katie Bank’s paper on English madrigals and consort songs raised the issue of veracity. Uniting the emerging empiricism with Frontispiece to Thomas Sprat's A History of the Royal Society (1667)concerns over notions of truth in travel-writing and poetry, she presented music as simultaneously able to evoke wonder and portray convincing representations of the self. Similarly my own paper explored how members of the Royal Society interpreted the veracity of Classical mythology and the claims of Ancient music’s exceptionality. Attempts by some Fellows to defend Modern music led them to challenge the centrality of the passions and musical rhetoric that had underpinned musical thought throughout the seventeenth century.

Portrait of Nell GwynnThe two themes of identity and truth merged in Elaine McGirr’s discussion of celebrity actors, Nell Gwynn, Thomas Betterton and Colley Cibber. For each of these actors, fame depended on a slippage between their on-stage and off-stage roles, real-life events and fictitious anecdotes, creating the illusion of knowing the actor’s ‘true’ person that is characteristic of modern celebrity.

The richness of John Butt’s keynote lecture can hardly be captured in this short summary, but here are a few of his ideas which particularly struck me. Taking the notion of individualised subjectivity as a defining characteristic of modernity he showed how the arias of the St Matthew passion serve to evoke the individual subjectivities of these reflectors on the unfolding Biblical events, who speak not to the historical persons but to the listeners. Furthermore, he suggested another characteristic of modernity – time consciousness and the growing importance of the linear progression of time – can be seen between the different temporal levels of the active recitatives and seeming pause of time in the arias, as well as in Bach’s ‘staging of recollection’: enhancing the listeners’ awareness of time as they are made aware of their retention of prior motifs as these are reused in later movements, making connections between past and present action.

Listening became a key theme in the final round-table discussion of the day as ideas were sought on how we might aim to better understand the early modern listener. Suggestions included exploring the interaction of music and spectacle, investigating the technology and instruments behind such performances, trying to better understand the responses of listener to individual performances, and considering the power of the audience on shaping musical and theatrical development.

If my summary of the day’s events has sparked your interest, you’ll be pleased to hear that these papers were recorded and have been released as a podcast here.

Study Day on 14th May: Crisis, Creativity and the Self, 1550-1700

The seventeenth century is often presented as a time of crisis and profound change across Europe. These include political crises such as the Civil War and Restoration; economic crises; continued religious tensions between Protestants, Catholics and other dissenting groups; profound intellectual changes such as the new experimental philosophy, the re-evaluation of the status of Classical knowledge, and a new awareness of individual subjectivity. These social and cultural developments also had an impact on the arts.

On 15th May an interdisciplinary study day is being convened in London by Stephen Rose to explore this idea of crisis in relation to notions of creativity and self. There’s a key-note by John Butt, as well as papers (including my own) placing music alongside drama, literature, science and religion. Issues for discussion include:

  • how  notions of creativity and the self were reshaped by the changing religious, political and intellectual climate
  • how subjectivity was performed in music, on the stage, and in the church
  • how notions of innovation and creative adaptation changed

A full timetable and details of how to book are included below.

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