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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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)

Reading Accounts of Elizabethan Entertainments: Online and Open-Access

Next week I am lecturing on the music performed during the grand entertainments put on for Elizabeth I (1558-1603) when she travelled around the county on progress. Progresses included both royal entries into cities and visits to the estates of noblemen. Both made use of pageants, plays, dancing and copious amounts of song and instrumental music. Below I’ve listed some of the the accounts of Elizabethan progress entertainments that are now freely available to read online.Elvetham Nichols

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A Sixteenth-Century Warning to Students of Music

Why do serious students of music often go mad?’

This is the question posed by Elizabethan academic, John Case, in his Apologia Musices tam Vocalis Quam Instrumentalis et Mixtae (1558). (quotations are from Dana Sutton‘s online translation and edition)Medieval-university

One wonders if Case was speaking from experience: he had been a chorister at New College and Christ Church before becoming a scholar and then a Fellow at St John’s college (all in Oxford). He continued to teach for St John’s even after resigning his fellowship in order to marry. Among his colleagues at St John’s was Matthew Gwinne who was appointed to read lectures in music in 1582 (though he was allowed to discontinue these on the grounds that music ‘if not useless is little practised’ (Carpenter, p.156)). Case also practised medicine, although he did not yet have his medical degree by this date. His response to the question of musical study and madness merges his musical and medical knowledge.

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Music and Authority in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I

I was researching musical performances by Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) when I stumbled across John Davies’ poem, ‘To the Queen’ in the front of Roy Strong’s The Cult of Elizabeth (p.10).Davies’ poem characterises Elizabeth’s reign though a series of musical metaphors. While there has been extensive research into Elizabeth’s royal image, and while Elizabeth was widely known as a musical monarch (she played the lute, virginals, sang and even claimed to have composed dance music), the role of music in representations of the Queen had received surprisingly little comment, and so I began to look for other examples.

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