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.

Sprat

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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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).

Orpheus_by_Solis

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)

Tudor Partbooks: Update and Forthcoming Events

TudorPartbooksFacultyWebsite.qxp_Layout 4 copyIt’s been an exciting few months getting the Tudor Partbooks project underway (see my previous post outlining the aims of the project). We’ve received and processed nearly 12,000 digital images from the Bodleian and British Libraries, covering all the partbooks in their collections dating from the 1530s-1580s. I’ve started typesetting the facsimile editions of the remaining Baldwin partbooks and designed our website which is very nearly ready to go live. I’ve also started work on a detailed study of the so-called ‘Hamond’ partbooks –  a fascinating, if scruffy, set which may have started life in a parish church before finding their way into an Elizabethan home (more on these another time!) You can also follow the work of our PhD student, Daisy, whose started her own blog: ‘Music in Tudor England.’

The Tudor Partbooks project will also be holding an extensive series of events, which have already begun. Dr Julia Craig-McFeely led our first seminar on the digital restoration of manuscripts. If you DigitalRestorationWorkshop7-1-2015missed it, she’s repeating it on 12 February (3:30pm, Oxford Music Faculty). Entitled ‘Digital Restoration for Beginners: Is this for me and how would I get started?’, it’s an opportunity to find out what digital reconstruction entails, what can be achieved through the process, and how to get started. Register by 1 February by emailing me.

In March we’re holding the first of our workshops on editing and reconstructing the missingMus_979_34_crop_colours Baldwin partbook. Sessions on editing Tudor polyphony and completing missing parts will be led by Magnus Williamson, Owen Rees, Andrew Johnstone and John Milsom. Singers from Contrapunctus will participate on Friday afternoon, trying out editorial solutions and providing the singers’ perspective. Register for some or all of this weekend by 31 January here.

On the Saturday evening (7 March) there’s also be a concert of music from the Baldwin Partbooks, performed by Contrapunctus (Queen’s College Chapel,7:30pm, tickets available here).

More events for April, May and July are already in the planning stages (details to follow soon). In the meantime we’re starting the task of creating detailed inventories for every partbook in our image collection.

Tudor Partbooks: The Manuscript Legacies of John Sadler, John Baldwin and their Antecedents

After a busy summer writing up my music and myth project and doing the final proofing and indexing for my book on music at the Elizabethan court, I have recently started a new job as the research assistant for the Tudor Partbooks project.

TudorPartbooks_Logo

This three-year, AHRC-funded project led by Magnus Williamson and Julia Craig-McFeely aims to digitize all the extant manuscripts of Tudor polyphonic music c.1510-1580 preserved in partbook format (where each vocal part is written in a separate book). These will be made publicly available via the DIAMM website.

Two key exemplars of this repertory – the Sadler and Baldwin partbooks – will also be restored and reconstructed. The Sadler partbooks are badly corroded by the acidic ink used in their copying, leaving them extremely fragile and partially illegible. A process of digital reconstruction will restore these manuscripts to a readable state, allowing their music to be accessed and performed again. (For a video of this process, see here)

The Baldwin partbooks require a different process of restoration. This is a set with one book missing (the tenor), rendering all their music incomplete.While some of the music can be found in other sources, about sixty pieces are found nowhere else. A process of collaborative reconstruction drawing on the expertise of both scholars and performers will create a plausible version of the missing parts, allowing these works to be performed and developing a greater stylistic understanding of the repertory in the process.

IMG_0834_crop

The research team will also be undertaking a detailed scholarly investigation of these sources, looking for connections in how they were copied, their notational styles and practices, their format, their contents,and the contexts in which they were written and used. In particular, although these partbooks post-date the Reformation, they are the dominant sources for much English church music from earlier in the century. We’ll be looking at the extent to which these sources preserve pre-Reformation practices, or make adaptations to suit later (and non-liturgical) use.

We’ll be making the results of this project available via the DIAMM website, through publishing restored facsimile editions of the Sadler and Baldwin partbooks, and through academic articles and publications. Look out also for our series of reconstruction workshops, study days, and public events (including concerts and exhibitions) throughout the project. The first of these take place in March 2015 (more details at www.facebook.com/tudorpartbooks/events):

  • Friday 6th March, 2pm: Workshop: Editing the Baldwin Partbooks
    Music Faculty, The University of Oxford.
  • Saturday 7th March, 7:30pm: In the Midst of Life: Music from the Baldwin Partbooks – a concert by Contrapunctus, directed by Owen Rees.
    The Queen’s College, Oxford

The project website is still a work in progress, but in the meantime you can still follow our research either via Twitter (@TudorPartbooks) or at http://www.facebook.com/tudorpartbooks

PhD Studentships in Sixteenth/Seventeenth-Century Music, 2014

1) Collaborative PhD Studentship: Music, print and culture in the 16th and early 17th centuries

Applications are invited for an AHRC collaborative PhD studentship, held at Royal Holloway, University of London, and The British Library, on the theme of ‘Music, print and culture in the 16th and early 17th centuries’. The studentship commences in autumn 2014. Full details are here:http://www.rhul.ac.uk/music/news/newsarticles/newcollaborativephdfundingscheme.aspx

The deadline for receipt of applications (including two references) is Thursday 13th March 2014. Interviews will be held at the British Library on Friday 28th March and Wednesday 2nd April 2014.

Informal enquiries to Stephen Rose (stephen.rose@rhul.ac.uk).

2) Tudor Partbooks: the manuscript legacies of John Sadler, John Baldwin and their antecedents

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship at the International Centre for Music Studies, Newcastle University, as part of an AHRC-funded project, Tudor Partbooks (2014-17). The studentship is available from September 2014.

Information on the studentship and a detailed description of the project can be found at:http://www.ncl.ac.uk/sacs/music/funding/index.htm

The deadline for submission of applications is Friday 21 March 2014.  Interviews will take place on Monday 7 or Tuesday 8 April 2014.

Informal enquiries to Magnus Williamson: magnus.williamson@ncl.ac.uk

The Earliest Surviving Song in Praise of Queen Elizabeth I?

The earliest song in praise of Queen Elizabeth I is not a madrigal, lute song, consort song or anthem – the genres most widely associated with her reign – but a modest broadside ballad by one William Birche. His A Songe Betweene the Quenes Maiestie and England (now in the library of the Society of Antiquaries) is a charming love song between Bessy (Elizabeth) and her realm. The surviving copy was published in 1564, but it this was probably a reprinting on an earlier version published in 1558-9, shortly after her Coronation. As a broadside ballad it would have circulated widely. Printed on a single sheet it would have been sold cheaply and could also have been learnt orally through hearing the ballad seller singing his wares or his customers enjoying their purchases. Ballads were found pasted up in alehouses and private homes, and were enjoyed by nobility and poor husbandmen alike. [1]

Coronation_Procession_of_Elizabeth_I_of_England_1559

Coronation Procession of Elizabeth I of England_1559

Birche adapted a popular song melody, ‘Come over the born, Bessy’, which refers to one of two similar tunes: either ‘Ouer the Broome Bessy’ or a minor mode variant, ‘Brown Bessy, Sweet Bessy, Come Over to Me’ [2]: Musical setting of A Songe Betweene the Queenes Maiestie and England

As early as her coronation day, Elizabeth’s reputation as a monarch who loved and was loved by her people was being forged. Richard Mulcaster described London during her pre-Coronation procession as ‘a stage wherein was showed the wonderful spectacle, of a noble hearted princess toward her most loving people’ (The Passage of Our Most Drad Soueraigne, 1559). Birche’s song too emphasises the intimate bond between Queen and kingdom. In the first verse tells how Elizabeth was supposedly called by England to be Queen, and then England asks Bessy to give her hand in marriage:

England:
I am thy lover fair
hath chose thee to mine heir
and my name is Merry England
Therefore come away
and make no more delay
Sweet Bessy give me thy hand

Bessy:
Here is my hand
My dear lover England
I am thine both with mind and heart
for ever to endure
thou mayest be sure
Until death us two depart.

With the character of Merry England, Birche looks ahead to a new golden age of English prosperity. Yet the ballad presents a complex and paradoxical set of relationships between Bessy and England: she is England’s ‘dear lady’, lover, wife and heir.

Elizabeth’s role as lover and ‘dear lady’ suggests the Elizabeth_I_Coronation_Miniaturesame true affection between kingdom and monarch evoked by Mulcaster. This is followed by the bond of marriage, suggesting the official coronation ceremony that has bound monarch and country and in which the monarch also received a ring. This metaphor of a monarch marrying their kingdom dated back to at least 1300, and had been employed by Elizabeth herself in her speech to Parliament in 1559 [3]. Finally her representation as heir underlines her legitimate claim to the throne. The emphasis on her Englishness both distanced her from her sister, Mary I, who was popularly perceived as Spanish (because of her Spanish mother and marriage to Philip II), and also used her subjects’ sense of national identity to encourage a bond of loyalty with their new queen.

The ballad also recognises that Elizabeth has not always been treated with such affection and it stages a scene of forgiveness and reconciliation. Bessy describes her imprisonment during in the Tower and at Woodstock during Mary’s reign. England makes its excuses for her treatment (tyrants and fear), painting a picture of a country that had lamented the reign of Mary and waited eagerly for Elizabeth’s Accession. Expressing disbelief at her treatment, England confirms her legitimacy: surely these enemies were mad men who did not know she was daughter of Henry, princess by birth and sister to Mary? Bessy responds by graciously offering her forgiveness to all those who amend their ways. Her quasi-religious persona becomes increasingly explicit until the final verses hail her as ‘sweet virgin pure’ and ‘handmaid of the Lord’. Elizabeth/Bessy becomes a second Virgin Mary. The image presents her piety, purity and divine appointment as the crowning arguments for her authority. The charmingly informal image of two lovers has formalised into one of Queen and Kingdom, with the monarch bidding the realm to be obedient and the subjects praying for her long reign. They end united in praise and prayer to God:

All honour, laud and praise
be to the Lord God always
Who has all princes’ hearts in his hands
That by his power and might
he may give them a right
For the wealth of all Christian lands.

What does this song represent? Was this official propaganda instructed by Elizabeth or a member of her government in a format that could carry across the country as both printed broadside and orally-circulated song? Or was Birche’s song an enthusiastic outpouring from an enthusiastic Protestant thrilled to be rid of the Catholic Mary and hoping to gain some early favour with the new Queen?

Birche’s Protestantism is evident from his other godly ballads: A warnyng to England, let London begin:To repent their iniquitie, & flie from their sin (1565?) ending with a prayer for Elizabeth; The complaint of a sinner, vexed with paine (1563?); and A free admonition without any fees/To warne the Papistes to beware of three trees (1571) which ends with a resolute ‘God save our Queene Elizabeth.’ Or are we perhaps in danger of being taken in by the very rhetoric of mutual love Birche’s song pours forth? One can hardly imagine Birche being allowed to print (and reprint) a song that goes as far as putting words in the Queen’s mouth if it did not at least have royal approval.

Yet if it was officially instigated by Elizabeth’s government, it was not a strategy that Elizabeth was quick to repeat. Not until 1577-8 were official broadside songs of praise produced, this time by royal printer Christopher Barker to commemorate her Accession Day on 17 November. These, however, were sung prayers and thanksgivings of a more sober nature than Birche’s charming dialogue.

Whether officially instigated or merely royally approved, Birche’s ballad certainly started the process of constructing and disseminating across the kingdom aspects of the royal image that were to become characteristic of her reign: Elizabeth’s status as one divinely appointed by God and under his direct protection, and the ideal of a mutual affection between the Queen and her subjects.

References
1. Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2010), chap.5 and Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety (Cambridge, 1991), chap.1
2. Frederick Sternfeld, Music in Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1963), 180-88
3. William Camden, Annales, The True and Royall History of the Famous Empresse Elizabeth. Queene of England  (London, 1625), p.28; Judith Richards, ‘Mary Tudor as “Sole Quene”?: Gendering Tudor Monarchy,’ The Historical Journal 40 (1997): 895-924 (p.912).