No one who knows only post-Puritan England can feel the joyous role of music in Elizabethan days. From the home, the school, the church, the street, the stage, the Thames, rose sacred or profane song—masses, motets, madrigals, ballads, and delicate little lyrics of love such as those that found a setting in Elizabethan plays. Music was a main course in education; at Westminster School it received two hours a week; Oxford had a chair of music (1627). Every gentleman was expected to read music and play some instrument. In Thomas Morley’s Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597) an imaginary untutored Englishman confesses this shame:
Supper being ended, and musicke bookes, according to the custome, being brought to the table, the mistresse of the house presented me with a part, earnestly requesting me to sing; but when, after many excuses, I protested unfeignedly that I could not, everyone began to wonder, some whispering to others, demanding how I was brought up.51
Barbershops provided instruments for waiting customers to play.
Elizabethan music was predominantly secular. Some composers, like Tallis, Byrd, and Bull, remained Catholic despite the laws and wrote for the Roman ritual, but such compositions were not publicly performed. Many Puritans objected to church music as diverting piety; Elizabeth and the bishops saved church music in England, as Palestrina and the Council of Trent rescued it in Italy. The Queen supported with her wonted determination the chapelmasters who organized large choirs and formal music for the royal chapel and the cathedrals. The Book of Common Prayer became a magnificent libretto for English composers, and the Anglican services almost rivaled the Continental Catholic in polyphonic splendor and dignity. Even the Puritans, following Calvin’s lead, approved psalm singing by the congregations; Elizabeth laughed at these “Geneva jigs,” but they matured into some noble hymns.
Since the Queen was a profanely secular spirit and loved to be courted, it was fitting that the musical glory of her reign should be the madrigal—love in counterpoint, a part song unaccompanied by instruments. Italian madrigals reached England in 1553 and set the key. Morley tried his hand at the form, expounded it in his graceful dialogue, and invited imitation. A madrigal for five voices, by John Wilbye, suggests the themes of these “ayres”:
Alas, what a wretched life this is, what a death,
Where the tyrant love commandeth!
My flowering days are in their prime declining,
All my proud hope quite fallen, and life entwining;
My joys each after other in haste are flying
And leave me dying
For her that scorns my crying;
Oh, she from here departs, my Love restraining,
For whom, all heartless, alas, I die complaining.52
William Byrd was the Shakespeare of Elizabethan music, famous for masses and madrigals, for vocal and instrumental compositions alike. His contemporaries honored him as homo memorabilis; Morley said he was “never without reverence to be named among the musicians.”53 Almost as highly rated and versatile were Orlando Gibbons and John Bull, royalchapel organists. These and Byrd joined (1611) in producing the initial book of keyboard music in England, Parthenia, or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls. Meanwhile the English sustained their reputation for composing solo songs of a wholesome freshness redolent of the English countryside. John Dowland, renowned as a virtuoso of the lute, won praise for his Songes or Ayres, and Thomas Campion gave him close rivalry. Who does not know Campion’s “Cherry Ripe”?54
Musicians were organized in a strong union, disturbed under Charles I by internal strife.55 Instruments were nearly as various as today: lute, harp, organ, virginal or spinet, clavichord or harpsichord, flute, recorder (our flageolet), hautboy, cornet, trombone, trumpet, drums, and many forms of viol, which was now giving place to the violin. The lute was favored for virtuoso performance and to accompany songs; the virginal, modest mother of the piano, was popular with young women, at least before marriage. Instrumental music was intended chiefly for the virginal, the viol, and the lute. A kind of chamber music was composed for an ensemble or “consort” of viols varying in size and range. Campion, in a masque for James I’s Queen Anne, used an orchestra of lutes, harpsichords, cornets, and nine viols (1605). Much instrumental music by Byrd, Morley, Dowland, and others has come down to us. It is largely based on dance forms, follows Italian models, and excels in a delicate and tender beauty rather than in vigor or range. Fugue and counterpoint are developed, but no thematic variation, no ingenuity in modulation, no resolved discords or chromatic harmonies. And yet when our nerves are frayed with the pounding stimuli of modern life, we find something cleansing and healing in Elizabethan music; no bombast, no rasping dissonances, no thundering finales, only the voice of an English youth or girl singing plaintively or merrily the timeless canticles of impeded love.