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A Very Quick Guide To . . . Elizabethan Music

Portrait of Elizabeth I of England playing the lute, portrait miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1580 [source: wikipedia]
Portrait of Elizabeth I of England playing the lute, portrait miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1580 [source: wikipedia]

What’s it all about?

The Elizabethan era – or the “golden age” of English history as it’s still often described. An era during which this rainy and slightly insular island off the coast of northern Europe first began to establish itself on the world stage. An era which witnessed the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe, the great exploratory voyages and naval triumphs of Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. And of course the iconic queen herself, perhaps the most celebrated of all English monarchs.

I thought we were talking about music?

We are. Because what’s not so widely appreciated is that Elizabeth I also oversaw a true golden age of English music, probably the greatest musical era the country has ever known.

Why the sudden musical flowering?

A lot of it came from the queen herself, a keen musician, who sang, played the lute and virginal, and enjoyed a bit of a dance – as well as employing no less than seventy musicians at court. Thanks to Elizabeth music suddenly became über fashionable. Composers found wealthy patrons, noblemen started taking lute lessons, and young ladies of fashion were expected to be able to hold a part in vocal or instrumental ensembles, or be laughed out of society.

I know exactly how they must have felt . . .

Do pay attention. The musical balance also shifted. Secular music rose in popularity. The English madrigal flourished, along with songs for lute and voice and a huge range of instrumental consort and keyboard music. And although England was nominally Protestant under Elizabeth, the queen’s religious tolerance meant that magnificent examples of both Protestant and Catholic church music were created, exemplified by the works of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, perhaps the two greatest composers of the age, who left us glorious music for both liturgies despite both being closet (or, in Byrd’s case, not so closet) Catholics.

Phew. That’s a whole lot of music. Where do we start?

Let’s start with secular music. In fact, let’s start with the English madrigal, probably the most famous of all Elizabethan musical genres – even if it was actually introduced from Italy by one Alfonso Ferrabosco, who worked at the royal court in the 1560s and 1570s.

So, like, multicultural music in Elizabethan England?

Exactly. The English madrigal was actually Italian – to begin with at least. Although English composers soon transformed the original Italian genre out of all recognition (think chicken tikka masala, only in four-part harmony) starting with the works of Thomas Morley, whose light-hearted madrigals (Now is the Month of Maying is the classic example) became enormously popular, with plenty of daft fa-la-la’s and hey ding-a-ding ding’s thrown in for good measure.

The genre developed with incredible rapidity though. Later composers like John Wilbye, Thomas Weelkes (see our very brief guide to Weelkes) and Orlando Gibbons transformed the madrigal into something entirely different, producing musically complex, emotionally weighty compositions which are amongst the highlights of Elizabethan – or indeed any English – music. Wilbye’s Draw on Sweet Night, for example, a sumptuous meditation on the simple existential melancholy of existence, or Gibbons’ The Silver Swan, one of music’s most poignant laments.

It all sounds a bit gloomy . . .

It is, but hauntingly so. There was definitely a dark side to the Elizabethan psyche – remember this was a world in which the average life expectancy was 42 years and death could strike at any moment. It wasn’t just madrigalists either. John Dowland’s exquisite lute songs (another genre which flourished under Elizabeth) are another highlight of the age, replete with their own unique brand of musical misery – the famous Flow my tears (Lachrimae), for example, a perfect three-minute snapshot of the Elizabethan aesthetic in miniature.

Now I feel really sad.

Cheer up. It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s also plenty of much more upbeat instrumental consort music to explore, ranging from bawdy chansons to stately pavans – and who could resist Dowland’s “Fine Knacks for Ladies” or Morley’s “Frog Galliard”. Not to mention an incredible range of often rather jolly keyboard compositions such as William Byrd’s famously ingenious “The Bells”, which spins an increasingly dense contrapuntal web over the simplest of two-note bass lines.

Are we done yet?

No, not even close. We haven’t even started on the huge body of Elizabethan church music which includes some of the period’s greatest works by musical giants such as Tallis and Byrd. Tallis’s incredible forty-part (yes, forty) motet Spem in Alium is probably the era’s most celebrated sacred work, while Byrd’s vast body of religious music in both Catholic and Anglican styles would need another feature on its own just to scrape the surface.

I’m going to need some time to process all this.

Process away – in the meantime the videos below might help you get more of a feel for the flavour and incredible variety of Elizabethan music. Enjoy!

Official Line:

“The reign of Elizabeth I was a true golden age of English music.”

Out of line:

“Elizabethan Music is a load of old ♬ Fa-la-la, Hey ding-a-ding ding ♬”

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