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Music In The Age of Discovery

Elizabethan Secular Vocal Music

Peter Kun Frary


The Elizabethan Era refers to the English high Renaissance and is framed by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603). It was England's golden age and marked by national pride through extensive colonization, defeat of the Spanish Armada, economic prosperity and a flowering of poetry, theatre, music and literature.

Young Lutenist (c. 1626) by Orazio Gentileschi | The lute was the most popular household instrument during the Renaissance | National Gallery of Art

Music performance was an important leisure time activity among both noble and merchant classes. Every educated person was expected to sing, read music and play an instrument. The inability to read and perform music was a cause for alarm because it revealed questionable upbringing. The Elizabethan composer Thomas Morley (1557-1602) writes of a humiliating experience for a gentleman at a dinner party:

But supper being ended, and Musicke bookes (according to the custome) being brought to the tables, the mistresse of the house presented me with a part, earnestly requesting me to sing. But then, after many excuses, I protested unfainedly that I could not; every one began to wonder. Yea, some whispered to others, demanding how I was brought up (Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke).

Morley wrote this account to help sell his book, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, a popular music instruction book for two-hundred years. He held a bachelor of music degree and was a leading composer of the Elizabethan Era. Less mentioned is the fact he owned a printing patent and was highly successful as a publisher and printer.

Sheet music sales during the Renaissance was roughly equivalent to selling tracks on iTunes today. The difference was Renaissance folk were involved in making music rather than passively listening. Public concerts didn't exist so secular music making centered around homes and royal courts.

Christes Crosse from Morley's A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke.

Besides being a wealthy publisher, Morley was a preeminent composer of madrigals and balletts. The madrigal is a song for a small group of solo vocalists (not doubled parts like a choir) set to a brief poem, often about amorous activities. It alternates between polyphonic and homophonic textures and makes frequent use of word painting.

Four Children Making Music, c. 1565) | Master of the Countess of Warwick | Wikimedia Commons

The ballett is a light dance-like piece and also for a group of solo vocalists. It was mainly homophonic with the melody in the upper voice. Balletts were strophic in structure, i.e., the same music was repeated with each stanza of the poem. Balletts also use a distinctive fa-la-la chorus or refrain, further enhancing the fun and light character. Both the madrigal and ballett originated in Italy but English composers like Morley gave these works a distinctive British flavor.

This music was chiefly performed at home, and instrumentalists and vocalists often sat at a small table. Thus, scores were printed with music facing out in three or four directions to facilitate ensemble reading with a single book.

Second booke of songs or ayres | John Dowland | Excerpt showing arrangement of music for performers sitting at a table.

Now Is The Month Of Maying is Thomas Morley's best known work and is frequently performed today, four-hundred years after its publication. The lyrics are about spring dancing, but obviously a metaphor for outdoor love making. Bawdy double meanings were typical of songs of this era.

Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing,
Fa la la la la la la la la,
Fa la la la la la la la.
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass.
Fa la la la la la la la la,
Fa la la la la la la la.

The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter's sadness,
Fa la la la la la la la la,
Fa la la la la la la la.
And to the bagpipe's sound
The nymphs tread out their ground.
Fa la la la la la la la la,
Fa la la la la la la la.

Fie then! why sit we musing,
Youth's sweet delight refusing?
Fa la la la la la la la la,
Fa la la la la la la la.
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play barley break?
Fa la la la la la la la la,
Fa la la la la la la la.

Listen to The King's Singers performing Now Is The Month Of Maying with the original harmonies and lyrics:

Now Is The Month Of Maying | Thomas Morley| First Booke of Balletts to Five Voyces, 1595.

Because these pieces were intended for home entertainment, part assignment was flexible. After all, you needed to work with the abilities and resources of your guests. Thus, a ballett might be performed by a group of vocalists, a mixed group of voice and instruments or an instrumental ensemble. And, unlike church music, men and women sang and played madrigals and balletts together. Here is another Morley ballett, My Bonny lass she smileth, performed by the Leeward Coast Guitars:

My bonny lass she smileth | Thomas Morley | First Booke of Balletts to Five Voyces, 1595.


Thomas Morley, Elizabethan Era, madrigal, ballett, strophic

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved