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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 17 Commercial and Literary Music
Richard Taruskin

Both the music printing business and the cultivation of vernacular art music had a relatively slow start in England. The beginning, splendidly signaled by the publication of XX. Songes in 1530, did not take hold. William Byrd, who with Thomas Tallis sought and received monopoly rights on music printing, turned out to be an ineffectual or indifferent businessman. He did not publish even his own settings of English poetry until he had turned his patent over to a printer-musician named Thomas East, who finally made a go of it. Apart from compositions for the Anglican liturgy, Byrd’s vernacular settings can be found in two volumes printed by East in 1588 and 1589: Psalmes, sonets and Songs of sadness and pietie, and Songs of sundrie natures, some of gravitie, and others of myrth, fit for all companies and voyces. Most of the songs are grave and semireligious; they are mainly set for solo voice with instruments and show no interest in the new directions being taken on the continent toward “literary” experiment.

Postscript: The English Madrigal

fig. 17-8 Detail from the huge painting The Wedding at Cana (1562) by Veronese, which now faces Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Paris. The players of the viols were secret portraits of the painter and his colleagues, the size of the instruments they play corresponding to their ages: Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti) is at left, bowing a tenor viol held lute-style. Opposite him, the aged Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) is sawing away at a gigantic bass viol. Between them, holding a little viol on his shoulder, is Veronese himself (real name Paolo Caliari).

Byrd’s songs were representative. Little of the English song literature that circulated in manuscript during the sixteenth century was set for vocal ensembles, but consisted rather of instrumentally accompanied solo “ayres,” either with “consorts” of viols or with lute as backup. Whether for viols or for lute, the accompaniments were often contrapuntally intricate, the texts melancholy, the style basically motetlike, but respectful of the structure of the poem in a way that the madrigal was not.

The most important sixteenth-century composer of English verse settings untouched by madrigalian influence was not Byrd but the lutenist John Dowland (1563–1626), like Byrd a recusant Catholic who, upon being refused the post of lutenist to the court of Elizabeth I in 1594 (because of religious discrimination, he claimed) went abroad and spent the early years of the seventeenth century at various German and Danish courts, returning to England in 1609 and finally securing appointment as one of the King’s Lutes at the court of James I in 1612.

Dowland was a supreme virtuoso of his instrument, who could write for it in a very strict contrapuntal style. For this reason he found it easy to arrange his lute ayres, most effectively, for publication as vocal ensembles after the madrigal had caught on in England. But his work belongs to the earlier tradition, a tradition that goes back (like most pre-madrigalian continental vernacular genres as well) to the strophic dance song. Most of Dowland’s ayres are cast in the form of one of the two main ballroom dances of Elizabeth’s time: the stately duple-metered pavan and the lively triple-metered galliard with which the pavan was often paired in the ballroom, characteristically full of lilting “hemiola” syncopations. Both pavan and galliard consisted formally of three repeated “strains” or cadenced phrases, the middle cadence (or half-cadence) being on a contrasting harmony.

The pavan was originally an Italian dance called paduana after Padua, its putative city of origin. (There is also a theory, no longer much believed, that it was originally a Spanish dance named after the pavón or peacock because of its proud movements.) The most famous of all pavans is Dowland’s song “Flow My Tears” (see Ex. 17-21 for its first strain), which he not only arranged as a part-song but also transcribed for five-part consort of viols without voice under the title “The Lachrymae Pavan” (lachrimae being Latin for tears), in which form he published it in 1604 together with six more pavans all based on the same head motive: a falling tetrachord, traditionally emblematic of lamenting (Ex. 17-22).

The galliard was also originally a north Italian court dance; its name derives from gagliardo, Italian for “robust.” Dowland’s galliard songs are wonderful examples of expert English text-setting. They are based on poems in iambic pentameter, the Shakespearean meter, with hemiolas—the breaking of a normal triple bar (say, ) bar into two smaller ones () or grouping two of them into one larger bar ()—allowing for interesting inversions and cross-accents that adapt the regular meter to the normal enunciation pattern of English speech. The witty lover’s complaint, Can shé excúse my wróngs with virtue’s cloak? (i.e., can she claim virtue as her excuse for thwarting me) is a particularly complex—and therefore a particularly delightful—example (Ex. 17-23a). The title as just given is marked to show the normal iambic-pentameter scansion. Example 17-23b shows how Dowland’s hemiolas actually stress the words in performance. This is English musical prosody at its most original and authentic.

Postscript: The English Madrigal

ex. 17-21 John Dowland, “Flow My Tears,” first strain

The situation changed, very abruptly, in 1588, the year of the great sea battle with the Spanish Armada, hence a year usually associated in English history with victory and conquest. In music it went the other way. It was the English who were conquered by the Italians, to the point where a decade later Thomas Morley could complain, in his Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, that “such be the newfangled opinions of our countrymen, who will highly esteem whatsoever cometh from beyond the seas, and specially from Italy, be it never so simple, contemning that which is done at home though it be never so excellent.”17

Postscript: The English MadrigalPostscript: The English Madrigal

ex. 17-22 John Dowland, “The Lachrymae Pavan,” opening

Postscript: The English Madrigal

ex. 17-23a John Dowland, Can shee excuse my wrongs, first strain

Postscript: The English Madrigal

ex. 17-23b John Dowland, Can shee excuse my wrongs, voice part rebarred to show hemiola scansions

Morley (1557–1602) had scant right to grumble so. As translator, as arranger, as monopolistic publisher and as literary propagandist he deserves most of the credit or the blame for the English craze for Italian music that flared up after the 1588 publication of Musica Transalpina (“Music from across the Alps”). This was a large anthology of fifty-seven Italian madrigals (grouped in sections for four voices, for five, and for six) with their texts translated into English by a London music lover named Nicholas Yonge, who had long made it a hobby to sing Italian madrigals at home and to translate their texts for his friends, knowing that so literary a genre as the madrigal will only be sung “with little delight” by those ignorant of the language. (One of the madrigals Yonge Englished was Palestrina’s ubiquitous Vestiva i colli.) Yonge’s bestseller was followed two years later by Italian Madrigals Englished, mainly containing Marenzio, freely paraphrased by a well-known poet, Thomas Watson. And then it was Morley’s turn to make a killing. Aiming for the widest possible appeal, he concentrated at first on the lighter submadrigalian Italian genres that had descended from dance songs, becoming ever more frivolous as the madrigal became ever more serious: canzonetti (little homorhythmic songs), balletti (little dances), and the like. These are the genres that have the falala nonsense refrains (parodying solmization) that are so firmly associated with English “madrigals” as commonly defined (and as sung by glee clubs). Their continued currency goes all the way back to Morley’s popularizing efforts.

Morley’s first book of Italian translations, Canzonets, or Little Short Songs to Four Voices: Selected out of the best and approved Italian authors, came out in 1597. His Madrigals to Five Voices: Selected out of the best approved Italian authors appeared the next year, and also consisted, for the most part, of canzonets. But his Italianate composing activity actually preceded his editorial work. In 1593, Morley had published a book of two-voiced canzonets of his own; in 1594 he put out a book of four-part madrigals under his own imprint as publisher; and in 1595 he issued a shady little book that bestrode the borderline between composing and arranging: The first book of ballets to five voyces, issued in both English and Italian versions, in which no name is given as author except Morley’s, but in which almost every item is so closely based on an Italian model as to amount to plagiarism, except that Morley very skillfully amplified the “falas” far beyond anything in his models.

Morley’s dance-song “Now is the month of Maying,” for example, now a glee club evergreen, was really a balletto, So ben mi c’ha bon tempo, that Morley found in a goldmine of a book published five years earlier in Venice, called Selva di varia ricreatione (“Forest [i.e., a big bunch] of various recreations”) by Orazio Vecchi, the great Italian master of submadrigalian frivolity (including “madrigal comedies”—farces with texts made up entirely of madrigal spoofs). Ex. 17-24 shows the first strophe, complete with falas, from both pieces.

Morley’s publications are a fitting conclusion to a chapter all about early musical entrepreneurship. Once he got the commercial ball rolling, there was no stopping it, or so it seemed. Between the mid-1590s, when Morley began, and the early 1620s, when Thomas Tomkins (1572–1656) published his last madrigal book, about fifty prints containing madrigals or “madrigals” (that is, songs the English called madrigals but which the Italians would have called something else) were issued, by almost as many composers, some of whom were remarkable musicians indeed, fully worthy of their transalpine forebears. Emblematic of the whole movement was a collection published by Morley in 1601: The Triumphes of Oriana, consisting of madrigals by 21 composers, all in praise of Queen Elizabeth and ending with a common refrain, “Long live fair Oriana.” Thus nationalism, public relations, and entrepreneurship conjoined to turn the century’s most quintessentially Italian musical genre, or at least a lightened variant of it, into a genre the English accepted as their own.

The most eminent English madrigalists, or at least the most serious, were the three W’s: John Ward (1571–1638), John Wilbye (1574–1638), and Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623). They combined the kind of musico-literary imagination that marked the best of the Italian madrigalists with outstanding contrapuntal techniques, making them absolutely the last composers whose work exemplified the sixteenth-century polyphonic style as a living, rather than an embalmed, tradition. To illustrate their work, Ward’s Upon a Bank (Ex. 17-25), published in 1613, makes an apt counterpart to Monteverdi’s A un giro sol (Ex. 17-18). It is based on the very same kind of overall “Petrarchian” antithesis—a jolly description of nature followed by a lament—and features a wealth of delightfully subtle imagery in the opening pictorial part. Here is the text of that part, with the words most ingeniously “painted” set in italics:

  • Upon a bank with roses set about,
  • Where pretty turtles [i.e., turtle doves] joining bill to bill,
  • And gentle springs steal softly murmuring out,
  • Washing the foot of pleasure’s sacred hill…….

Postscript: The English MadrigalPostscript: The English Madrigal

ex. 17-24 Thomas Morley, “Now is the month of Maying”

Postscript: The English Madrigal

ex. 17-24b Orazio Vecchi, So ben mi c’ha bon tempo

The most impressive thing about Ward’s descriptive technique is its strategy. In order to paint “joining” with a sudden homorhythm, he precedes it with a passage of hocketing text repetition. In order to paint “the foot” with a bass entrance, he withholds the voice from the whole preceding line. The strategy, of course, is based on a particularly fine awareness that relationships are what impart musical meaning, and that the simplest sort of relationship to contrive is an antithesis. Pictorialisms that seem more “direct” or “essential” are in fact the opposite, resting on specifically musical conventions that must be learned before their effects can be perceived. Thus Ward’s brook “murmurs” by way of a melisma whose down-and-up contour may seem self-evidently (like Monteverdi’s) to describes a wave. But that is because we have all internalized a spatial (up/down) analogy that is by no means given in the sounds themselves. Even more convention-bound is Ward’s depiction of “stealing softly”: it is ingeniously matched to a suspension, the lowest voice stealing softly to a dissonance beneath the higher ones. But to get this particular joke one needs concepts that come only with technical musical training.

Postscript: The English MadrigalPostscript: The English Madrigal

ex. 17-25 John Ward, Upon a Bank, mm. 12-27

The pictorialism in Ward’s first quatrain show an enormous affinity for those in Monteverdi’s. It is the second quatrain, the affective one depicting the wounded cupid, that suggests the difference between the English madrigalists as a school and their Italian counterparts. Or rather, it reinforces our sense of that difference, amounting, it could almost be said, to a deficiency or a blind spot on the part of the English. Compared to the Italian, the English madrigalists deliberately curbed emotional intensity (here, for example, by deflecting love, as suffered subjectively, to “Love” as objectified in the adorable, unthreatening form of Cupid), and avoided any but jocular references to sex. In other words, what had fueled the most powerful moments in the most serious Italian madrigals, and in particular provided the impetus for the most extreme chromatic experiments, was anxiously relegated by the English madrigalists to the lighter vein.

A typical example is the coy double entendre in Fair Phyllis, a mock-pastoral by the minor madrigalist John Farmer (and yet another glee-club perennial), in which the shepherd “wanders up and down” in search of the shepherdess, finds her, kisses her, and then, because of a repeat sign, “wanders up and down” and “finds her” again. No need for chromaticism here, thank you; and there is generally far less interest in chromaticism among the English than among the Italians, which more than anything else hints at what all that Italian chromaticism really meant.

Was this reticence a national characteristic? It certainly did not arise out of religious scruples alone (for all that Weelkes and Ward were churchmen by profession). The church to which the Italian composers confessed was assuredly no less officially censorious of illicit sex than the Church of England. Was it “purely musical” conservatism? Or was it (as Joseph Kerman suggests) “a fundamental dislike of stopping the composition abruptly for the purpose of momentary word-painting”?18 But if so, why? Kerman, ostensibly restating the same proposition more succinctly, may in fact suggest the reason: the English, he writes, “saw chromaticism as a disruptive force and tended to reject it accordingly.”19 But of course Gesualdo, too, saw chromaticism as a disruptive force—and embraced it enthusiastically. Was it only musical continuity that the English saw as threatened? Now that chromaticism has been established as both a musical and an expressive resource, it will be something to watch—indeed to monitor—as time goes on.


(17) Morley, A Plain and Easy Introduction, ed. Harman, p. 293.

(18) Joseph Kerman, The Elizabethan Madrigal: A Comparative Study (American Musicological Society: Studies and Documents, no. 4, 1962), p. 217.

(19) Kerman, The Elizabethan Madrigal, p. 220.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017011.xml