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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored
Richard Taruskin

During the early Stuart reigns—called the “Jacobean” period after James I (reigned 1603 – 25), the Scottish king whose ascent to the throne of England created what is now officially known as the “United Kingdom”—music found its chief theatrical outlet in dance entertainments called masques, which lay somewhere between a costume ball and the prologue to an early Italian or (especially) French court opera. The name of the genre recalls its early link with mummery—masked ceremonial and carnival dancing. By the time of James I such entertainments were organized around mythological or allegorical plots in praise of the ruler or some aristocratic patron. (One early Jacobean masque took as its theme “The Virtues of Tobacco,” recently imported to England from the New World colonies and thought to have medicinal properties.) The participants were noble amateurs, who often selected dance partners from the audience for a central episode (or “entry,” from the French entrée) called “revels,” that amounted to a suite of plotless social dances.

The chief Jacobean masque-maker was the playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637), whom James I chose as “Master of the Revels” before elevating him in 1617 to become the first British poet laureate. The few individual songs and dances that survive from Jonson’s masques were mainly the work of James’s stable of court composers, including Robert Johnson (ca. 1583–1633), Thomas Campion (1567–1620), Alfonso Ferrabosco II (ca. 1575–1628), and John Cooper (alias Coprario, d. 1626). The closest the Jacobean masque ever came to opera was Jonson’s Lovers made Men of 1617, in which the music, by Nicholas Lanier (1588–1666), was “sung after the Italian manner, stilo recitativo,” according to the published libretto. The music does not survive, however, and so it is impossible to say how continuous it really was.

It is also difficult to say how much masque music survives in the many Jacobean manuscripts that contain dances for lute or for “consorts” (or as we would say, ensembles) of viols. The great profusion of Jacobean instrumental music, especially consort music, compared with the relative paucity of vocal or theatrical music, seems a reliable guide to the musical tastes of the period no matter how low a survival rate we assume. Jacobean England may well have been the earliest European society to value instrumental music more highly than vocal. The preference was as much a social as an esthetic indicator.

Jacobean consort music was, in effect, the earliest instrumental chamber music. It had its forerunners, chiefly in northern Italy—the instrumental chanson reworkings published by the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci beginning in 1501, the ensemble ricercars and canzonas of sixteenth-century Venice, and so on. But the English repertory was not only larger and more varied than these; it also came much closer to our modern idea of what chamber music is. Although “chamber music” performance in our own time has by now been thoroughly professionalized and takes place as much or more on the concert stage than it does in homes, the idea of chamber music originally implied private conviviality. In chamber music, audience and performers are ideally one.

Thus it was in its origins a wholly secular art and largely a domestic one, without significant or necessary social ties to the contemporary court or church (although, as we shall see, there were some residual musical ties to the latter). It was an art addressed to amateurs and connoisseurs, implying privacy and leisure, and ultimately affluence. But its uniqueness lay in the fact that it was an art not primarily of noblemen or courtiers but one of “gentlemen”—aristocrats of commerce and education rather than by way of birthright. Only England had a class of this kind—”self-made men” (though not yet a “bourgeoisie” since they resided for the most part on country estates)—sufficiently numerous and developed to support a distinct musical subculture.

One of the best descriptions of this musical subculture was written by Roger North (1651–1734), a latter-day member or descendent of the class that nurtured it. He belonged to a very distinguished family, a few of whose members held baronies, estates that carried with them minor titles of nobility. The untitled members of the clan distinguished themselves in learning, in trade, and in civil service. Roger North spent his early years in law and politics, holding the offices of solicitor general to the Duke of York and attorney general to the queen consort of King James II. His elder brothers had even more distinguished careers. One, Sir Dudley North (1641–91), amassed a huge personal fortune in trade with the Ottoman Empire and, not altogether surprisingly, became an important early advocate of laissez-faire economics (“free trade”).

Roger North was rather early excluded from politics as a result of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 that dislodged the Stuart dynasty from the throne, and he spent the rest of his life as a country squire and scholar with a special interest in music. In this he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, Dudley, the third Lord North, an exemplary Jacobean gentleman who

took a fancy to a wood he had about a mile from his house, called Bansteads, situated in a dirty soil, and of ill access. But he cut glades, and made arbors in it. Here he would convoke his musical family, and songs were made and set for celebrating the joys there, which were performed, and provisions carried up for more important regale of the company. The consorts were usually all viols to the organ or harpsichord…. When the hands were well supplied, then a whole chest went to work, that is six viols, music being formed for it; which would seem a strange sort of music now…14

Indeed, it was even by the time Sir Roger wrote a somewhat strange sort of music, and one that has long attracted the special interest of musical sociologists.15 It was a socially and politically “progressive” repertory in that it was cultivated by very early members of an entrepreneurial class that, over the next couple of centuries, would challenge the power of the aristocracy all over Europe and that appears to us now as the truest harbinger of the capitalist or “free market” societies of the modern world. At the same time, it was stylistically about the most conservative repertory to be found anywhere in the world. That very combination—economic libertarianism and cultural conservatism—characterizes “business” attitudes to this day.

The two main genres of Jacobean consort music were both inherited directly from the Elizabethan, and even pre-Elizabethan, past. The fantasy or fancy as it was colloquially known (or “fantazia,” to give the more formal designation found in the musical sources) was, in North’s unimprovable phrase, an “interwoven hum-drum” made up of successive points of imitation—known as fantazies since the fifteenth century—occasionally relieved by chordal writing. In other words, it was a textless imitation of the sacred genre known since the fifteenth century as the motet (although the term goes back to the thirteenth).

Thomas Morley, writing at the end of the sixteenth century, called it “the chiefest kind of music which is made without a ditty,” that is, without words, and emphasized the freedom that this gave the composer, who “taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seem best in his own conceit,” so that “in this may more art be shown than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing, but that he may add, diminish, and alter at his pleasure.”16 Morley’s description, with its enthusiastic emphasis on freedom of enterprise, is consistent with the social status of the genre, even in Morley’s day a gentleman’s occupation par excellence, and also consistent with Morley’s own status as England’s foremost musical entrepreneur.

The genre’s extreme stylistic conservatism—conservatism in the most literal, etymological sense of “keeping old things”—can be dramatically illustrated by focusing on one of its most popular subgenres, a special type of fancy called the “In Nomine.” The odd name, which means “in the name of,” is derived from the text of the Mass Sanctus (“Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” or “Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord”). Indeed, the instrumental genre goes back to a particularly grand and venerable English cantus-firmus Mass, John Taverner’s six-voice Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, based on a pre-Reformation (Sarum) Vespers antiphon for Trinity Sunday, “Glory to thee, O Trinity.” Taverner probably composed the Mass around 1528. The chant-derived cantus firmus from the In nomine section of Taverner’s Sanctus, scored for a reduced complement of four solo voices, became the ever-present cantus firmus for the whole repertory of instrumental In Nomines, a repertory numbering in the hundreds and practiced for almost a century and a half after Taverner’s death in 1545.

How did such an improbable tradition get started? Although Taverner’s original In nomine was copied out for instruments and is found in many manuscripts containing fancies, the instrumental In Nomine repertory as such evidently goes back to Christopher Tye (ca. 1505–73), an Elizabethan composer best known for his Anglican hymns and anthems, who wrote no fewer than twenty-one In Nomine fancies (mostly in five parts) over (or, more frequently, under) Taverner’s cantus firmus as a sort of sideline or hobby. As usual with a big series of similar pieces, the composer eventually began to show off his craft by indulging in various sorts of gimmicks.

One of his In Nomines, for example, called “Crye,” has a subject consisting of a series of rapid repeated notes that mimic a street vendor’s cry. (Weaving plebeian “Cries of London” or “Country Cries” into the otherwise abstract texture of viol fancies was another standard subgenre that amused the gentlemen patrons of the medium.) Another, called “Howld Fast” (i.e., “hang on”) casts the Taverner cantus firmus in dotted semibreves that crosscut the implied meter of the other parts. Yet another, called “Trust,” is cast in what we would now call a meter (Ex. 3-7).

Masque And Consort

ex. 3-7a Christopher Tye, In Nomines, “Crye” (opening)

Masque And Consort

ex. 3-7b Christopher Tye, In Nomines, “Howld Fast” (opening)

Masque And Consort

ex. 3-7c Christopher Tye, In Nomines, “Trust” (opening)

As in the case of the “L’Homme Armé” Masses of the fifteenth century, Tye’s prolific output of In Nomines, both technically impressive and whimsical, seems to have stimulated the emulatory impulse that led to the creation of the genre. The great upsurge of interest in consort music during the Jacobean years led to a flood tide in which every composer of fancies participated. The aged William Byrd composed seven In Nomines, a total exceeded only by Tye himself. After Byrd, the next most prolific In Nomine composer was Alfonso Ferrabosco II, the English-born son of Byrd’s early Italian motet mentor, who composed six, of which three were scored for the full “chest” of six viols, thought not only by North but by all contemporary writers to be the ideal consort medium: “your best provision (and most complete),” in the words of Thomas Mace, seventeenth-century England’s most encyclopedic theorist, who specified that a “good chest of viols” were “six in number, 2 Basses, 2 Tenors, 2 Trebbles, all truly proportionably suited.”17 As time went on and the tradition developed, the style of writing became increasingly idiomatic and “instrumental,” further belying the genre’s vocal, ecclesiastical origins.

The In Nomine by Ferrabosco excerpted in Ex. 3-8, which dates from around 1625, is scored for just such a full complement of viols (Fig. 3-7). The old cantus firmus is given, rather unusually, to one of the treble viols, and was probably played by a novice on the instrument. (The inevitable presence of a part playable by a child has been counted one of the reasons for the In Nomine’s popularity, given the family surroundings in which English consorts were apt to be played.) Meanwhile, the other parts converse motet-fashion, approaching, toward the end, the kind of “perpetuall intermiscuous syncopations and halvings of notes” that North cited as one of the chief pleasures of the genre.

Masque And ConsortMasque And Consort

ex. 3-8 Alfonso Ferrabosco II, In Nomine a 6

Masque And Consort

fig. 3-7 A chest of viols (the ensemble near the right), shown in an anonymous painting (ca. 1596) of the wedding masque for Sir Henry Unton, Queen Elizabeth’s special envoy to the French court.

The bass viols, in particular, are given some elaborate “divisions” to play during the last point of imitation; these reflect the solo repertoire that was also growing up at the time, which mainly consisted of bass viols doing what contemporary musicians called “breaking a base”: performing ever more elaborate variations over a ground. Like most virtuoso repertories, that of the “division viol” was as much an improvisatory practice as a literate one. (Its greatest exponent was a gentleman virtuoso named Christopher Simpson, who published a treatise on the subject, called The Division-violist, or the Art of Playing Extempore upon a Ground, in 1659.) The consort fancy, however, depended entirely on writing for its dissemination and performance. It represents positively the last outpost of what on the continent had already been consigned once and for all to the “first practice” or stile antico: a final wordless flowering of the motet, and even, in the case of the In Nomine, of traditional cantus-firmus composition.


(14) John Wilson, ed., Roger North on Music (London: Novello, 1959), pp. 10–11.

(15) See, for example, Ernst H. Meyer, English Chamber Music (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1946).

(16) Thomas Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musick (1597), in Weiss and Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., pp. 109–110.

(17) Thomas Mace, Musick’s Monument (London: T. Ratcliffe and N. Thompson, 1676; facsimile ed. New York: Broude Bros., 1966), p. 245.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03007.xml