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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored
Richard Taruskin

The broader historical and political conditions to which musicians of the mid-seventeenth century perforce responded are reflected deliberately and directly in “A Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times” by Thomas Tomkins, originally for keyboard but transcribed for strings as well (Ex. 3-11). Tomkins (1572–1656), formerly organist of the Chapel Royal, was one of the oldest English musicians still alive and semi-active during the times in question.

Distracted Times

ex. 3-11 Thomas Tomkins, “A Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times”

The phrase “these distracted times” was a standard contemporary euphemism for the greatest political upheaval in British history: the Civil War of 1642–48 that culminated in the trial of King Charles I for treason and his beheading on 30 January 1649, after which a republican form of government, called the Commonwealth, was instituted under the nominal rule of Parliament, but in actuality under the personal dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Puritan party, who in 1653 took the title of Lord Protector. Tomkin’s Sad Pavan bears the date 16 February 1649, roughly a fortnight after the regicide, and its tone bears witness to his loyalty and his sorrow at his former patron’s fate.

Although it is often called the Puritan Revolt, the English Civil War is no longer thought of as a primarily religious conflict. Historians now view it as a collision between the country gentry and urban merchants (the very classes whose support had made possible the growth of English chamber music) on the one hand, and the crown and nobility on the other, whose restrictive trade policies were inhibiting the economic growth of the self-made classes. The most lasting result of the Civil War was the victory of the “common law” over the so-called divine right of the king and the eventual establishment (after the Glorious Revolution of 1688) of the world’s first constitutional monarchy.

Despite the popularity of their chamber music among the classes who broke with the crown, the loyalties of composers, as of all artists and entertainers, were overwhelmingly on the royalist side, for that is where artists and entertainers dependent on patronage had always perceived their self-interest to lie, and that must account in part for the elegiac tone that is so conspicuous in the instrumental music of the Caroline years, the years of King Charles’s ill-fated reign. In the exaggerated but colorful words of the mid-nineteenth-century historian Thomas Macaulay, “the Puritan austerity drove to the King’s faction all who made pleasure their business, who affected gallantry, splendour of dress or taste in the lighter arts, and all who live by amusing the leisure of others, …for these artists well knew that they might thrive under a superb and luxurious despotism, but must starve under the rigid rule of the precisians [religious ascetics].”18

Indeed, one of the casualties of these tumultuous events was William Lawes himself, who fought and died in the 1645 Siege of Chester, one of the King’s signal defeats. As the very partisan poet Thomas Jordan put it in a eulogy for the fallen musician,

  • When pestilential Purity did raise
  • Rebellion ‘gainst the best of Princes, And
  • Pious Confusion had untun’d the Land
  • When by the Fury of the Good old cause
  • Will Lawes was slain by such whose Wills were Laws.19

Puritan hostility to the arts, and to music in particular, is often exaggerated. Unlike the early Anglicans they did not instigate search-and-destroy missions against musical artifacts. But of course the absence of a royal court, both under the republican Commonwealth and under the military dictatorship (Cromwell’s Protectorate) that succeeded it in the 1650s, meant that patronage for musicians reached an all-time low. As Calvinists, the Puritans did not tolerate an elaborate professional church music, and so the musical establishments of the Church of England reached a low musical point as well, and the most exalted of British musical traditions suffered disruption and virtual extinction. The Puritans were indeed hostile to the theater, and from 1649 to 1660 closed it down in England; but as we have seen, musical theater had failed to establish itself in England for reasons unrelated to the fall of the royal court or the rise of the Puritan party to power.


(18) Thomas Babington Macaulay, History of England from the Accession of James II, Vol. I (1849), Chap. 1, part v.

(19) Quoted in Murray Lefkowitz, William Lawes (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960), p. 37.

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. 5 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03009.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 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03009.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 5 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03009.xml