A noble noyse of musicke
Vocal & Instrumental Master Works of the English Renaissance
When King Henry VIII moved from Greenwich to Windsor in 1510, the author Raphael Holinshed describes the young monarch in his chronicles ‘exercising himselfe dailie in shooting, singing, dansing, wrestling, casting of the bare, plaieing at the recorders, flute, virginals, in setting of songs, and making of ballads’. Lute, cittern, virginal, organ and recorder seem to be the main instruments from which the existence of English chamber music can be determined. Henry VIII, who owned seventy-six recorders alone near his death, introduced the fashionable Italian practise of having complete consorts of instruments.
In the theatre, where consort music was often played, instrumentation would in many cases be characterized by the symbolic associations of particular instruments. Stringed instruments represented harmony and agreement; reed instruments were often called for in connection with evil signs; the soft sound of flutes or recorders, sometimes referred to as ‘still music’, tended to symbolize death. In The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, William Shakespeare is referring to the recorder.
In Act III – Scene II, we find the following dialogue between Hamlet and Guildenstern:
HAMLET: O, the recorders! Let me see one. Will you play upon this pipe?
GUILDENSTERN: My lord, I cannot.
HAMLET: I pray you.
GUILDENSTERN: Believe me, I cannot. I know no touch of it, my lord.
HAMLET: ‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.
GUILDENSTERN: But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.
HAMLET: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.
In his encyclopedia Syntagma Musicum III, the German composer and organist Michael Praetorius showed that the Englisch Consort could be made up of a great variety of different instruments. His descriptions give evidence to the fame of such ensembles in Europe in the early 17th century. The expression ‘full consort’ is found occasionally in Elizabethan literature, for example in a passage from the masque The Lady of May (1578) written by the aristocrat and poet Sir Philip Sidney; ‘the shepheards and forresters made a full consort of their cornets and recorders’. The term ‘broken music’ appears to be associated with music for mixed consort, as may be seen in a description of a piece of an entertainment, performed for Queen Elizabeth at Norwich in 1578 : ‘A noble noyse of Musicke of al kind of instruments, severally to be sounded and played upon; and at one time they should be sounded all togither, that mighte serve for a consorte of broken Musicke’. Queen Elizabeth herself was a skillful player of both the lute and the virginal. She said that she never played for performance, ‘but only to shun melancholy.’ It was thought that the virginal was named after Elizabeth, the ‘Virgin Queen’, or even the name being a reference to the most common players of the instrument – young women. The Quaker and musician Solomon Eccles (1618-1683) notes that ‘to teach men’s daughters on the virginal is as harmless a calling as any man can follow.’
As it was, contemporary musicians and writers all agreed upon the sweetness of English vocalists. The highest praise was reserved for the music heard at the city of Exeter, for its ‘rich and lofty’ organ, for ‘the viols and other sweet instruments’ and for the ‘tunable voices’ all of which in consort made ‘a melodious and heavenly harmony, able to ravish the hearers’ ears’. ‘Sweetness’ was certainly considered to be a primary component of any satisfying performance. When the Duke of Württemberg visited St. George’s Chapel, Windsor in 1592, he was much impressed with a little boy who sang so sweetly to the accompaniment of all sorts of wind instruments:
‘Es sang auch ein kleines Knäblein so lieblich darein, und colorirt dermassen mit seinem Zünglein, dass es wundersam zuhören …’
The famous lutenist John Dowland emphasizes the same point in his translation of Musicae activae micrologus (Leipzig, 1517) written by the German theorist Andreas Ornithoparcus. Published in 1609 as Micrologus, or Introduction containing the Art of singing, Dowland says; ‘Let every singer take heed, lest he begin too loud, braying like an ass; … for God is not pleased with loud cries, but with lovely sounds … The uncomely gaping of the mouth, and ungraceful motion of the body, is a sign of a mad singer’.
The sixteenth century was a period that reveled in cosmic harmony, and music was at the centre of this magic. The occult force of musical modes reflected and reinforced the natural harmonies of the planets; it was a terrestrial manifestation of the stars and the perfection of the entire cosmic system. The physician Robert Fludd (1574-1637) explained music’s healing powers through a mechanism based on astrological medicine. Just as a string plucked on one lute could make the corresponding string on another vibrate in sympathy, there was also sympathy – or invisible interaction – between man and God’s creation, mediated by music. People believed that an individual’s physical and emotional state was a product of a unique combination of the four bodily humours; blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. In health, these existed in harmonious accord. However, if any imbalance disturbed this equilibrium, disease would follow. Theories were established that music produced its medicating effect by stimulating animal spirits which were believed to reside within the brain and which flowed through the nerves creating a positive vibratory effect.
The term ‘melancholy’ originates from the ancient Greek melas (black) and chole (gall). The Greeks believed that it was bile in the body that produced the despair and depression that so characterized the poets and artists of their time. In 1621, the scholar and clergyman Robert Burton wrote his Anatomy of Melancholy, the first systematic review on the subject. In the Galenic medical tradition, melancholy (because of its cold and dry qualities) was considered harmful to life. However, Aristotelian physiology associated melancholy with heightened imaginative and intellectual powers. As Galenic and Aristotelian teachings were both existent in the Renaissance, there was some confusion about the true nature of melancholy, both as a disease and an identity.