This one’s for Manuel, who asked many moons ago if I’d write a blog on music in the time of Shakespeare. Better late than never, my friend…
For purposes of this entry, we’ll be looking specifically at the greatest English composers during the time of Shakespeare’s prolific 20-year era, 1590-1610. Some of you overachievers will certainly be able to point to others as this is by no means a complete representation of the talent of the era. Worse still, I’m only going to offer you one piece of music from each of the composers I’ll spotlight. The hope is that, if you like what you hear, you’ll want to hunt down more.
For the first blog in my look at Early Music, I wrote about Thomas Tallis’ masterwork Spem in alium. When it comes to the English Renaissance, there are few names who shine brighter than Tallis. He’s still recognized as one of the greatest English composers to have ever lived. He was the royal composer for the English Courts of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I until his death. During the reign of Elizabeth, he and young William Byrd were granted a 21-year monopoly on polyphonic music, with a patent to print and publish. It was one of the first arrangements of its kind in England, and it essentially meant that their sheet music got passed around, and nobody else’s did. Not officially, at any rate. By any metric, that’s power and prestige.
But… Tallis died in 1585. Missed it by that much. Many people today who don’t follow music of the era know Tallis only from his appearance in season one of The Tudors. It’s also because of that show that the myth that “Greensleeves” was written by Henry VIII was perpetuated something fierce for a while. Fact is, “Greensleeves” was likely written during the time of Elizabeth… and migrated in from one of the Italian courts. And nobody knows for certain who wrote it. So when you ask the average person who might be composing the popular music in the time of Shakespeare, most people can’t answer any names off the top of their heads, if at all. It’s not exactly the kind of music most people put into their phones and play for fun these days.
But I do. And I love to share.
The late Renaissance and early Baroque produced some truly impressive musicians. The logical starting point is Tallis’ junior partner.
William Byrd, 1543-1623
When Shakespeare was at the height of his powers, so too was Byrd. And like the Bard (and Tallis as well), Byrd was a closet Catholic, having converted from Protestantism in an age when the nation was pretty much swinging the other direction. From 1570, the Tudor authorities were looking at Catholicism as sedition following the papal bull that absolved Elizabeth’s subjects from allegiance and obedience to her. As you might expect, then, Byrd’s commitment to his faith found expression, and he hid out in plain sight. How plain? He was Elizabeth’s favorite composer. Makes you wonder if the Virgin Queen was as aware of her surroundings as she was virginal, especially given her own musical talents and appreciation. Many of Byrd’s motets were composed with themes of persecution, captivity, deliverance, martyred priests, executions, that sort of thing. They’d be exactly the kinds of things Walsingham and his agents would have jumped upon. The Catholic community adopted Byrd as their musical mascot of sorts. In addition to his motets of the 1580s, he’s most known for the English song-books of 1588 and 1589, consort music up to 1591, and a great deal of Masses from 1592 to 1595. This is by far not the whole of his work, about 470 compositions in total, but it is representative of it.
In Shakespeare’s poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, there’s a line that may be a reference to Byrd: “the bird of loudest lay.”
For your listening pleasure, Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, 1592-3.
Orlando Gibbons, 1583-1625
Gibbons was the leading English composer of his generation, following the passing of Tallis. He was appointed Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by King James I, where he served as organist from 1615 to his death. He held position as a keyboard player in the privy chamber of Prince Charles (later King Charles I) and was organist at Westminster Abbey. His music was said to be nearly as versatile as that of Tallis, having written for keyboard and viols, as well as a number of madrigals and verse anthems. Six of his pieces were printed in the first collection of keyboard music printed in England.
Gibbons’ most popular work in its time was “The Silver Swan,” which has been performed on everything from single lute to full choir.
Thomas Morley, 1557 (or 8?)-1602
Morley was one of the foremost members of the English Madrigal School, an organist for St. Paul’s Cathedral, and one of the most famous secular composers of Elizabethan England. Not bad for the son of a brewer. He also lived for a time in the same parish as Shakespeare, and while connections are assumed, none have been proven. If it’s true, then his setting of “It was a lover and his lass” from As You Like It may actually have been used in a performance of that play. Again, no one can prove it, but it’s fun to consider.
If you’ve ever seen Robin Hood: Men in Tights, you already know the everlasting influence of this song, even if you’ve not heard it before by name. Trust me, you know this one.
John Bennet, 1575-1614
Bennet was another great composer of English madrigals. And at this point, I can hear some of you asking, “What’s a madrigal?” A fair question. In a nutshell, it’s a polyphonic (many voiced), unaccompanied (no instruments) secular (not religious) vocal composition. In other words, a song for two to eight voices. If you’ve seen a cappella groups at your local Renaissance festivals, this is likely the stuff they’re singing.
Bennet’s life is largely undocumented, but we know he was from a prosperous family and performed at Elizabeth’s court at a young age. This is the sort of music he’d have composed for court gatherings: “All Creatures Now Are Merry-Minded.”
John Dowland, 1563-1626
Dowland is best known today for his melancholy songs, though his catalog has quite a bit of variety. And lucky for us today, he’s one of the better known musicians of his age as his popularity has soared in recent times. His music has become something of the backbone for the Early Music revival ensembles in the 20th century, especially for lute and classical guitar. If you ever want to just Zen out on some high quality, unintrusive instrumental work, seek some recordings of Dowland’s compositions. A number of composers modeled their work on his.
Despite Dowland’s loyalty to Queen Bess, he also held a bit of a grudge against her for some remarks to his status as a Papist. We have no confirmation of his religious affiliation. But we do know he performed espionage missions for Sir Robert Cecil in France and Denmark and was “embroiled in treasonous Catholic intrigue in Italy.” Despite his melancholy lyrics, he’s known to be a cheerful person. It’s said his music was his attempt to create an “artistic persona.” A case could be made, given his recorded remarks and personal frustration that the lyrics were genuine.
That genuine nature may be why three of his works, including his most popular “Flow My Tears,” were chosen for Levente’s electronic music concept album The Dowland Shores of Philip K. Dick. Because who doesn’t like a little Renaissance in their science fiction electronica. I can’t speak to that, but for a taste of Dowland’s actual music, here’s the original version of “Flow My Tears:”
Thomas Ravenscroft, 1588-1635
Ravenscroft was primarily known for compiling collections of British folk music. Cambridge educated, he wrote two treatises on music theory. Much of the music he collected is incredibly famous today in the form of nursery rhymes (such as “Three Blind Mice”), but his name is rarely known, and his own works are mostly forgotten. That’s part of why I thought he might be worth a mention here.
Since you already know “Three Blind Mice,” here’s one of his other most popular pieces, “There Were Three Ravens.”
Claudio Monteverdi, 1567-1643
Oh, did I say this post was about English composers in Shakespeare’s time? Silly me. Monteverdi is Italian. But he’s kind of a big deal to this 20-year period we’re pinpointing. You see, music in that era travelled court to court, and every ruler wanted their court to be bigger and better than anything else. Just ask Elizabeth and her father before her. Thing is, we speak of the Elizabethan era as the end of the Renaissance. Monteverdi is largely credited as being the reason why. While being arbitrary eras that are defined later by scholars, most agree the Renaissance stops cold at 1600.
1600 is the approximate date given to the manifestation of the newest and highest musical art form: Opera. With Opera, the world shifted into the Baroque. Some of the composers listed above are squarely of this time, though their arts were considerably more subdued and gradual in their evolution. Monteverdi didn’t invent Opera. But his first Opera, L’Orfeo, opened in 1607 and is still the oldest of its kind being performed today.
This particular version of L’Orfeo is conducted by Jordi Savall. If you’re looking for some fantastic Early Music from across the world over, Savall’s a performer / arranger you can trust when it comes to getting as close to the authentic sound as we can possibly get. The man’s a musical genius. In the role of The Music, his wife Montserrat Figueras, one of the great vocalists for Early Music revival. In the role of Eurydice, their daughter Arianna Savall, an equally talented vocalist and instrumentalist. It’s an embarrassment of riches. To the Opera itself, you be the judge. Try to imagine yourself in 1607 when such spectacles were beyond imagination.
As I say, the reason I include this last piece is because of the influence Opera would have upon the world at large during the Baroque and onward. Indeed, Shakespeare’s plays would become the subjects of many Operas throughout the centuries (as well as a larger number of classical works), so to my mind the two go hand in hand. And if Shakespeare did indeed travel to other courts as suspected, it’s doubtless Opera would have gobsmacked him.