Poet, physician, lutenist and composer Thomas
You’d never guess from
the sober-looking portraits, but Queen Elizabeth I of England was an
enthusiastic dancer. The Virgin Queen or Good Queen Bess (as she was also
known) held the view that dancing was excellent physical exercise and
seventy musicians were employed at the royal court, not merely to provide
dance music but to supply instrumental and vocal music for various court
Like her father Henry
VIII, Elizabeth had musical ability and could play the lute and the
virginals. She expected that everyone else should be capable of doing the
same. Among the wealthy classes, musical literacy and the ability to play
an instrument or sing at sight were essential social skills. Those who
lacked them were regarded as uncultured laughing-stock.
Elizabeth I reigned
between 1558 and 1603, a period sometimes called The English Renaissance.
It saw a flowering of drama, literature, poetry and music as never before.
Those were the days of Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher
Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
The most well-known
composers at the time were William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Thomas Campion, John
Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Tallis. In 1601, Thomas Morley
published a collection of twenty-five madrigals specially written by
different composers in honour of the Queen. It was called The Triumphs
of Oriana and each madrigal ended with an identical couplet praising the
queen. The early seventeenth century saw an increasing number of music
publishing houses both in Britain and continental Europe to supply
much-needed printed music to an affluent and ever-growing market.
The composer and
lutenist John Dowland owed much of his success to publishing and his songs
were as popular as those of Bob Dylan in the 1960s. His First Booke of
Songes and Ayres appeared in 1597 and became a bestseller. Dowland
produced three more songbooks in the 1600s and he became associated with
melancholy themes of love and longing that were so popular during
John Dowland (1653-1626): Semper
Dowland, semper dolens. Concordia Viol Consort. (Duration: 07:19; Video:
John Dowland is best
known today for his songs such as Come, heavy sleep, Flow my tears, I saw
my Lady weepe and In darkness let me dwell. During the
mid-twentieth century his songs and instrumental music underwent a major
revival. Today, most classical guitarists will have a few Dowland numbers
in their repertoire, transcribed from the original lute scores.
Despite the incessant
gloom that pervades his songs, Dowland was not a self-pitying individual
though he was evidently rather sensitive and prone to bearing grudges.
Musically he was reflecting the sensitivities of the time when a melancholy
nature was considered a sign of a superior individual.
Queen Elizabeth I would
almost certainly have played or sung some of Dowland’s earlier pieces
herself, though Dowland was never appointed to Elizabeth’s Protestant
court. He claimed the reason was his Catholic religion, which seems a
reasonable enough excuse. Dowland did little to discourage his reputation
as the great melancholic, punning on his own name in a piece called
Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens (“always Dowland, always doleful”). The
work appears in a collection of twenty-one instrumental pieces entitled
characteristically Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares scored for five-part
viol consort and lute. At the time, the viol was the most popular family of
bowed instruments. Much of the music is melancholy indeed, even the faster
dance numbers, but it has a strange beauty that somehow speaks of another
Thomas Campion (1567-1620): Ariadné
Consort (Duration: 01:45; Video: 1080p HD)
Thomas Campion was well-known as a poet and songwriter who composed over a
hundred lute songs and masques for dancing. While still a young teenager,
Campion’s step-father packed him off to Cambridge University. But after
spending four years there, he left without a degree for some reason and
entered London’s Gray’s Inn to study law.
Another change in
career plans took him to Caen in north western France where he studied
medicine, receiving his medical degree in 1605. He finally moved back to
London, where he worked as a physician. It is pleasing to think of him
humming snippets of his songs as he poked around examining his patients.
His first book of
poetry appeared in 1591 and his first songbook in 1601 so Elizabeth would
almost certainly have been familiar with his early works and could well have
performed some of the songs herself. But not this one. The song comes from
Campion’s a song book which appeared around 1613, ten years after the
Campion was also highly
knowledgeable in music theory. In 1615, he published a technical book
crisply entitled A New Way of Making Foure Parts in Counterpoint by a
Most Familiar and Infallible Rule. For many years, it was the standard
textbook on counterpoint, though it probably didn’t contain many jokes.