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Saturday morning quote #13: Playford & the Tudors

August 12, 2011

John PlayfordJohn Playford (1623–1686) is probably best known today as publisher of The English Dancing Master (1651) which contains unharmonized melodies and instructions for the steps to several English country dances.  The tunes, still in use today, were collected and anthologized by Playford but he was most likely not the composer of what were essentially common dance tunes in the public domain.

Playford also published instrumental tutors for the viol, violin and cittern, as well as several books of songs by William and Henry Laws, John Blow, and Henry Purcell, a series we know and love in their facsimile editions.  He also published A Breefe Introduction to the Skill of Musick (1654) which was later revised as An Introduction to the Skill of Musick (Seventh Edition: London, 1674).

The 1674 Introduction contains much of interest including ‘A Brief Discourse of the Italian manner of Singing’ with examples of ornamentation (supposedly) by Nicholas Lanier, a general treatise on music theory attributed to Christopher Simpson, a section on ‘The Art of Descant’, or composing in counterpoint by Thomas Campion, and a section on playing the viol and the ‘treble’ violin, using what is essentially lute tablature to demonstrate common fingerings on the unfretted fingerboard.

Playford outlines the historical importance of music in the preface, addressed ‘To all Lovers of Musick’:

Musick in ancient Times was held in as great Estimation, Reverence and Honour, by the most Noble and Virtuous Persons, as any of the Liberal Sciences whatsoever, for the manifold Uses thereof, conducing to the Life of Man: Philosophers accounted it an Invention of the Gods, bestowing it on Men, to make them better conditioned than bare Nature afforded; and concludes a special necessity thereof in the Education of Children, partly from its natural delight, and partly from the efficacy it hath in moving the Affections to Virtue…

Those then who intend the Practice thereof, must allow Musick to be the Gift of God, yet (like other his Graces and Benefits) it is not given to the Idle, but they must reach it with the hand of Industry, by putting in practice the Works and Inventions of skillful Artists; for meerly to Speak and Sing are of Nature, and this double use of the Articulate Voice the rudest Swains of all Nations do make; but to Speak well, and Sing well are of Art…

The section titled ‘Of MUSICK in General, and of Its Divine and Civil USES’ details a generally accepted history of music of the British Isles, down to a description of the significance of ballads as a means for transmitting unwritten history, laws and religious practice.

History tells us, that the ancient Britains of this Island had Musicians before they had Books; and the Romans that Invaded them (who were not too forward to magnify other Nation[s]) confess what power the Druyds and Bards had over the People’s Affections, by recording in Songs the Deeds of Heroick Spirits, the Laws and Religion being sung in Tunes, and so (without Letters) transmitted to Posterity; wherein they were so dextrous, that their Neighbours of Gaul come hither to learn it.

Finally, Playford describes the musical heritage of the Tudors, better known today as the subjects of a fairly racy Showtime television series.  The series, which we have dutifully groaned through via DVDs from our public library, used music that was probably 95% wrong for the period, and inspired us to create a concert series featuring the treasure trove of authentic music associated with the Tudor dynasty.  We have been performing this concert series across the US to good effect over the past few years, doing our part to clear up the misconception that Henry VIII dined to the music of Elizabethan composer Antony Holborne, that ladies at Henry’s court larked about to 18th century dance tunes, and Mozart’s Requiem was played as background music to serious moments in the first half of the 16th century.

King Henry the Eighth did much to advance Musick in the first part of his Reign, when his Mind was more intent upon Arts and Sciences, at which time he invited the best Masters out of Italy, and other Countries; whereby he grew to great Knowledge therein; of which he gave Testimony, by Composing with his own hand two entire Services of five and six Parts…

Edward the Sixth was a Lover and Encourager thereof, if we may believe Dr. Tye, one of His Chapel, who put the Acts of the Apostles into Metre, and Composed the same to be sung in four Parts, which he Printed and Dedicated to the King; his Epistle began thus:

Considering well, most Godly King,
The Zeal and perfect Love
Your Grace doth bear to each good Thing,
That given is from above:

That such good Things your Grace might move,
Your Lute when you assay,
Instead of Songs of wanton Love,
These Stories then to Play.

Queen Elizabeth was not only a Lover of the Divine Science, but a good Proficient herein; and I have been informed by an ancient Musician and her Servant, that she did often recreate her self on an Excellent Instrument called the Poliphant, not much unlike a Lute but strung with Wire…

The instrument Playford calls the ‘poliphant’ is most likely the wire-strung relative of the lute better known as the orpharion.

So, John Playford, publisher, editor and tireless creator of anthologies that constitute a rich source of 17th century English music was also committed to conveying the historical importance of musical aesthetics, reminding us that skill in music is not attained through idleness, and pointing out that knowledge and practice of music was a prized pastime of the Tudors.  Thank you, John Playford.

  1. The polyphont was an actual and distinct instrument, separate from the orpharion. I have detailed an account of it in my column “The Wire Connection” in the Spring 2010 edition of the Lute Society of America Quarterly, from which I quote here:

    Sir Francis Prujeane in his letter to the Countess of Rutland in 1655 describes the unusual instrument known as the polyphont or polyphon, which appears to have been an attempt to combine qualities of the lute, cittern, bandora, and harp:

    “The polyphon is an instrument of so different a stringing and tuning that it’s impossible to play what is sett to it on any other hand instrument. There are three rows of strings one under another, eight or ten small short trebles which ly under the frets, there are onely five strings stopped, and there are on it above forty single strings. Nothing can resemble the harp so much as it.”

    Other sources indicate that it was a flat-backed instrument with a scalloped outline, possessing two necks and possibly four sets of strings: one chromatic harp-like set on the body to the treble side of the right-most neck, plucked by the fingers of the right hand; a set on the fingerboard of only 3-5 courses; a long harp-like set running from a beam between the two necks to the body and plucked by the left hand (much like on the baryton); and a last set of long bass strings running on the second neck, plucked by the right hand thumb.
    The polyphont does not appear to have been very popular and may have been limited in use to England. John Playford in his Introduction to the Skill of Musick (1687) claims that the polyphont was invented by musician and instrument maker Daniel Farrant (b. 1575) and that Queen Elizabeth I “did often recreate herself upon an excellent Instrument called the Polyphant.” The last description of the polyphont comes from James Talbot (c. 1694), though diarist John Evelyn’s mention of it in 1661 suggests that even at that date it was something of a rare instrument.

    Also worthy of note, there is at least one surviving sketch of one. Ephraim Segerman includes the image and gives a more detailed comparison of the different descriptions in his article “Comm. 1821: Notes on the polyphont” in FoMRHI Quarterly, issue 110, which can be found online here:


    • Thank you for the clarification, Andrew. I confess to being less informed about the historical wire-strung instruments – maybe because I feel like I spend enough of my life tuning, and wire-strung instruments require even more attention. I did have the rare and wonderful opportunity to handle an English cittern from circa 1570 last year when we were given a guided tour of the vault at the National Music Museum after our performance. The instrument was beautiful, very well-crafted and in fine condition. It was inspirational to lay hands on an instrument from 1570.

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