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Saturday morning quote # 22: Sir Philip Sidney

October 21, 2011

Today’s quotes are from the writing of Sir Philip Sidney (1554 – 1586), the ideal (or idealized) Elizabethan courtier who left the world far too soon but left us with some eminently singable verse.  Sidney was preoccupied with the rhythmical meter of poetry and, although there are no surviving song settings in which the music can be directly attributed to him, he referred to his poems being ‘sung’ as though accompanying music was expected.

Some of the best Elizabethan composers set Sidney’s poetry and a few of our favorites include ‘O Lord how vain are all our frail delights‘ by William Byrd, ‘Over these brooks‘ by Robert Jones, ‘Who is it in this dark night?’ by Thomas Morley, O dear life when shall it be?, (Dowland, 1610), and ‘In a grove most rich of shade’ with music by Guillaume Tessier.

In Sidney’s Arcadia (1590), whenever a song is sung by one of the characters, a particular instrument meant to accompany the song is mentioned by name, for instance:

“… she might perceive the same voice, deliver itself unto musicall tunes, and with a base Lyra gave foorth this songe…”

“…She haply saw a Lute, upon the belly of which Gynecia had written this song…”

” …Which she taking a Citterne to her, did laye to Auroras chardge with these wel songe verses…”

The Defence of Poesy was written circa 1579 but published posthumously in 1595.  Also well known by the alternative title (from a second edition) , An Apology for Poetry, we won’t contribute another lengthy analysis of the motives and meanings of the essay, but will tell you it concludes with an apt comparison of the English tongue with a few continental languages, and addresses their relative suitability for setting verse to music.

 Now of versifying there are two sorts, the one ancient, the other modern. The ancient marked the quantity of each syllable, and according to that framed his verse; the modern observing only number, with some regard of the accent, the chief life of it standeth in that like sounding of the words, which we call rime.  Whether of these be the more excellent would bear many speeches; the ancient no doubt more fit for music, both words and tune observing quantity; and more fit lively to express divers passions, by the low or lofty sound of the well-weighed syllable.  The latter likewise with his rime striketh a certain music to the ear; and, in fine, since it doth delight, though by another way, it obtaineth the same purpose; there being in either, sweetness, and wanting in neither, majesty.

Truly the English, before any other vulgar language I know, is fit for both sorts.  For, for the ancient, the Italian is so full of vowels that it must ever be cumbered with elisions; the Dutch so, of the other side, with consonants, that they cannot yield the sweet sliding fit for a verse.  The French in his whole language hath not one word that hath his accent in the last syllable saving two, called antepenultima, and little more hath the Spanish; and therefore very gracelessly may they use dactyls.  The English is subject to none of these defects.

Now for rime, though we do not observe quantity, yet we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely.  That cæsura, or breathing-place in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of.

Sidney’s point is well taken as we shift from Latin motets, Italian madrigals, and French airs to continue our perusal of the songs in John Dowland’s Pilgrimes Solace (1612).

One Comment
  1. Credit where credit is due: I am indebted to the antique article “Sir Philip Sidney and Music”, Bruce Pattison: Music & Letters, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan., 1934), pp. 75-81. RA

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