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Saturday quotes 2.22 Dowland’s training Part 2

October 19, 2012

For whatever reason, music of the Elizabethan era seems to fall into the broad marketing category of “classical music”, a designation that belies the original popular or functional qualities of so much of the music.  It also misses by a mile the colorful personalities of the people who originally played what amounts to popular music — their rise to stardom despite an humble background and limited educational opportunities.

Like the music of any era, there was art music of great sophistication and there was also a wealth of popular music that was known, whistled and hummed by the masses.  What survives today includes music from both ends of the spectrum; the art music because it was preserved and protected, and the popular music because it was so widely distributed and referenced despite the dearth of notated sources.

Today, interpretation of Elizabethan music is left to performers with the training and understanding of historical music from both ends of the spectrum, from art music to popular music of the era.  In modern concert performances, particularly in concerts of instrumental music from the 16th century, we are frequently treated to this sort of juxtaposition of sophistication and style.  To put things in perspective, this is akin to expecting a performer today to ‘tux-up’ and perform a complex symphonic work, and then remove starched shirt to display gruesome tattoos while crashing out a bit of earsplitting two-chord headbanger noise.

The point: There were different levels of sophistication in what we call Elizabethan music.  Practitioners of the music likewise came from vastly different backgrounds, but the better-known proponents rose from the ranks of commoners.  In the surviving sources, most of what we read that describes the musical education of a child concentrates on idealistic approaches that lead to a well-rounded individual — of the upper classes.  But what of the education of working class individuals?  Since many 16th-century musicians were no more than servants drawn from the ranks of the lower classes, how were they recognized as having musical talent?  And how did they come to be trained in music?

In Elizabethan England, opportunities for a member of the working class to advance his station through education were quite limited.  It is no secret that England was and is a class-conscious society, where it wasn’t until circa 1914 that the Free Place Regulations mandated secondary schools be accessible to working class students. Even by 1912, only four or five working-class children out of 1000 were granted scholarships to secondary schools (Jonathan RoseThe Edwardian Temperament 1885 -1919, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, p. 178).

The several handwritten lute manuscripts that survive from the late 16th and early 17th centuries indicate the importance of an education in music among the gentry.  According to John Ward (Music for Elizabethan Lutes, Clarendon Press, 1992, p. 66):

“Young men took up the lute because it was the thing to do.  Wyatt’s verses tell us this; so does the hero’s use of the instrument in Gascoigne’s ‘pleasant Fable of F. J.’.  Castiglione set the tone when he had Lord Julian (that is, Giuliano de Medicis) grant ‘that musicke is not only an ornament, but also necessarie for a Courtier’.”

Discussing the background and education of Queen Elizabeth’s famous ‘hot-licks’ lutenist, John Johnson, Ward speculates as to his early training (ibid.):

“…He must have served a seven-year apprenticeship in one of the great houses, perhaps that of the Earl of Leicester.  Here the young boy would have been instructed in music, no doubt by a lutenist in his master’s service; this was the way professional instrumentalists were trained in sixteenth-century England”

But to back up this informed speculation (in his customarily thorough footnotes), Ward refers to examples of documented apprenticeships of a later generation, such as that of Robert Johnson, of Daniel Bacheler, and Robert Dowland.  Surely, apprenticeships were not uncommon to the previous generation, even without clear documentary evidence, and were most likely an effective means for a musician with ability to advance his station.  But how was the young child initially recognized as possessing a musical ability worth developing?  And through what connection was our child prodigy introduced to denizens of the ‘great house’?

By way of a possible answer to these rather metaphysical questions, we turn to examine the primary historical employer of musicians throughout the 16th century as well as earlier and later.  The Church.

Probably the best source of information is the article by David G. T. Harris, “Musical Education in Tudor Times (1485-1603)”, Proceedings of the Musical Association, 65th Sess. (1938 – 1939), pp. 109-139.  We quote freely from this article, which provides a rather exhaustive identification of sources indicating typical modes of musical education for commoners before and after the Reformation.

[Prior to the Reformation] “Education was generally free, so boys of the poorer classes had an opportunity of specialised training in music. Though possessed of musical knowledge, monks and nuns generally remained true to their vows of seclusion from the world and delegated the instruction of music and other subjects to outsiders. In 1536 and 1539, Acts of Parliament suppressed religious houses with the result that music schools of the cloisters disappeared.”

“The Reformation brought many changes in the organisation of Cathedral Song Schools. By 1539 the Monasteries had disappeared. Six bishoprics of Chester, Peterborough, Gloucester, Oxford, Bristol and Westminster were set up, and other cathedrals received revised statutes. Henry VIII established free schools for the liberal instruction of youth in Grammar, and other subjects supervised by a Grammar Master. The Song School became an institution for training Choristers. As little provision was made in the Grammar School for the teaching of music, apparently only Singing Boys received sound musical education.” (p. 118)

“As has already been pointed out, those Song Schools which remained after Edward VI’s Chantry Act (1547), had become training schools for Choristers. Grammar Schools had to make fresh provisions for teaching music…”

“Two principles seem to have actuated the teaching of music in the Grammar Schools; to help diction for the reading of Latin and Greek texts, and to train pupils to sing the musical sections of the Church Services. Apparently music was not taught with a view to fit the pupil with a necessary social accomplishment.” (p. 121)

“The duties of the Song Master are set out in one of the Ashmolean MSS., which contains a deed dated 1st October, 1585, specifying the duties of Nathaniel Gyles. He was required to “procure meet and apt choristers…and that he shall instruct them in singing, pricksong, and descant and bring up such as be apt to the instrument ” as his chief duty.” (p. 123)

In our next post, we will offer more specific information about instrumental training for children within the choir schools.

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