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Saturday morning quotes 3.39: Sources

February 8, 2014

This installment in our regular series of Saturday morning quotes follows a short but winding trail that offers an interesting viewpoint on the evolution and use of English lute songs.  Inspired by a comment to last week’s post, we riff a little more on the theme of the firmly established practice of adapting polyphonic music for solo voice and lute.

A brief comment made by one of our favorite contemporary composers offered a suggestion to investigate the Autobiography of Thomas Whythorne (1528 – 1596), a little-known English musician and composer.  Whythorne made his way serving as a music tutor in upper class households during a time when Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528) was not only current, but made locally relevant through the English translation, The courtyer of Count Baldessar Castilio diuided into foure bookes. Very necessary and profitable for yonge gentilmen and gentilwomen abiding in court, palaice or place, done into English by Thomas Hoby., Imprinted at London : By wyllyam Seres at the signe of the Hedghogge, 1561.

Hoby’s descriptions of the qualities of an ideal courtier “done into English” are even more charming than the available modern renderings of Castiglione’s original.

For I shall enter into a large sea of the praise of Musicke, and call to rehearsal howe much it hath alwayes bene renowmed emong them of olde time, and counted a holy matter: and how it hath bene the opinion of most wise Philosophers that the world is made of musick, and the heavens in their moving make a melody, and our soule framed after the very same sort, and therfore lifteth up it self and (as it were) reviveth the vertues and force of it with musick: wherfore it is written that Alexander was sometime so ferventely styrred with it, that (in a maner) against his wyll he was forced to arise from bankettes and runne to weapon, afterward the mustien chaunging the stroke and his maner of tume, pacified himself againe and retourned from weapon to banketting.

And I shall tell you that grave Socrates when he was well stricken in yeares learned to playe uppon the harpe. And I remember I have understoode that Plato and Aristotle will have a man that is well brought up, to be also a musitien: and declare with infinite reasons the force of musicke to be to very great purpose in us, and for many causes (that should be to long to rehearse) ought necessarilye to be learned from a mans childhoode, not onely for the superficial melodie that is hard, but to be sufficient to bring into us a newe habite that is good, and a custome enclyning to vertue, whiche maketh the minde more apt to the conceiving of felicitie, even as bodely exercise maketh the bodie more lustie, and not onely hurteth not civyl matters and warrelyke affaires, but is a great staie to them.

Whythorne’s Autobiography survives as a handwritten manuscript, now found as Bodleian Ms. Eng. misc.c.330, and a modern edition can be found in J. Osborn (ed.), The autobiography of Thomas Whythorne (Oxford, 1961).  Employing his own unique version of the English language, Whythorne’s wry descriptions of the variety of teacher-pupil interactions is of even more interest than references to actual music.  Nevertheless, Whythorne also published one of the earliest books of English part music, Songes for three, fower and fiue voyces (1571).

Not to overlook excellent secondary sources, a worthwhile description of Whythorne and other 16th century English music tutors can be found in an article by Katie Nelson, “Love in the music room: Thomas Whythorne and the private affairs of Tudor music tutors,” Early Music, Vol. 40, No. 1, February 2012, p. 15.

For even better contextual information on Whythorne, we quote from the standard reference:

“Consort songs provide a link with the first of the Elizabethan printed songbooks, Thomas Whythorne’s Songes, for three, fower and fiue voyces (1571).  One of Whythorne’s songs is clearly a consort song (“By new broom”), and others, though all the parts have words, were no doubt performed as consort songs.  We learn from Whythorne’s Autobiography that he wrote his own song texts, and that he was in his youth a servant of John Heywood, the poet and musician, for whom he copied poems and psalms by Wyatt, Surrey and Sternhold (p. 14). Whythorne’s  own poems show these influences clearly: they are very plain, didactic, and often proverbial in the maner of Heywood. His autobiography is ostensibly given as a context for his poems, and its original title, significantly echoing Tottel, is A book of songs and sonetts.”

Lyrics from English Airs, 1596-1622. Edited and Introduction by Edward Doughtie. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

It is a pleasure to acknowledge this work and state yet again that it is and will remain the best source of information concerning the lute ayres of Dowland, his antecedents and his contemporaries. The forty-one pages of introductory material at the front of Doughtie’s book is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand and perform English lute ayres.  That’s all.

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  1. Such comfort in participating in the Musike of the Heavens. To this end, note that Doughtie’s Lyrics from English Airs is available used on Susan of

    • Of course, we always try to steer interested seekers to the primary source for a work that is still being published. Besides, Amazon is evil. In case I did not state that in clear terms, AMAZON IS EVIL.

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