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  • Research and text by Chris Whent at HOASM (Here on a Sunday Morning - WBAI 99.5 FM New York)
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IV. The High Renaissance (16th Century)

IVm. England Through 1635.

English music flourished under Henry VIII, owing in no small measure to his interest in it, and also under Edward VI and Mary, to reach, at the end of Elizabeth's reign, a level rarely approached thereafter. As the English grew in riches and power and acquired an increasing knowledge of the art products of the continent through the importation of foreign talent and through travel, they abandoned their temporary insularity in cultural matters and eagerly assimilated, though at a late date, the ideas and ideals of the Italian Renaissance. Tudor church music was remarkable, but it is the secular forms of English music--the madrigal, lute ayre, virginal music, and fancies for viols--that embody most richly the spirit and power of the English Renaissance. The same accumulation of intellectual and artistic force that produced Sidney, Shakespeare, Bacon, Donne, and Inigo Jones also produced Morley , Weelkes , Dowland , and Orlando Gibbons .


The end of the golden age in English music coincided with the end of the reign of James I. Byrd and Weelkes died in 1623, Orlando Gibbons in 1625 and John Bull , living abroad, in 1628. It is true that Wilbye lived on into the late 1630s, but he had already abandoned music.


Only Thomas Tomkins continued to maintain the great traditions. Born in 1572, and thus the senior of Weelkes, Wilbye and Orlando Gibbons (all of whom predeceased him), he composed some of the greatest masterpieces in the tradition of English polyphonic church music, and also many fine examples of the verse anthem. He was organist at Worcester Cathedral for some fifty years until, in 1646, Puritan legislation against church music forced him to retire as a practising musician. He continued to compose, but mostly keyboard and instrumental pieces. His great stature as a composer is revealed in his church anthems and services, published by his son in the collection Musica deo sacra in 1668. These, which are in from four to ten parts, show Tomkins to have been a master of great originality and power, capable of mas sive choral effects and tense chromatic climaxes. His justly famous and moving madrigal, 'When David heard that Absalom was slain', is one of the most poignant laments in all vocal music.


If Tomkins was the only major composer active in England during the reigns of James I and Charles I, there was at least a number of talented men who made some contribution to the musical life of the country during these years.


Henry Lawes wrote the music to Milton's masque Comus (1634), and also composed many fine songs. His brother William devoted himself largely to instrumental music, which included a number of bold examples of the traditional English art of the viol fantasy. Compositions for voices and instruments combined, in the manner of the late madrigals of Monteverdi , became increasingly popular thanks to composers such as Martin Peerson and Walter Porter , who may even have studied under this Italian master, John Jenkins , court composer to both Charles I and Charles II, also wrote viol fantasies, although his Twelve sonatas for two viols and a base (1660) follow Italian models. William Child , who also served both these kings, wrote much church music as well as catches and ayres and a number of compositions for instruments.


However, the main event in the history of music of this period was the growth of a body of music for the theatre which prepared the ground for the brief appearance of English opera. The first half of the 16th century was the great period for the masque, in which courtiers and their ladies, and even the king and queen themselves, took part; it was almost the exact equivalent of the French court ballet. Combining poetry, drama, scenic architecture, decor, music and dancing, its sumptuous spectacles enjoyed great success from the close of the 16th century. The architect Inigo Jones, creator of mobile scenic effects, was the master of decor; Ben Jonson was the chief poet. Music played a subsidiary role and often one or two ayres for the lute are all that remain to us. Often the music was provided by several composers, the most important being Nicholas Lanier , also a fine painter, and the two Lawes brothers. Lovers made men (1617) by Inigo Jones, Ben Jonson and Lanier, had a particularly great success. The music is now lost, but it appears that in this work Lanier consciously adopted the style of the Italian recitative.


Subdivisions of English music with Composer┤s bibliography and music

IVm1. Guide to English Keyboard Music through 1635
IVm2. Guide to the English Madrigal
IVm3. Guide to English Consort Music through 1635
IVm4. Guide to English Song in the Elizabethan and Stuart Ages
IVm5. Guide to the English Lutenists
IVm6. Latin Church Music 1460-1575
IVm6. English church music
IVm6. Additional Popular Music
IVm7. English Church Music
IVm8. Additional music among the people "Popular"



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