The relative position of English music during the Golden Age

During the Golden Age of Elizabeth and the Stuart kings, it was not only England's dramatists and poets that excelled, but also her musicians. They too were part of the artistic ferment

In comparing English music with that of the Continent during the latter part of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, two things stand out: the fondness for independent and therefore essential instrumental accompaniment, and the greater versatility of most of her leading composers. The former is clearly shown in the secular and sacred chamber songs for voice and viols (particularly Byrd's), the verse Services and anthems, and the ayres. The first of these types was practically non-existent abroad, and the second, with its combination of vocal solos, chorus, and instruments, was only used by a few foreign musicians, such as Giovanni Gabrieli. Gabrieli, however, with his predominantly chordal style, was primarily interested in the dramatic color contrasts that could be obtained by combining voices and instruments, and hence preferred the louder and more brilliant cornetts and trombones to the softer, even-toned viols favored by English composers, whose polyphonic, imitative style was best served by such instruments. As for the ayres, they too were more prominent in England than anywhere else, not only because the ayre is almost without exception an original composition, whereas most of the lute songs abroad are transcriptions, but also because it occupied a larger place in the total output of English music than did the lute song in any other country.

That the majority of leading English composers of the period were more versatile than their Continental brethren is apparent in the fact that they not only contributed to most of the various vocal types and styles which were common all over Europe, e.g. Mass, motet, madrigal, ballett, lute song, but also to those that were the result of the Reformation, for example the Service (great, short, and verse), the anthem (full and verse), and the hymn-like settings of psalm-tunes; moreover the Service and anthem were unique to England, as was the solo song with string ensemble accompaniment. Admittedly the full anthem can be likened to the motet, and the great and short Services to the normal Mass and Missa Brevis respectively, but Catholic composers elsewhere were not faced with the problem of switching from Latin to another language, let alone one so markedly different as English.

English versatility is also shown in the fact that instrumental music occupied a far more prominent position in England than in any other country. This is not surprising when we consider the part played by instruments in vocal music, and it underlines an attitude that seems to have persisted longer in England than elsewhere, and provides, in addition to inborn English conservatism, an explanation not only of the continued use in most compositions written in Latin, c. 1475-c. 1575, of a style long abandoned abroad, which with its long, flowing melismas and 'abstract' quality virtually treats voices as instruments, but also of the fondness for instrumental accompaniment itself, and indeed of the comparative lack of realism in the English madrigal, for it is the abstract quality of instrumental music that is one of the main distinctions between it and vocal music in that the use of words, quite apart from their treatment (e.g. word-painting), inevitably introduces an element of realism.

The most versatile of the leading English composers were Tallis, Byrd, Morley, Weelkes, Gibbons, and Tomkins, all of whom wrote successfully and often with distinction a great variety of both vocal and instrumental pieces. Of these six composers Byrd is the most outstanding in the range and quality of his work, for he not only excelled in the Mass and motet, great, short, and verse service, full and verse anthem, and accompanied song, but also in music for keyboard and for viols. Tallis is less versatile, but he made notable contributions to the Mass, motet, great and short service, full anthem, and the keyboard repertoire. The other four are well represented in the above types and styles, excluding the accompanied song, except that Morley and Weelkes wrote no Masses, and Gibbons and Tomkins no motets either, but they were, unlike Byrd, fine madrigalists. The achievements of these men over such a wide field was not matched by any Continental musician, except possibly Giovanni Gabrieli; indeed, if greatness is measured by versatility allied to excellence, then Byrd was the greatest composer of his time or before it.

Useful LinkSixteenth Century English Ballads

The Research Periods   |   IV M: England Through 1635