Catches and Glees

With the Court in exile, church music silenced, and theatres closed, the social organization of music during the Commonwealth was completely disoriented. Many of the King's musicians turned to teaching while others availed themselves of offers of patronage. Enterprising musicians organized music meetings. Anthony Wood has left us an account of those which flourished at Oxford, especially the ones at the house of William Ellis, which Wood attended and at which John Wilson presided. In effect, meetings such as these were informal concerts, and the profits from Ellis's meeting were enough to keep him and his wife in a comfortable condition. Another Oxford musician, Edmund Chilmead , dispossessed of his pettycanonry at Christ Church, moved to London and set up a music meeting at the Black Horse in Aldersgate, prior to his death in 1651. Somewhat later we read of 'the musick house at the Miter, near the West end of St. Paul's Church' where the most famous catch club of the day met. It was for this meeting, later at Old Jewry, that Playford published his Musical Companion (1667).

The shift, then, in social orientation was towards the middle class. Professional men, merchants and shopkeepers paid the piper and called the tune. It would be rash to generalize about their taste, but Playford seems to have sized it up thoroughly. He and his son Henry dominated the publishing scene in the second half of the century. It is fair to say that he was inspired by something more than pecuniary gain. He was an enthusiast, a musical amateur who composed a little, and represented in himself the public for which he catered. Not only did he satisfy the needs of amateur and professional musicians by supplying instrumental and vocal music in print, but he took steps to expand the market by issuing instruction books for the lyra viol, cittern, etc., and many editions of his Introduction to the Skill of Music (from 1654) so that musical literacy might increase.

His most important song collection was the Select Ayres and Dialogues series, started in 1652 with further volumes in 1653, 1659 and 1669. (The first two issues were titled Select Musicall Ayres etc .) All were folio volumes in three sections; the first containing songs printed on two staves 'for one and two Voyces, to sing to the Theorbo, Lute, or Basse Violl' (there was no tablature); the second, pastoral dialogues for two voices and continuo; the third, three-part ayres or glees. The collection grew by addition, and once a song had been included it tended to remain there. The 1652 edition included 67 by Wilson , Coleman , Henry Lawes and William Webb (mentioned on the title page) as well as by William Caesar (alias Smegergill) , Johnson , Lanier , William Lawes , Robert Smith and John Taylor. The next edition contained 80 songs and added Thomas Brewer , Edward Coleman , Jeremy Savile and others to the list of composers. Subsequently, Lady Dering (wife of Sir Edward Dering and a pupil of Henry Lawes), John Goodgroome, Simon Ives , John Jenkins and Playford himself were included (125 songs in 1659), and Thomas Blagrave , William Gregory, Roger Hill, John Hilton and Alfonso Marsh (124 songs in 1669). Of these, songs by Henry Lawes outnumbered all the rest.

Playford was certainly well placed to secure authentic versions, especially from composers still living and, in particular, fellow Londoners. And although Henry Lawes complained that Playford was less likely to print his songs correctly than he himself, he did not actually accuse him of inaccuracy. Experience shows that Playford is less reliable when it comes to the songs of Lanier, Wilson and William Lawes, and that even when a song was set-up again for a new edition only rarely were mistakes in the old edition corrected. Furthermore, his lists of corrigenda are far from complete.

Except for the dialogues, nearly all the ayres. in the first two editions are strophic and non-declamatory, with a large proportion in three time. This suggests that Playford thought he could sell more copies with ear-tickling ayres than with the other kind. It is obvious that the collection did not represent a cross-section of the songs then in existence, for triple-time ayres are in a minority in most manuscripts. But later editions make a broader selection, and by 1669 the proportion of one sort to another seems to correspond with that typical of the majority of manuscripts. Rather than reflecting a compositional trend, the apparent increase in declamatory ayres may be seen as rectifying the imbalance caused by the predominance of the more tuneful type of song in the first two books. The series is, after all, basically retrospective, and may be taken as indicating the taste of the period 1630-60, rather than plotting a stylistic development between 1652 and 1669. This being so, it is worth noting the extent to which more or less declamatory songs dominate the repertory; indeed, tuneful triple-time ayres do not amount to more than a third--a startling contrast with what was to be the Restoration taste.

In 1651 John Benson and John Playford published as the third part of the Musicall Banquet the first catch book since the days of Ravenscroft 's Pammelia (1609), Deuteromelia (1609) and Melismata (1611). The following year a new series entitled Catch that Catch Can began under the editorship of John Hilton , and underwent a further five or six enlarged editions and a change of title during the next 20 years. It was not until metamorphosed into The Musical Companion in 1667 that glees were admitted to the collection. These short tuneful partsongs represent another level of musical taste which Playford catered for in the third section of his Select Ayres and Dialogues series; Lawes, too, in his own Ayres and Dialogues. The entire contents of Wilson 's Cheerfull Ayres or Ballads (1660) were published in the same form.

Playford and Lawes stipulate that their part-songs 'may either be sung by a Voyce alone, to an Instrument, or by two or three Voyces', but instead of providing separate partbooks they printed the treble and thorough bass together on two staves at the top of the page, and below, separate parts for secundus and bassus (the former printed upside down so that it could be read from the opposite direction). The idea was obviously derived from the lutesong publications of the earlier part of the century, though now a single page sufficed, songs rarely spreading over a double opening. Composers of these 'Short Ayres or Balads' include the Lawes brothers, Lanier , Wilson , Webb and Ives .

It is necessary to look at the literature of catches and glees rather more closely. Playford's terminology of song types is very free and though he defines a catch as 'a Song for three Voyces, wherein the several Parts are included in one; or, as it is usually tearmed, Three Parts in One', yet some pieces which he calls catches are merely part-songs-- Henry Lawes ' 'Man's life is but vain' (famous through The Compleat Angler) is called 'The Angler's Catch' in The Musical Companion (1667) though there is nothing canonic about it. Nor does he distinguish between the terms Round, Canon and Catch though canons often involve imitation at intervals other than unison, and the voices tend to enter closer together than in rounds and catches. If anything, their meanings are differentiated more by their character. Christopher Simpson points out that catches and rounds are 'of less dignity' than canons. He goes on to explain how simple it is to write one:

if you compose any short strain, of three or four Parts, setting them all within the ordinary compass of a Voyce; and then place one Part at the end of another, in what order you please, so as they may aptly make one continued Tune; you have finished a Catch ....

If anything then, a catch tended to be humorous or bawdy, a canon moral and sober, while a round might have a folk or traditional origin. This, at least, is the implication of general usage. The catch often had a non-musical point, either punning, programmatic or otherwise descriptive, while the round and canon were of musical interest only.

Similarly, there seems to be no technical distinction implicit in the terms glee, ballad and ayre, all of which are applied to freely composed partsongs in from two to four voices. But again one detects a difference in character. Most glees (so called) are light-hearted and 'gleeful', ayres are usually more serious and ballads have a traditional 'folk' flavour.

As noted above, the spate of catch books began in 1651 with A Musicall Banquet, and continued through several editions of Hilton's Catch that Catch Can. Almost every songwriter of the time is represented in these collections (not Lanier or Charles Coleman , however), but the most prolific catch writers were Hilton and William Lawes , while certain otherwise negligible composers such as Cranford, Ellis, Holmes, and Nelham seem also to have been popular. The 1658 edition of Catch that Catch Can (also the 1663, which was virtually a reprint) even drew on a few old favorites from Pammelia and Deuteromelia. Some are ascribed to a Mr. White author of such famous rounds as 'Great Tom is cast' and 'My dame hath a lame tame crane' -- others are anonymous, including 'Three blind mice'. A new series of Catch that Catch Can was started in 1685, changed its name to The Pleasant Musical Companion a year later, and continued to be printed over and over again into the eighteenth century.

Catches were written on all subjects; religious, serious, humorous, bibulous, amorous or scurrilous. Conviviality is the prevailing mood and drinking catches outnumber all the others. As an example of the learned type of canon John Cobb 's setting of 'O pray for the peace of Jerusalem' may be quoted. Described as 'A Canon in the 5. above, & 4. below. a Sembreeffe after one another', it is quite a neat piece of counterpoint for all its brevity and reliance on sequences.

Most catches are for three voices, and the title page of Catch that Catch Can shows three men sitting round a table with a book open upon it. Unlike most of the rounds which have remained popular to this day, catches were usually composed of long lines and the resulting texture when all the voices were participating was quite elaborate-not merely a simple succession of chords. As has been observed already, there was usually some 'point' to a catch over and above the canonic element. In Hilton 's 'Oyez, if there be any man can tell' the point is the imitation of the town crier. There is no hidden meaning in the words, merely a drunken clamor. Sometimes personal references occur, and it is tempting to identify these with known catch-men. It is quite probable that the Simon mentioned in Hilton's 'Let Simon's beard alone' and William Howes' 'Good Simon how comes it your nose looks so red' is Simon Ives , while frequent mention of Harry in other catches may refer to Henry Lawes . We may wonder, too, whether Hilton's 'We three Wills' alludes to William Lawes , William Ellis and William Cranford --three inveterate catchers--and the Jack to John Wilson , the George to George Holmes (or Jeffreys), all of them in Oxford during the civil war. This particular catch, though not dependent on punning, does not get its full. message across until all voices are singing. Then the second and third combine to give the following:

Will boy, fill boy, swill boy, till boy, The ground turns round like a mill boy--good boy!

The double entendre was the favored device in the bawdy catch. The aim was for two or more lines to come together during the course of the song so that, by means of judiciously placed rests in one or other parts, indelicate or obscene phrases otherwise unsuspected would emerge. William Cranford's 'Here dwells a pretty maid' provides an example, and again it depends on the conjunction of the second and third lines. Cranford had quite a talent for this sort of thing, though this was the Hyde-side of him, apparently. He appears as Jekyll in old Lord North's description:

Mr. Cranford, whom I knew, a sober, plain-looking Man: his pieces mixed with Majesty, Gravity, Honey-dew Spirit and Variety.

Glees were the lineal descendants of the three- and four-part ayres of Campion , Jones and other Elizabethan songwriters. Most were adaptations of solo songs, the actual process of adaptation rarely being a sophisticated one. The top part usually remained undisturbed, unless to permit some slight independence of movement in the other parts, in which case rests might be introduced or notes lengthened. Sometimes the style was simplified in order to bring it into line with the cantus secundus.

Evidently this kind of duet (or trio) takes itself a good deal more seriously than the glee, and its appeal must have been limited. It did not have many practitioners immediately after the Restoration, though some of Henry Bowman's Songs (1677) are of this type. But the technique continued in the duos and trios of verse anthems and court odes, and towards the end of the century the form was revived by Purcell and Blow to what good effect may be judged by instancing Purcell's 'Elegy on the Death of Queen Mary' ('O dives custos').

As a compendium of the popular partsong repertory during the Commonwealth and early Restoration period, the 'loose Papers' thrown before the Old Jewry Music Club (and the store from which the second part of The Musical Companion was culled) are extremely interesting. They comprise four partbooks (primus, secundus, bassus and continuo) containing in all 100 surviving items. The most frequently represented composers are Henry Lawes (13), Playford (11) and Wilson (8), with Isaac Blackwell , Thomas Brewer , William Caesar , Edward Coleman , Richard Dering, John Goodgroome, George Holmes, Simon Ives , John Jenkins , Nicholas Lanier , William Lawes , Matthew Locke , Thomas Pierce, Ben Rogers, Jeremy Savile, Thomas Tempest and William Webb each with two or more items. (Playford's disproportionate representation is explained by the fact that he was a member of the club and the compiler of the manuscript; other members included Savile and Tempest.)

Some of the pieces are described as Hymns-- Blackwell 's 'Laudate Dominum', Brewer's 'Gloria tribuatur Deo', and Locke 's 'Behold how good a thing' and 'Praise our Lord'. Others, such as Morley 's 'Now is the month of maying' and Campion 's 'If love loves truth' go right back to the early part of the century.

Dering's partsongs are also characteristic of an earlier period, and are, in fact, versions of Italian canzonette which he published in Antwerp in 1620. Some of the songs are royalist in sentiment while others cover all moods and tastes from the debauched to the exquisite.

VIIA: Purcell and his Contemporaries  |  IVM: England through 1635