English Music in the Elizabethan Age

Elizabethan age English music

England’s earliest musicians were most likely Druids, pre-Celtic “wise men” or sorcerers of Britain, mentioned by Caesar. The priestly order of the Druids practiced magic and, according to historians of the day, savage human sacrifice.

Meeting in groves of trees, it is suggested that the Druidic priesthood and religious practices are mentioned in the Bible in reference to pagan rituals. Among the Druids were priests, magicians, doctors, teachers, poets and bards. Sacred hymns were never written down, but were only taught in secret meetings. The Druids were overthrown by Roman Catholics, but the poets and bards converted to Christianity and were absorbed into the Church.

The Elizabethan Age Welcomes Thomas Tallis, Shakespeare’s Plays and New Instruments

Gregorian chant was introduced in Britain in 597. With it, came the seeds of medieval counterpoint. Saxon folk music influenced medieval musical thought as well, but by Elizabethan England during the late 1500’s, the reigning musical influence came from France.

Elizabethan music was heard in churches on Sundays, in the streets, in the courts, and in theaters. Anthems, madrigals, and operas were popular musical forms of the day. Famous English composers of the Elizabethan age were William Byrd, John Dowland and Thomas Tallis. William Shakespeare’s plays are full of songs and references to music. Theater musicians played either on stage, above the stage, or even under the stage.

Several musical instruments were invented during this time. The hautboy, an early version of the oboe, depicted the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. An early violin, called a viol, was introduced, as was keyboard instruments such as the spinet and harpsichord. These instruments defined the Elizabethan Renaissance as much as the compositions did. The upper and middle classes in England hired servants to play as house musicians, calling on them to read any piece of music on sight.

The Elizabethan Renaissance Sparked Community Bands and Anglican Hymns

Street performers played at weekly markets and seasonal festivals during the Elizabethan age, just as they do today. Violins, recorders, lutes and small drums were favored Renaissance ensemble instruments. Eventually, such groups were hired by the towns themselves to play at civic events. These free civic concerts were the roots of modern community orchestras and bands.

The Protestant Reformation brought an abrupt end to the frivolity contained in English folk music. During the days of Cromwell, the Puritans sang solemn psalms almost exclusively. Despite this sobriety among the faithful, drinking songs and other folk tunes were borrowed from the Irish and Scottish, and folk ballads were composed to herald historic events. Even so, Anglican church music is beautiful, with rich musical settings for liturgical text and hymns.

Listening to “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” and Music of the Elizabethan Renaissance

Music appreciation students may enjoy hearing an Elizabethan Renaissance version of a young man asking for a kiss in Thomas Morley’s madrigal, “Phillis, I Fain Would Die Now.” A classic English hunting and drinking folk song is “D’ye Ken John Peel.”

Both the vocal and British military march versions are excellent. To develop an ear for both the sound of viols and the church music of Elizabethan England, listen to William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus” for Viol Consort. “If Love Now Reynyd” is attributed to King Henry VIII, himself an accomplished lutist and composer. Orlando Gibbons wrote a stunning church anthem for eight voices called “O Clap Your Hands.” It fully represents Tudor-style music in the English Cathedral Choir. One cannot mention English music without suggesting Ralph Vaughn William’s soul-gripping “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.”