Music of the English Renaissance

Music from England’s Golden Age: sublime sacred music soaring above intrigues of church and state, and intimate lute songs full of love and longing.


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In 1597, John Dowland published his First Booke of Songes or Ayres, which included the lute songs ‘Come Again: Sweet Love Doth Now Invite’ and ‘Can She Excuse My Wrongs?’ Meanwhile:

  • Playhouses flourish in Elizabethan England: William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor is first performed, and other playwrights including Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson are regularly producing new work for London’s theatres.
  • In Japan, as the government seeks to lessen the power of Spanish missionaries, 26 Catholics are crucified in Nagasaki. The martyrs will be canonised in 1862, and become widely celebrated and revered with the Japanese church.
  • The Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe — the foremost astronomer of his day — completes his diagram showing the place of 1000 stars, shortly before fleeing his homeland.
  • Jacopo Peri’s La favola di Dafne (The Tale of Dafne), the first opera, premieres in Florence. ‘I was stunned at this marvel’, states Pietro BArdi, a Florentine count.

Fast Facts

  • The Renaissance period in England began in the late 15th century and lasted until the early 1600s. It takes in the Tudor period, including the ‘golden age’ of Queen Elizabeth I, and the Jacobean period, under King James I.
  • For church musicians, it was a turbulent time as successive monarchs imposed different religious regimes, and the newly created Church of England defied the traditions of the Roman Catholic church. Each had its own ideals of what music for worship should sound like: the Church of England favoured simplicity, insisted on English-language texts and demanded that the words be clearly intelligible, which was usually achieved by having all the parts sing the same text in the same rhythm (‘homophony’). The Roman Catholic liturgy was conducted in Latin, and its music, like its rituals and ceremonies, was more complex, with multiple independent melodic lines interweaving to form a constantly changing musical tapestry (‘polyphony’ or ‘counterpoint’). Music for the Catholic church often drew on the ancient melodies of Gregorian chant, the traditional song of the medieval Christian church, stretching them out into very long notes which then became the foundation of the counterpoint.
  • For sacred music, the names most familiar to us today are Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, but there were many other fine composers who were internationally famous in their day but are largely forgotten now, including John Taverner, John Sheppard, Robert White and Peter Philips.
  • One of the most popular forms of English Renaissance secular music was the lute song: a piece for single voice accompanied by the lute (a plucked-string instrument descended from the Arabic oud, with at least six pairs of strings, and a body shaped like a half-pear, with a flat top and a curved back). Most lute songs are about love, which in the poetry of Elizabethan England tended to be a rather melancholy affair, with disdainful ladies refusing to acknowledge the ardent advances of hopeful suitors. The greatest composer of lute songs was John Dowland, who was famous for his exquisitely sad music.



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