English Music in Sixteenth Century

  September 20, 2021   Read time 2 min
English Music in Sixteenth Century
English music in the 16th century stands by itself, and has not always been justly appreciated. Its isolation was due primarily to geographical reasons, but also to England's peculiar relations to the Papacy.

The neglect of the subject has resulted from the difficulty of getting at the documents, which are now better known. The more the story is studied, the more interesting and even astonishing it becomes.The very early and efficient share of England in the" origin of counterpoint has already been noted (sec. 45). In the second half of the 15th century English music suffered a check, perhaps because of the unsettled conditions during the \Vars of the Roses (1455-85). But even then some interest was indicated by the maintenance of the Chapel Royal (flourishing from at least 1465), by the conferring of musical degrees at both Oxford and Cambridge (from 1463), by the number of monastic and cathedral choirs and organs, by the chartering of a monopolistic Minstrels' Guild (1469), and by popular interest in singing of all kinds.

The Tudors were all music-lovers, and dud ng the reigns from Henry VII. (1485-15°9) onward the Chapel Royal remained the chief rallyingpoint for musicians, a model and incentive to cathedral and private establishrnents, and an object of astonished admiration from foreign visitors. As the century went on, English players were more and more drafted into service on the Continent, even when the existence of good English compositions was but slightly known.

Whether or not at the opening of the 15th century true counterpoint was first invented by Englishmen and by them handed over to the industrious Netherlanders may be a question. But in the 16th century England deserves credit for much progress peculiarly her own. She seems to have led the way in writing for keyboard instruments. Her development of counterpoint early in the century was distinct from that of the later Netherlanders or their disciples, and quite as remarkable. In the remodeling of styles under the influence of Protestantism she made an original combination of polyphony with the new materials of Protestant liturgies. The English cultivation of the madrigal and its relatives was also strikingly original.

The pre-Reformation period ended under Henry VIII. (1509-47) with . his impulsive break with Rome about 1535 and the suppression of the monasteries and religious houses in 1536-4°. An outbreak of iconoclastic zeal against the old order followed, which wrought havoc in choir-libraries and 'organs and which condemned all 'elaborate service music. Then came, especially under Edward VI. (1547-53), the first steps in the full organization of the Anglican Church, with the drafting of new liturgies in English. Under Mary (1553-8) the old usages were somewhat revived. During the long reign of Elizabeth (1558-16°3) sacred music again became notable in connection with the new Prayer Book, leading to contrapuntal achievements of remarkable power. The encouragement then given brought out a long line of talented madrigalists which continued into the troubled time of the first Stuarts.