Music in Elizabethan Era

Music in Elizabethan Era

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Music in the Elizabethan Era
Elizabethan era
The Elizabethan era was the epoch in English history of Queen Elizabeth I's reign . Historians often depict it as the golden age in English history...

, or Elizabethan Music, refers to music during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the I (1533–1603), oft titled The Golden Age of English History. It was a period in which English music was developed to a level that commanded respect from the rest of Western Civilization. After Elizabeth I's death, English music maintained its level of accomplishment for a short while, and fell off (largely after the Revolution) with the change of styles leading to the 'early baroque' period.


Music was highly regarded in the period of the Tudor Dynasty
Tudor dynasty
The Tudor dynasty or House of Tudor was a European royal house of Welsh origin that ruled the Kingdom of England and its realms, including the Lordship of Ireland, later the Kingdom of Ireland, from 1485 until 1603. Its first monarch was Henry Tudor, a descendant through his mother of a legitimised...

 of England, so much so that, by the end of the 16th century, one was not considered to be a gentleman unless he was able to read music and sing tolerably. An anonymous man in 1597 said, “a guest to refrain from singing was considered very rude (From Gail B. Stuart’s Life in Elizabethan London).” Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII
Henry VIII of England
Henry VIII was King of England from 21 April 1509 until his death. He was Lord, and later King, of Ireland, as well as continuing the nominal claim by the English monarchs to the Kingdom of France...

, was a musician, among his other talents, and by Elizabeth's time, music had become an established facet of court life.

During the era, most noblemen employed their own musicians and took lessons from them in playing the Lute and music literacy. Those in the rising middle classes employed music teachers. Music, which had been printed since the middle of the 16th century was becoming available at booksellers' shops at a reasonable price; such books included theory books, collections of music for voice and instruments or instruments alone, and instructional books, primarily for the lute.

The lute was the most popular of the early instruments. It had a long neck and strings of twisted sheepgut. It made a sweet melody that was appealing to the ears of many.

Elizabethan Music was known for its steady rhythm
Rhythm may be generally defined as a "movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions." This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time may be applied to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or...

 and its polyphony
In music, polyphony is a texture consisting of two or more independent melodic voices, as opposed to music with just one voice or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords ....

, which is a main theme that is established then played in more complex ways. Songs sung included a four to five part harmony with multiple melodies weaving throughout one another, similar to baroque
The Baroque is a period and the style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music...

 music. It was also known for its reflection of moods and emotion.
As musicianship during the 16th century was popular and widespread, it was broken down into five main categories: church music
Church music
Church music may be defined as music written for performance in church, or any musical setting of ecclestiacal liturgy, or music set to words expressing propositions of a sacred nature, such as a hymn. This article covers music in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. For sacred music outside this...

, court music, town music, street music
Street performance or busking is the practice of performing in public places, for gratuities, which are generally in the form of money and edibles...

 and theatre music.


Church was a major significance for music in the 16th century. The puritan
The Puritans were a significant grouping of English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. Puritanism in this sense was founded by some Marian exiles from the clergy shortly after the accession of Elizabeth I of England in 1558, as an activist movement within the Church of England...

s wanted to do away with all church music but the will of the people to sing only made it more predominant. Many composers that wrote for the church also wrote for the royalty. The style of the church music was known as choral polyphony. Hundreds of hymns were written for the church. Many of those are still sung today. It is “doubtless (that) your worship requires music (Pg. 121 Life in Elizabethan Days I).” At the most elegant of weddings, usually those of the nobility, the processional included musicians who played lutes, flute
The flute is a musical instrument of the woodwind family. Unlike woodwind instruments with reeds, a flute is an aerophone or reedless wind instrument that produces its sound from the flow of air across an opening...

s, and viols. It was very common of that time for commoners to have music played for them whenever they wanted as well.

Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I of England
Elizabeth I was queen regnant of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death. Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty...

 fancied music and also knew well how to play instruments. She could play the lute
Lute can refer generally to any plucked string instrument with a neck and a deep round back, or more specifically to an instrument from the family of European lutes....

 and virginals
The virginals or virginal is a keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family...

, a small form of a harpsichord. Her example made it essential for courtiers and gentlemen to understand the art of music. Queen Elizabeth encouraged composers and musicians, employing over seventy musicians and singers. Dancing was considered part of propriety by Queen Elizabeth.


Town musicians were known as Waits
Wait (musician)
Waits or Waites were British town pipers. From medieval times up to the beginning of the 19th century, every British town and city of any note had a band of Waites...

. They were the equivalent to that of a modern town’s band
Band (music)
In music, a musical ensemble or band is a group of musicians that works together to perform music. The following articles concern types of musical bands:* All-female band* Big band* Boy band* Christian band* Church band* Concert band* Cover band...

. The Waits have been in existence as far back as the medieval period. The role of the Waits were to perform at public occasions of the viewing pleasure of the town. They were to play original composed music.

Street musicians or traveling minstrel
A minstrel was a medieval European bard who performed songs whose lyrics told stories of distant places or of existing or imaginary historical events. Although minstrels created their own tales, often they would memorize and embellish the works of others. Frequently they were retained by royalty...

s were looked down upon. They were feared and soon grew out of style and were replaced by the tavern
A tavern is a place of business where people gather to drink alcoholic beverages and be served food, and in some cases, where travelers receive lodging....

 and theater musician. Street music was common to be heard at markets and fair
A fair or fayre is a gathering of people to display or trade produce or other goods, to parade or display animals and often to enjoy associated carnival or funfair entertainment. It is normally of the essence of a fair that it is temporary; some last only an afternoon while others may ten weeks. ...

s. The music was usually light and quick. They performed using fiddles, lutes, recorder
The recorder is a woodwind musical instrument of the family known as fipple flutes or internal duct flutes—whistle-like instruments which include the tin whistle. The recorder is end-blown and the mouth of the instrument is constricted by a wooden plug, known as a block or fipple...

s, and small percussion instrument
Percussion instrument
A percussion instrument is any object which produces a sound when hit with an implement or when it is shaken, rubbed, scraped, or otherwise acted upon in a way that sets the object into vibration...

s attracting crowds whenever they played. The songs they played and sang were traditional favorites, “a far cry from the sophisticated and refined music of the Elizabethan court."

Theater became increasingly popular when music was added. Location on stage meant everything to a theater musician. The location gave certain effects to the sound produced. This could the impression of distance or providing an atmosphere to the plays and performances done. Theater music became even more popular with the rise of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

 in 1556.


Many composers of the period are still known by name, today. William Byrd
William Byrd
William Byrd was an English composer of the Renaissance. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard and consort music.-Provenance:Knowledge of Byrd's biography expanded in the late 20th century, thanks largely...

 (1539–1623) was considered by most modern authorities “the greatest of all the Elizabethan composers (from Gail B. Stuart’s Life in Elizabethan London).” He was the leading composer of religious music. Many of his songs still exist today. William Byrd was the chief organist
An organist is a musician who plays any type of organ. An organist may play solo organ works, play with an ensemble or orchestra, or accompany one or more singers or instrumental soloists...

 and composer for Queen Elizabeth. Also during the 16th century were John Bull
John Bull (composer)
John Bull was an English composer, musician, and organ builder. He was a renowned keyboard performer of the virginalist school and most of his compositions were written for this medium.-Life:...

 (1562–1628), best-known organist of the Elizabethan era, and John Dowland
John Dowland
John Dowland was an English Renaissance composer, singer, and lutenist. He is best known today for his melancholy songs such as "Come, heavy sleep" , "Come again", "Flow my tears", "I saw my Lady weepe" and "In darkness let me dwell", but his instrumental music has undergone a major revival, and has...

 (1563–1626), leading composer of lute music. John Dowland published his first book of songs or Ayres in 1597. It became a bestseller.

Music was starting to be taught in schools and universities such as The English Madrigal School
English Madrigal School
The English Madrigal School was the brief but intense flowering of the musical madrigal in England, mostly from 1588 to 1627, along with the composers who produced them. The English madrigals were a cappella, predominantly light in style, and generally began as either copies or direct translations...

. A madrigal
Madrigal (music)
A madrigal is a secular vocal music composition, usually a partsong, of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Traditionally, polyphonic madrigals are unaccompanied; the number of voices varies from two to eight, and most frequently from three to six....

 was the most common form of secular vocal music. “The poetic madrigal is a lyric consisting of one to four strophes of three lines followed by a two-line strophe (” The madrigal school was brief but contributed to the intense growth of the music in England. Many famous and less famous composers emerged from the Madrigal School. The English Madrigals were a cappella, light in style, and generally began as either copies or direct translations of Italian models. Most were for three to six voices. Other composers include Robert Johnson, John Taverner
John Taverner
John Taverner was an English composer and organist, regarded as the most important English composer of his era.- Career :...

, Thomas Morley
Thomas Morley
Thomas Morley was an English composer, theorist, editor and organist of the Renaissance, and the foremost member of the English Madrigal School. He was the most famous composer of secular music in Elizabethan England and an organist at St Paul's Cathedral...

, Orlando Gibbons
Orlando Gibbons
Orlando Gibbons was an English composer, virginalist and organist of the late Tudor and early Jacobean periods...

, and John Blitheman
John Blitheman
John Blitheman was an English composer and organist. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, which includes the third of his Gloria tibi Trinitas settings, gives his forename as William...



Organology (the study of instruments) was aided greatly by the development of book printing. Michael Praetorius' encyclopedic Syntagnum Musicum has a section with woodcuts which shows instruments as they were used on the continent about 17 years after the end of the Elizabethan period, and even 20 years hadn't made great changes.

For the modern person, renaissance instruments appear odd. Most instruments came in 'families,' with sizes of the same instrument associated with the ranges of the human voice: descant (soprano), alto, tenor, bass. (In some cases, these were extended up (sopranino, garklein) and in others, down (quart bass, contrabass, etc.) This arrangement had been in use for centuries. Playing instruments from the same family together was referred to as playing in consort. During Elizabeth's reign, the first documented regular use of mixed ensembles (broken consort) are recorded.

Consorts were considered loud or soft, and the exact application of these titles is sometimes hard to pin down. Generally, loud consorts consisted of cornetti, sackbutts, shawms and the higher-pitched recorders and flutes. Soft consorts generally included the viols, flutes, recorders, krummhorns and other of the quieter instruments.

Instruments of the 16th century could be broken down into four main types: string
String instrument
A string instrument is a musical instrument that produces sound by means of vibrating strings. In the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification, used in organology, they are called chordophones...

, wind
Wind instrument
A wind instrument is a musical instrument that contains some type of resonator , in which a column of air is set into vibration by the player blowing into a mouthpiece set at the end of the resonator. The pitch of the vibration is determined by the length of the tube and by manual modifications of...

, percussion, and keyboard
Keyboard instrument
A keyboard instrument is a musical instrument which is played using a musical keyboard. The most common of these is the piano. Other widely used keyboard instruments include organs of various types as well as other mechanical, electromechanical and electronic instruments...

. The lute
Lute can refer generally to any plucked string instrument with a neck and a deep round back, or more specifically to an instrument from the family of European lutes....

 was the most popular stringed instrument. The lute is identifiable by its size and shape, with the pear-shaped body and angled head. Strings are grouped in courses, each course consisting of a single or doubled string, tuned in unison or octaves. The most common lute of Elizabeth's time had 6, 7 or 8 courses, and was used both for solo and accompaniment purposes. Although the lute came in sizes, the Tenor was most popular. Similar instruments include the cittern
The cittern or cither is a stringed instrument dating from the Renaissance. Modern scholars debate its exact history, but it is generally accepted that it is descended from the Medieval Citole, or Cytole. It looks much like the modern-day flat-back mandolin and the modern Irish bouzouki and cittern...

, orpharion
The orpharion or opherion is a plucked instrument from the Renaissance. It is part of the cittern family. Its construction is similar to the larger bandora. The metal strings are tuned like a lute and are plucked with the fingers. Therefore, the orpharion can be used instead of a lute...

 and bandora.

The next most popular stringed instrument, made in sizes and played in consorts or alone, was the viola da gamba
The viol is any one of a family of bowed, fretted and stringed musical instruments developed in the mid-late 15th century and used primarily in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The family is related to and descends primarily from the Renaissance vihuela, a plucked instrument that preceded the...

. The viol had six strings, and frets of gut tied around the neck, rather than embedded in the fingerbnoard. The shape of the body was somewhat like the violin family instruments, but with deeper ribs, a shallow top plate and a flat back in two parts with the upper part angled to give clearance to the player. There were three main sizes: treble, tenor, bass, with reference made in a Gibbons 6-part fantasia to the "great dooble bass." Unlike the violin family instruments, the viol bow was held underhanded, with the palm up and the middle finger in contact with the bow hair. The most popular size of the viol was the bass
Bass (instrument)
Bass describes musical instruments that produce tones in the low-pitched range. They belong to different families of instruments and can cover a wide range of musical roles...

. Although roughly the size of a small 'cello, the bass viol had no end-pin, and, like the other viols, was supported by the legs (hence the Italian name, Viola da Gamba.) They were most commonly played in consort, i. e. as a family in groups of 3, 4, 5, and 6. In this way, they could be used as accompaniment for singing. Duet music for any two of the family still exists, and the bass, alone, was a popular solo instrument. A small bass (or tenor-sized viol tuned as a bass) was often employed to play polyphonic music, Leero way. When used in this fashion, the instrument was called lyra viol.

The common wind instruments included the shawms, recorder
The recorder is a woodwind musical instrument of the family known as fipple flutes or internal duct flutes—whistle-like instruments which include the tin whistle. The recorder is end-blown and the mouth of the instrument is constricted by a wooden plug, known as a block or fipple...

s, cornetti
Cornetto may refer to* Cornett, a Renaissance period musical wind instrument* Cornetto , a branded frozen ice cream cone* Cornetto Italian word for Croissant, typically to be consumed with Cappuccino....

, sackbuts (trombones)
The sackbut is a trombone from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, i.e., a musical instrument in the brass family similar to the trumpet except characterised by a telescopic slide with which the player varies the length of the tube to change pitches, thus allowing them to obtain chromaticism, as...

, krumhorns and flute
The flute is a musical instrument of the woodwind family. Unlike woodwind instruments with reeds, a flute is an aerophone or reedless wind instrument that produces its sound from the flow of air across an opening...

s (which were known as 'piffari'.) The trumpets and piffari were used for the announcement of the arrival of royalty and during military exercises. The shawms, cornetti and sackbutts were used in loud consorts. The flute had a sweet and solemn tone, the recorder had a more rich sound, but because of the windway (which directed the breath against the edge where the sound is created) the player had less dynamic control. The shawms and krummhorns were double-reed instruments, but because the krummhorns had a cylindrical bore, they sounded an octave lower than the shawms of the same sounding-length and were quieter. (This cylindrical bore is what gives the clarinet its characteristic sound, but the clarinet, as such, had yet to be invented.) The soprano of the shawm family (called 'hautbois' by the French, for high or loud wood) would eventually be tamed to make the baroque oboe. The bass of the shawms was so long that the player had to stand on a box to reach the reed, and wood cuts exist which show a bass shawm player holding the instrument horizontally, with a friend helping to carry! For this reason, the Curtal, with a folded bore, was often used to replace the bass shawm. The fife
Fife (musical instrument)
A fife is a small, high-pitched, transverse flute that is similar to the piccolo, but louder and shriller due to its narrower bore. The fife originated in medieval Europe and is often used in military and marching bands. Someone who plays the fife is called a fifer...

 was a wooden pipe with six finger holes used with the drum in marching formations.

Single reeds were used for the drones of bagpipes, but chanters used double reeds.

Percussion was normally just various forms and sizes of drums and bells. The keyboards were the organs
Pipe organ
The pipe organ is a musical instrument that produces sound by driving pressurized air through pipes selected via a keyboard. Because each organ pipe produces a single pitch, the pipes are provided in sets called ranks, each of which has a common timbre and volume throughout the keyboard compass...

, virginals
The virginals or virginal is a keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family...

, and harpsichord
A harpsichord is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It produces sound by plucking a string when a key is pressed.In the narrow sense, "harpsichord" designates only the large wing-shaped instruments in which the strings are perpendicular to the keyboard...


Other Elizabethan instruments included the organ portative
Portative organ
A portative organ is a small pipe organ that consists of one rank of flue pipes, sometimes arranged in two rows, to be played while strapped to the performer at a right angle...

, which was a type of small organ played with one hand while the player operated a bellows on the back of the instrument with the other. There was also the grand church organ
Organ (music)
The organ , is a keyboard instrument of one or more divisions, each played with its own keyboard operated either with the hands or with the feet. The organ is a relatively old musical instrument in the Western musical tradition, dating from the time of Ctesibius of Alexandria who is credited with...

s and harp
The harp is a multi-stringed instrument which has the plane of its strings positioned perpendicularly to the soundboard. Organologically, it is in the general category of chordophones and has its own sub category . All harps have a neck, resonator and strings...

s of various sizes.

Example recordings

External links