The Elizabethan Era, often referred to as “England’s Golden Age” was a remarkable if rather brief period in England’s history. During the forty-five year reign of Queen Elizabeth there were significant developments in science, national expansion, exploration and creativity. It ran roughly between 1558 and 1603 during which time the symbol of Britannia was first used.
Even in farming there were new developments. The traditional open grazing fields were replaced by large closed areas of land that required fewer workers. As a result, many rural people left their villages and headed for the expanding urban areas. The knock-on effect was that towns and cities burgeoned in Elizabethan times. The towns had money and they were an ideal climate for the arts to flourish, especially music and the theatre.
The Elizabethan inns provided lodging and entertainment and also attracted traveling actors, musicians and poets. Inn yards became the first venues for theatre plays. It was not long before people realized that there was money to be made by producing plays and then teaming up with inn owners to charge for the performances. The theatre needed music of course, and that too flowered during the Golden Age.
Queen Elizabeth was a patron of the arts and was a skilled performer on the lute and the virginals. She was also an enthusiastic dancer. The top composers of the day were William Byrd, Thomas Campion, John Dowland, John Farmer, Orlando Gibbons, Robert Johnson and Thomas Tallis. And I mustn’t forget the Cornish composer Giles Farnaby who wrote some of the first quaint examples of descriptive keyboard music.
Printed music, both instrumental and vocal was becoming increasingly available. The orchestra as we know it had yet to evolve, but music for smaller groups was popular and so was the instrument known as the viol, which came in a variety of sizes.
The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould championed the music of Gibbons. “Ever since my teenage years”, he wrote, “this music has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of.” Gibbons was one of the most versatile English composers of his time, and produced a large number of keyboard works, around thirty fantasias for viols and many madrigals the best-known of which being The Silver Swan. Gibbons came from a large family of musicians and was considered one of the finest keyboard players in England.
The consort of viols was a popular musical ensemble in Elizabethan times and this short work dates from around 1603. Unlike the instruments of the violin family, the viol (also known as the viola da gamba) has between five and seven strings, a fretted fingerboard and it’s always played upright rather than under the chin. You might notice that the bow is held differently too.
Byrd, whose name is pronounced the same as “bird” was one of the most popular Elizabethan composers partly because he wrote in many of the musical forms current at the time including choral music, ensemble works and pieces for keyboard. He could turn his hand to a wide range of musical forms and yet imbue them with his own personal musical style. He composed almost five hundred works and is now regarded as one of the great masters of European Renaissance music. Although he composed music for Anglican services, sometime during the 1570s he changed sides and became a Roman Catholic with the inevitable result that he wrote Catholic sacred music later in his life.
These two motets were published in1589 in Byrd’s first book of sacred choral music. The music is remarkable for its breath-taking beauty. The performance by this British vocal ensemble is stunningly good and I cannot recall hearing Byrd’s music so movingly performed. Just listen to those rich bass notes, the colourful, poignant harmonies and the wonderful sense of melodic line.
The name “motet” comes from the French word mot meaning “word” and was a choral piece for several different voices. Composers of the day often used a technique called “word-colouring” in which important words of the text were reflected in the harmonies or rhythms of the music. The 13th-century music theorist Johannes de Grocheo believed that the motet was “not to be celebrated in the presence of common people, because they do not notice its subtlety.” Old Johannes sounds a bit of a musical snob to me.
This wonderful, elegant music speaks of another age and it would be the perfect antidote to a stressful afternoon spent elbowing through the crowds at Terminal 21.