Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Listening to kingly music

Last week, Alan at Blogonomicon said, "Everyone should have some music for English kings and queens in their collection, shouldn't they?" And I popped into the comments section to say, "I do. Here's the stuff I have."

Music for Kings and Courtiers
The Camerata of London, recorded 1978
Saga Classics, issued under license to Emergo Classics B.V. Netherlands 1994

But I think that comment needs some more explanation, a little bit more reason as to why I have that CD in my music collection. So please allow me some space to give that explanation.

I bought that CD through a catalog many years ago as research for a paper in college. I was writing about the influence of music on the literary works of John Milton, and I had discovered that Milton was close friends with an English musician and composer by the name of Henry Lawes (1595-1662). Well, that seemed to fit well with my theme, and I was compelled to obtain some kind of recording of Lawes's music so that I could get a feel for what Milton actually listened to while he was alive and writing about musical ideals. So, I began a search for such a recording.

Searching was different back then. The internet was still in its infancy, and there was no iTunes or Amazon to offer instant musical gratification, so I had to turn to actual paper catalogs published by music and record companies to track down something containing Lawes's music.

And I actually found something. Music for Kings and Courtiers, an English recording distributed on a Dutch label. The compositions are from English and Italian composers of the early 17th Century, and they would have actually been written and performed for members of the royalty like kings and courtiers. The songs feature female vocals, harpsichords, viols, violins, lutes, guitars, and other period instruments. And, even more satisfying to me at the time, the CD had three compositions by Henry Lawes.

Here's one of them:


"Man's life is but vain"
Henry Lawes

Yes, Lawes is talking about "angling" there. Fishing. For even four centuries ago an English composer realized that a bad day fishing is still better than a good day at work.

I actually used that piece as an example for the class presentation I did in support of my Milton paper. Overall, I remember that the presentation went well, and I'm pretty sure I scored well on the paper, too.

But, what was I to do with that CD after the semester was over and I moved on from Milton? Listen to it, I suppose, and see what music was like for baroque royalty. And you know what? Most of that music is pretty good.

I'm a bit of a harpsichord fan, so naturally I liked this piece right away:

"The King's Hunt"
Henry Bull

And this one, too:

"Tocatta ottava"
Girolamo Frescobaldi

And then, since I used to play guitar, I took a shine to this old Italian piece:

"Almand real"

Here's a cool one featuring a baroque violin:

"A division"

And rounding out my samples, here's a piece from a masque, a musical, literary, and theatrical form that was once popular in England but is now almost completely lost to us.

"The Satyrs Masque"
Robert Johnson

Not many masques exist for us to experience, but it is known that John Milton himself wrote one (with music by none other than Henry Lawes), and the form flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries. The sample above is in fact an anti-masque, a subdivision of the main masque that was notable for being, in the words from the CD's liner notes:
... devised as a contrast to the graceful, courtly and dignified main masque: Ben Johnson described it as 'a spectacle of strangeness', and Sir Francis Bacon elaborated on the theme saying 'let antimasques not be long... but chiefly, let the Musicke be Recreative, and with some strange Changes.'

Strange musical changes indeed. But refreshing, too. And still fun to listen to some 400 years later.

In all, Alan's post gave me a great excuse to dig that old CD up and to enjoy it a little more. I thank him for it, and I hope he finds a few kingly songs on his own to please his ears.

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