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Throwback Ep 14: Intro to English Renaissance Music

A throwback to one of the earlier, and more popular episodes I’ve done; an intro to English Renaissance Music

Here’s my English Renaissance music playlist on Spotify:

Here are some other musical-related episodes I’ve done on English Renaissance music:
David Skinner interview – August 2015
https://www.englandcast.com/2015/09/suzidigby/ – Suzi Digby interview – September 2015
Episode 25: The Chapel Royal:

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!


(This episode is from July 2011)

Hello, and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast. I’m your host Heather Teysko, and I know it’s been forever since I’ve posted and I’m a serious slacker.  

I want to talk about English Renaissance music this episode because that’s how I first got into Renaissance History. Renaissance literally means rebirth. The music of the time is so exciting to me because whole new harmonies were being developed.

If you think about Gregorian Chant, it’s all just one melody. And in the Renaissance, the sacred music was dominated by polyphony, which is multiple independent harmonies that cross over and play together to make a piece of music that is exciting and interesting to listen to. The secular music is also exciting with lyrics that are filled with puns and innuendo, and they tell stories that musically. This is the first time we’ve seen music tell secular stories since the beginning of written music.

To support this podcast, I’ve created a Spotify playlist. Now, I suggest listening to the music as you listen to the podcast, and because I don’t really feel like being sued anytime soon, I’m not going to post snippets of the music on the podcast. I was thinking I could have it  interspersed, but then I thought I’d probably get sued if I did that. I don’t really feel like having that happen, so I’m not going to do that. Go to the blog, download the playlist on either Spotify or go to YouTube and listen and you can listen along as you’re listening to the podcast.

Also, one other caveat. This episode is going to focus purely on English composers. There are tons of great music out there of great Renaissance music. Two of my favorite composers are Gesualdo and John Bear. If after listening to this episode you find yourself moved to find out more about this kind of music, I would be happy to recommend some good albums. I might actually make another playlist and put it on the blog in a separate entry for you to listen to to explore further. But for the purposes of this podcast here, I’m just going to focus on the English Renaissance music.

First, I’m going to talk about madrigals. Madrigals are kind of like pop music today. They are secular poems with three to six voice parts, sung unaccompanied.

Like most of the Renaissance they originated in Italy but by the late 16th Century in the reign of Elizabeth I they had migrated to England. The first English magical that I sang in my high school choir was Thomas Morley’s Now Is the Month of Maying. Morley wasn’t the earliest magical composer but he is one of the most famous, and he was the first one I ever heard. Many school choirs will have sang his music though they might not fully understand the lyrics.

I always find it funny that people have an opinion that if something is old, it must be proper. This song is full of innuendos. The lyrics celebrate the beginning of spring time and talk about merry lads playing in the grass with bonny laces indulging sweet delights of youth. It would have been as suggestive to contemporary listeners as some of the most blatant rap songs are to us today. Thomas Morley lived from 1557 to 1602, and he studied with William Byrd who we will get to in a little bit.

By 1589, he was the organist of Saint Paul’s, and in 1598, he took over the Royal Music Printing Patent that Byrd acquired in 1575. He published several additions of Italian madrigals, and he helped to grow the popularity of madrigals. He also edited the Triumphs of Oriana in 1601, a collection of madrigals from over 20 different composers celebrating the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Morley wrote plenty of sacred music, but we remember him most for his secular music, including about 100 madrigals.

Orlando Gibbons is another famous madrigal writer.

Though he is at the tail’s end of the English Renaissance. He published his most famous song, The Silver Swan in 1612. By the time of Gibbons, the madrigals was already falling out of fashion. It was really only in the height to fashion for like 30 years, and it was morphing into what would become cantatas and eventually opera, and many musicologist see this song as one of the last in the English choral tradition, and it’s a fitting end with lyrics that are talking about death. The Silver Swan sang her first and last when she was dying. Lamenting at the end “Farewell, all joys! Oh Death, come close mine eyes! More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

It’s a very beautiful song but let’s go back to the start of the Tudors with Thomas Tallis.

If you watched the Tudors on Showtime at least in the US, it was on Showtime, the character of Thomas Tallis is already familiar (don’t even get me started on the storyline he’s involved in, though). He was born around 1505, and he first appears in London around 1538-ish. A lot of the early composers had worked for the monasteries writing masses and songs for the liturgy. They lost this work as Henry was dissolving the monasteries, something that we talked about in an earlier episode. It made it difficult for composers of regular service music, as they were losing their work composing for regular services. Thomas seems to have bounced around until around the 1550’s when he married and got a land grant from Mary I.

Thomas Tallis’s masterpiece, and arguably the pinnacle of English polyphonic music is Spem In Alium which translates to hope in any other.

Written about 1570. In its original form, it is written for eight choirs of five voices each making for 40 voice parts. Though there is a lot of inter lapping in there and so overlapping, and so you don’t necessarily need 40 parts to make it happen, but that’s what it was originally written for.

Tallis wrote the piece in Latin. He was a strong Roman Catholic who successfully navigated the challenging religious waters throughout the changing monarchs of this period. If you remember we were going from Catholics to Protestants to Catholic to Protestant to Elizabeth, who didn’t want to have anything to do with anything but mostly Protestant. It was really hard for people who were Catholics at that time. Because it was going back and forth. It was hard for Protestants too. It was hard for everybody really.

Anyway, so Tallis did write some music in English though and he wrote a song called “If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments” and it’s a beautiful example of early religious music in English, and despite his Catholic religion he was one of the first composers to write for the Anglican Liturgy. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth gave Tallis and William Byrd a Royal License to publish music, and their volume of Latin Motets appeared later that year, and I chose one of William Byrd’s to put on the playlist.

William Byrd is really the granddaddy of English Renaissance Music.

He was also a Catholic, but he did earn Royal Patronage, and his output was prolific. He wrote Anglican service music, Catholic service music, tons of secular pieces including concert songs and madrigals that we never actually called them madrigals. The music I picked from Byrd to showcase his composition and versatility includes his Ave Verum Corpus. Several composers including Mozart and Elgar have sat the Aver Verum Corpus to music. One thing that makes Byrd’s special is that the text of the hymn is essentially a meditation on the Catholic belief in the physical presence of Jesus during the Holy Communion.

Protestants believed that the bread and wine were symbolic whereas Catholics at the time believed that the bread and water literally turned into Jesus’s body and blood.

Setting the Ave Verum Corpus which literally translates to Hail through Body went against the grain of the prevailing Protestant sentiment. The final Byrd song that I put in the playlist is a secular one “Who Made Thee, Hob” which actually I sing on a regular basis. It features two shepherds having a conversation. The first asks the second Hob, what has made him stop working and get all dreamy and fall in love and turn loopy? And Hob answers and it’s revealed that Hob is in love with a lady whose station may be too high for him. But there is nothing that our poor Hob can do. Either he loves her, or he dies? He has no choice. Poor poor Hob.

Another famous composer of English Renaissance music is John Dowland who was born in the 1560’s and studied in Paris.

He’s actually more famous for his lute music as he was a virtuoso player but he did write several madrigals. A few of his madrigals feature on almost every compilation album I’ve seen. “Come again sweet love, doth now invite” is a melancholy song included in one of his four volumes of Airs for lute and voice. I’ve included both an original interpretation, and a contemporary one from Sting, just to show how timeless the music is.

You can really see kind of how timeless these songs are even when modern singers sing them in a more modern style. They still come through. John Farmer is another great of English Renaissance music. He isn’t as well-known as some of the others, but he did write a one hit wonder called Fair Phyllis I Saw Sitting All Alone. I found one recording of the song which is on an album full of sacred and secular pieces. Again I have to laugh because the same album has movements from Masses and then a piece like this. Which is just about as bawdy as they come.

The bawdiness particularly comes out in the harmonies. Particularly the mixing of the shepherd wandering up and down and Phyllis and the shepherd kissing. The words play around so that it sounds like Phyllis and the shepherd are kissing each other up and down. An intentional bit of wordplay that seems quite odd on a sacred album, but maybe that’s just me being pure puritanical. I don’t know.

This is a good start on some of the most composers of English Renaissance music. But it wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about Greensleeves. Supposedly Henry VIII wrote it as he was attempting to seduce his future wife, Anne Boleyn.

There is significant doubt about whether he really did write it. Though it wouldn’t have been unheard of because he did study music. He did write music, and poetry, so I like to think he wrote it. I also like to believe in Santa Clause, so who knows but it’s a nice song. It’s got a nice melody; I like it. I think that’s it right now.

Thanks for listening even though I’ve become so irregular. Remember to check out the blog again to get the playlist of the English Renaissance music. The address is http://www.EnglandCast.com and email me with show ideas or questions or really anything else. Thank you for your continued support, and I will chat with you next time. I promise it won’t be as long. All right thanks.

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!