Tarleton’s Resurrection. Part 4/4: Tributes to Tarleton – with a musical discovery from the 16th century

This is the last of four articles about the life and music of Elizabethan clown, Richard Tarleton. Having examined the historical context of clowning; described his comic and serious stage roles and plays; and gathered the evidence for his pipe and tabor style and modern claims that he was a ballad writer; this final article surveys the way Tarleton was remembered posthumously, on the stage, in song, in books, in rhetoric, and in the commercial use of his famous image.   

In particular, this article investigates a broadside tribute to Tarleton registered 23 days after his death, A pretie new ballad, intituled willie and peggie. This essay includes a video performance of the ballad, reuniting its words and music after 400 years.

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Tarleton’s Resurrection. Part 3/4: Richard Tarleton the musician and broadside writer

Elizabethan actor and comedian Richard Tarleton is remembered most for his quick-witted and clever quips, his physical comedy, and for the image of him playing pipe and tabor. Despite the fact that this famous representation shows him as a musician, Tarleton the musician has remained a neglected subject in both historical and modern accounts.

This article aims to put that right, with a description of Tarleton’s taboring; an investigation into the meaning of the surviving tune that bears his name, called both Tarletons jigg and Tarletons Willy; an understanding of his theatrical role as the creator of extempore comedy songs; and a survey of the evidence for Tarleton as a composer of ballads, particularly the comedic genre known as the medley.

This is the third of four articles about the life and music of Elizabethan clown, Richard Tarleton. The final article will examine posthumous tributes, including the performance of a 16th century ballad about him, its words and music newly reunited after 400 years. 

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Tarleton’s Resurrection. Part 2/4: Tarleton the player and playwright

In the first of four articles about Elizabethan actor, comedian and musician Richard Tarleton, we saw that he played the fool as a member of the royal acting troupe, The Queen’s Players, who performed at court and on tour, and that Tarleton’s stage costume was not the stereotypical jester with ass ears, bells and baubles, but a country clown with pipe and tabor, russet coat, slops and startups.

In this second article, we explore the 16th and 17th century accounts of Tarleton’s stage clowning, his extempore physical and verbal wit which delighted mass audiences. So well-loved was his foolery that in contemporaneous and posthumous accounts it overshadowed the pathos of his serious acting, also accounted for here. Similarly neglected in modern accounts is Tarleton the serious and successful playwright, writing in the tradition of the morality play, so this article includes an evidenced reconstruction of one of his lost scripts, The Secound parte of the Seven Deadlie Sinns.

A third article explores Richard Tarleton the musician, and the fourth article reunites, for the first time in 400 years, the words and music of a 16th century ballad written in posthumous tribute.

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Tarleton’s Resurrection. Part 1/4: Tarleton’s place in the history of fools, clowns and jesters

Richard Tarleton – fool, actor, playwright, poet, musician and legend – was the foremost stage clown of his age, celebrated in his own lifetime and well beyond. As an actor, he was a star of the stage when permanent theatre buildings were new, a fool or comedian of great physical and verbal wit, a serious player of affecting pathos, and a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s own acting company, The Queen’s Players. As a successful playwright, he wrote in the tradition of morality plays. As a poet and essayist, he wrote on the theme of natural disasters and divine displeasure. As a musician, he was a player of pipe and tabor and a creator of extempore comedy songs. As a legend, much-loved and much-missed after his sudden death, he was a byword for exemplary wit, his name used to sell literature for decades, his image still used and recognised two centuries later.   

This is the first of four articles trawling 16th and 17th century sources to build up a picture of the man. This introductory article begins with a short history of fools in their three types – natural, ungodly, and artificial – to put Tarleton in his historical context; clarifies what contemporaneous writers meant when they described him as a jester; then describes his ‘country fool’ clown’s costume and notable physical appearance. Two neglected topics comprise the second and third articles. Part 2: Tarleton the player and playwright considers his range as a comic and serious actor and his style as a playwight, with an evidenced reconstruction of his lost play, The Secound parte of the Seven Deadlie Sinns. Part 3: Richard Tarleton the musician and broadside writer examines his style as a taborer; describes Tarleton as a comedic creator of extempore songs from themes called out by the audience; and surveys the evidence for Tarleton as a composer of ballads. Part 4: Tributes to Tarleton – with a musical discovery from the 16th century summarises the broadside ballads, books and plays which praised Tarleton and used his persona after his premature death. In particular, a musical biography of Richard Tarleton, A pretie new ballad, intituled willie and peggie, has its words and music reunited after 400 years of separation in a featured video performance.

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The guitar: a brief history from the renaissance to the modern day

A French 4 course renaissance guitar from c. 1570. The origins of the guitar are much-discussed and much-disputed, and some pretty wild and unsubstantiated claims are made for its heritage, based on vaguely guitary-looking instruments in medieval and even pre-medieval iconography, about which we often know little or nothing beyond an indistinguishable drawing, painting or carving; or based on instruments which have guitary-sounding names. This article is an attempt to slice through the fog with a brief history of the instrument, charting its development from the renaissance, through the baroque period to the modern day, based only on what can be claimed with evidence. The article is illustrated with pictures, videos and sound recordings, beginning with a short video of guitar history.

This is an expanded version of an article originally published in 2015, with a new video.

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Sumer is icumen in / Perspice Christicola: silencing the cuckoo

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well sing you, cuckoo …
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well sing you, cuckoo …

Sumer is icumen in is the earliest surviving complete English secular song, sung in this article’s video with all six voices indicated in the manuscript, Harley 978, circa 1250. Sumer and another song, Perspice Christicola, are laid out on the page to the same melody. It seems an unlikely coupling: one about the sights and sounds of summer, with its singing cuckoo, growing seeds, bleating ewe and farting buck; the other a devotional song, with God sending Christ to destruction in order to free the captives of sin and crown them in heaven.

A later scribe returned to the page to add rhythm to the originally non-mensural (not indicating rhythm) notation and, in doing so, also changed the pitches of some notes. The changed notes are strategic, removing the musical cuckoo call, and this scribal interference suggests that the Middle English secular Sumer is icumen in and the Latin devotional Perspice Christicola made an uneasy pair. The version of Sumer recorded for this article restores the originally-written pitches, with the effect of reinstating the cascading cuckoo call, a central musical effect erased in the amended notes usually sung.

This is a revised version of an article originally published in February 2016.

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Coventry Carol: the power of a song

Angelo Visconti, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1860-1861, Italy.
Angelo Visconti, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1860-1861, Italy.

Coventry Carol sings the loss of slaughtered infants in a play depicting Herod’s massacre of the innocents. These mystery plays were religious community events, telling Bible stories in the vernacular with humour and pathos, from the creation right through to judgement day. They were performed annually by the local trade or craft guilds, a tradition that began in the middle ages. The mystery plays were threatened in 1548, along with the banning of the Feast of Corpus Christi that was the occasion of their performance, in a royal and ecclesiastical bid to rid England of all vestiges of Catholicism.

The play that carried Coventry Carol has only been preserved through acts of good timing and good luck, surviving the general loss of many period artefacts, royal suppression of its staging, and a devastating fire that destroyed the original document.

My first hearing of it was an act of theatre that changed my life. This was way back in 1984, but even now a shiver runs down my spine each time I think of it. The experience showed me the door to early music, a door which John Renbourn later opened; and it taught me what, at its best, a song can be.

This article was first published on 19th July 2015, now updated to include an interview with the author, Ian Pittaway, in an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music, and his performance of the song for the programme with Andy Casserley in the early music duo, The Night Watch. A video of the recording of the song for Soul Music is included in this article. The Coventry Carol edition of Soul Music was broadcast on Christmas Day 2019.

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The first dancing master’s manual: Domenico da Piacenza and the art of dance

Early music and dance enthusiasts will be familiar with the work of authors such as John Playford, who published the series of dance instruction books called The (English) Dancing Master from 1651 onwards, and with Jehan Tabourot, who in 1588 wrote instructions for the dances of his youth under the anagrammatic pen name, Thoinot Arbeau, published in France as Orchésographie in 1589. There is evidence of earlier dancing masters – dance instructors – from the medieval period, but the first to write surviving choreography were in the renaissance of 15th century Italy, and the earliest of these was Domenico da Piacenza (c. 1390/1400–1476/7). This article briefly outlines Domenico’s dance manual of c. 1450, the social context of his dances, his wide influence, and some ways in which his choreography and music notation can be interpreted using one example, La giloxia (The jealousy), a video of which begins this article.    

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Foweles in þe frith (birds in the wood): mystery and beauty in a 13th century song

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 1156 B, folio 4r, 15th century. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

The 13th century song, Foweles in þe frith, is among the earliest that survive in the English language. The manuscript has two complete polyphonic voices but only one verse, and so the meaning of its nature imagery and lament for the “beste of bon and blod” has been much debated.

This article places Foweles in þe frith in the context of other surviving secular songs in English; then decodes and deciphers its words and debates its various interpretations: is it a lover’s lament; sorrow for a lost animal; or a song of religious contemplation?

The melody was written by the scribe in notation usually presumed to be non-mensural (non-rhythmic). I argue that the music shows rhythm, clearly written on the page according to medieval musical principles, performed in the video which begins the article.

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Bird on a briar (bryd one brere): constructing the missing voice

bryd one brerebird on a briar – is the earliest surviving English secular love song with a complete lyric, dated c. 1290–1320. The music was written on the back of a papal bull with a poor pen, so interpreting the notation is problematic in parts. A previous article (available here) addressed interpretation of the music and the poetic meaning of the words.

This article addresses a second problem of interpretation: the song was clearly intended for two voices, but the primary voice is missing, leaving us only with the second voice, the polyphonic accompaniment. Using the principles of medieval English polyphony, author Ian Pittaway has constructed three possible versions of the lead voice, based on the gymel, contrary motion, and the mixolydian mode. While we cannot know if any one of these constructions was the intention of the composer, the exercise serves as an illustration of the principles of English polyphony at the turn of the 14th century and an attempt to sing the song in the originally intended manner.

All three two-voice versions of bird on a briar are sung in a multi-tracked illustrative video by Ian Pittaway. In October 2019, all three versions were used in a concert performance by the early music ensemble Les Reverdies de Montréal, a video of which ends this article.

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The English estampie: interpreting a medieval dance(?) tune

One of the earliest surviving pieces of English instrumental music has survived with the 13th–14th century manuscript, Douce 139, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is exciting in its musical drive and complexity, but interpretation has its problems. The scribe appears to have changed his mind partway through on several issues of notation, leaving us to make judgements about intention. The music is untitled, and is often named Estampie or English Dance in modern sources.

This article works through the puzzles in order to gain some performable answers. What is an estampie? Is the Douce 139 piece an estampie? How can the musical problems left by the scribe’s imperfect notation be reconciled? Drawing on music theorist, Johannes de Grocheio, writing in c. 1300, this article looks for solutions, with a video of one possible interpretation on citole.

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In defence of the unhistorical drama

This is an article I never thought I’d write, from a viewpoint I never thought I’d have. Being nerdy about historical music and instruments, I’ve been one of those people who have tutted and rolled my eyes in dismay when historical anomalies, inaccuracies and impossibilities appear in historical films and novels. I’ve played small parts in such films myself, playing historical music. My role as musician in one TV series marked my transformation from annoyed nerd to a more informed person about the multiple processes involved in creating such dramas, and the necessity of putting complete accuracy aside. This article explains how and why, and my realisation of the truth that everyone involved in living history is choosy about which parts we re-enact and which aspects of modernity we’d rather keep. As I’ll show, the same is necessarily true of film-makers, for more complex reasons.

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The scandalous la volta: “such a lewd and unchaste dance”

La volta (or volte or volt or, in England, lavolta) was reputedly the favourite dance of Queen Elizabeth I, performed by couples with much leaping, lifting and turning. The dance, a variation of the galliard, was considered scandalous by the moralists of the day. Just as today we hear talk of ‘gateway drugs’ leading to harder and more destructive substances, la volta was considered a ‘gateway dance’, leading to more destructive vices. This article describes the key point of the choreography, discusses the moral opprobium it attracted, and weighs up the evidence for the Queen dancing this “lewd and unchaste dance”.

We begin with a performance of two voltas by The Night Watch.

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Drive the cold Winter away: the meaning of a 17th century seasonal song

Drive the cold Winter away is a 17th century broadside ballad which appeals to its readers, singers and listeners to put aside differences, forget old wrongs, and to sing, dance, eat, drink and play together.

As this article outlines, there was good reason for this appeal for a Christmas truce in the 17th century, a time of bitterly cold winters, religious division and civil war. After describing what a 17th century Christmas feast consisted of, we explore the two distinct melodies the song was sung to and outline its long-lived popularity.

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Mirie it is while sumer ilast: decoding the earliest surviving secular song in English (revised and updated)

LaboursOfThe Months.January.1475Mirie it is while sumer ilast, dated to the first half of the 13th century, is the earliest surviving secular song that is both English and in the English language, preserved only by the good luck of being written on a piece of paper kept with an unrelated book. We have the music and a single verse. This may be a fragment, but its wonderful melody and poignant lyric embody in microcosm the medieval struggle to get through the winter, nature’s most cruel and barren season.

This article examines the original manuscript, showing that the now-standard version of the song performed by early music revival players is not a true representation of the text and music, but the music itself poses many problems of interpretation. We begin with a translation of the Middle English words into modern English, continuing with a short survey of the social background and a step by step reconstruction of the music. Originally published in February 2016, this is a completely revised account, with a reworked rendering of the melody and a new performance video of Mirie, arranged for voice and medieval harp.  Read more

Performing medieval music. Part 3: The medieval style

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the third of three articles on this topic for medieval music, aiming to be practical guides with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

The first article discussed historical instrument combinations and the second how to create polyphonic accompaniments for music written monophonically. This third and last article discusses a wide variety of questions of style: the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) notation of the troubadours; the role of the voice and instruments; ornamentation; questions of intelligibility, language and sung translations; musical preludes and postludes; and the effect of the various functions of music on the way it is performed.

This article features a video of Martin Carthy singing a traditional English song on the basis that his free style, with the voice leading and guitar following, each verse phrased differently, so free that it is mensurally unwritable, may have something important to tell us about the historical performance of troubadour songs.

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Performing medieval music. Part 2: Turning monophony into polyphony

Harp, vielle and citole in the Peterborough Psalter, England, 1300-1350.

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the second of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

The first article focussed on historical instrument combinations, using the illustrations of two 13th century manuscripts as representative examples. This second article distinguishes the difference between modern harmony and medieval polyphony, and the main body of the article looks at styles of medieval accompaniment by referencing historical models. For simplicity and clarity, the same passage of music is used as the basis for exploring a variety of accompaniments. Arrangements of the first section of Cantiga de Santa Maria 10 illustrate heterophony, parallel movement, fifthing, the gymel, the importance of medieval modes, drones and drone-like accompaniments, the type of organum derided by a cleric as “minstrelish little notes”, the rota and ground bass, and the motet.

For each method, there is a sound clip of a short musical performance, composed in historically informed style by Ian Pittaway, performed by Kathryn Wheeler on recorder and vielle, and by Ian Pittaway on harp, gittern and oud. There are links to 15 illustrative videos, putting the techniques in this article into practice. Finally, the question of what to do if there isn’t a tune is addressed.

The key message of this article is: once informed, be creative.

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Performing medieval music. Part 1: Instrumentation

Double recorder (then called a pipe or flute), gittern and three singers in Saint Martin is knighted by Simone Martini, 1280-1344.

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the first of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

This first article discusses the use of instruments and instrument combinations in medieval music. The illustrations in two manuscripts are used as typical representative examples: the 13th century Iberian Cantigas de Santa Maria and the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter. The second article gives practical methods for making arrangements of medieval monophonic music according to historical principles, with an example to illustrate each method; and the third article discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) music of the troubadours, ornamentation, and the medieval voice. Read more

Surprising songs of sentient statues: the Virgin, Venus, and Jason and the Argonauts (Cantigas de Santa Maria article 6/6)

Three statues which live and move in their stories: the Virgin Mary and Jesus (c. 1260–80, made in Paris), Talos (bronze giant in the Greek tale, Jason and the Argonauts) and Venus (2nd century AD Roman copy of a Greek original).

In the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of 420 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary by King Alfonso X and his court, 1257–83, there is a large group of songs featuring statues of Mary which talk, move, give protection, heal, and enact terrible acts of violence.

This article, the last in a series of six exploring the Cantigas, describes these surprising songs of sentient statues, placing them in the context of medieval beliefs about holy effigies and the long history of mythical moving images, including the goddess Venus, the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, Pinocchio, and some current controversies.   

We begin with a performance of Cantiga 42 on voice and vielle (medieval fiddle), in which a jealous Mary, inhabiting her statue, sends a man running terrified from his bed on his wedding night.

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The medieval portative organ: an interview with Cristina Alís Raurich

Cristina Alís Raurich is a historical musician and researcher who specialises in keyboards of the middle ages and early renaissance: portative organ, positive organ, clavicimbalum, and clavicytherium. Not only is Cristina a musician of consummate skill, her love for her instruments and specialism is obvious and infectious: rarely have I seen anyone play and talk about music with such transparent joy. This I discovered when we met at the second Medieval Music in the Dales, held at Bolton Castle, Wensleydale, England, in 2017, where she gave a presentation on the history of the portative organ; performed in the duo, Sonus Hyspaniae, on portative organ and percussion, with Raúl Lacilla on musa (medieval bagpipe) and frestel (medieval Pan pipe); and kindly agreed to the following interview for Early Music Muse.

Cristina performs internationally solo and with medieval music groups Magister Petrus, La Douce Semblance, Le Souvenir, Carmina Harmonica, Sonus Hyspaniae and Hamelin Consort; and gives courses and master classes on medieval music and medieval keyboards around Europe. She is assistant director and faculty member of Medieval Music Besalú, the international course on medieval music performance in Besalú, Catalonia, a teacher at the Centre International de Musiques Médiévales de Montpellier, France, and currently a doctoral student at the University of Würzburg, Germany.

In this interview, Cristina discusses how she discovered medieval keyboards; her research into the portative organ and her commissioning of the only 13th century reconstruction; its playing techniques within the framework of medieval musical styles; its performance context in the middle ages; and performance presentation to a modern audience.

This article includes three videos of Cristina playing: table organ, clavicytherium, and portative organ.

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