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masques

masques were a form of English courtly entertainment, involving dancing, speech, song, and instrumental music, that flourished from the later 16th cent. until 1640. In the later 17th and 18th cents. the term was also applied to self-contained musical entertainments, normally accompanying a spoken play. During the reigns of James I and Charles I the masque became an opulent affair, its allegorical or mythological plot symbolizing the monarch's political power and wealth. The most celebrated works involved the collaboration of the first poet laureate Ben Jonson and the architect Inigo Jones, who designed not only the spectacular stage effects and costumes but also the Banqueting House at Whitehall where the works were often performed. The songs, dances, and incidental instrumental music were normally written by different composers. The main characters or ‘masquers’ were courtiers who were joined by members of the audience for the ‘revels’. Professionals were, however, increasingly used, particularly for the ‘antimasques’: grotesque or comic scenes first introduced in Jonson's The Masque of Queens (1609). The only masque whose music survives complete is Cupid and Death (1653 and 1659), which—unusually—experimented with Italianate recitative. After the Restoration the masque transferred to the professional theatre, where its tradition continued in Purcell's semi-operas.

Eric Cross

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