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music, development of. The history of British music is inevitably coloured by geographical, political, and social factors. Continental influences loom large, although at times, as in the 15th cent., a distinctive English voice can be heard and the influence becomes reciprocal. The traditional perception of British music—that of a Tudor golden age followed after the death of Purcell by near-terminal decline only halted by an ‘English Renaissance’ at the end of the 19th cent.—is unjust, stemming from a fruitless search for individual composers to rank beside Purcell, Elgar, or Britten rather than a willingness to value more general 18th- and 19th-cent. developments.

Early musical history in Britain is largely a matter for conjecture, for no music has survived. There is evidence from the 7th cent. onward that the harp was popular throughout Britain, remaining to this day the traditional Welsh instrument. It was a common form of accompaniment for minstrels, allowing the singer his own flexible accompaniment. Part-singing clearly existed by the 12th cent., when Gerald of Wales observed that the Welsh sang not in unison, as in other countries, but in ‘as many parts as there are singers’. Bede tells of the use of Roman chant in the 7th cent., although the earliest extant liturgical manuscripts of polyphony are the two 11th-cent. Winchester tropers, containing two-part organum in which a free part is added note-against-note to an original plainsong. The organ was also used liturgically at this time, alongside solo and choral singing, whilst the most famous piece of English medieval music, the six-part canonic ‘Sumer is icumen in’, also has an alternative Latin text.

The Old Hall Manuscript, the earliest of several important 15th-cent. English manuscripts, contains primarily mass movements. Many pieces are, unusually, attributed to specific composers, including Leonel Power, Dunstable, and ‘ Roy Henry’, probably Henry V. Note-against-note technique is again prominent, although canon and isorhythm (a structural principle applying the same rhythmic pattern to repetitions of a plainsong melody) are also employed. Around 1500 the Eton Choirbook, a collection of polyphonic antiphons and Magnificats for the chapel at Eton College, looms large in every sense, as its 23-inch by 17-inch format allowed it to be read from a lectern by the choir. As with the Old Hall music, consonance and sonority are all-important, but now textures are more complex, with intricate ornamental rhythms and a greater number of parts allowing a much wider pitch range. A similar massive style can be seen in contemporary Scottish music, most notably the five masses by Robert Carver with their granite-like blocks of harmony, while in secular music the carol was popular for its memorable, simple melodies and repeated refrains.

At the Reformation, Henry VIII's suppression of the monasteries and collegiate churches meant that cathedral choirs and the Chapel Royal became the main musical centres. The imposition of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 was accompanied by the publication of various metrical psalters, whose simple four-part harmonizations of psalm tunes allowed the vernacular texts to be heard easily. Nevertheless, Elizabeth I's catholic sympathies allowed composers such as Byrd to write much Latin church music, including three fine masses, alongside complex Anglican services. Imitation between the voices now becomes a basic structural principle, while many works, particularly those in Latin such as Tallis's Lamentations, are powerfully expressive.

This high-point in British music coincided with a rise in music printing, something that also contributed to the popularity of the English madrigal, a genre originally imported from Italy. Instigated by Yonge's Musica transalpina (1588), it flourished for the next couple of decades with works by Morley, Weelkes, Wilbye, and Gibbons (composers who were all primarily church musicians). The rise in amateur music-making is also reflected in the importance of instrumental music, many works of the period being published as ‘apt for Viols and Voyces’, allowing some or all the voices to be replaced or doubled by instruments. Music specifically for viol consorts became increasingly sophisticated, with elaborate contrapuntal fantasias or ‘Fancies’. Complex solo lute and keyboard works became virtuoso showpieces, culminating in the brilliant sets of variations in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. John Dowland, the leading lutenist of his day, also raised the lute song to unsurpassed heights.

As with the Reformation, so the Civil War and the Restoration had a profound impact on music. Cathedral choirs were disbanded and organs dismantled, although, ironically, the puritan closure of public theatres in 1642 seems to have encouraged composers to experiment briefly with all-sung opera rather than the traditional mixture of spoken dialogue and music found in the Stuart masque. During his exile Charles II had acquired French tastes, and his Restoration encouraged strong continental influences in music. Pelham Humfrey and Purcell brought a new, incisive style of string music to the Chapel Royal anthem as violins replaced the old viols, much to the horror of John Evelyn, who felt it ‘better suiting a tavern or a Play-house than a church’. Solo ‘verse’ sections exploited the virtuosity of singers, something also featured in the ode—celebratory music for court occasions or for St Cecilia's Day.

Continental music continued to loom large into the 18th cent., both in the opera-house, where Handel's success created a vogue for Italian opera, and in instrumental music, where the popularity of Corelli's sonatas and concertos influenced numerous composers, including Handel and Geminiani in England and John Clerk in Scotland. Amateur interest in music steadily increased. Instrumental tutors were published and glees (simple part-songs for male voices) became popular. Handel's oratorios appealed to an increasingly middle-class audience, and England led the way in the field of public concerts, held in both halls and pleasure gardens. The Bach– Abel concerts ran from 1764 to 1782, while the impresario Salomon brought Haydn to London in the 1790s and commissioned his last twelve symphonies.

Music flourished in the provinces as well as in London, with the establishment of the Three Choirs (c.1715), Birmingham (1768), and Norwich (1770) festivals, and the Edinburgh Musical Society (1720). A flourishing tradition of amateur choral singing built on the popularity of Handel's oratorios, especially Messiah; the Huddersfield Choral Society was founded in 1836, while the première of Mendelssohn's Elijah (Birmingham, 1846) typified the trend for British commissions from leading European composers. John Curwen's tonic sol-fa method for sight-singing was much used in schools and by choirs, especially Welsh male-voice choirs. This lasting tradition was fostered by the eisteddfod, a festival held annually since 1880 but whose origins go back to the medieval bards, which has provided a focus for a national cultural identity. Many other British competitive festivals grew up, some involving the new vogue for brass bands.

The upsurge in music publishing at the beginning of the 19th cent. and the mass production of pianos by firms like Broadwood coincided with the presence of many foreign pianists in London (including Clementi, Dussek, Cramer, and Field). The piano became the main domestic instrument of Victorian Britain, where it was also used to accompany the singing of drawing-room ballads. In the opera-house, British composers remained overshadowed by their European contemporaries; the title ‘The Royal Italian Opera’ indicates the dominance of the Italian language into which even works by Mozart and Wagner were translated. Apart from the brilliant success of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas, a true native style is difficult to identify. Outside the theatre, Parry, Stanford, and even that most ‘English’ of composers, Elgar, still spoke a predominantly Germanic musical language. The revival of interest in folk-song, spearheaded by Cecil Sharp, and in Tudor music, encouraged by the many editions from E. H. Fellowes, nevertheless fostered a new sense of ‘nationalism’ particularly in the work of Vaughan Williams and other English songwriters.

The 1945 première of Britten's Peter Grimes marked a new era. With a flair, unmatched since Purcell, for setting the English language, Britten's blend of traditional techniques with real dramatic understanding helped re-establish English opera, alongside the grittier, psychologically orientated works of Tippett. The founding of several fine orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, and three BBC orchestras in the 1930s and 1940s, established Britain's leading role in concerts and recordings. The British Broadcasting Corporation took over the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in 1927 and has played a leading role in commissioning new works and encouraging new artists. The excellence of British orchestras, opera companies, and international festivals such as those at Edinburgh and Aldeburgh has become increasingly threatened by low state subsidies; the present disregard for the Arts Council bodes ill for music in 21st-cent. Britain.

See also folk-song; opera.

Eric Cross


Caldwell, J. , The Oxford History of English Music: From the Beginnings to c.1715 (Oxford, 1991);
Meckerness, E. D. , A Social History of English Music (London, 1964);
Young, P. M. , A History of British Music (1967).

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