Music in the English Courtly Masque, 1604-1640

By Peter Walls | Go to book overview

Preface

This book is about the character and function of music in the masque. Like many others, I was drawn to the masque in the first place because of its interest as a multimedia form involving some of the greatest artists of early seventeenth-century England. On the face of it, poetry, drama, scenic design, music, and dance were united in a single endeavour. But the preparation of a court masque does not seem to have involved an orderly sequence of tasks carried out within a clearly defined hierarchy (librettist -- composer -- director -- designer -- conductor -- performers). With music and dance in particular we get a picture of a looser collaboration between various groups with overlapping responsibilities. The challenge for the poet must partly have been to know how to harness what he knew these people were likely to come up with to his own artistic ends. This, and the mixing of professional musicians with courtier participants, makes the whole question of how music contributed to the masque's 'meaning' fascinatingly unruly.

I have tried to embrace these complications. In the following chapters, musical and literary discussion is combined with historical enquiry in what I hope is an illuminating way. I wanted to give the ideal a chance -- to see how the different elements in the masque could be integrated to produce a coherent vision of a model human society. The primary task was one of conveying a sufficiently strong sense of what masque music was actually like -- no easy matter, given the forms in which the sources have survived. But then, I also wanted to give a sense of the fragility of that vision, of the way in which the actual circumstances of masque performances allowed for a very much less elevated view of what was going on. Even in the early years of the seventeenth century there was open disagreement about whether the masque was a serious artistic endeavour or entertainment of the most ephemeral kind.

Until relatively recently, musicological research on the masque has been preoccupied with identifying music used in the original performances (a frequently misguided pursuit). J. C. Meagher Method and Meaning in Jonson's Masques ( 1966) included a useful chapter on music outlining the intellectual context for its use. In 1970 Murray Lefkowitz edited Trois Masques à la cour de Charles 1er d'Angleterre, which made available almost all the William Lawes masque music (but included with it -- amongst music intended for processions,

-vii-

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