Music in the English Courtly Masque, 1604-1640

By Peter Walls | Go to book overview

Introduction

This our Device we do not call a play,
Because we breake the Stages Lawes to day . . .
You shall perceive by what comes first in sight,
It was intended for a Royall Night
There's one houres words, the rest in Songs & Dances.1

Middleton and Rowley's Courtly Masque would not, in fact, have given its audience at the Swan a very accurate picture of what real masques were like, but the prologue is absolutely right in suggesting that the balance between spoken drama and music (and I include dance here) would have been very much in music's favour. When masques at court feature in seventeenthcentury letters and chronicles, music and dancing attract at least as much comment as the visual spectacle and rather more than the literary device. The entry about The Masque of Blackness in the Revels Book for 1605 simply reads: 'On Twelfe Night The Queens Maties, Maske of Moures wth Aleven Ladies of honnor to Accumpayney her matie wch cam in great showes of devises wch they satt In wth excellent musik.'2 And when the Venetian ambassador reported on The Masque of Beauty, he described the stage machinery as miraculous, marvelled at the quantity and beauty of the lights, and noted that 'the music and dance [were] most sumptuous';3 not a word about the poetry or the dramatic structure. And yet the masque has been regarded first and foremost as a literary genre. This is primarily due to the dominating position of masque texts in our total picture of these entertainments. Texts are, of course, vitally important; it is through the unfolding of the literary device that the masque as a whole is given shape, and the music in particular endowed with significance. The constant use of musical imagery might be seen as

____________________
1
T. Middleton and W. Rowley, A Courtly Masque: The Device called the World Tost at Tennis ( London, 1620), prologue. My attention was drawn to this prologue by K. Sturgess, Jacobean Private Theatre ( London, 1987), 160. See also E. Welsford, The Court Masque ( Cambridge, 1927; repr. New York, 1962), 213-14; W. J. Lawrence, "Early Substantive Theatre Masques", TLS, 8 Dec 1921, 814, and id., "The Origins of the Substantive Theatre Masque", Pre-Restoration Stage Studies ( 1927), 334-6.
2
Revels Book 1605, fo. 2v; cited in H&S, x. 445.
3
CVSA, xi. 86; cited in H&S, x. 457.

-1-

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