Music & Poetry in the Early Tudor Court

Music & Poetry in the Early Tudor Court

Music & Poetry in the Early Tudor Court

Music & Poetry in the Early Tudor Court

Excerpt

There is something deeply fascinating and stirring to the imagination in handling an old book or manuscript. Like any household stuff, a book is the thing itself. This cover was held, these pages were turned, these lines were read by people long dead who have left perhaps scarcely a name behind them. At moments like these we feel the closeness of the living past, its solid physical presence. And yet, this sense of the warm reality' quickly and inevitably gives way to a sense of bafflement. What fascinated us by its closeness now fascinates by its mystery. How little we know, how little we can ever know, of those who wrote and read and owned the very books that he in front of us. We should like to see -- or, better, hear -- them reading to themselves or one another, observe their gestures, accent and intonation, enter into their world of feeling and thought, into their certainties and doubts. But, because we cannot now challenge them, their familiar and well-loved 'objects' present a perpetual challenge to us. We are enticed so warmly, possession seems so near; and then a veil descends.

Those who are interested in early Tudor music and poetry can, if they go to the British Museum, have in front of them at one time three manuscripts which must for them exercise this peculiar kind of fascination to a marked degree. They are the three song-books which contain virtually all that is known of early Tudor song. They are not big; the largest is only 12× 8¼. The original binding of one is still preserved. It would be worth a great deal to have seen even one of them in use -- to have seen the singers or instrumentalists, to have sensed the spirit of the occasion, the style of the performance and its reception. Unfortunately, the books can only stimulate, they cannot satisfy our imaginations.

The stimulus towards the exercise of historical imagination is powerfully, if crudely, aroused by a fairly typical song in the latest of the three song-books, the one which I shall refer to as Henry VIII's MS. Alongside the verses of a carol, 'Whilles lyve or breth is in my brest' [H50], are . . .

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