The Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History

By Bane, Michael | Notes, March 2017 | Go to article overview

The Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History


Bane, Michael, Notes


The Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History. By Christopher Page. (Musical Performance and Reception.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. [xix, 248 p. ISBN 9781107108363 (hardcover), $99.99; ISBN 9781316257975 (e-book, Cambridge Books Online).] Music examples, figures, tables, appendices, bibliography, index.

Although the four-course Renaissance guitar flourished above all in France, where several publications for the instrument appeared in the 1550s, it was played by men and women of varied social and musical backgrounds throughout Europe. The English were no exception. But unlike the cittern, a related four- or six-course wirestrung instrument popular in England and elsewhere, the Renaissance guitar (or gittern in the English of the time) has received little attention from scholars interested in Tudor musical life. The surviving sources, moreover, offer limited and often obscure evidence of repertoire, development, or social meaning. The purpose of Christopher Page's book is to "frame a social and musical history of the guitar in Tudor England by gathering the relevant literary, archival and pictorial documents in a more comprehensive manner than has yet been attempted" (p. 7). Indeed, by complementing the known print and manuscript sources with a number of new archival documents, Page is able to offer credible accounts, for the first time, of many of this instrument's basic social and musical characteristics.

The book is divided into two parts. The first examines extramusical evidence of the guitar's role in sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England. Chapter 1 reproduces and reviews the six known images of the guitar produced in Tudor England, with special attention paid to the Eglantine Table, a decorative panel inlaid with designs of several musical instruments. The six images are often vague in what they represent, but Page draws from them a number of inferences: that by 1568 the guitar was considered a fitting appurtenance for English nobility, since in that year one appears in the decorative border of Robert Dudley's engraved portrait; that four-course guitars may have come in various sizes or even sets; and that the instrument may have held antique associations in England as it did elsewhere in Europe. A drawing included in a 1604 publication also seems to depict a guitarist playing in consort, but Page stresses that this last implication is uncertain and corroborated nowhere else in the historical record. The next two chapters showcase the author's gift for archival sleuthing. In chapter 2, Page examines books of accounts, royal and estate inventories, and various university documents to establish who specifically owned guitars in Tudor England. He finds evidence of possible ownership by more than two dozen individuals spanning the social gamut from royalty to yeoman. How these and other English guitarists came into possession of their instruments, few of which appear to have been manufactured in England, is the subject of chapter 3, a fascinating introduction to the "gittern trade." The few surviving sixteenth-century London Port Books, i.e., records of imported commodities compiled by customs officials, attest to an international trade in instruments and strings. Grocers, haberdashers, goldsmiths, and other small businessmen dominated the trade in the 1560s, while one John White, a draper, appears alone to have specialized in the importation of guitars. By tracing the affairs of these individuals in other documents, Page throws into relief a small but active community of London merchants with capital to invest in their city's musical activities.

Page turns to the guitar's music and performance in the final four chapters of the study. First up is James Rowbothum's "An instruction to the Gitterne," ca. 1569, the only tutor for the four-course guitar published in England and the sole instruction for the instrument to survive, albeit partially. Eight "test-pulls," or prepublication review pages, remain of the work, which appears to be a translation of a lost French original by Adrian Le Roy. …

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