Behind the Masque

By Mellers, Wilfrid | Musical Times, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Behind the Masque


Mellers, Wilfrid, Musical Times


WILFRID MELLERS welcomes a new study of a neglected yet valuable strand in English music-theatre

Masked mysteries unmasked: early modern music theater and its Pythagorian subtext Kristin Rygg Pendragon Press (Stuyvesant, 2000); xxxix, 268pp; L32. ISBN 1 57647 035 0.

PEOPLE HAVE ALWAYS danced, and did so vigorously during the Middle Ages. Then, however, 'serious' music was associated mostly with worship, whether of the Christian God or of an Eternal Beloved who, though delectably human, was a surrogate for him; while dance music was functional, a rowdy racket for moving to. With the Renaissance, dance music too became 'serious', since dance was not only entertainment but also a social principle physically enacted. Indeed, at a high social level, dance had become so august an art that Sir John Davies published, in 1596, a long philosophical poem called Orchestra in which he described dance as `this New Art': which of course it wasn't, though it seemed so to modern people, who found in it an approach to living that almost amounted to a substitute for traditional religious belief. Although the discussion in Davies's poem takes place in classical antiquity, the nub lies in its concluding prophecy: the ultimate realisation of Love's Order (dance) will occur two thousand years hence, in `our glorious English Court's Divine Image, as it should be in this our Golden Age'. So the masque was essentially contemporary: when the masquers were unmasked, they proved to be not legendary creatures from classical antiquity, but the King (or Queen) and the nobility, and by inference possibly ourselves.

In Elizabethan masques, poets, composers, choreographers and scenic designers emulated or simulated the Golden Age, immobilising Time in terpsichorean elegance. They probably imagined this might be feasible only because they were too high on self-esteem and/or fermented liquor to think straight or at all; certainly effects of bathos were not uncommon, the grandiose ceremony being in more than one sense dissipated in the collapse of the Monarch Him- or Herself, or at least in a fit of the giggles from the fine ladies. `Charity came to the King's feet', wrote Sir John Harrington of a Whitehall masque of 1611; `she then returned to Faith and Hope, who were sick and spewing' -- fortunately `in the Lower Hall'. Theoretically, the masque did allow for human fallibility in the antimasque, a rout of satyrs representing the libidinous undercurrents to our fallen selves, usually linking high to low culture by way of ancient traditions of mumming and morrissing. But such things that go bump in the night were admitted only to be laughed away. In that pretend-paradise they offered no real threat, as they did in historical fact and in those supreme adaptations of masque conventions, Shakespeare's The tempest and, in the next generation, Milton's Comus. The finest authentic masques of Shakespeare's day, such as Campion's piece for the marriage of Lord Hayes, are still, however exquisite as poetry, `art at an emergent stage', to use the memorable phrase of Enid Welsford. Of such a cross between momentary entertainment and a ritual of humanism our notions must remain hazy since, although we may have a printed text of the verse, such masque music as survives is fragmentary, while antimasque music was often deemed too trivial to be written down at all; indeed, it might be all the more effective for being improvised ad hoc. Moreover, although we have handsome engravings of masque decor and costumes, and vestigial choreographic notations, we cannot accurately recreate the dazzling spectacle, since we don't know how dancers moved from one 'position' to another.

Even so, much scholarly work has by now been accomplished in the field of Renaissance dance, and this book on Masqued mysteries is a worthy successor to Enid Welsford's great book on The court masque, published as long ago as 1927, and to later work - by scholars such as Graham Party, Roy Strong, Peter Walls and Frances Yates - on literary history (Ben Jonson), visual design (Inigo Jones), music (Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger), and the `philosophical anthropology that conditioned them. …

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