I N contrast to the golden years of the second half of Queen Elizabeth's reign, the earlier decades, the 1560's and 1570's, are dim and shadowy. Of the poets, writers, and musicians who busied themselves at Court or were employed in the great country houses, we often know little more than their names. Surviving examples of writings by these early Elizabethan poets and musicians rarely contain passages of personal information from which we can visualize the living man: the medieval tradition of impersonality died hard. With few exceptions the mid- sixteenth-century writers who left the poems and songs now gathered in anthologies remain hidden in a pre-dawn twilight.
For nearly four hundred years Thomas Whythorne has been one of these obscure early Elizabethans. Although he published in 1571 the first set of English madrigals and in 1590 brought out a volume of duets, so little notice was taken of these books that his name is not recorded by any of his contemporaries, nor indeed by any writer in the following century.1 Not until 1789, in Dr. Charles Burney great History of Music, did Whythorne receive critical attention from a professional musician. Burney, notoriously unsympathetic to even the best Elizabethan music, cited Whythorne 1571 Songes as evidence that 'Our secular Vocal Music, during the first years of Elizabeth's reign, seems much inferior to that of the church . . .'. Instead of welcoming the discovery of an early composer, Burney warned his readers away from Whythorne: 'Both the words and music of these Songs, which were published before those of Bird had appeared [ 1588], are truly barbarous; but it is not now certain that they were ever in much public favour' (iii. 119). Although Burney condemned with equal harshness the 'wretched trash' set to____________________