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Elizabethan Music

An overview of the music of the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603) and its role in the society of its time.

The Renaissance period is exactly as its title, when translated from the French word, indicates: rebirth. Music was reborn as a complex, sophisticated widespread form of art. The music of the Medieval era before it was primitive and simple, but it changed dramatically and began a new musical and cultural period. The Elizabethan era, from 1558-1603, lasted from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth to her death, and was an important part of the Renaissance. It was very diverse and evolved immensely, as growth in culture and intelligence was experienced by England. The Elizabethan era included many different types and styles of music, composers and instruments, and different groups in society had very different appreciations for music.

Types and Styles

Elizabethan Music developed into several different types and styles, including theatre music, Court music, street music, town music, and church music. Popular art forms such as the Madrigal, the Opera, the Masque, and the Anthem emerged. Combinations of instruments like the orchestra were still being experimented with. Stringed and keyboard instruments’ popularity grew momentously, making a more refined sound. The beginnings of the theatre gave music the necessity of being expressive and capable of portraying many varying moods when it accompanied plays. The introduction of new instruments such as the hautboy (an early oboe), harpsichord, viol (an early violin), spinet and virginals created a more refined-sounding music called Court music, played by the members of Queen Elizabeth’s Court. It included many different moods and styles of music. Simple songs and ballads could be sung or played by the common people, including street, tavern and theatre musicians, to take the stress of their boring difficult tasks. Street music was performed at fairs and religious festivals. Everyone went to church on Sundays, therefore secular songs and hymns became immensely popular. Church music from the Elizabethan era is regarded as very beautiful. Two important Elizabethan forms of music for the voice were the Madrigal and the Ayre. In the 1500’s, England was at the peak of its original style of church music. Some forms of liturgical music were canzonets, ballets, madrigals and “sacred songs”. It was described as choral polyphony, or music with multiple parts. Elizabethan music was a multi-faceted and growing culture. From classical to “common folk” music, from the church to the theatre, from the Court to the tavern, it was expanding and discovering new horizons.

Composers and Musicality

As the artistic Renaissance neared its end in the late 16th century, Elizabethan composers were becoming more advanced as writers and better known as musicians. Composition of secular pieces was profitable, but many Elizabethan composers were also responsible for large quantities of religious music. Composers in the Elizabethan era were often employed as church organists, court players for Queen Elizabeth I, or composers of religious anthems, hymns and psalms. Popular Elizabethan composers such as Thomas Tallis, Thomas Morley and Thomas Weelkes were initially organists in the Chapel Royal, Saint Paul’s Cathedral and Winchester College and Cathedral, respectively. These musicians were also known for their creation of both church and secular music, for voice in the form of madrigals, as well as some instrumental pieces. The Courts of European monarchies employed other revered Elizabethan musical artists, including John Dowland and Robert Johnson, whom were both Court lutanists. In addition, composers such as Thomas Campion were selected to be the writers of music made for Court Masques, which were a popular form of entertainment for the royal and high-ranking individuals in the era. While it was eventually their compositions that made them famous, Elizabethan composers were dedicated to their true employments.

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User Comments
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