Music from England’s Golden Age: sublime sacred music soaring above intrigues of church and state, and intimate lute songs full of love and longing.
The Renaissance period in England began in the late 15th century and lasted until the early 1600s. It takes in the Tudor period, including the ‘golden age’ of Queen Elizabeth I, and the Jacobean period, under King James I.
For church musicians, it was a turbulent time as successive monarchs imposed different religious regimes, and the newly created Church of England defied the traditions of the Roman Catholic church. Each had its own ideals of what music for worship should sound like: the Church of England favoured simplicity, insisted on English-language texts and demanded that the words be clearly intelligible, which was usually achieved by having all the parts sing the same text in the same rhythm (‘homophony’). The Roman Catholic liturgy was conducted in Latin, and its music, like its rituals and ceremonies, was more complex, with multiple independent melodic lines interweaving to form a constantly changing musical tapestry (‘polyphony’ or ‘counterpoint’). Music for the Catholic church often drew on the ancient melodies of Gregorian chant, the traditional song of the medieval Christian church, stretching them out into very long notes which then became the foundation of the counterpoint.
For sacred music, the names most familiar to us today are Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, but there were many other fine composers who were internationally famous in their day but are largely forgotten now, including John Taverner, John Sheppard, Robert White and Peter Philips.
One of the most popular forms of English Renaissance secular music was the lute song: a piece for single voice accompanied by the lute (a plucked-string instrument descended from the Arabic oud, with at least six pairs of strings, and a body shaped like a half-pear, with a flat top and a curved back). Most lute songs are about love, which in the poetry of Elizabethan England tended to be a rather melancholy affair, with disdainful ladies refusing to acknowledge the ardent advances of hopeful suitors. The greatest composer of lute songs was John Dowland, who was famous for his exquisitely sad music.