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Elizabethan Music: A Rhythmic Walk Through the Golden Era of Music

Elizabethan Music
With the soaring popularity and demand for music in the Elizabethan era, the variety of musical instruments, art forms and artists increased as well. The people living in the life and times of the Tudor dynasty experienced some of the best art and music there was to offer.
Kashmira Lad
Last Updated: Jul 14, 2017
We, as in the world, owe too much to the Golden Age of English literature. The era is indeed spun from the cultural diversity in all of Europe, but for all of it to combine into one swift, musical and magical time is something to behold. The era and its Queen are worth learning, for it is during her reign that European culture got the boost it needed.
Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth not only mandated the arts, she herself was skilled in musical instruments. Her personal instruments were the virginals and the lute. While the Tudor reign generated magnificent amounts of music, musicians and theater, it was most prominent during Queen Elizabeth's time. As far as music was concerned, she led by example. She would often have her court musicians play for her while she danced, as she considered it a great form of exercise.
Elizabethan music thus entered the homes and lives of all people. Native folk music was seen being played at the dinner tables when families came together for a meal. People who belonged to the higher strata of society in this era were known to hire a musician almost every night. In case of people who could not really hire such musicians, they always had at least one musical instrument and one servant who could play it.
The Popular Instruments
Just like we divide vocals according to the natural range (like tenor, soprano or contralto), the instruments in the Elizabethan era had their own tonal range. Every family of instruments was categorized according to this range and would therefore vary in size and shape, even though they were the same instrument.
The different instruments were also used to denote the status of a person as well. For example, wind instruments such as the trumpets were played to mark the arrival of royalty.
String Instruments
Dulcimer mountain music
The most popular of all stringed instruments was the lute. All the artists in the Elizabethan court could play it. The chitarrone was a huge (almost 6 feet) version of the lute that was also used at the time. The lute was an instrument of soft and controlled melody rather than power, due to which it was used more commonly in a closed environment. It was still the instrument of choice for many street musicians as well as court musicians. The sound box is shaped like an elliptical melon, with multiple ribs (or sides). More ribs meant a deeper sound box, giving a deeper tone.
The fiddle was a street music instrument and was played almost like the modern violin. The fiddle was commonly used by street and town musicians and could either be played with a bow or plucked. The hurdy gurdy was another version of the fiddle that was quite popular in street music as well. You had a wheel that could be rotated using a crank. The wheel brushes against the strings to produce sounds through friction.
antique lute
The harp and the psaltery were in common use. The psaltery was played like the lute, but its sound box was trapezoidal and it usually had 12 strings. The upper society usually preferred keyboard instruments, while the harp was most common in chamber music.
Another stringed instrument was the dulcimer. You have two types - one that you played like a lute and one with strings outstretched flat on a stand, that you struck with hammers. Of these, the plucked one was more common among street musicians.
The viol was played at processions and weddings of the upper classes. The viol has six strings and the larger version called the 'viol da gamba', is to be played by holding it between the legs.
Other instruments were the gittern and the rebec, which were the early versions of the modern guitar and the violin respectively.
Wind Instruments
Trumpet with flag
The pipe, the flute and the recorder were commonly used. The flute is quite similar in basic structure to the ones we use today. So are the pipes and recorders. Just remember that this was a time of great experimentation in music. Seeing an instrument shaped oddly (which is a lot to say; most people today will find all of them odd compared to 20th century instruments) won't mean it's a different one altogether.
The shawm and the hautbois were the preferred instruments of town Waits. The shawm is a reed woodwind instrument, while the hautboy (or hautbois: translated roughly as 'Loud wind') was a high-pitched variant of the shawm. The hautboy is said to be the predecessor to the modern oboe.
Clarinet musical Instrument
Horns like the trumpet, the sackbut (brass trombone), the krumhorn (or crumhorn; means curved/crooked horn) and the lizard (due its resemblance to a lizard's tail) were also used by the Waits.
The bagpipe was commonly adapted by the poor and was therefore often used to depict poverty. The bagpipe was made using goat or sheep skin and reed pipes, which was comparatively easier to make and play compared to the upper class string and keyboard instruments like the virginal and organ.
Keyboard Instruments
Harpsical musical instruments
Most keyboard instruments were versions of the harpsichord or organs . The size would vary from the huge church organs and other pipe organs, to the smaller virginals and spinets.
The virginal was a very popular member of the harpsichord family and had many versions of itself, like the double virginals, spinets and muselaars. They are nothing but smaller versions of the harpsichord, meant for personal entertainment, for small crowds or for practicing. Although the actual origin of the virginal's name is obscure, it is believed to be derived from the feminine 'virgin', because they, like the instrument, had soft, innocent and 'virginal' voices.
The difference between the virginal and other harpsichord instruments is that the strings in the virginal were plucked (with plectra) rather than struck. Also, the arrangement was such that the strings were plucked in the middle (most harpsichords were struck at the keyboard end). That gave the virginal a very warm and rich sound.
The clavichord was another small keyboard instrument. It was used for practice and for composing music. It came fretted as well as unfretted, of which the former had multiple notes played on single strings.
The spinet was another smaller keyboard instrument. It had small range, with one string per note, which were plucked by thin and soft plectra made usually of quill. It is said that the smallest of the spinets are actually what we call as virginals.
They also had the organs, such as the church organ and the small portative (portable) organ.
Percussive Instruments
Bass drum
Percussion wasn't given as much importance as the other musical instruments. They were kept quite rudimentary while other instruments were being explored extensively.
The common ones used were the tambourine, the cymbal, the triangle and plain drums. They only served as accompaniments to other instruments.
Triangle musical instruments
The drums were cylindrical and were made out of either wood (a hollowed tree trunk) or metal sheet. Animal skin would be stretched over the surface. A tabor is a thinner version of the drum and had a higher and shallow pitch.
The tambourine or the timbrel were also used as accompaniments to other instruments and was usually played by women by shaking it in rhythm or banging it with the hand.
The triangle and bells were used when clearer sounds were required as percussion.
Vocal Music
Vocal music had been developed a lot during the Golden Age, with the arrival or the Madrigal and the Ayre.
The styles employed vocal music on the front, with light accompanying music or just solo.
The interesting part of the era was that most instruments were still in the experimental phase, while vocal music was already well-explored. That resulted in an unusual blend of new styles in music combined with exceptionally talented vocalists who sang poetry composed by people who are famous to this day.
Names such as William Byrd, John Dowland, Robert Johnson and Thomas Morley shone through this age, noted for their knack with both words, their voice and their instruments.
Songs were often (along with many other forms of music) used to celebrate Christianity as well as the Queen. For example, the madrigal "As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending" boldly describes Queen Elizabeth greater than Vesta, the Roman virgin goddess of family.
A Brief Classification of Elizabethan Music
The difference in all the following types of music lied mostly in the place of performance. The place signified the status of the musician, his level of skill and his audience.
Theatre Music
Medieval globe theater
Music wasn't really as heavily incorporated into theater until the Elizabethan era. This was, after all, the time of The Bard! William Shakespeare revolutionized the theater and brilliantly infused music and poetry into most of his plays. In fact, ever since the English Golden Age, it just felt odd to the audience if there was theater without music. The musicians also figured out the key to enhanced musical output, with each instrument strategically placed in the center of the theater, with the musicians facing the audience.
Court Music
Court music was basically high society music. It was composed with deliberation, given enough beauty with grace and glamor. Court music was dominated by string and keyboard instruments, because they were considered to produce the most refined sound. It was actually considered bad manners for anyone to be present in the Queen's court and not have any music or dance to contribute to. The nobility hired the best musicians they could find to be entertained. Queen Elizabeth herself employed a collection of more than 60 musicians and singers. Performing for the Queen was considered the highest honor for any musician. Court music was also quite exploratory and ranged from slow-moving traditional music to incredibly complex vocal and instrumental performances. This is where the styles of the Madrigal and the Ayre were born. The Madrigal eventually gave way to the concept of arias in opera.
Church Music
It was common for the court musicians to compose and play for the church. The church music was always related to the sacredness of Christianity and the music was peaceful and praising. The most famous of church musicians was William Byrd, who was the official organist for the Chapel Royal. The music was mostly polyphonic; there was a lavish use of contrapuntal compositions. The same compositions are still played in England's Protestant churches. Recreations of Byrd's "La Volta" and "Gloria" can still be found today. They display the level of perfection that the Church Music had achieved. Byrd was held in high regard in his time. Even though Queen Elizabeth was Protestant and William was Catholic, she still allowed him to be the official organist because of his absolute proficiency. Orlando Gibbons later took his post, as well as becoming the Court Virginalist.
Town Music
Town music revolved around the town band, also known as the Waits. Each town would have its own group of Waits, who would play whenever nobility arrived or on festivals and occasions. They would mostly play wind instruments, more specifically, the shawm. Due to the common use of the shawm, it came to be known as the Wait-Pipe. The carolers that we have today, who go door-to-door singing Christmas carols for everyone, are actually following the traditions of the Waits. The Waits would always bear the town's arms.
Street Music
Hurdy gurdy
Street musicians were loosely looked down on. This segment was made up of minstrels and troubadours that wandered around and played music or recited poetry for money. They would also be hired by wealthy members of society to perform for festivals or dinners. Their music was light, usually lacked substantially good composition and was focused mostly on love and merriment. Street musicians disappeared almost completely due to the spreading Bubonic plague. The plague was believed to have traveled from town to town through the people, so a lot of towns banned the entry of all wandering musicians, fearing the plague.
There was another segment of street performers called the Trouveres, who were basically Troubadours of a nobler birth. They had a more refined style of music and were often called upon by the nobles to perform. The Troubadours and Trouveres would also have Jongleurs with them, who are like assistants to the Troubadours and often accompanied the performance with entertaining skills like juggling and dancing.
The names signified the class and quality of work of the street performers - the Jongleurs were considered the lowest. The next lower rung was of the Minstrels, topped by the more refined Troubadours and the Trouveres or the elite Troubadours above them. Despite the classification, all the roles gave rise to future forms of entertainment. The Jongleur art, for example, led to the formation of Jesters and what we have today as juggling, fire dancing and circus acrobats. The Troubadours evoked the thought of courtly love, deeply influencing social courting customs and future music.
While a lot of the styles and customs mentioned were prevalent to Queen Elizabeth's reign, she brought them all to the forefront and made them an inseparable part of society for decades even after her time.
I'll remind you again that the European medieval times were wrought in constant war, sickness, low living standards for non-royalty and religious distress. Yet it is the same time that bore fruits of literature unlike anything tasted before. William Shakespeare may have lived in fear of the Bubonic plague, but it did not stop him, or any other artist, from their claim to eternal fame.