Music in Britain prior to the seventeenth century, or at any rate the latter part of the sixteenth, presents itself under very much the same aspects as on the Continent. On the one hand Church music, on the other Minstrelsy and latterly, the rise of a secular art, secular in spirit but hampered with Church traditions.
Church music in England at the time of the pre-reformation period moved along the same lines as that of the Continent, although probably existing in a far less advanced stage of cultivation. Minstrelsy, however, was highly regarded among English, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish; and among the Irish and Welsh the bardic caste enjoyed a degree of power and influence probably unknown in any other country of the world.
Thus in Ireland the three grades of minstrels or bards of the legendary period, the Oblansh-Re-Dan, or Filidhe, the poets; the Breithanhain, or Brehons, promulgators of the law, and the Seanachaidhe, the historians and genealogists exerted a tremendous influence among the princes and chiefs of Ireland. A similar, although lesser, measure of power and influence was 'enjoyed by the Welsh bards.
Unswayed by the imperfectly understood system of the Greek theorists, which, thanks to Boethius, were perpetuating a species of artistic cramp among Church composers, the folk-music of this country, governed solely by man's natural sense of fitness, made astonishing progress.
Giraldus Cambrensis, who lived in the twelfth century, in his Cambriae Descriptio says-
"In the northern parts of Britain, beyond the Humber and on the borders of Yorkshire, the people there inhabiting, make use of a kind of symphoniac harmony in singing, but with only two differences or varieties of tones or voices. In this kind of modulation, one person sings the under part in a low voice, while another sings the upper in a voice equally soft and pleasing. This they do not so much by art as by a habit, which long practice has rendered almost natural; and this method of singing is become so prevalent amongst these people, that hardly any melody is accustomed to be uttered simply, or otherwise than variously, or in this twofold manner"
With this should be combined another extract from the same writer, as illustrating the wide-spread taste for music in the British Islands at that early period. In 1171 Giraldus 'Cambrensis, or Gerald Barry, Bishop of St. David's, to give him his proper name and title in English, visited Ireland in the suite of Henry the Second; and in his Topographia Hibernia there are the following impressions of the National Music of the Irish :-
"The attention of this people to musical instruments I find worthy of commendation, in which their skill is beyond comparison superior to that of any nation I have seen ; for in these the modulation is not slow and solemn, as in the instruments of Britain, to which we are accustomed, but the sounds are rapid and precipitate, yet at the same time sweet and pleasing. It is wonderful how, in such rapidity of the fingers, the musical proportions are preserved, and by their art, faultless throughout, in the midst of their complicated modulations, and most intricate arrangement of notes, by a rapidity so sweet, a regularity so irregular, a concord so discordant, the melody is rendered harmonious and perfect, whether the chords of the Diatesseron, or Diapente, are struck together; yet they always begin in a soft mood, and end in the same, that all may be perfected in the sweetness of delicious sound. They enter on, and again leave their modulations with so much subtility, and the tinglings of the small strings sport with so much freedom under the deep notes of the bass, delight with so much delicacy, and soothe so softly, that the excellence of their art seems to lie in concealing it"
English literature of the Middle Ages is full of references to minstrels and minstrelsy, and abounds in quaint and curious details of their life and manners; and for the present-day reader, with a great desire for information concerning the early music of this country, no better authority exists than Chappell's entertaining "Popular Music of the Olden Time."
More distinguished in the Middle Ages for the cultivation of folk-music than that of the Church. Medieval England yet produced a very respectable body of theoretical writers, and to England belongs the credit of possessing the oldest piece of polyphonic and canonic composition known to be in existence, the old Northumbrian round, "Sumer is icumen in," which was transcribed by a monk of Reading called John of Fornsete, in the early years of the thirteenth century.
The earliest English writer on music was Walter Odyngton, an Evesham monk, who was born somewhere about 1180. He wrote a treatise, "De Speculatione Musicae," of which the only known copy is now in the library of Christ's College, Cambridge. Other writers were Simon Tunstede, of Norwich, born about 1310; Robert de Handlo; John Dunstable; John Hamboys, the first to hold the degree of Doctor of Music; and John Hothby, a Carmelite monk, who, however, lived on the Continent, and died at Florence in or about the year 1480.
With the coming of the Tudors, a new day began for English music, a day whose brightness was to culminate in the splendour of the Elizabethan Age.
Mike Shaw is an organist and music teacher who has produced a selection of downloadable music books for anyone who wishes to learn to play the piano, organ or keyboard. To find out more visit his websites http://www.mikesmusicroom.co.uk and http://www.keyboardsheetmusic.co.uk