Music and Mourning in Elizabethan-Jacobean Song

In early modern England death was a pervasive shadow during everyday life. The departed were often honored in songs, or elegies. Music historian K. Dawn Grapes looks at the musical culture of death in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period.

Author’s personal collection

Halloween is fast approaching. I watch with amusement as holiday decorations appear in my neighbors’ yards, each one trying to outdo the others. With every new skeleton, tombstone, and casket, I cannot help but think of the memento mori images featured in the texts and title page borders of so many sixteenth-century English prints. Some of the most popular reminders of death’s inevitability were found in the danse macabre or “dance of death” books first introduced into England in the early fifteenth century. These books, with their illustrated skeletons and robed figures with scythes, reminded readers that death does not discriminate based on wealth, political standing, or religion. Such images were also regularly found alongside commentary in prayer books and other instructional texts, and both secular and sacred songs featured lyrics with similar reminders.

In spite of this trend, people in Elizabethan and Jacobean England did not really need to be told that they could die at any minute. In today’s western world we tend to see death as something that happens somewhere else, sometime in the future. The early modern population, however, encountered death far more frequently, often on a personal level. The plague and other illnesses made their way regularly to London. Those with means hastened off to the countryside, but those without could only hope to avoid the unpleasant effects of widespread disease. The probability of death in childbirth was nearly 300 times as high in London then as it is now, and the average life expectancy was an especially low number due to high rates of infant and childhood mortality. Public executions brought an entirely different perspective to the experience of watching someone die. It is no wonder that so many felt the need to “remember your mortality.”

From Richard Day, Christian Prayers and Meditations (1568), RB 60973,
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

And yet, in spite of continuous reminders to live and die well, all death-related music of sixteenth and seventeenth century England was not morbid, or even sad. Early polyphonic settings of the seven sentences of the Anglican burial service offer reassurance in wondrous multi-voice harmony that “I am the Resurrection” and “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth.” Non-liturgical music celebrating well-known and powerful individuals who had died also put forth this message in epitaph form, first lamenting the loss of a loved one, then proclaiming his or her valiant qualities, and ultimately placing the departed as one of the elect, now seated in Heaven with God on high. Songs that fit into this commemorative category are the focus of my monograph With Mornefull Musique: Funeral Elegies in Early Modern England, recently published by Boydell Press. In this volume, I tell the stories of early modern English men and women honored in song after their deaths. These compositions memorialize their subjects in much the same way as surviving architectural cathedral monuments.

Commemorative musical elegies, which were printed in sets of partbooks and copied into private manuscript collections, appeared in musical genres closely associated with the composers who wrote them: consort song elegies for solo voice with viol ensemble accompaniment, a cappella madrigals, lute songs, and later, songs with basso continuo lines. Funeral elegies appearing in print volumes offered homage to powerful men who served their monarch well in court, such as Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary to the Queen. Others so honored included those whose greatest sacrifice was on the battlefield, men like Thomas Lord Burgh and Sir John Shelton, who died while fighting in Ireland. Manuscript elegies were dedicated to a more diverse group of men and women of varied social statuses: Queens Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots; those in the line of succession, such as Arbella Stuart and Prince Henry Frederick; nobles, knights, ladies, and esquires of all sorts; as well as musicians of various ranks who served in wide-ranging professional roles, from the almost completely unknown lutenist Andrew Marks to the esteemed Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, Thomas Tallis. Virtues of the departed were held up as examples for the living in these songs, and still, mortality reminders crept into exultant texts. For example, John Amner’s six-voice “With Mornefull Musique,” the song that lends its title to my book, paints its subject Thomas Hinson as “so wise, so learnd, so carefull of his ende.”

With mornefull Musique, now remember him,
that while hee liu’d, did oft remember thee,
and fill’d his Musiques Fountaine to the brimme,
with thy sweet songs and pleasant harmony,
who was to Master, Children and to frend,
so faithfull, kinde and true as no man more,
so wise, so learnd, so carefull of his ende,
as grac’d his liuing actions, and therefore,
his death with sobbes & sighes I will deplore,
And wish to die, to liue in heau’nly blisse,
where worthie Hynson, through gods mercie is

(from John Amner, Sacred Hymnes Of 3. 4. 5 and 6. parts for voyces & vyols, London, 1615)
From John Coprario, Funeral Teares (1606), RB 13574,
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

So, while memento mori musical and textual images still appeared in early modern English songs, and a skull or other death-related image occasionally found its way onto a musical collection title border (such as in the case of John Coperario’s Funeral Teares For the death of the Right Honorable the Earle of Devonshire), the pieces themselves frequently turned celebratory, a striking duality that appears in so many Elizabethan-Jacobean contexts. After all, when All Hallow’s Eve has passed, All Saint’s Day is sure to follow, in an ongoing cycle of death and life and death and life that remains as mysterious today as it was four hundred years ago. So then, why the emphasis on memento mori? The truth is that there are also references to angels and Heaven to be found, images that lend themselves well to Christmas and Easter. Once a year, however, towards the end of October, it is sometimes more fun to put a skeleton in your yard.


This guest post is written by K. Dawn Grapes, Assistant Professor of Music History at Colorado State University. Her new book With Mornefull Musique: Funeral Elegies in Early Modern England is available from Boydell Press.

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