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Musical literacy in Shakespeare’s England

It is commonplace to say that, in Renaissance England, Music was everywhere. Yet, however true the statement is, it obscures the fact that music existed in many different forms, with very different functions and very different meanings. Someone living in Shakespeare’s London could easily have heard a ballad about “Queen Dido” sung loudly in the street by an enterprising ballad-seller, or “ballad-monger.” The same person might also hear in church the singing of psalms, which were set to tunes not unlike those of street ballads but with notably different texts. A noble or prosperous Londoner might be treated to an indoor, intimate performance on the lute, possibly a piece by the immensely popular composer John Dowland. Some music was not even “heard” at all, but rather studied in the form of academic texts or published treatises on music.

Given the different forms that music took, there was wide disagreement over what made someone musically “literate.” At Oxford and Cambridge, music was still being taught as part of the mathematical quadrivium, along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. In this curricular model, which had its origins in Plato’s Republic and had been institutionalized in medieval European universities, a “true” understanding of music meant an understanding of the mathematical basis of musical harmony—of the numerical ratios that determine musical intervals, consonances, and so on. The principal authority for the academic study of music was the 6th-century philosopher Boethius, who in his De institutione musica had drawn a sharp distinction between “speculative music,” the study of music as a science, and “practical music” or performance, which Boethius considered to be the provenance of unthinking, uneducated practitioners.

However, at the end of the sixteenth century, some English musicians started to promote a very different sense of Musical Literacy. In his treatise, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597), the composer Thomas Morley begins with an anecdote about a gentleman who is utterly embarrassed at a dinner party when it is discovered that he can’t sight-sing. Morley then offers a complete, detailed lesson in how to sight-sing, beginning with the notes of the Gamut, or scale: ut, re, mi, fa, so, la. In this way, Morley teaches his reader how to be musically literate in the literal sense—how to “read” a musical score and perform it. Morley’s treatise was immediately popular, and several other instructional books on performing and composing music appeared in Renaissance England over the next few decades.

Still others felt that being truly knowledgeable about music meant knowing the ancient history of music, including material from both classical and biblical sources. When the Oxford graduate John Taverner was appointed music professor at London’s Gresham College in 1610, he was instructed (as all other Gresham professors were) to give lectures that would be of “practical use” to London citizens. Yet, instead of giving instruction on how to perform or compose music, as Morley would have done, Taverner instead treated his listeners to a long discussion on the origins of music—complete with references to Latin writers such as Virgil, Ovid, and Horace. For Taverner, musical literacy for the average Londoner meant the ability to discuss intelligently the value of music with others. This kind of competency would have been especially relevant in light of the frequent attacks on music made by Protestant Reformers in Renaissance England (often in the same contexts as Reformist attacks on the theater). In these instances, the ability to justify and defend one’s attachment to music might very well have seemed more practical than the ability to perform on the lute or to compose an intricate canon.

The Taming of the Shrew by C. R. Leslie. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Shakespeare was well aware of these competing ideas about musical literacy, and he seems to have been keenly interested in the cultural values implied by them. In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare places the debate over musical literacy front and center, in the music lesson that Hortensio gives to Bianca in Act 3. Having promised Bianca’s father, Baptista, to give Bianca a music education befitting a gentlewoman, Hortensio attempts to teach her the lute and the notes of the Gamut. However, Shakespeare complicates the situation by having Hortensio compete for Bianca’s attention, literally, with her Latin tutor, Lucentio, who is teaching Bianca a passage from Ovid’s Heroides. In this way, Shakespeare wryly suggests that disagreements over music education amount to a disagreement over what a woman should learn—how to control and refine the movements of her body (as in playing a lute) or how to read and understand the Latin texts normally taught to men.

Of course, the immediate point of Bianca’s dual lesson in The Shrew is more about seduction than about curricula. For Hortensio, as with Lucentio, the lesson is merely a pretense to express his romantic desire, which he cleverly works into the notes of the scale:

Gam-ut—I am, the ground of all accord,

A—re—to plead Hortensio’s passion.

B—mi—Bianca, take him for thy lord,

C—fa, ut—that loves with all affection.

D—sol, re—one clef, two notes have I,

E—la, mi—show pity, or I die.

The figure of the disguised lover is ubiquitous in Renaissance English drama, and it makes for much comic potential in this scene (there are also some especially bawdy musical puns in this scene). Yet even here Shakespeare seems to be making a larger point about musical literacy, and about cultural literacy in general. Whatever Hortensio really thinks about music, his knowledge of a particular musical language gives him direct access to Bianca—quite literally, it “gets him in the door” and allows him to move within the social circle of his choice. Such side effects of musical and cultural literacy are still familiar to us—think of modern discussions over whether a knowledge of Shakespeare is a virtue in itself or whether it is useful primarily because it makes one appear “educated.” As much as Shakespeare likely loved music for itself, he was still aware of the fact that musical literacy, however defined, could always be put to less noble, and more materialistic, uses.

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Musical literacy in Shakespeare’s England


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